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This article is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

‘Quarantine’ Linda Gregerson
Some vistas of human suffering put eloquence to shame. That’s wrong. Some vistas of human suffering put those of us who have been spared to shame. And demand eloquence of nearly mineral austerity:

In the worst hour of the worst season
   of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

The poet forswears ornament; ornament would be obscene here. But she also, searingly, forswears the alluring deceptions of artlessness. Ruthlessly distilled, the suffering and the history that outstrip our ordinary powers of comprehension are rendered in a single ‘hour’ and a single pair of human beings. Ruthlessly distilled, the formal cadences and echoing alliterations that can make words lush are trained to something sterner:

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
   He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

Arrival in a kinder world might signal hope, or shelter at the very least. But in a world where the powers of cold and hunger and ordinary suffering have been vastly multiplied by endemic hatreds and learned indifference, arrival is a bleaker proposition:

In the morning they were both found dead.
   Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were ...


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