Best American Poetry: "A Poem for the Innocents" by Geoffrey Philp

It started in March 2003 with a discovery about my twelve year old son. The upcoming war in Iraq terrified him. And I as his father, his protector, couldn’t do or say anything to console him.

The days leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, were stressful for my family, especially since my wife’s sister, Batsheva, who had converted to Judaism, was now living in Gan Yavne, Israel. A feeling of helplessness pervaded our home. There was nothing we could do.

Whenever my family and I face insurmountable problems over which we have no control, we do one of three things: work in our garden, write a poem, or fish in a nearby canal.

Fishing was now out of the question. My son, Andrew, had grown to dislike the way the worms squirmed on the hook. We turned to gardening.

I got out a machete that my friend, Jeffrey Knapp, had given me. It was a leftover from an exhibition that he had put together by using machetes from farm workers in Belle Glade. Utilitarian that I am, I put the machete to use for its intended purpose.

As we pulled out the weeds, Andrew mentioned that he was worried about his aunt because long distance calls from Israel were coming in daily and everyone in the family feared the worst. I tried to reassure him, but I could see that he didn’t believe me.

It wasn’t until I found the machete under my son’s bed that everything began to fall into place. That night as I tucked him into bed, he and I began talking. That’s when he told me about the machete under his bed. I didn’t want to look. I believed him.

Over the next few days, the stories about the war were being reported by the media, and we were transfixed by the images. Slowly, the poem began to fall into place. But I didn’t want the poem to be merely a recounting of personal trauma.  The metaphors would have to incorporate the communal experience and offer a warning about the direction that the country was now taking.

I sincerely believe John Maxwell when he said, “We are delegates of the people…We are …the sensory organs of the body politic….the body politic's immune system… heralding, detecting malignant intrusions...In the circulatory system of the body politic, we are the white corpuscles and the T-cells.”  

At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I thought it was a war of choice that threatened the lives of poor brown and black kids in my neighborhood--not to speak of the innocents in Baghdad. It was a waste of human life for oil.

I wanted the poem to be an indictment of that war. I rewrote the poem until I had to walk away.

Since the initial publication of “A Poem for the Innocents,” many of these kids who grew up with my son and who I count as one of my sons have now “graduated” from playing with Buzz Lightyear to serving in the military. Whenever they get their leave, they usually spend a few days at my home hanging out, eating pizza, playing video games and watching movies. Some of these young men who’ve slept on the sofa in our living room are now suffering from PTSD—I’ve witnessed it. It didn’t leave me with a good feeling. The poem, at least, may be part of the “peace inducing process” that Pam Mordecai mentioned in her interview with Rethabile Masilo.

In his elegy for W.B. Yeats, Auden wrote:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

I hope “A Poem for the Innocents” has been “a mouth.”


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