“Chiarascuro” by Joan Murray

Joan Murray


Layla Ghandour, a Palestinian baby,
died during Monday’s violence in Gaza.

It seems we’ve seen this scene before:
probably a Nativity, with the infant emanating light,
though it could be a Deposition from the Cross—
Caravaggio painted a famous one, now in the Vatican—
or it could be a Pieta, say, the Avignon masterpiece,
all three scenes so similar, like three sides of
a single coin: the infant born, dying, mourned
among women in flowing robes.

Though look more closely: this time it’s a girl,
fair and green-eyed—I had one of those—
with the same sort of problem in her heart.
Even so, her family took her to the tear gas fence
in Gaza, so we can’t know exactly how she died,
or which side should be blamed the most,
or if we should mourn at all, like that poet
who refused to mourn for a child burned alive.

But once I stood among robed women
before they took her in for surgery, and, later,
beside the doctor who wept when he told me,
so I know a child’s death has no “majesty”—
no matter how brilliant the verbalization, or the
photographic vision, or the painterly depiction,
or the political exploitation, or the lies of
religion—it’s an unadorned human tragedy.

Yet that same day, across the fence, the president’s
daughter, in a champagne dress, rejoiced at our
one-sided embassy. Her husband at her side
was wearing a red tie. While Layla’s mother,
all in black, wrapped her in white cloth
and sobbed all the way to her grave,
where the men shooed her away,
telling her it was God’s will.

from Poets Respond
May 20, 2018


Joan Murray: “When I saw the photos of Layla Ghandour, the dead Palestinian infant, cradled by her mother and other female relatives, I was reminded of the iconic images of Christian art, with the woman mourners wearing robes. And when I read about the Israelis and Palestinians arguing about how much the infant’s pre-existing condition caused her death, I was reminded of my own daughter, whose death didn’t need any spin. I was nineteen then, a student of literature, and I began to question ‘truths.’ And when I saw in the same paper, the images of the president’s daughter celebrating, and Layla’s eighteen-year-old mother lamenting, this poem came to me.” (web)

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