“Stalin” by Sarah Pemberton Strong

Sarah Pemberton Strong


is the title of a book,
over seven hundred pages,
two inches thick in paperback,
that I read every word of, taking notes.
I got the only A in the class,
the professor told me later.

Twenty years have passed,
and what I remember now
is that Trotsky was killed with an ice pick
at his desk in Mexico.
Of the twenty million people
who died under Josef Stalin, I know

the manner and location of just one.
Which leaves out a lot
of bare feet slowly freezing on frozen ground,
a lot of starvation, a lot
of bodies unaccounted for
except by the meaninglessness

of a number whose actual representation
of anything is as beyond me
as the hundreds of thousands
of words I once read about Stalin.
While I am thinking this,

two naked three-year-olds run shrieking past me.
Watching the bright flash
of their limbs in watery motion,
the peeled stream of their bodies pouring
through a living room where there is no
indication there will ever be a midnight

knock on this front door, it strikes me
that two hundred or two hundred thousand
years ago, a naked child’s body playing
looked as it does now: bursting
and waving like a field when all the crops are ripe,

and also humble, a seeker of humble things: warmth,
something to drink when thirsty, tenderness—
and softly incapable of planning harm.

from Rattle #49, Fall 2015


Sarah Pemberton Strong: “When I look at these two poems—‘Anesthesia’ and ‘Stalin’—placed side by side, I realize that they are both interested in the relationship between memory, consciousness, and violence. It was Joseph Stalin who said, ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ I look to poetry to wake me up from the stupor of statistics; to help me reconnect, through empathy and close attention, with the singularity of each life—and with all life on this imperiled planet.” (web)

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