“Survival English” by S.H. Lohmann

S.H. Lohmann


It only takes a few calls to confirm
that the man who stabbed his wife to death last

week was my former student Claude,
the paper’s photo grainy but clear enough

to just make out the braided cut
rope’s grip left around his neck.

I stare at his picture, and begin to count
as many facts as I can muster:

Burundi by way of Tanzania, then Michigan,
then Roanoke, a long slow fleeing from violence

I can’t comprehend. Here, their charity house.
Our English lessons. Their eight children

police say were unharmed but crouched somewhere
inside. Miriam was found in bed, blanketed

in blood, declared dead on scene; Claude
in the basement just cut from noose, his oldest son

standing nearby, handling the blade.
Everyone is surprised—

their children’s teachers and coaches shaking
their heads; the church calling their home “busy and active.”

In our interview, I tell the reporter all
I know: that they sat in the back of my evening class,

that they were quiet, that Claude always took
notes. Miriam wore gold sandals with kitten

heels—I remember her small, hard
feet, narrow as clams. I don’t mention

that she had a sarcastic smile, always muttering
sharply to the women in Kirundi, because I’m afraid

it sounds like blame. Like when I consider
for too long the caramel smear of Claude’s dark eyes,

I know I’m just looking for something:
a missed signal, a preventative sign.

What I know are just facts:
which vowels gave them trouble, how

she confused stop and start, how he asked me
once if hot was the same as heart

the insistence of miming this question this way:
his open palm fanning for heat, and heartbeat

as a pounding fist, coming down hard
on his own chest, over and over again.

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016


S.H. Lohmann: “I have always considered myself to be a textbook extrovert, processing everything out loud, and often learning what I’m thinking as the thoughts are coming out of my mouth. In some ways, living among so many introverted writers, I prided myself on this. But poetry has taught me that I have an emotional gestation period after all, and more importantly, that the pause, however short, can be essential to the work. I tried writing this poem a hundred times within the year after experiencing the event—unsurprisingly I was too close, too deeply involved. Everything became flat and contrived, reduced to a grisly headline or a muted expression of shock. Time and space made new connections, opening the experience up to a larger framework. I’ve since written this poem again and learned something else: like good conversation, like family, like grief, my poems are never the final word on anything I’m feeling or thinking, but rather a constantly shifting thing to nurture, fight, and live in.”

Rattle Logo