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Arithmetic of Silences

by James Graham 

Posted: 02 December 2004
Word Count: 139

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Arithmetic of Silences

Let us commemorate the innocents.

One minute for each one,
for though they died en masse,
let us mourn them singly.

Let us lock our doors, go out
into the parks and squares.

Let us hear the names,
such as are known.

Rahad Septi of Fallujah,
Sa'ad Sha'ban of Basra,
Ahmed Hussein of Al Amin,
Nora Tamini of Baghdad...

The mother, daughter,
grandson, brother,
nephew and four nieces
of Mrs Truong Thi Le
of My Lai village...

Arithmetic of silences:

all the old, and all the young,
day and night in the city squares,
Times Square, St Peter's Square,
the Square of Heavenly Peace,

hearing the names,
such as are known;

all the old, and all the young,
in every village everywhere,
not travelling, not working, and not
loving: waiting out

the tally of the silences.

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Comments by other Members

roovacrag at 23:24 on 02 December 2004  Report this post
agree with you on this.
Not enough said,yet still goes on deaf ears.
Loved the first stanza. Mourn en masse,yet mourn them singular.

Well said piece and one I feel for.

xx Alice

tinyclanger at 22:22 on 03 December 2004  Report this post
This is a piece that I want to give a few readings to before I comment fully, but I just wanted to say that I find this form of war poem the most effective. When the entirety, the enormity is broken down into the individual then I can feel and see the tragedy in a way that I don't with anti-Bush/Blair (or whoever) formats.
I enjoy the WW 1 poets for the same reason I think, the overriding personal tragedies that they speak of. Yes, they were the tragedies of a nation, a continent, a world, but they were so intimate, (isn't there one of Sassoon's where he's inspecting the feet of his men?), that the suffering was keener and thus for me all the more poignant.
I'm sure this says more about me than any poetry, perhaps my naivety and faliure to grasp the Big Issues....
but my first readings of this have been loving the work for these reasons.

I'll get back to you with more detailed thoughts once this has sunk in a bit more.

fireweed at 16:20 on 05 December 2004  Report this post
Like tc, I also felt the need to read this poem several times before commenting. The cumulative effect of the repetition of certain phrases and words creates a sombre atmosphere. I had the feeling that the role call of names continued in a quieter tone while the rest of the poem unfolded.

The scenario at the end changes the direction of the poem, in that it seems to offer a vision of a possible future, the aftermath of war, with " animals unnamed again" and the cycle of creation beginning again in "accustomed silence". As such, it seems to warn of the potential " arithmetic" of war - annihilation. I don't know if this is a wayward reading or not.

I like the idea of waiting out " the tally of silences", too.

There is a deep silence in this poem. It seems to come from a place of peace in the writer - and this carries the message very powerfully.


joanie at 17:07 on 05 December 2004  Report this post
James, this just reminded me, as I read through, of standing in Assembly and listening to the victims of Aber Fan, read by the only Welsh teacher in our school.

The horror is multiplied hugely when we think of individuals rather than statistics. I love the idea of a 'tally' of silences; this is somehow very poignant and quietly sad.

I like the factual nature of this: names, places, family stories. This poem is hard-hitting yet almost gentle.

I enjoyed it; sorry I can't comment more intellectually.


Ticonderoga at 15:15 on 06 December 2004  Report this post
A really rich, yet simply expressed, universal lament; appropriately very un-British in style, it has a more eastern European cadence: grittily passionate yet fiercely controlled.





James Graham at 11:11 on 08 December 2004  Report this post
Thanks Alice, tc, joanie, fireweed, Mike for your responses.

But I get an impression that something about this poem isn't working very well. There's too big a leap from the picture of everybody in cities and villages observing the silences, to the 'silence in all the world' idea. As usual with me, the original rough version of the poem was much longer than this. It included lines in a tone that was wrong for the poem - about how this marathon of commemoration, a minute's silence for every individual, could possibly be organised. There would be 'villages of portaloos'; undertakers would be exempt from the need to stand in silence, so that they could take away those who dropped dead. The poem asked, 'How to keep it going/year after year,/twenty-four-seven,/like news and selling?' It was one of three poems titled 'Three Grotesques'. The other two are still in their original, confused state.

But when the idea is taken even a short way towards its logical conclusion, it begins to be so absurd that you can't get your head round it at all. There are so many names that eventually there's nobody left to hear them (or read them out). The commemoration takes so long that everybody dies and the animals are 'unnamed again' etc. I suppose all this makes some kind of point about the vast numbers of innocent victims of war, but if so it makes it in a very tortuous way.

So I found it worked better if these grotesque, and really unmanageable, fantasies were left out. However, the last three lines are really a leftover from the grotesque version. I quite like these lines, but I'm not sure they follow from the rest of the poem. What do they mean? That it will take so long to observe and wait out all the reading of names and the silences, that no-one will survive? Or, because the whole population of the world will be standing in silence, nobody will produce food and everyone will starve? Or everybody will be so taken up with the silences that the natural world will be 'neglected' - this in quotation marks because neglecting to kill wild animals or clear-fell the world's forests would be a happy neglect. The ending might need to change, or else the poem should finish at 'tally of the silences', because I think this ending, though it maybe sounds all right, is very confusing if you really ask what it means. It leads to questions that get in the way of the simplicity the poem aims at.

What do you think of the ending? At the moment I tend to think the last three lines should just be dropped - or put in the recycle bin for possible use in another poem.


engldolph at 21:44 on 12 December 2004  Report this post

Hi James,

Agree with Mike's comment on the power and originality of the title. This frames the idea of silences adding up to a deafening message.

I think you create a very vivid picture in the -
Let us lock our doors, go out
into the parks and squares.

Let us hear the names,

(echoes of Auden's stop the clocks)

and then the listing of famous squares where we are used to seeing the New Year's Count down..again the thought of crowds looking at numbers.. all creates a surreal yet real picture..

The idea of silence building with each unnecessary death is ominous and appropriate.

I wasn't totally convinced of the need to add in the Mai Lai, Vietnam, massacre..although perhaps it gives it a stronger political US military folly angle... and to the "why does this keep happening" thought..

and I think your sense that the piece should end with
the tally of the silences

is right.


James Graham at 20:27 on 14 December 2004  Report this post
After a bit more agonising than usual, I've decided to leave out the last three lines. As you say, Mike, it's best - it's less complicated - to end on 'tally of the silences'. The three lines are (as always) recycled, not binned.

As for My Lai, possibly if I was going to add a second list it should have been other than a list of American victims - just to be more even-handed I suppose. Chinese victims in Tibet, if these were known. I think a second list helps to make the point about the huge number of lists there would be, and emphasises that it's not only about the contemporary issue of Iraq.


fireweed at 15:23 on 15 December 2004  Report this post
james, sorry about the delay in replying to your comment. I'm sorry in some respects that you have decided to leave out the last three line because I found them very powerful symbols of the " regression" which you forsee as happening as the tally of silences is "read". However, I think the ending as it now stands is good and rests the poem on a sound unambiguous basis.

I hope that the deleted lines will one day be recycled as I found the idea of the "unnaming of the animals" am effective one.

This is a haunting and powerful tribute to the numberless lost in wars - an image of an afterlife perhaps where this tally may well be kept.


James Graham at 19:46 on 15 December 2004  Report this post
Anna, you're right too. I've an extraordinary attachment to those last three lines (usually I'm quite a ruthless lopper and pruner). But on balance I think they complicate the poem, and it's better to leave it simple - on the single track it's on now.

What I'll do next is try to finish the second poem in this series, and seamlessly (!) work those lines into it. Watch this space.


Or maybe I should say, for my next trick...

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