i haven’t said anything about the Virginia Tech shootings on Monday, until now, because i haven’t known what to say.

there is the obvious…it is a horrible tragedy. again. there is something grievously wrong with our North American society that young men keep shooting up their classmates and then themselves. my heart breaks for all the families who have lost beloved ones. breaks, and sighs, fearing for them in the lonely dark ahead. my heart bleeds for the Chos, South Korean parents of the resident alien shooter. i wonder what they expected for him, when he was O’s age…baby boy, apple of the Korean family eye. i wonder what kind of immigration backlash will result from what he chose to become. i wonder why he chose as he did. i fail. i boggle at the idea of a Korean student doing the same at home, but cannot wrap my mind around the possibility. it doesn’t fit, culturally. i am horrified each time it happens here, but i am not shocked. in Korea, i would have been floored. the Montreal massacre in 1989 floored me…i was a frosh then, still seventeen, blown away by the violence and the targeting…but i do not seem to get floored now. not here. i work – when i work – in universities, where guns do not belong, in my mind…but i am not shocked. i wish i could feel shock. i wish i could feel shock each time i hear of more people dying in Iraq, too, and Afghanistan, and Darfur, and all the places i cannot even name on the map where people die by violence every day and i lend nothing, no silent prayer, no solidarity, no sanctimonious ruminations. i wish the world could floor me. i wish there were more outcry about the news every day, not just when violent death comes close to home, or in the supposed sacred halls of learning. i am afraid of the society i am raising my child in. i am afraid of the hopelessness and frozenness i feel. i am afraid of my suspicion at those who can still feel shock. i am afraid of saying too much and cheapening this fury and this sadness which has no outlet because i cannot see the beginning nor the end of this cycle of tragedy we keep living out, decrying deaths whilst propogating them, and acting surprised each time terror lands in our own backyards.

when i was in the eleventh grade, before i’d ever heard that one could be gunned down in the hallways of one’s school in the culture i was busy growing up in, i did an English essay on the poetry of Dylan Thomas. i got out all the books on Thomas from the library, and read him voraciously, delighting – with little comprehension, but great pleasure – in his rambunctious use of language and rhythm and imagery. many of his lines are with me yet, almost twenty years later. my English teacher – who was on Lithium that year and thus failed to note how little i’d understood of what i’d read – gave me a perfect mark on the essay, the only one i’ve ever received.

the poem of Thomas’ that i struggled most with, during this brief underage affair with his words, wasn’t the one that i comprehended the least. there were poems among the collections whose topics and allusions escaped me completely, poems i’ve had to go back to again and again in the intervening years to build up some understanding of. but there was one that i chose specifically not to write on, in my essay, because it angered me. because i thought i understood it, and it left me cold, confused, almost wounded…betrayed by the apparent callousness of the poet whom i otherwise found overflowing with feeling. it is called “A Refusal to Mourn,” or, in full, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” it tells only the story encapsulated in its title, of WWII London and a little girl dead in the Blitz, and the poet’s refusal to mourn as expected, in words writ large with Tragedy and Abomination. i thought, at fifteen, that it refused sadness about the death of the child, that it refused – in denying the public game of outcry, of rending of garments and galvanizing with blame – the feeling of grief, the honouring of life cut short.

i did not understand. i did not understand how bodies, after the fact, are still vulnerable to our lionizing of them, prey to our politics and our public mourning. i did not know what it would feel like, grown now and with words at my disposal, to be afraid to use them, to be afraid to cheapen death by making too much of it.  to walk this line, wanting to honour, but avoid rhetoric.

…i shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

the poem ends, “…After the first death, there is no other.”

all i can find to say is, i wish that were true of the school shootings that haunt us, year after year.