Sunday, July 7, 2013


This poem is published in Wendell Berry's 2010 volume Leavings. I read it yesterday morning and must have re-read it four or five times during the day. It is a very sneaky poem, beginning with an obvious easy question and gradually working up to one of the most basic (and ignored) conundrums of life as a member of society.

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Of course, no one would kill a child for energy or an ideal. If the child is in front of you and you know her name, you will not kill her. You might step between her and the bullet and give your own life. Lots of people have.

What if you do not know her name, see her face? What if her existence is within a small rectangle on a monitor and you are at a command center thousands of miles away? Her parents are Afghanis? Does that make the killing any easier?

I'm burning babies every day as I drive to work. Their ashes are invisible to me; I do not examine my exhaust pipe.

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