What I Saw on the Heath Today,June Fourteenth, Two Thousand Seventeen
Lines composed the morning of the Grenfell Tower fire,11 days after the London Bridge attack, 23 days after the Manchester Arena bombing
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
— Martin Luther King, Jr
Consider this a missive to every terrorist, every murderer,every person past and present who has visited anguish
on this teeming, heart-breaking, pulsating city of London
and on so many of its sister cities throughout the world,
a missive to every hater who has caused innocent people
to have been injured and slaughtered and slain
in the communities of so many countries and so many lands,
a missive to every loser who will cause more horror and pain
before I finish writing these words—
or before you, reader, can finish reading them—
a missive to those who have been caught, and the many more who haven’t,
a missive to all those who cause suffering by design or neglect,
a missive to all those who don’t give a shit if they cause suffering by design or neglect,
a missive to all those who do give a shit but who fail to act when they know they
could have and wake to find it’s too late, way too late,
a missive to all those who inflict suffering in myriad, malevolent, ill-advised ways,
a missive to all those who’ve ripped sorrow like bullets through the flesh of the world.
This is a message to you.
But this is not your poem.
Whoever you are—reader good and reader evil—come with me.
I want to show you what I saw on the tree-lined paths of the Heath this morning,
on this, a sunny June morning as the news of flames and terror and smoke
filled the screens of our phones and televisions and computers and minds,
and yes I was running madly, with fury and frustration and tears
but there is so much to tell you, so much I saw.
I saw men and women, and women and women, spreading blankets on the grass.
I saw bicycles and runners and walkers and babies in prams streaming past.
I saw men and women, young and old, swimming in ponds in parallel lanes.
I saw children in shallow pools splashing water at the adults who watched them,
adults ready to catch these small humans should any harm come their way,
and I saw many small hands holding grownup hands.
I saw black mothers laughing with white fathers with many tattoos near playground slides,
and I saw children of many colours, running side by side, and I saw men with arms linked
and I heard at least three languages and many more accents,
and I saw a woman in a beautiful red sari, and I saw a group of Chinese students
observing a patch of flowers near an ancient Oak, and I saw a man in a turban
listening to music, and I saw a white-bearded man
with dirty jeans sleeping peacefully on a bench.
I saw a group of young women in hijabs laughing, and blonde girls laughing,
and two redheaded boys grinning, and so many people holding hands.
I saw grandparents calling out names gently and small people with fat legs running
towards their open arms.
I saw a small black boy pushing his small doll in a miniature pushchair, smiling
as he headed in the opposite direction to the mother who called to him.
I saw an elderly Indian man holding a toddler’s hand and I saw that boy smiling
at everyone who passed, his head turning with theirs,
and then with mine as we both grinned.
I saw dogs swimming and owners calling and dogs shaking their fur wildly and towels rumpled.
I saw dogs rolling together on the ground and I swear those dogs had big smiles on their faces,
and I saw people carrying loaves of bread and bottles of wine.
I saw people dotted all over open lawns as if in a Renoir painting but with darker colours too,
many colours, many-coloured faces and clothes and feet without shoes.
I saw a young girl reading a book on a fallen log and I saw a man sitting in weeds
painting a watery scene before him, and I saw a scarred man in a wheelchair with legs
bandaged chatting in Polish to the woman who pushed him, and I saw two large white
women sitting on a bench laughing as they smoked cigarettes, sweating even more than me.
And they too know.
They know flames are rising and ashes are smouldering.
They know people are missing and families are crying even as brothers and sisters
and sons and daughters and fathers and mothers and friends and lovers
continue to weep from the egregious tragedies
of last week, last month, last year.
And they know people are still recovering in hospitals from bloodied Borough Market
knives and that families and friends are still mourning loved ones hit by vans,
that families and friends are still mourning loved ones who died trying
to save people they’d never met on London Bridge.
They know Manchester survivors are still hurting and that families are still grieving
as they watch the news of today’s horror unfold on phones and televisions
and computers in homes and in shops and in office blocks
and in hospitals and clinics and schools and cafés and parks,
and they know children are still aching, and that teenagers are still in torment
as they stare up at pictures of Ariana Grande taped on their hospital walls,
her perfect white teeth shining kindly, and maybe these young people
are at this very moment tapping their feet to her music, to melodies that play over
and over in their heads, even as, just hours down the road, families in London
are fighting fire, crying in pain, screaming out at the impossible distance
to the earth below, to life as it once was, to life at all,
and loved ones are standing on the ground looking upwards, helpless,
powerless to stop the frenzied teeth of flames as it rips into the hearts
and bodies of so many loved ones, rips to shreds every trace of life as it once was,
every toy, every photo, every small picture a child once drew for them,
and soon we will know more of the horror of human loss,
the incredible toll, the human cost. And still the flames rise and still the ashes
are smouldering. And it won’t be long before we know of the phone calls that carry
the last trace of so many loved ones. So many loved ones.
Gone, wiped from this earth, rising to the sky in smoky ash.
And it is not that we forget that people are crying out in anguish elsewhere
when tragedy unfolds in our own streets and neighbourhoods.
It just becomes more real, more poignant, more agonizing when so close to home,
so damned close to those we love,
so damned close that we could—and do—reach out to touch it.
But it is still morning in this poem and the news is still unclear and there is much
we will later hear but we know that a building is on fire and that smoke
is streaming upwards and that people are screaming, and still we carry on,
and I cry as I write this and yet what lies before me is a blanket spread like a sunny day,
and so many people are in front of me and beside me and behind me holding hands,
and I am running home to write this, and here I am sweating and panting and crying
but I had to run quickly, you see. I had to find pen and paper to write it all down,
to tell you the news. The incredible, unbelievable news.
Happy is alive. Despite the pain and evil in the world, Happy is the rebel, the insurgent
who refuses to hide. Happy is alive and well and full and fat and I saw it with my own eyes
and I saw how it reached out to slap the face of evil’s ways. It is a tank blasting through
war-torn fields, a war cry among war cries, and it bulldozes the world’s cruelty and hatred
with courage and fortitude and might no matter how brutal the times.
Happy is audacious and resilient and a devil-be-damned storm of valour and hope,
and I swear it’s running around everywhere like those dogs on the Heath
who dream nightly of jumping and swimming and splashing and playing
in the commons and greens of London, near the Heath’s waters,
in and beyond the Heath’s borders, on any number of sunny lawns and parks,
and I swear it is superhuman, as strong as humanity itself, and maybe it is humanity itself.
And yet Happy is not stupid. It knows heartbreak. It knows heartbreak is everywhere.
But that does not mean Happy is going anywhere.
For Happy is as old as the world itself
and as wise, and as obstinate, and as stalwart and towering as an ancient Oak,
and as infuriating as an anthill shaken,
and as relentless as a constant apology—an unremitting act of mercy—
for all it cannot stop, for all it will continue to blast through and through—
See it? Happy is opening your door, taking you by the hand as you move out
and along your neighbourhood streets, streaming its warm energy upwards
along the Thames, pouring its life-blood into every community from the West to the East,
from the South to the North, steering its love upwards along the motorways to Manchester
and on to other cities, jumping on board quickly-moving trains
and ferries and ships and planes, travelling onwards and outwards to a thousand
other towns and homes and parks and schools and nightclubs and malls and calm country
lanes and loud city streets, and silent spaces too where people keep dreams,
where they worship and pray, where they make love and cry and eat and sleep,
and it is curling up in every place two or more are gathered, and in every place
one cries alone, squeezing its way into every cavity of this great earth, every crevice
soaked or not with the blood of humanity’s wounds
and its great tears of grief.
Yes, Happy survives and thrives and has claws and fangs, too.
It is there and it is here and it will be there and here tomorrow.
And it will be there and here the day after and the day after again.
And Happy has a thousand faces, and sometimes it is not so loud, sometimes
it is as subtle and quiet as the sun on an outstretched palm,
an apple tree’s pink blossom,
a bus pulling up in winter’s rain.
Go now. Quickly. Stand on any street or park in any town. You will see it!
People shaking hands. Saying How do you do. They really are saying I love you.
And you might just smile through your tears, through all the damned news,
through the smouldering ashes, through the great sorrow and despair,
and you might just hear the words of the beautiful stranger we’d later hear
on the news, This has shown how much people care,
and still the ashes are smouldering, and still people are crying,
and still there is so much pain,
rivers of hurt and streams of tears, and yes the heartrending despair
will continue and remain, walking and living and breathing among us
for weeks and years and centuries to come, but Happy digs its roots
into the soil of our souls even as it reaches its great arms outwards
and pulls the sky towards its great chest, and Happy knows the pain will not go away
but Happy refuses to abandon us, no matter how much this world takes
and destroys and breaks and hates,
and Happy is children and friendship and kindness and madness, and
it is stubborn, and it is power and delight, fury and fright. Despite every loss,
every murder, every human life cut short, every act of hatred and rage and evil,
however large or small, however near or far, Happy is by god the dragon
with feathers and is the Olympus with a million trees that burst into a billion leaves
that crown the rebirth of buds that release their dust-like pollen
to blow outwards like tiny parachutes, like hope, like stardust in the summer wind,
floating along the very streets in which we breathe and die and flourish and fail
and do you hear what it is saying? Do you hear what it is saying
over and over and over again?
It is a message that spites every terrorist, murderer, man and woman of evil and hate.
It is saying, I love you. It is saying, I love you. It is saying, love as I do.
And it is not saying it is a panacea or a final cure,
but it is saying, love others too, for love feeds change and change feeds truth.
And it is saying, others might or might not love you.
And it is saying, it matters not whether they don’t or if they do.
It is saying, I love you. It is saying, I love you and you and you and you and you,
and you, reader, you, reader, you, and you.
Influenced by trees and a lifetime of vivid synesthetic dreams, Andrea Witzke Slot is author of To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012), a mixed-genre poetry collection inspired by H.D. in title and form, while her second book of poetry was shortlisted for Eyewear Press's Beverly Prize. She’s won prizes with Fiction International and Able Muse, and recent work can be found in such UK and US journals as Ambit, Acumen, American Literary Review, Meridian, Mid-American Review, Southeast Review, and Under the Radar, among many others. An American expat and permanent resident of the UK, Andrea lives in London but visits Chicago regularly. Her website is www.andreawitzkeslot.com.