They Were Blind
and Other Poems

They Were Blind and Mad,
Some of Them Were Laughing. There Was Nobody to Lead the Blind People.

Chemical warfare is child friendly,
smelling of sweet apples,

fresh mustard fields mowed at blooming stage,
chlorine—the conflicted scent
                 of humanitarian aid
                 that cleans and kills as needed,
then there’s garlic,
and sometimes something rotten,
                 like trash.
At times chemical warfare even amuses, froths in spite

of itself into unrestrained laughter,
                 like a nightmare,
and at room temperature before we enter

                 to meddle,
                 it’s usually airy.
Though heavy and flesh-soluble,

it’s chaste, odor- and colorless.
We add our touch, a favorite flavor, the missing colorant.
Take the vesicant mustard gas—
the poor man’s method of reprimand,

                 to blind and blister,
                 beyond recognition

a shoulder-to-shoulder wave of sons of mothers—
                 the older brother,
                 middle nephew,
                 a first-born just engaged
                 to his second cousin, his first love,
                 a father, his next child on the way,
                 the newly wedded groom—
                 a link of male prides,

culled from near and far villages,
all advancing in unison for the love of God. And it won’t be
the shy tufts of downy beards,
but their zealous cries that break

the suction seals, fog the gas masks,
tawny mist blearing their sight,
                 acid dissolving eyelids.

O the sinful day we meted out poison, sugarcoated in a bright
of mustard flowers—
                 the promise of savior mounting
                 to heaven with every petal.
The gas won’t degrade for a hundred years,

as the child faithfully lugs
our self-loathing. Unwittingly,
we make of him an aberration,

                 alter his genes,
                 fumigate his fatigues,
                 the yellow poison
                 seeps like stealth into fat,
                 shredding his chromosomes.

Degraded thus in our own image,
we caress him then tethered to catheters
and nasal cannula.

Who now shall lead the blind with blistered eyes through barbed-
    wired lands,

                 where the leopard refuses
                 to lie beside the young goat?

O mothers!
                 come take back your mangled sons
                 from the fields. They have lost
                 their way to you.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Army used chemical weapons numerous times. One of the most horrific instances was the Halabja Massacre, which occurred during the last year of the war. The Kurdish town of Halabja had fallen to the Iranian Army, and the Iraqi Army unleashed an attack on its own people, killing five thousand civilians with mustard gas and nerve agents. The poem’s title is a quote by Bahar Ahmed, a woman from the town.

Khorramshahr 1980

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