"This is How" uses the image of a paschal lamb being slaughtered to delicately braid three valences of time and memory--the historical/biblical past recalling Christ, the lamb of God; the protagonist's past, remembering memories of his torture and that of his sister who was "beautiful as a gazelle, pure as a lamb;" and the narrator's present, implicating him/her in the current killing process: "I hold the lamb for him/ . . . This is how/we kill in Zimbabwe, he says/ . . . This is how the Hebrews kill/ . . . We are in this now."
Wonderfully sensuous and tactile, the poem takes us through the physical reality of killing not as an abstract, sterile concept told through a passive textbook voice, but as a messy concrete reality in which the protagonist, narrator and reader are all complicit. It is a process involving, "desperate bleating," "moans," "slicing," "pulling," "gore" and "resistance" made all the more poignant because of the controlled steady tone set by the narrator. There is a method to killing; there are rules and hierarchies, but the poem suggests that each of us exist in the continuum of bodies breaking and being broken in the act of survival, struggle, sacrifice.
This Is How
By Fred Bahnson
In the dark, I hold the lamb for him.
First lulled by its warmth, I recoil
the moment steel severs flesh--panicked legs flail
against mine--rivulets of life sear their mark on my palms.
A desperate bleating subsides into moans, then
silence. This is how
we kill in Zimbabwe, he says,
and shows me how to retract
the head, baring the throat.
This is how the Hebrews
kill; first the artery, then
the spinal cord.
Then he tells me how the killing was done
to his own, how one day soldiers
torched his village, forced him to watch
them bind his sister, his only sister--beautiful
as a gazelle, pure as a lamb--before coming
for him. This is how
you make the cut, he says, and spreads his fingers
into a V, easing the knife between, separating skin
from abdomen, limb from shoulder, careful not to break
one bone on this paschal lamb, this life
once whole, a gift in the giving
besmirched by our undoing.
His voice, though serene,
belies resistance. He tells how
they tortured him, cutting tendons before moving on
to other parts. We are into this now, slicing
and pulling, forearm deep in gore, cleaning
intestines before the heat comes. His eyes
search the east, squinting, reading his life's script
from afar. The lines now blurred, he cannot yet see
the story's end. But come late morning, when
the knives are cleaned, when the lamb that was slain
is ready for us to partake, he chants in what is surely an
ancient and holy tongue--This is how
the road that leads to Life
draws us into the fray.
It leads us to glory, yes--but
the road leads first past bodies
being broken, even, yes even