By Richard Jeffrey Newman
—remembering a photograph from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking.
This month, Harper’s “Readings” brings
from the people of Boro in eastern India
a list of verbs impossible in English:
khonsay, to pick an object up with care;
dasa, not to place a fishing instrument;
asusu, to feel unknown in a new place.
Some sound like Yiddish curses:
“You should ur,” dig soil like a swine,
or “May your children gobray,”
fall in a well unknowingly.
I want that kind of verb
for the way whoever-it-was
pulled the woman’s robe
up over her head,
for how the men
the man who did this to her
forced to watch—brother,
father, husband, son,
neighbor—for how each of them
invades my sleep;
and for the way I felt
when I first saw it,
what I feel now
the way I kept taking Iris Chang’s
The Rape of Nanking off the shelf
and crouching in the corner
of Borders’ lower level
to stare, and to stare—
for that too I want a verb;
and I want a verb as well,
and it’s not rape,
though certainly he raped her,
for the sword hilt rising
from between her parted thighs,
and for the way I hate myself
for hoping she was already dead
when he buried his blade in her.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is an essayist, poet and translator. This poem is from his latest collection, Words for What Those Men Have Done.
The Nanking Massacre was an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.