03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Poetry Book Remembers the '07 Shooting at Virginia Tech

Fred D'Aguiar's latest book, Continental Shelf, has been nominated for the T.S. Eliot Award, a prize given annually to the best collection of new verse first published in the UK. The chair of this year's judges panel stressed a focus on poets "who have dreamed and who have dared." D'Aguiar certainly dared, choosing--or, rather, needing-- to write about a tragedy that's still fresh in the minds of many Americans. The centerpiece of his new collection, "Elegies" remembers those victims of the April '07 shooting at Virginia Tech, where D'Aguiar continues to teach poetry. A poem recounts the incident itself:

While those sirens keep building a wedding cake of sound.
I know there is more. I slice open the door to my office
To find the decorated girl gone and no one else around.

I zoom back to the Web for any news of what's going on
In my immediate vicinity, since I cannot trust the song

And dance of my senses. Then I hear a loudspeaker
Asking everyone to remain indoors and stay away
From windows and I know for sure it's a shooter...

In a blog post published in The Guardian, D'Aguiar's described his need to write about the event. He "found himself writing sonnet after sonnet about April 16, about grief for the dead, about place as a reliquary of joy and trauma, and about the strange guilt at having survived." He also noted the high student demand for poetry classes as both an outlet for grief and an aid to recovery, explaining that "poetry, when faced with grief, makes marvelous things happen. The event of the poem stages immersion in pain and catharsis from it, the drama of a hurt relived, thought and felt through.

In these two excerpts from the poem "Date," D'Aguiar works through his own pain of remembering the dead:

One year later finds me like back then...

My body where they hook themselves,
Thirty-three fishhooks, one hook for
Each name, buried in me, one hook
For each life lost. Each person caught
Me on a lifeline, took one look at me
Then threw me back for another one
To catch me, hardly a glance and cut
That line and fling me again into that
Element each must fish me from
As they exit from this world hooks
With their names sunk in my flesh.

I eat the spoors of the dead
When I breathe, when I walk, when I run
They rise from underground and stay airborne.
Some lodge in the corners of my eyes and form crusts.
Others line the corners of my mouth and the lines turn
Down giving me a sour look, a frown or complaint.
Those spoors form chigoes between my toes,
Fingers and work their way to my crotch,
Until more of me is dead than living.
I am done, I am done, I am done.

The third and final section of the poem is less structured and more dominated by rhythm, sound and emotion.

Index finger flicked against middle finger and thumb
Not the sound of a gun

Suck teeth, headshake, cipher circle, dozens run
Not the sound of a gun

Handclap, backslap, stilettos rap on ground
Not the sound of a gun

Knuckle crack, July 4th fireworks by the ton
Not the sound of a gun

Appalachia tut-tut, Khoisa click of the tongue
Not the sound of a gun

Drumsticks, engine backfire, pneumatic drill drum
Not the sound of a gun

The shooting goes unmentioned in another poem, a sonnet entitled "Caribbean Cookbook For VT.,"in which D'Aguiar describes holding his first class after the tragedy. Soul food proved a balm for his students' souls, and a little mothering didn't hurt either:

My mum cooked soul food for my final class:
Fried plantains, cow-tail in a stew of casareep,
Boiled dumplings, sliced pineapple and mango

Juice for our first meeting after the cancelled week.
One student arrived with a bouquet for my mother.
Everyone heaped Pirates of the Caribbean paper plates

For this breakfast, minus one of our number, gone
For good. We ate as if on the heels of a Ramadan
Squeezed into a week of nil by mouth, ears and eyes.

My mum flew to Blacksburg for our joint offer.
She rose before the birds and I helped her skin
Exotica and washed up to keep the kitchen spotless.

At 9AM we breezed into my Caribbean class
And served up honeydew with plates of paradise.

From the opening stanza of "Cookbook," one gets the sense that D'Aguiar is trying to bury sadness under so many tastes, smells and colors. It isn't until the third stanza that we realize how closely the tragedy has affected his class, and the real poignancy of his attempt to help his students through their grief.

D'Aguiar took a risk in writing about the victims so soon after the shooting, but I think their memories are in good and compassionate hands. He wrote that "The poetry becomes more important because it promises to outlast crude media depictions of spilled blood, broken bones and blinkered melodrama (the shooter, his makeup and psyche is of more interest to the media than his many, many victims)."

It's no mistake that this last poem ends so hopefully on "paradise."