Erica Jong Reacts to Photos of the Drowned Syrian Boy

Exclusive to Haaretz: Erica Jong shows how battle may be as old as history, yet images of dead babies still appall. 'What shall I do / with this dead toddler?'

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Bronze sculpture, Greek, 3rd to 2nd century B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Bronze sculpture, Greek, 3rd to 2nd century B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.Credit: Courtesy

Child on the Beach

Erica Jong

The Mediterranean is black with bodies
As in the time of the Trojan Wars
When Homer sang of bloody battles
& heroes lay unburied
Beneath the ‘topless towers' of Troy.

But this little boy of three
Sleeps unburied on a beach.
Where is he from?
The chemical fog of Syria?
The garbage dumps of beautiful Beirut?
The chaos of civilization come undone?

He rests,
His mother lost,
His brother thrown up on another beach

What shall I do
With this dead toddler
Who breaks me open to grief?

I will adopt him,
My nameless grandson,
Welcome him into my shattered breast,
His death so sweet even cherubs weep
& Nereids float him in their seaweed boats

Little one,
Now you are mine—
Sleep in my arms while I sing you this lullaby
Maybe you’ll awaken in a kinder world
Where children don’t die at the edge of the sea.

Meanwhile, dream of peace
For this shattered world.

© Erica Mann Jong, 2015, First publication.

Erica Jong.Credit: Gianni Franchellucci

At the beginning of this month, Nilüfer Demir photographed little Alan al Kurdi, 3, on a Turkish beach, drowned as his family tried to flee war-torn Syria. Her photos have become shorthand for the refugee crisis. "The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard," she said.

Poets, too, do what they can. In the days of oral poetry, poets recited or sang reactions to public events in real time, improvising changes as needed. As poetry became dependent on print, it became less amenable to instant response; lengthy revision, submission, editing, proofing, printing and distribution replaced freshness with polished permanence.

Yet the electronic media enabled Erica Jong to share a moment with readers immediately, using two different poetic strategies: contextualization and personalization.

First, she weaves the boy into cultural and historical contexts, centering around the Trojan War of the Late Bronze Age, fought at Ilium, north of where the body washed up. Like this poem, Homer’s “Iliad” begins with unburied bodies, prey to dogs and vultures.

“Beneath the ‘topless towers’ of Troy” takes us to a later masterpiece, “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1693), in which Faustus sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for pleasures of the mind and the body. Just before he has to pay up, he conjures Helen of Troy and, begging a kiss, says: “Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

The next context is the news – the chemical fog, the garbage dumps. In stanza 3, the poem’s narrow waist, the boy simply is himself, with a lost mother and brother. In stanza four, Jong moves into personalization. “What shall I do?” She addresses the dead child as “you” but the proposed adoption can only be figurative, and the poet returns to contexts of art and myth as the personal is not adequate. (Nereids are mythological Greek water nymphs).

The poem ends with both new context (“this shattered world”) and older context, the familiar poem by English poet Leigh Hunt (1784-1859): “Abou ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!) / Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace.” Have we all awakened?

Poet and novelist Erica Jong’s latest novel, “Fear of Dying,” was published this month.

* Musing: What replaced oral poetry as artistic commentary on current events?

*Bonus: Michael Caine recites part of “Abou ben Adhem.”