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Ways to Count the Dead

By Persis M. Karim

“Keeping track of the Iraqi death toll isn’t the job of the United States,”
 a student said,“and besides, how would we count the dead?”

Take their limbs strewn about the streets—
multiply by a thousand and one.

Ask everyone in Baghdad who has lost
a brother. Cousin. Sister. Child—to speak
their name in a recorder.

Go to every school, stand
at the front of the class, take roll;
for every empty desk, at least two dead.

Find every shop that sells cigarettes—
ask how many more cartons they’ve sold this year.

Go to the bus station and buy ten tickets—
offer them free to anyone who wants to leave.

Go see the coffin-maker. Ask how much
cedar and pine he’s ordered this month.

The dead don’t require much. They don’t speak
in numbers or tongues, they lie silent

waiting—to be counted.

Added: Wednesday, July 16, 2014  /  Karim's poem took Second Place in the Split This Rock 2008 Poetry Contest. Special thanks to the contest judge, Kyle G. Dargan, and to Mary Morris and James Honaberger for their role as first readers.
Persis M. Karim

Persis M. Karim lives in the People's Republic of Berkeley, CA, and teaches literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. She is the editor and contributing poet to Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora (2006). Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals including Caesura, Alimentum, Di-verse-city, HeartLodge, and She is grateful for the way poetry can bring us to our senses and to our humanity.

On March 31, 2010, Persis's stepson Kyle Strang (16) and their neighbor Prentice Gray, Jr. (19) were killed in a car accident. To learn about Kyle and the trip his father, Craig Strang, recently took to Israel and Palestine with thirteen of Kyle's Berkeley High School classmates to honor Kyle's memory, go to

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