These Dark Skies
From the author of Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, this collection of new essays explores the human propensity toward violence, and the complexity and contradictions of grappling with the darker sides of human nature. These Dark Skies follows the trajectory of the author’s year of living in the southern Netherlands, mixed with the narrative of her relationship with her wife, who is Russian, and the unfolding of both the refugee crisis and the uptick in terrorist acts in France, Greece, Austria, Germany, the Balkans. “On it’s way,” Zwartjes writes in her cover letter, “the writing traipses off to investigate a broad array of other topics, including EMS active-shooter principles, violent incidents in Europe, and mass-casualty shooter incidents in the US; drone strikes, tear gas, and military intervention; the writings of James Baldwin, the Dutch blackface celebration of Zwarte Piet, and constructions of whiteness in Europe and the US; and visual arts including Russian avant-garde painters, an Iraqi choreographer living in Belgium, and German choreographer Pina Bausch.”
I am on my way to the Philippines to teach a medical course, and one of the entertainment options on this flight is a Berlitz language-learning program; it teaches basic vocabulary using rudimentary video games. Seeking distraction, I turn it on. As I click over and over on the words l’hôpital and un médecin, with little cartoon illustrations of a white male doctor and an ER cubicle — accompanied by absurd boinging noises for each correct choice—all I can think of is Kunduz. The evening before I’d heard several radio interviews with spokespersons from Médecins Sans Frontières, whose hospital in Kunduz was recently bombed to ruins by U.S. and Afghan forces. They detailed the destruction found by a preliminary MSF investigation: patients literally burning in their beds, medical personnel gunned down as they fled across the courtyard.
The strike followed a devastating week for the hospital, in which fighting drew nearer and the ER and ICU were overflowing with patients: doctors, unable to leave, set up makeshift rotations and watched with panic as more and more patients were brought in, watched with exhaustion and despair each time a patient was lost. “The people are being reduced to blood and dust. They are in pieces,” said Dr. Osmani, an Afghan doctor who traveled from his own hospital in Kabul to volunteer in Kunduz on weekends, and who was killed a few days later in the U.S. bombing of the hospital.
Arianne Zwartjes teaches for Sierra Nevada University’s low-residency MFA program. She has spent time as a wilderness-medicine instructor, an EMT, a motorcyclist, and a carpenter, and has lived in China, India, Mexico, Israel, and the Netherlands. She is the author of the lyric nonfiction, medical-humanities book Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy. Her writing won the 2011 Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, was a Best American Essays Notable Essay, and has appeared in Entropy, Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, Assay, and elsewhere. She splits her time between Colorado and Washington state. Find her at ariannezwartjes.com.