First Sentence: Eliza Griswold | Granta magazine

First Sentence: Eliza Griswold

Eliza Griswold

‘This, of course, was years before anyone knew or cared who Boko Haram was.’

‘I spent the Hezbollah war in Nigeria eating hummus in a Syrian café and watching rockets.’


I’m concerned with the problem of ‘bearing witness’ – an increasingly popular genre in poetry, as in journalism. (I trade in both.) There’s something inherently creepy, and often unethical, about borrowing the suffering of others.

The essential trouble often becomes that the poet – the ‘I’ – becomes the subject rather than the person who is actually suffering.

My gruffness as a poet – the fierce anti-poetics of this first line – serves as my response to this problem, I think. I say I think because, honestly, I’m not fully conscious of the choices that I’m making on the page as a poet. If they’re any good, they come from a place that isn’t conscious. In this regard, the unadorned tone is the best I can do in regard to the subject at hand, and here, the subject at hand is what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: in the midst of a conflict that no one cares about in Northern Nigeria, watching another war in Lebanon, one that seemed more popular at the time, unfold on TV.

I should be there.

This I am in the wrong place at the wrong time attitude is one that I’ve carried with me often and everywhere, whether I like it or not.

I think of Mark Strand’s opening lines from ‘Keeping Things Whole’:

Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

For me, more accurately, these lines would read:

Wherever I am
I am not meant to be.

Then, down below, in the body of the poem, this poor, self-pitying I – who’s not the poet, not me, she insists – goes on with a photographer to survive, narrowly, a mob attack by Boko Haram. This, of course, was years before anyone knew or cared who Boko Haram was.

The photographer exists. His name is Seamus Murphy.

The speaker of the poem no longer exists.


Photograph © Seamus Murphy  

Eliza Griswold

Eliza Griswold’s works include the poetry collection Wideawake Field and the non-fiction book The Tenth Parallel. Her poetry and reportage has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s. She is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. ‘Friday Afternoon with Boko Haram’ is taken from a forthcoming poetry collection.

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