There are a million grains in a 20 kilogram sack of rice.
Give or take. It's a hard enough number to imagine,
the kind that slips through the mind's fingers, like digging
your hands in that same sack, trying to feel
for individuals; the kind of counting that surpasses
fingers, bigger than the mind's computational eye,
like the full, unending girth of sky, like death,
the kind of threshold you concede
and take for granted. Imagine the sum
in eleven of those sacks, and I’m trying to find a way
to make that number real, like how many pots and how long
it might take to cook that much rice, and still retain the detail
of each swollen grain; a real, fleshy equation that might capture
the percentage of wastage, the amount that would fall
and be forgotten even while trying to keep count,
the appetite that might be necessary to take it all in.
The title is integral to the poem from the outset; There are a million grains in a 20 kilogram sack of rice. The immeasurable size of the conflict the reader is about to be immersed in is conveyed within this single statement. It creates urgency and propels the reader to continue. The reference to a staple food source immediately suggests the issue is going to be on a global scale; it is evident that the poem is going to have a lot to say.
The opening statement is followed by a second, more colloquial Give or take. Its abruptness creates tension, and the conversational tone invites the reader into the poet’s internal dialogue. It also undermines the initial statement, which introduces a sense of uncertainty. This is quickly enhanced as the reader engages in the poet’s attempt to visualise the hard enough number to imagine.
The reader and poet are inextricably entwined; digging/your hands in that same sack. They journey together to try and find a way to make that number real; a number which is bigger then an unending girth of sky, so gargantuan that it is bigger than the mind's computational eye. The word computational jolts the reader, enhancing the struggle to compute the information required; emphasising the poem is about more than just facts and figures.
Human feeling and emotion are required to conceptualise the million grains of rice yet still retain the detail of each swollen grain. The reader quickly realises they are trying to feel/ for individuals rather than envision a single grand figure which is all encompassing. The reader tries to Imagine the sum and come to a real, fleshy equation, and so escape from the kind of threshold you concede / and take for granted. The point of the poem is the sum of its parts.
The themes of persecution (the amount that would fall) and genocide (the percentage of wastage) reveal themselves like the full, unending girth of sky, like death. Intermittently used figures (million grains, 20 kilogram sack of rice, eleven of those sacks) which reduce as the poem moves forward mark the inability to comprehend. Could these facts punctuate the incomprehensible, and make the cruelty of the world less real? The reader is constantly challenged by questions (like how many pots and how long/it might take to cook that much rice) and forced to remain involved.
The relationship between the poet and his heritage, history and present day, and every individual’s responsibility to mankind are in full view. The use of couplets creates an atmospheric closeness which links the reader to life’s realities, forcing them to acknowledge facts; the kind that slips through. As the poem is drawing to a close, the lines lengthen and the pace quickens to show the poet´s desperation to capture his audience before he concludes. They then shorten again and slow to finalise on a long lingering note.
The poem ends with a haunting suggestion that the points raised can be forgotten even while trying to keep count. This alerts the reader to the magnitude of the problem of becoming complacent and achieves the poem’s aim to find a way/to make that number real. The poet has focused the reader’s attention on each swollen grain and made the realities of the world forefront in their mind's computational eye. He has enabled the reader to capture/the percentage of wastage; the amount that would fall, skilfully generating within his audience an appetite that might be necessary to take it all in.***************************
*Magnitude by Jacob Sam-La Rose was commissioned by the Arts Council England. Reproduced with kind permission from Samenua Sesher, Arts Council England.
Part II coming soon...