An Occasional Poem

Every Sunday, Rattle publishes “one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse.” Poets are asked to “explain what news story or event your poem is responding to, and anything else you’d like to say about it. Include a link to the news story if possible. Some or all of this may be published along with the poem.”

I’ve submitted work to this “Poets Respond” feature multiple times, and I’ve never had a poem accepted. This week’s poem didn’t make the cut, either.

But I wanted to share this latest poem anyway, and instead for trying to place it elsewhere, I’m simply posting it here. The poem is followed by the text of the what I sent to Rattle by way of explanation, the news story link that accompanied the submission—and a link to the stunning poem that Rattle ended up choosing for this week.

On Syria, Sarin, and the Power of Peter Quinn

Maybe, if I hadn’t so recently binge-watched the entire “Homeland” series,
so lately witnessed the heroic, imprisoned Peter Quinn
perceive exactly what that Berlin cell was planning;
if I hadn’t heard him explain to the kindest and most conflicted of his captors
that sarin is a fucked-up way to die;

if I hadn’t just the other day listened as Quinn detailed how this gas
ravages the nervous system’s respiratory center,
how it paralyzes the muscles around the lungs
and makes its victims convulse and vomit
and urinate and defecate;

if I hadn’t so short a time ago looked on
while Quinn was sealed into a death-chamber,
facing his captors’ cameras as the gas did its work;
if I hadn’t viewed, and viewed again, that awful video,
along with Astrid and Carrie and everyone else;

and if I hadn’t so freshly, from my sofa, echoed Carrie’s words of thanks
to that kind-hearted captor, as he lay dying, for having
administered the atropine that somehow saved Quinn’s life;
then, perhaps, the real-life news from Khan Sheikhoun
might not have gripped me quite so hard.

Yes, I’d heard of sarin gas before:
I remembered‚ at least vaguely, what happened
all those years ago in Tokyo, and to the Kurds,
and I understood that in Syria,
the red line had already been crossed.

But the reports from Khan Sheikhoun,
and the photo of that father with his dead babies,
have hit the home of my heart in an altogether more haunting way,
which I can’t help thinking has something to do with the fact
that fictional Peter Quinn secured his place there first.

Explanation: As I followed the chemical-attack news from Syria this week, I realized that one reason I couldn’t stop thinking about the victims’ suffering was that I’d only recently seen the concluding episodes of Season 5 of Showtime’s ‘Homeland’ series, and that what the character of Peter Quinn (portrayed by Rupert Friend) had endured had left me gutted. There may be some shame to the idea that it took a fictional story and character to drive the horror home for me; on the other hand, isn’t that part of what we hope art can do?

News link: Amaranth Amarasingam, “A History of Sarin as a Weapon” (

“Poets Respond” feature for April 9: Amy Miller’s “What I Would Tell My Daughter on Her First Day of Work”

4 thoughts on “An Occasional Poem

  1. Erika,

    I am so grateful you posted this poem. I am an avid Homeland viewer and when I heard of the attacks, I pictured the atrocities with a visual of Peter Quinn as well. Thanks for articulating the texture of your emotions – it resonated with me.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Rudri, thank you so much. I hesitated about posting it, but now I am so glad that I went ahead and did so.

  2. Leah Hughes says:

    Also a fan, of both you and Peter Quinn/ Homeland. Today, The Skimm used Carrie Matheison (sp?) as a cultural reference in the news about FBI investigation. Thought last week that their script writers had some kind of intuition going on, and this week was chilled as the doors to the Oval Office are closed to the opposing side of the debate. So many things to be upset about and work out in poems rather than in the middle of the night! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks, Leah! (And believe me–I’ve considered writing a whole series of “Homeland” poems!)

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