Clifton Gachagua on Kenya, National Grief, and Poetry

At The Poetry Foundation's blog, Clifton Gachagua meditates on recent terrorist attacks in Kenya, discusses the grief experienced by many people in the country, and questions if poetry can convey that grief.
What might a poem about grief and the immediate shock that precedes it look like? I’d like to imagine a long meditation, something about a collective hurt and shared pain, empathy and a call to a renewal to faith. But I find myself more drawn, in the wake of what is happening in Kenya, and in particular to the 148 lives lost in the Garissa attack, to a poem that should be short, a brief poem, almost to the point of not existing at all. Perhaps my initial reaction should not be to rush into poetry. In September 2013 I was supposed to be sitting next to Kofi Awoonor on a panel about the distinctions between East and West African poetry. At the same time, or moments before, a number of gunmen had taken the Westgate mall hostage. Awoonor was among the people in the mall at the time. By the end of the panel we learnt that he had died. This was the first time I was old enough to experience the shock that follows a terror attack. I remember later at Awoonor’s vigil I held a candle in my hands and I’d never seen how dark and quiet the sky above Nairobi can get. I mean I experienced something heavy in and around it but could not name it, did not know how to think about it. 
What might a poem about grief look like? Does the shape of it on the page matter? Might it compare still, unmoving blood on a lecture hall to a flame tree blooming out of season? What might it do for those who have lost kin? I find that anything I read and write has no answers, and I am not interested in asking the same question. In fact the question itself loses shape and I am no longer sure what I am asking. Maybe time and silence will become answer. Maybe a poem with no time and space in it will become answer.
Read the full essay