When It’s Not Our World Anymore What Will We Hear: On Empathy

Rosebud Ben-Oni
November 18, 2016
Comments 1


We wait for their approach. We are the silence that multiplies itself in the night. We are the dark with our eyes closed. We are the hard knots pressed against the drum

Oliver de la Paz, “Dear Empire”

The day after the election, I lose my keys somewhere in the apartment. I know they are still here because I needed them to get inside, but they are also gone.

Poet Darrel Alejandro Holnes texts me: That’s symbolic.

My father calls: They will turn up when you move again. I check my coat. Then I check my purse, my jeans, all the garbage cans, under the bed, under the couch, among the chaos of my husband’s work bench with all his strange contraptions half-finished, the twisted wires, circuit boards, pliers, the black hardcover Inventor’s Notebook I gave him now marked-up, highlighted, pages dog-eared and half-torn. Filled with his special script and equations, it is a part of him I’ve come to know, even if I can’t read it.

Now I place an oversized, neon-lime-green post-it on the notebook, fearing somehow it too will go missing. As if it goes running at night, by itself, on dimly-lit streets. As if I hadn’t lost such important things before.

Darrel Alejandro calls just as I’m about to upend furniture not meant to be moved until we move again. He asks me how I am, what’s the story with the keys, that he’s noticed I’ve been writing a lot about whales in my poems as of late, and speaking of whales, had I seen the movie Blackfish?

I stop what I’m doing. I don’t answer right away. Because I have very strong feelings about twelve-thousand pound aquatic animals in glass cages. Because I feel how wrong it is to put the most intelligent creature on earth in a tank that will never be big enough for the life in which the orca is meant. That it’s equally wrong to make them do senseless tricks, rise out of water at human command, all the while ignoring that captivity is the reason why their dorsal fins collapse. Why they go mad.

Dorsal fins as windows to the soul.

I’m tired of how we wrong each other. I’m more tired of how we have way too much say in other species’ fate. I’m tired of being human, but there’s no escaping that, so it’s pointless as finding my keys in the near future. It’s the knowing they are here, and knowing they are gone, that will keep me awake all night, even after staying awake for most of the previous night, talking to my brother who was working the election. His seven-year-old daughter, my niece, won’t accept the outcome of the election. Her refusal is complete.

I crawl out from under a bookcase, still without keys, clutching the phone, as my husband comes through the door after a long day of work, just as Darrel is asking me: Did you know killer whales have an extraordinary capacity for empathy?

And at last, here—the day after our country accepted life inside a tank, accepted a life of doing tricks within captivity, an acceptance I did not agree to, nor one that I ever saw coming— here is something I know.

Yes, I say, holding onto that certainty, as my husband looks around the room curiously and then with concern. It looks like we’ve been robbed. My hands, save this phone call from a fellow poet, are empty.

I say aloud: Empathy is a form of communication.

I know I still want to believe that, but for whom is my empathy?

The next day, Leonard Cohen dies.

The day after that, I lose my wallet.

This is a true story.

My person, like my purse, is becoming lighter.


They administrate analogy but

we only want you to show us,

through a stashpile of choices

and the small acts you perform

each day, which side you are on.

Till the earth. Kill the earth.

Swallow scoops of wet dirt.

Which side are you on?


—Becca Klaver, “Everything’s Been Recruited”


I don’t know, dear Becca. I thought I knew. I thought we had choices. I thought I knew what I was looking at. I thought the places we create for ourselves can still be the places we live in. At least the country. At least the state. City. Borough. Street. Building. A neighbor of mine voted for Trump. He lives upstairs on the floor above. The day after the election, I ran into him as I was coming out of the elevator and he was coming in. I said nothing to him. But it’s like he had a little speech prepared.

He blocked my way so I couldn’t leave the elevator, but he could come in. Pretense of holding the door for me while blocking it with his body. He’s talking to me. At me. I keep my sunglasses on. A line of defense I didn’t know I needed. I knew. I had a feeling. A fear. A fear I thought had long been endangered.

Lately, I’ve been telling certain straight white men who are still living in the 20th century that it’s not their world anymore. I’ve said this directly. I’ve said this in other ways still very clear. I’ve never said it to him. This particular man. But he knows. About me. Has a feeling. Which is why his little speech. Begins midsentence. Something he’s been holding in for a while. He’s practically ravenous with getting it out. Sucking up all the air from the elevator and offering only his breath. Goes a little something like this. Goes exactly like this:

…and I know you must be heartbroken, but after all, you can’t just vote for her because she’s a woman and you’re a woman. Get real. Time to think Big Picture. Now here’s a man. Can’t be bought. Comes with his own money. Why you young people think that’s so terrible I don’t know. He’s not going to do anything extreme anyway, you know that. You think he’s really going to do you harm? Please. It’s the LAST EIGHT YEARS that have been terrible. Cupcake generation— you heard that one? Trophy for existing! Trophy for using the bathroom! Microaggravations or whatever you call them! Can’t say chick! Can’t say…

I’ve already walked off, pushed myself under his raised arm, the top of my head brushing against the soft wool of his coat. He’s still talking as I walk out the front door. I imagine he’d be the kind of colleague who’d tsk-tsk me for referring to Becca instead of Klaver. The kind of man who carries around an MLA handbook like a Bible, who’d draw a red line through my opening words a few nights later, when at a reading in celebration of Becca’s new book Empire Wasted, I open a poem with: I love you, Becca. Because I mean it. Because a hellish weak. I don’t think I’ve ever tsk-tsk’ed in my life. I don’t turn around. I know he’s still talking, to himself now, and that is his most perfect, satisfying audience. The audience that makes him powerful and alive.

That invisible current that tells him it’s his world again, his paradise and his only.

Perhaps we shouldn’t lose our sense of fear. Perhaps within the fear lies the first seeds of empathy.




and a deeper silence

when the crickets


Leonard Cohen


I’m eleven years old, and a friend invites me to SeaWorld. My parents don’t want me to go. I beg them to let me. My mother sits me down, and considers my appeals. There isn’t much of one. Only that I’ve already seen dolphins but never killer whales.

My mother says: You’ve seen dolphins—swimming in the ocean. Near South Padre.

I nod impatiently. My young mind doesn’t know why she’s pointing this out to me. I’ve already said that.

Then she adds: You know, killer whales aren’t true whales. They are dolphins.

This does not deter me. I have always loved animals. Our house was always full of rescues, all those not wanted or treated poorly by other people. All our parrots and parakeets my father built large T-stands and playpens so they mostly used their cages for sleep. He said to me: Birds don’t belong in cages, but these can’t go back out into the wild either. This is the least we can do.

A few years before I was born, my father saw a man abusing an Irish setter puppy outside a store in a strip mall. While he’s never been the biggest or most muscular man on the planet, my father could be quite an intimidating figure when he got angry, which was rare. My father went up to the man who was striking the pup, and took the dog from him. Then he looked at the man without a word as if daring him to move an inch. My father turned his back on the man, and walked away with the dog in his arms, as my mother got out of the car to meet him, to meet the newest addition to the family, half-worried, half-elated she’d married just this type of person.

When my mother would tell this story, her whole face beamed, until she remembered I’m there listening, and then would add: But don’t you ever let me catch you pulling something like that. But if you do, don’t turn your back on people like that. If they can beat up a dog, they’ll jump you from behind.

My mother named the pup Preciosa—Precious, in English. The dog was, simply, love. When I was born, she was fiercely protective of me. Whenever a stranger approached, she’d immediately put herself between that person and me, growling softly and smelling them. Some nights I’d fall asleep on her stomach, listening to her breathe in and out.

Suddenly my mother interrupts my reverie and says: Okay, you can go.

I look at her in disbelief; trying to talk her into anything is never easy. There must be a catch. I sit there, waiting.

She smiles at me: The windows aren’t going to clean themselves.

I smile back, and race across the kitchen to get started. She stops me before I’m even reaching under the sink for cleaner and a rag.

Just don’t forget, she says, why our birds never choose to hang out in their cages



They’re lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle class and tame

—Leonard Cohen


It is late Friday morning. My keys are still gone, Leonard Cohen is gone and Trump the president elect, but I have to find my wallet. I take stock of all the places I’ve been in the last twenty-four hours: the college where I teach Women’s Studies, then Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, where I’d read for the Prelude launch. I grow more certain it’s at school.

It’s not until I’m at the subway station that I realize I have no money on my MetroCard. Which doesn’t matter because it’s in my wallet. Which I don’t have on my person, and now I realize I’ve left my phone too, only it’s not gone, at least I think it’s not, because I remember setting it down on my desk at home before I left. No one to call. All I have in my purse is the spare set of keys, a few books and a lipstick. I swipe it on without a mirror. Why, I don’t know. I feel so much lighter with so many things gone. What would I do if I had to teach a workshop or seminar today? When, looking around the classrooms, the hallways, the offices of my fellow colleagues, wondering: Which side are you on? Is it that serious?

Yes, it is.

As Becca Klaver writes in “Everything’s Been Recruited”:

If you feel only

a terror of the domestic

but not a terroir foreign,

they have a remedy for that,

but it can only be prescribed

if you were wed in a way

their instruments can detect

and if you have never suffered

from a similar terror before.


Or as Oliver de la Paz tweeted on November 8:

Who are you, my neighbors? What do you say about me and my children behind closed doors?


After I explain my situation, an MTA employee buzzes me through the gate and lets me on the train. Because we know each other even though we do not know each other’s names. I’ve passed him when he’s manning the booth many times leaving and coming home. I always wave; he waves back. I don’t know when this started. Or who started it.

Today, I’m glad it’s him. I’m glad for him. Today I’m lighter without my things, without a name. We know each other. I don’t want to leave Queens. I don’t want to get off the 7, off the 7 where a woman reading a prayer book in Spanish across the train looks into my eyes and smiles. She hands me a tissue. I wipe under my eyes. I didn’t know I was crying a little. Just a little. Not his world anymore. Why does it have to be this way?

I think: Empathy is a form of communication.

I revise: Empathy is form of communication breaking down trains. 

Today a straight girl I’d once dated started picking a fight with me after I posted poems by CantoMundo Fellows on Twitter as a path of resistance, which I now realize sitting on the crowded 7 Train, nestled on this not-very cold day on the 7 Train, no sun today, but it should be colder, damn it, and still raining, and still uncomfortable, in my un-waterproof flats and too thin coat, I’m realizing the language my ex used is very close to what my neighbor smugly reported to me in the elevator.

She’d private messaged me: You think Trump is going to read poems and change? You think anyone cares about poems, especially now? 

I remember thinking: these poems are not for him.

I remember thinking, next she too is going to say poetry is dead, when a lengthy messages popped up, in which she “explained” to me that while the last eight years were a “fun phase,” it was time to “get back to business.” Meaning things like civil rights for undocumented immigrants and the trans community were in her eyes a phase.  This woman, who again identifies as straight, then told me that, for instance, our time together was a “fun” phase, really, the best phase of her otherwise ordinary but safe life.

I wondered then if I was nothing more than imaginary, a body she enjoyed, but never a voice in three dimensions. Perhaps that is unfair. Perhaps this should be discussed. But I need her to listen. I need to her to read my words and not dismiss them. Because I read hers. Because she as a woman was doing to me what patriarchy does to her. This is a woman who voted for Trump and will fight for him.

This is a woman who voted for Trump and will fight for him.

Oliver de la Paz asks: Who are you, my neighbors? What do you say about me and my children behind closed doors?

And I say I think some are coming around to saying things out in the open. Now as I write this. They are ravenous with chance. The chance to say it to our faces.



“If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”

Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchor featured in Blackfish

After my mother conceded, I went to SeaWorld a few weekends later with my friend and her family. We skipped all the shows straightaway that featured smaller whales and dolphins, and went to see Shamu, the featured, beloved orca. My friend wanted to sit in the “Splash Zone;” her parents did not, but it didn’t matter anyway, because we sat two rows up just outside of it. And still got wet. Before I threw up on them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At first I was excited about seeing a massive orca up-close for the first time. But when we got to the “show,” I couldn’t believe how small the tank was. I felt a strangeness take over me. A truth that hadn’t been there before. I felt even stranger sitting there, waiting for my friend and her parents to see what was wrong.

When they didn’t I spoke up.

Shamu doesn’t live there, my friend’s father pointed out.

Where does he live? I asked

In another place, her father said.

What place?

Another tank.

Is it big enough?

Shhhh, I was hushed from behind.

The show was starting.

There was loud music with heavy bass, keyboards tuned too sharp, synthetic horns sounding of fallen clowns. Half dance club, half call-to-arms. There were beaming, white-toothed trainers in matching wet suits. There were orders to “help” out, a plea for applause, a need to cheer him on, just as the large black-and-white orca swam by, still under water, clean and swiftly, his body visible in the transparent tank. My friend screamed in joy. Her parents clapped and smiled at the tank. Man, woman, child—everyone was screaming, hollering, stomping their feet and waving their hands. Nothing smiled or waved back at us. The water flushed clouds of bubbles, surged dangerously closer to the edge.

That’s when I felt it.

Perhaps it was the words of my mother that day, words that cornered me as I was leaving: You know, whales understand each other in a way we never well. And right now, I don’t understand you.

Perhaps it’s because how much her words stung, that it seemed a particularly low blow delievered just as I was walking out. I thought she just wanted to rain on my parade, stunt my curiosity, what was wrong with this woman, after all, all my mother knows is work, work, work, never lets me do things that are fun for the sake of enjoyment.

Always a price to be paid.

I had no idea. I was not prepared.

We got wet. Those in the Splash Zone stood up and shrieked in disbelief. I wasn’t sure why they were surprised. They knew where they were sitting. The music seemed to get louder. My head began pounding. Good whale. Here’s a dead fish for you. Here’s another trainer. He’s going to ride you. Cart him around your small paradise. Not paradise. Not yours. Not even water. Swishing back and forth. Round and round and round. Imagine this every day. Imagine four or five shows a day. Probably more.

This is what my mother and father meant. Orcas, like birds, don’t belong in captivity. You can’t have a full relationship with either. Each was meant to bond with their own pods and flocks, not us humans. Imagine if it was other way around, and you were put in a cage or tank and owned by another species who could only give so much. Who didn’t speak your language.

I felt what I felt that day because I was sitting in crowded, open-air enclosure in stadium-style seating as a large body meant for endless, open waters flipped through the air upon command, and came down so hard all I could feel was anguish. Heavy, heavy anguish. I felt a beating under my seat and in my head. Like my own heart had fallen out. A drop in my chest to my knees. It was coming in waves. I stood up, shaking.

My seat’s shaking, I whispered.

WHAT? My friend couldn’t hear me over the noise.

YOUNG LADY SIT DOWN, came a roar behind me.

I sat down. Surely they could see it. Surely they could see that of all creatures, this large, large orca was speaking to us through some sort of waves. He swam by slowly under the water, preparing for the next trick required. I watched helplessly as he glided in the glass enclosure. I felt an extraordinary sense of confusion, of displacement. A false sense of reliance and connection that was not innate. Surely, in retrospect, these were my own feelings I was projecting.

But I know myself. It wasn’t.

I got up before the orca rose up to meet the trainer. I was shoving my small, thin body past insolent feet that would not let me leave. My friend followed me. Her parents too. I could tell they were furious. That only compelled me further.

Before we even reached the end of the aisle, I turned to my friend and threw up when I meant to throw myself into her arms. I was throwing up water. I fainted.

When I woke up, they had called EMS, and I was being examined.

My vision was foggy, and there was a ringing in my ears, but I could hear well enough.

The orca was calling out to all of us that day, as he probably did every day, hoping someone would hear and listen.

I heard him, and could do nothing.

In the human world, there are limits to empathy.

And so the show went on.

And so the show goes on.




“For modern humans, empathy is not a universally desirable trait, since it reeks of vulnerability in an ever-competitive world. For killer whales, empathy is an evolutionary advantage.”

—David Neiwet, “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us


Empathy, I once believed, upstages everything.

I arrive at the small college where I teach Women’s Studies, where students did not want to talk about the election, already exhausted from day one. They admitted they needed a minute to process before we began taking stock inside a classroom, inside the safety of four walls. Inside, perhaps even, a tank. None felt safe; this was clear to me. But none knew what to say anymore. It was only a few days after. What’s happening? Whose side is she or he on? Who are my classmates, my professors? So instead we spent the class reading poems of CantoMundo poets. No commentary, no discussion, just the poems. I thought of these poets, these poets I know in real life, off the page. I know their names. I took solace in their names, their poems.

I arrive. The security guard has my wallet. Everything is there.

It’s your whole life, he says, and I thought about all the things in it as necessities I didn’t want, those I’ve always threatened to break with and couldn’t. I thank him. He smiles, and says: It’s nothing.

I call my husband from the faculty lounge, which is empty that Friday, and tell him the latest; we agree to meet later and take the 7 train home together. I try to do work at school; I’m restless. Thinking about that day at SeaWorld, I scan the newspapers online and learn that the whale of my childhood might not have been a male, and was definitely not named Shamu, which is simply used as a stage name for many whales at SeaWorld. The whale I saw that day could have been Kyuquot or Tuar, who are both males; Takara, Sakari, or  Kamea, who are female. Those are their names, or rather the names they have been given by a corporation. There was another, Unna, who died just last year. I learn that Takara is pregnant, and her calf will be the last born in captivity since SeaWorld has finally given up whale breeding.

That doesn’t make me feel any better. They should be freed. As David Neiwet explains in his book “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us,” while orcas have excellent eyesight and hear with their lower jaws, which are “hollow, filled with a fatty material that collects sound and transmits it through the middle and inner ears and on to the auditory nerve,” like other dolphins, they also have a sixth sense we do not. It’s called echolocation:

“…a kind of sonar, although comparing it to the comparatively crude system of sound detection that humans have devised through technology does little justice to how sophisticated a sense it really is…


The large melon on the front of orcas’ heads is not, as many initially assume, where their brain is located; that is actually farther back in their skull, safely encased behind the eyes…The melon is actually a lens for seeing with sound.


The sound bullets that come out of the melon are very dense packets of sound, not entirely dissimilar from the packets that transmit computer information electronically, and so when these sounds bounce back to the killer whales, they carry a broad spectrum of information. This apparently means that when this information is processed by that highly evolved and complicated brain, it renders the orcas capable of not merely detecting the presence of objects (as our sonar does) but rendering a clear and detailed vision of what is there in the water. Indeed, it goes beyond mere vision; orcas can see inside things.”

According to Neiwet, it’s probable that orcas can detect unborn children in the womb, among other things. They are many, many evolutionary steps beyond us. Miles, actually. But how would captive orcas fare in the wild, after years of captivity? What have we really done to them? What is the sum total of the damage? I’ve been down this line of questioning for most of my life. It started the day I went to that show.

I know this: we are tampering with evolution not meant for us.

We are ruining the world.

I grow anxious, and return to tweeting CantoMundo poets’ work. Before I leave and log out of the computer, I check my messages, and wonder what I’m going to write back to my ex—when I see her direct message is gone. Her words to me are gone. The words I did not write are gone.

She has disappeared altogether from my followers and followings.

She blocked me, so it seemed.

Empathy, I once believed.

My husband meets me under the gilded ceiling of Grand Central.

At seven in the evening it is still rush hour. Hundreds of people running around. Thousands. While I’m worrying about finding him without my iPhone, Brian sees me in seconds. He holds me tightly, and I can feel how tired he is.

I hold on.

Tomorrow, something else will be lost.

Tomorrow, I’m hoping it’s not this anguish I feel, or your anguish, or yours either, may it never be lost, this anguish that might be our only evolutionary hope.



One thought on “When It’s Not Our World Anymore What Will We Hear: On Empathy

  1. I’ve read several pieces like this over the last few weeks, until the pain fills me up and I can’t read anymore. I feel so angry, devastated, helpless. What else can we do but cultivate empathy wherever and however we can in a world that clearly doesn’t have enough.

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