Scraps of paper with lines from the poem, with one that reads "This is my body. This is my body." in the center
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Without Choice

A poem consisting of many voices

This poem is a cento, consisting entirely of lines from other poems, compiled here in chorus. Some punctuation and tenses have been changed. I’m grateful to these poets for their lines, each attributed at the bottom of the page.

Soon enough, the whole small
city of my being will demolish—
Without choice, no politics,
          no ethics lives.
I hold my grief like two limp
tulips. What am I allowed to

Bed rest with the mysteries. Old blood.
A mandala of succor and suffering.

I have heard in the voices of the wind:
This is my body. This is my body.
As if it came
from the crucible of river, from the first             throat broken
I will choose what enters me, what becomes,
          flesh of my flesh

I did my best I worked with                 what I know I tilled
             I paved I          foraged labored

I have heard in the voices of the wind—
There were five orders to obey
If I missed any I would be less than dead.

If my body held a sign
If my body itself could speak
O forest that my body has set on fire—
           What hurts?
           What hurts?
           How can I help from here?

Attributions: Sharon Olds (lines 1-2); Marge Piercy (3-4, 14-15); Erika Sánchez (5-7); Alissa Quart (8-9); Gwendolyn Brooks (10, 18); Leyla Josephine (11); Purvi Shah (12-13); Camonghne Felix (16-17); Emily Jungmin Yoon (19-20); Rayna Momen (21-22); Saniyya Saleh (23); Mahogany L. Browne (24-26)