Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Trying to Praise a Mutilated World: Poems after 9/11

Adam Zagajewski's poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," first appeared in The New Yorker, in the weeks following the attacks of September 11, 2001. As I'm putting together a course, "After 9/11: Literature, the Arts, and Ethics in Age of Terror," I've been thinking through the "first responders" and first responses to those mind-bending attacks. Though at the time I thought this poem was too plain, too straight to be commensurate with the radical derangement of the attacks, I now see it as the sort of poem whose quietness is itself a stay against the confusion of those days.


Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

- Adam Zagajewski (Translated, from the Polish, by Claire Cavanagh)


Maureen said...

This poem speaks to what we can hold onto in the midst of wreckage: the small things, the things that have significance only to us, that offer that "gentle light" on the hope our hearts hold.

That the poem is not lofty in intent or language makes it all the stronger, more moving.

It's the same now with the devastation in Japan, which I wrote of in the poem I posted today.

Philip Metres said...

Well put, Maureen. At the time, such a response felt insufficient, even archaic. But now, I see what wisdom there might be in its approach.