"Try to Praise the Mutilated World" (text below) is the poem I'd dog-eared in the poetry book I'm flipping through, in the previous post. I wouldn't mark it now, but it expressed how I felt when I was working for several years on a string of geography books about Zimbabawe, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, El Salvador, Myanmar (Burma), and other mutilated countries. (And try and find any place on Earth that hasn't seen some mutilation.)
I've always thought it was odd that after my mother's death I ended up working on countries with so much devastation in their recent histories. It's only this morning, as I read this poem again, that I remember I chose those countries.
I've always felt that any belief in god or human goodness has to square with the historical reality of the Holocaust. Working on these books, I hammered out a belief in the face of the worst things we can do to each other---and as Carolyn Forché says, there is nothing one human will not do to another. The thing is, that works both ways--there is also nothing beautiful one human will not do to another.
In the end, I came to the boring realization that at ground level, economics is probably more of, or at least as much as, an influence as culture. Or, at any rate, they go hand in hand. Not to say the richest countries and people are the most beautiful and benevolent. Not at all! But it's hard to praise the mutilated world while you're dying of cholera from dirty water. Sorry--I don't mean to be preachy here, it's just that I used not to factor plumbing into my thinking about humanity and goodness at all.
Dostoyevsky said, "Beauty will save the world," and I used to think that meant culture, as in art. I don't know what he meant, but now I'd say clean water is beautiful.
When you have clean water, you get more years to read and write. So, as Mother Teresa used to say, let's do something beautiful.
"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski
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
Translated by Renata Gorczynski