Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Turned-Down Page

"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
and returns.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski


ArtSparker said...

I like the gentle urging of "try"...

Fresca said...

Yes! Good point--this is not the harsh philosophy of "positive thinking", this is the gentle exhortation of one who knows "nights... marked by restlessness and fear."

Fresca said...

P.S. Art Sparker:
Re the gentleness of saying "Try...", I found this quote from the poet Zagajewski (in the article I linked AZ's name to in the text of this post):

“Sometimes I wish I were an arrogant prophet, an aggressive guy. But my force—if I have any—is different; it lives more in nuances, in tranquility of my voice. Somehow I hope that the rhetoric of tranquility is after all stronger and more long-term than the one of a furious attack.”

ArtSparker said...

Yes...well, I have an exhortations, objections to shrillness of, post coming up.

Love the quote.

Fresca said...

Ha! Shrillness makes me shudder---especially when I hear it coming out of my mouth!

Blogging has actually been good for me, for letting go of some of that: when I first started, several years ago, I used to rant a lot. Ranting is very popular, you may know, and I got a lot of positive reinforcement for those type of posts, but I didn't like myself doing it.
Gradually I got good at editing it out, and now I rarely even go there in the first place.
And yet, I don't want to lose the genuine *heart* that fueled the rant...
Still working on all this.

Lill said...

By the by, I love that you put the In the Pink pic up for your profile.

Fresca said...

Glad you like it, Lill (and I like your "name" too!). It was taken on a soft pink and silver evening by Lake Harriet.

Rudyinparis said...

You know, is it really sick of me that I sometimes wonder what poem I would read at S's funeral,if he died? This one.

Fresca said...

This would be a great funeral poem!
One of the things I love about being Catholic (in my freelance way) is that Catholics are always having fun with planning their funerals: "Oh! I want THAT hymn at my funeral!"
After all, it's gonna happen...