A week after the Twin Towers collapsed, Shanksville, and smoke covered D.C. while the Pentagon burned, The New Yorker ran Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” on the final page of its special 9/11 issue. Written a year and a half before the attacks, the poem nevertheless quickly became the best-known poem of the last 10 years.
A critic, writing in The New York Times Book Review when the poem first was published, lightly mocked its appeal, “as if America were entering the nightmare of history for the first time and only a Polish poet could show us the way.”
As is true with good poets, prophecy is sometimes the by-product of sustained negative capability, “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” as John Keats put it.
Today, we hold in tension bodies falling through a bright blue morning sky, office workers walking miles from city centers to reach home, military jets scrambling to nowhere, the Golden Gate bridge that wasn’t bombed, the Capitol building that was left standing.
We hold in tension that suspended time between rescue operations and remains recovery. We also remember Fr. Mychal Judge, ofm, Franciscan priest, chaplain to New York City firefighters, gay celibate, and first certified fatality of the September 11, 2001 attacks. When everyone else was running out of the World Trade Center building, Mychal ran in. Video footage shows him trapped in an upper floor mouthing words as bodies fell from floors above him. Those who knew him say he was administering last rites. (See Saint of 9/11 and “Remembering Mychal” by Brendan Fay.)
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
Read more of Zagajewski’s poetry here.