Sept 11: Praise and ‘Our Mutilated World’

Cover by Art Spiegelman
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
and returns.

Read more of Zagajewski’s poetry here.

Laments for Japan

Today is the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. The fragile blossoms are at their peak. Backlit by dawn, the flowers burst into flame. Tonight they will drop with the snow flurries. The festival is more subdued this year in keeping with the natural disasters and nuclear devastation through which Japan (and the world) are suffering.

The cover of the March 28, 2011 issue of The New Yorker is adorned by a “Dark Spring” in Japan. But before the artwork went to print, artist Christoph Niemann said  he was suffering a creative dilemma. “I realized that there is no way a drawing that depicts the devastation, can come close to the heart-wrenching and bizarre photos I’ve seen everywhere,” Niemann reflected.

He blended his admiration for Japanese ink drawings, and came up with with the cover concept above. “The quiet beauty of plum blossoms mixed with the radiation symbol would make an eery and appropriate metaphor for the threat of a nuclear catastrophe.”

I decided to read a few of the elder Japanese poets in commemoration of the day. Here are a few tender lines from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

A village without bells–
how do they live?
spring dusk.

*

Early fall–
the sea and the rice fields
all one green.

*

The spring we don’t see–
on the back of a hand mirror
a plum tree in flower.

*

Not this human sadness,
cuckoo,
but your solitary cry.

*

More than ever I want to see
in these blossoms at dawn
the god’s face.

(Translations by Robert Hass)

Claire Keegan: Ireland’s Leading Short Story Writer

claire keeganI was lucky enough to attend a seminar a few years ago with the amazing Irish short story writer Claire Keegan. While I was studying in Ireland, she gave our group a crash course on “timing” in short story writing. It was the most brilliant and concise teaching I’ve ever received.

When we concluded the day, she left us with a great encouragement. “Meet all kinds of people,” she said. “It really does have a civilizing effect because people will tell you things about yourself from their perspective. It’s an act of love, really.”

Claire, author of the collections Antarctica and Walk the Blue Fields, has a short story in the most recent New Yorker. “Foster” won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Read a slice of it below:

Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford toward the coast, where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot August day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh, where my father lost our red shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew, where the man who won her sold her not long afterward. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes. I shake the plaits out of my hair and lie flat on the back seat, looking up through the rear window. I wonder what it will be like, this place belonging to the Kinsellas. I see a tall woman standing over me, making me drink milk still hot from the cow. I see another, less likely version of her, in an apron, pouring pancake batter into a frying pan, asking would I like another, the way my mother sometimes does when she is in good humor. The man will be her size. He will take me to town on the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pick stones and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields. I wonder if they live in an old farmhouse or a new bungalow, whether they will have an outhouse or an indoor bathroom, with a toilet and running water.

An age, it seems, passes before the car slows and turns in to a tarred, narrow lane, then slams over the metal bars of a cattle grid. On either side, thick hedges are trimmed square. At the end of the lane, there’s a white house with trees whose limbs are trailing the ground.

“Da,” I say. “The trees.”

“What about them?”

“They’re sick,” I say.

“They’re weeping willows,” he says, and clears his throat.

Read Foster by Claire Keegan (The New Yorker, 15 February 2010)