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 – 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 gray feather a thrush lost
And the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Adam Zagajewski (1945 – ) translated by Clare Cavanaugh, C.K. Williams and Renata Gorczynski from Without End – New and Selected Poems, 2002 ( Please note that in Without End the third line is translated as And wild strawberries, drops of Rose wine. However, in an on-line translation credited solely to Gorcznski the third line is as translated above. I prefer it).
The start is tentative but also deliberately shocking and arresting. It is tentative because of the use of the plaintive use of “Try”. But it shocks when it challenges us to Try followed by a statement full of ambiguity and contradiction. By juxtaposing praise with “mutilated” the poem establishes a dissonance that breaks our accepted or normal way of seeing the world. To praise something mutilated goes against all reason. Rainier Maria Rilke in his sonnet number seven from the Sonnets to Orpheus translated by Robert Bly says : To praise is the whole thing!” For Rilke praise is not a lie but a key to resurrection. It in praising we give something to others that lives past death. A man who can praise/comes towards us like ore out of the silences/of rock. His heart that dies, presses out/For others a wine that is fresh forever.
But Zagajewski goes disturbingly deeper. He asks us to try to praise even if the world is not really worth praising, even if it is mutilated. The other jarring note in this line is the association of “mutilated” with the “world”. Sorrowing, suffering, sad, groaning. Those words might have been more expected. But not “mutilated”. This world with its hard consonants offers little consolation. It is raw, abrupt, and crude.
And it is precisely this almost ugly word that makes us unprepared for what comes next in the next two lines. That’s because that difficult first line becomes even more puzzling when contrasted and seemingly contradicted by these next ones. Suddenly the tone is soft, lovely, pastoral. Not ambiguous at all. And notice that the hard consonants are now replaced with words that end softly with s sounds or the vowels sounds in “dew” and “wine”. June’s long days, drops of wine, the dew – none of these seem to speak of anything mutilated. On the contrary they speak of something fully praiseworthy, fecund, rich. They describe the world’s subtle but nevertheless, rich treasures. And the rare beauty of these pleasures, so often taken for granted, are heightened and highlighted by being so opposite from anything mutilated or in any sense disfigured.
Already within three lines we can see that this poet delights in confounding, confusing and disorienting us. Yet, no sooner do we think we might still be in a pastoral mode after these three lines then he turns the tables on us once again.We are asked to try to praise something so un-praiseworthy, something so noxious as nettles; this is a weed that stings and hurts. And in this example, it is a weed that takes over abandoned places, places in this case, of people uprooted, forced to leave – exiles. So here we are asked in one remarkable set of five lines to praise great opposites in life – in this case the same nature that gives the sweet searing flavour of wild strawberries gives us the darker side of nettles that inflict searing pain. This also gives us the first clue as to what a mutilated world might look like. It is notEdenof long summer days and wild strawberries. It is also the east-of-Eden of a fallen world of nettles and exiles just like Adam and Eve. And the nettles are taking over where the exiles once lived. Is the poet suggesting that God has abandoned Eden as well? Has it too become an east-of-Eden, fallen and corrupt? Are the nettles the real truth and the wild strawberries just an illusion?
Then this poet surprises us again. With the previous lines sowing real doubt about the praiseworthy nature of parts of this world he turns around and demands our praise anyway. Try to praise has now become You must praise. But what does he give us to praise this time? No garden filled with strawberries or nettles. Instead, he gives us what appear to be three reasons to back up his demand. But he doesn’t just give the reasons. He brings the reader in as an active participant. After the forceful declaration “You must praise “. He follows that with: You watch, You’ve seen, You’ve heard.
The first reason includes the world we know of manufactured things. In this case it is fancy yachts for the pleasure of the rich and powerful. But again not is all as it seems. Even the rich and powerful with their fancy toys can face salty oblivion yet others can survive. This is a picture of an arbitrary unsure world but a world where nature can have the last devastating say. The next two reasons are no more comforting. We watch refugees heading nowhere and we here the executioner’s song. We are made the witnesses to events that seem the opposite of anything praiseworthy. We are made witness to people or objects going to oblivion, rich people, ships, refugees or executioners victims. Instead of encouraging us to praise these lines instead seem to confirm the world’s mutilation by an unkind hand of God or fate. It confirms the east ofEdenworld in all its loss and pain. But it is also a world without any redeeming features.
Left at this point, half way through the poem, the next adjuration to praise the mutilated world is even more jarring and disconcerting if not deeply challenging. This time it is phrased as You should praise. This adds to the deep disorientation of this poem. With everything that has come before there is no sense that we are being led to the conclusion that we “should” praise anything. Instead, it would make more sense if we were being asked to curse this untrustworthy world which indeed appears mutilated.
But it seems that we are being tricked again. He has set us up to go one way but then in the following lines he brings us back another. He also gets even more personal. Suddenly we wonder if the you” he had referred to previously is someone specific because the writer now refers to we as he begins to remember mysterious but specific events that appear to have the beginnings of redemptive qualities. Now there is a sense that we are over-hearing a conversation instead of being part of it. The poem is now specifically personal and direct. Yet the references are oblique and subtle.
The poet remembers the “the moments we were together/in a white room and the curtain fluttered,” and the asks Return in thought to the concert where music flared. The harsh losses of the mutilated world are being replaced now by gentler memories. Although the white room is ambiguous something close and important was shared there. The delicacy of the curtain fluttered suggests the appearance of something numinous. Could it be the presence of the divine, or the breath of something other-worldly, a sign?
Then after these brief moments of being inside man made places we are brought back to nature without warning. But this time, when we are used to his dramatic reversals we get something different. Yes, we get an autumn scene with fallen leaves but instead of this being a negative image of summer’s end the writer remembers his friend or lover gathering acorns in the park in autumn.” The acorns are seeds of new life, they can become oak trees – hardy and strong. It may be autumn and the end of things but the beginnings of new things are already being gathered. And in the next line even the dead leaves become something positive as they at least eddy over the earth’s scars.
The writer does bring us back to a negative image, the earth’s scars but it is much more muted and is offset by a bitter-sweet sense of the personal you gathering acorns in the autumnal park. We can almost see this person kicking through the moving leaves as they do so. The scars” do not overwhelm this moment of fond remembrance. The positive memory is checked by the negative reference to scars” but not overwhelmed by it.
Now, as we come to the end of the poem, the poet repeats the phrase that has been used to hold the poem together and gives it continuity. As he has each time he has used the phrase before he changes it slightly. This time the more complex verb form is gone. Now nothing modifies the demand to praise. Instead, all that is left is the single declarative verb praise. This is strong and bold. There is no more urging through the use of try, must or should. It is now pure peremptory command.
We can assume that the final three lines relate once again to that need to praise the mutilated world. This time the final reason is much softer and subtler. The poet brings us back to nature but a nature we can seem to trust even if it is not a joyous or even triumphant aspect. And yet again the poet does make a small but critical change. This time the call to Praise the mutilated world is not self-contained in a single sentence, it does not end with a period.
In the last lines we are told to Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost/and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns. A feather falls but the bird remains. Light strays and vanishes but it will come back. It strays but returns. This ending does have a melancholy cast to it but it also is redemptive. There is a sense here of how fleeting beauty, and perhaps even love, is in this east ofEdenworld of ours. The poet reminds us in a sense that the world is shadow-like. We cannot fully own or possess its beauty. We are left with leaves and a feather, part of a beautiful thing but not the thing itself. We are left with a gray world showered with gentle light and a poet that seems to be saying that this enough.
By the end the poet has given us a mutilated world but also reasons, truly, to praise it. He has given us beauty (long summer days) and ugliness – nettles. He has given us the powerful beauty of lovely yachts but also the power of an ocean that can sink them. He gives us the consequences of human cruelty – exiles, refugees and the executioner’s song but at the end he also gives us the opposite. He gives us subtle memories of human intimacy, shared moments, music, walks in nature. Love.