Life: Beautiful or Monstrous or Both? Three Poems by Swir, Mahon and Gilbert

American poet Jack Gilbert. Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation


Poetry Reading

I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.
I enter.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.

I am supposed to tell them
why they were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.

Anna Swir (1909-1984) from Talking to My Body, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996

What the heck!  When I read this poem a few weeks ago its harshness felt like a car crash. And so many questions. Is that the poet’s job? To speak only of life’s cruel severities? To explain them? Swir gives me no bolt hole. No place to escape. Monstrous life. Yes it is. But there, there’s my bolt hole. I know it’s not the whole story. So does she.

Swir, a celebrated Polish poet and contemporary of Nobel Prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz knew so much suffering. She experienced the horrors of war in Warsaw during the second World War as a nurse during the Warsaw uprising and as member of the resistance. Yes a Milosz says in his afterward to her book Talking To My Body, reconsidering his previous emphasis on her bleak side: I have been more conquered by her extraordinary, powerful, exuberant, and joyous personality.

I am grateful for the provocation her poem is. How it reminds me that a poet’s job is to bring the difficulties of our lives into full focus, And all around me these days I see more and more poets striving to do that. I am thinking, in particular, of black and Asian American poets or North American indigenous writers or members  of the LGBTQ community who are bringing us their lives into the cultural mainstream.

But I am also grateful for how her poem reminds me it must not be the last word. And that’s when I recollect with gratitude the two poems that follow. One by the great Irish poet Derek Mahon and the other by the incomparable American poet Jack Gilbert. Oh, I so appreciate Mahon’s cry: There will be dying. There will be dying,/ but there’s no need to go into that! And Gilbert’s declaration: But we enjoy our lives because that is what God wants. Here are the Mahon and Gilbert poems:

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon from Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1999

A Brief for The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
Are not starving someplace, they are starving
Somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that is what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
Be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
Be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
At the fountain are laughing together between
The suffering they have known and the awfulness
In their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
In the village is very sick. There is laughter
Every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
And the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
But not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
The stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
Furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
Measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
We should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of the small ship
Anchored late at night in the tiny port
Looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
Is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
Comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
All the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert from Jack Gilbert Collected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Thank you Anna Swir for provoking me. For reminding me that a poet’s job is not to look away from life’s monstrosities. And thank you Derek Mahon and Jack Gilbert for telling me in  no uncertain words that those monstrosities are never the full story. Amen!

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