Suffering

The other day, I heard a little old lady tell a crowd of sexual assault victims, “You were not put on this earth to suffer.” It reminded me of a line from the book I’ve been reading, Strangers Drowning, about morality.

“Some think that suffering is pointless and wish it could be eliminated; others believe it makes compassion possible and is at the core of the human condition.”

I used to believe the former, used to wish no one had to endure the pain of suffering…I guess I still do, when I see it. But you can’t wish away suffering, it will always be, and if it breeds compassion, it is all worth it.

Jack Gilbert says it best:

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’s 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 there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés 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.

The Kindness of Strangers: Waiting in the ER circa 3am

I was sitting upright on the examination table, waiting
for that special team they call in for cases like mine
when a janitor walked in to switch out the trash.

“How are you doing?” He said
“Alright” – the best I could manage
“Then why are you up there on that table?”
A wry smile and silence
“But you will be alright.”
I nodded, “Yeah, I will be.”

“But you’re not alright now, so why did you say you are?”
“I don’t know, people lie about that all the time.
You ask how they are and they just smile and say they’re fine.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said, his tired eyes locked on mine,
“But there’s a time and a place for everything,
and you don’t have to say you’re alright right now.”

The Importance of Thorns

I haven’t put anything up in months, & I felt this essay I wrote a while ago discussing a lovely piece of prose called St. Cyril’s Dragon: The Threat of Poetry by Dave Smith was a fitting post to resume with..

The Importance of Thorns

Threat, as defined by Smith, is “various as a heartbeat, [and] is the weight, complexity, difficulty, problem, resistance every poem draws energy from as it seeks resolution.” A good poem takes us out of our comfort zone, it disturbs us, and through threat is “manifests what is important to know. Threat engineers the struggle of self to come into being.” It is confounding to me how much of poetry, poetry without threat, has come into this idealized, soft form of art. We would never want to read a book or watch a film in which everything is serene and peaceful all the time.

Sure, one can come to brilliant understandings and reflections in loveliness, but I think it is truer to say that we are shaken in a beautiful way by discord, by threat. A poem needs a threat, a driving force, just like any other form of art does and just as our own lives necessitate threat. I believe that if one were to live out the entirety of his or her life without such threat, without the moment “when painful choice arrives,” that person has sorely missed out on the beauty of the bad and has been utterly shortchanged in his or her life experiences.

An easy, threat-less life, like a simple, threat-less poem, is one in which nothing is overcome, shaken, disturbed, and developed. It is lacking. Smith says, “no threat, no poem,” and perhaps I’m just a bit twisted, but I think threat is essentially always a good thing. To me, threat is synonymous with motivation – isn’t it the threat of failure that drives us to work hard, the “formative pressure” that inevitably shapes our lives?

As I mentioned in my response last week, there is nothing wrong with a lovely poem; poetry has a tendency to strive toward such loveliness and encapsulations of the beauty of the world, but I find that there is more to be gleamed from ugliness. And when the two coincide, when poems like those of Neruda, Trakl, and at times even Dubie, Wright, and Smith, jar us with their exquisite descriptions of such ugliness in the world, that’s when I believe that true loveliness is achieved.

The power of a poem, of course, comes from something more than merely strong descriptive words on either end of the spectrum – while something in me would be more inclined to read a horrifically disgusting poem  rife with words like “entrails,” or “fetus,” or “maggots,” without threat, a poem comprised of such cringe-worthy yet purposeless words is every bit as shallow as a poem depicting a viridian meadow bursting with wildflowers on a brilliantly sunny day. It is the consolidation of these two realms which makes a poem, as Smith says, one “that scares those who pay attention. It delivers truth we find hard to live with.” Poems in which the threat is has a force proportional to its release deliver us to a credible statement made or implied, and takes us on a journey through which we are able to comprehend, to quote Smith quoting Frost, something “we know but didn’t know we knew.”

For Smith, if the poem’s purpose is to “make meaning of action and to lodge it in memorable words,” akin to “images hung on a wall,” such images are “those which tell us what is most durable, which we admire and call Beauty because they summon from in us the will to do and to be good, and in Beauty, we see the sorrowful diminishing of what had seemed to us permanent.” This is the most perfect definition of beauty I have ever heard. Beauty is not simply what is pretty, what we find to be lovely, as seems to be the case in so many poems without threat, but rather a force that moves us, and has the power to make us realize the ephemeral nature of all that constitutes our lives.

In keeping with this definition of beauty, the ‘darker’ or surrealist poems of Neruda, Trakl, or Wright surely are far more beautiful than any gorgeous yet idealized depiction of something traditionally perceived to be lovely. To quote Smith, “To Miss O’Connor, life’s sweetness was dependent on what threatened it and upon the size of the threat. Without threat, the road of life is only a pastoral walk in the daisies. That is why poetry that fails to reveal and risk the life of the real self is no good to us.”

As Smith says, “Weak poems, pruned of thorns, barbs, and threats, console and soothe us; we all want the beatific promise. If it were not so, ever-positive Walt Whitman would have little appeal for us beyond verbal postcards from the travelogue of his imagination.” This may be true for many, and would explain the wealth of so-called “weak poems” in existence today, but I believe this statement to be true only in reference to the same sort of people who remain willfully ignorant in all aspects of life. Perhaps the sort who do not watch the news, because its all rape and war and death not at all directly relevant to them, or the kind who brush off the importance of things like having political knowledge of one’s own country, or the food they eat, because to keep blindly accepting and devouring whatever comes their way is far simpler.

These are the sort of people to whom Smith refers when he says, “Knowledge, to us, is always partial, inadequate, dangerous.” I prefer to believe that there must certainly also be many whose intrinsic curiosity hurls us away from stagnation, people who want to be pricked by a poem, to be unsettled and jolted awake. Good poetry uses the imagination to “dive down into the dark heart of experience and return with knowledge necessary to selfhood,” as opposed to “Fancy,” which Smith quotes Coleridge in saying is merely “an act an act of the mind that seeks escape from reality, creates false images, panders to us.” The power of well-executed imagination in poetry leads us to confront and comprehend threat.

Such threat bursts from every line of Smith’s “In the House of the Judge.” The threat of death, of our own mortality permeates the poem like ash, suffocating us. The poem is so densely packed with detail that it reads almost like a fully executed short story, and is obsessed with this image of ash, of the dead floating all around us. In this poem, we are brought into the very conflicted, fear-gripped mind of the narrator, who seems to be trying to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with the house and situation he is in – “night after night I stand now trying / to believe it is only dust, no more than vent-spew.” The narrator goes on to describe how he sees and feels this “flesh-gray sift” everywhere, on framed photographs, on bookshelves, in the house, and it becomes clear that these are the remains of those the judge has sentenced to death. The threat here is practically tangible, the particle remains of the deceased truly engineer the struggle of the poem’s narrator, and is the driving force of the poem’s conflict.

The narrator is indeed “shaped by the mica-fine motes that once were body in earth.” He is so plagued by the death, the audible weight, suffocating this house that his actions become rash and nonsensical. Here Smith manages to use imagination “dive down into the dark heart of experience” by detailing the manner in which the shapeless, formless dust, the only remnant of those no longer with form, becomes that which now comprises the entirety of the obsessed narrator who is still with form. This captures the truth that in our lives, such little nothings, such things that do not exist in physical form, tend to wreak havoc on our real, physical world.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Today is Armistice Day. On November 11th, 1918, the world came together in the realization that war is so horrific it must be ended immediately, and the armistice signed in France signified an end to World War I – the “war to end all wars.”

At the time, the bloodshed of WWI marked a massive departure from the wars that came before. With the rise of machine guns came the horrifying ability to wipe out entire generations of young men in a single attack.  Since then, of course, the killing power of the world’s weaponry has only increased exponentially.

Today is a day of peace. We don’t even know a world without horrible death machines. Is it really progress to continually invent more efficient ways to kill each other?

Please take a minute to read (or listen to a reading of) this brilliant poem by Wilfred Owen, a poet and soldier in the first World War. Makes me cry every time!

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

*Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori means “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” These are the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace).

13th on Dominicus

(For my poetry class, we had to chose from a list of prompts and make it a real scenario. The prompt I chose was “The air is still all week except on Sunday afternoons when the wind blows.”)

*

13th on Dominicus

*

We scatter our ashes when we hear

autumn leaves scrape along the cement

because in Eurus the air is still all week except

on Sunday afternoons when the wind blows

through the dusty streets and across the wooden porches

where we hung candy colored wind chimes

like portraits of all the different pills we took.

Chalk dust blue, powder orange, lavender –

always pastels, nothing offensive.

There’s something soothing about pastels,

like the breeze wandering through our wind chimes,

just a reminder that we’re still breathing.

We are a medicated generation,

it’s a wonder we still feel anything at all

when we’re so quick to numb our problems

instead of fixing them. Benzos for anxiety,

opiates for pain, but all they do is make us forget,

we live in a haze, in a fog that won’t lift.

Though for some of us there’s stimulants,

Ritalin, serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Any quick fix, any synthetic happiness will do.

Why work towards personal betterment,

strive for spiritual satisfaction,

when its all right here, between our fingers?

Just swallow, smile, and repeat.

Solidarity with the Sun or a Universal Deceleration

I was walking through a sculpture garden on my way to class

on a cold October morning in Baltimore, worrying

about tomorrow when I looked up and realized it was fall.

The leaves had begun to redden and turn and surely

this had happened overnight because how could I have missed

this metamorphosis. Some trees had amber leaves like the tea

my dad loved from England, others orange as my mom’s hair,

but none clung to their green and I halted. Some things sneak up

on you, yet all around me the flowers were wilting and

the trees were wasting until there was no beauty left at all

and just yesterday was my little brother’s birthday – I thought

he was turning six but actually he became eight years old just like that.

– 

I remember a sunny winter day in Madrid

wandering through El Retiro, where a big man blew bigger

bubbles with two great wands and small children danced

trying to catch them. I smiled in the Sabatini Gardens

at nightfall, touched by the way the moon shone no matter where she was

and even though she knew she had to go so soon. I blinked

into Barcelona and “Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus” seared across

La Sagrada’s spires, which soared so high one could spend a lifetime

staring skyward and still never truly see it’s zenith.

– 

Down below, I wandered through the Fiery Fields under Naples

and Pompeii, in underground caverns that sustained the ancients

with yellow tuff, a volcanic ash from the explosive past

of Vesuvius, that morphed under pressure like diamonds into

life-giving sandstone and gave way to sunken reservoirs.

 –

I resurfaced after crossing the Adriatic, through Albania

and into Thessaloniki, where I rose like the White Tower

and scaled its spirals till spring spilled down to shower the steeples,

slickening them so I slipped and thought for sure I would sink,

but instead I was transported to the twin tower in Istanbul,

and there I saw the flowers sweep across the hills like wildfire.

 –

I tore through Turkey, spanned the –stans and cruised across the Caspian

till Zhengzhou, China, to the Shaolin Monastery in Mount Song

where I summoned my own Shaolin, Staten Island, and Shakti,

the yoga center where I meditated in the summertime, listening

to shrill chirps of the crickets and the mournful howls of the wind,

who rattled the wood-paneled windows, as if to remind me

to stop and smell the incense. I awoke in California, where

my mom asked me never to go because I might like it too much

and never come back, since I always say I can’t stand the seasons,

those bitter New York winters, and maybe I should stay

where it’s sunny all the time and things don’t seem to change.

But then just think of all the colors I would lose; static

blinds us to the beauty of difference. The sun may struggle

to rise, but the moon lingers for just a bit longer,

and truly time wouldn’t seem to be going anywhere

at all if I only stopped to look more often.