I have not written anything for quite a while. Well, that’s not perfectly true. I did start a gratitude journal with a friend, she in her city, I in mine. It was meant to be an offset to our shared depression, the thing about which our decades-long friendship seemed to be swirling. It was to those saddest of places that life seemed to have taken us, and I thought that pausing to intentionally record gratitude would help. It did for a few days, until I predictably let go of the discipline of doing it, and got distracted by other things.
Then a new war broke out in Europe. It’s not the only war in the world, but it’s the war that’s gotten the world’s attention. We can leave aside why, but if one more wise one comments about the shock of such a thing happening in “civilized” Europe, I might very well lose what’s left of my mind.
That new war inevitably brought me back to an older war, the one that ripped asunder my family, a war that in recent years too many have chosen to question the facts of, the truths of, because well, “civilized” white Christians don’t like to have their feelings hurt. But I digress.
This new war is just one more thing in the pile-on of things that make being a citizen of this earth a questionable proposition at this moment. Bodies are under brutal assault, but so is truth, so is our planet, so where to seek cover? Where is safety? Where is sanity? To those questions, I have no answer. But I think I might have found something that isn’t quite safety or sanity, but is a refuge of sorts from all the noise, all the endless chattering and commenting, and chest-thumping, and back-slapping, and self-congratulation, and accusing, and shaming, and distorting and lying. And more of the same.
The other day–it must have been a Sunday–I stumbled across a poem. I used to read poetry–Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney. Not because I’m wise or insightful enough to understand poetry well, but because I love words. I sometimes hate words too, because words can so easily be wielded for cruelty, for punishment, brutality, and horror. But still, there is poetry as something more and better and necessary.
I wasn’t looking for poetry. Or for any given poem. Once upon a time, I used to write poetry. I imagine it was probably pretty awful, but I can’t really say. I do recall, upon thinking that I was likely doomed as an applicant to Yale University, that I might as well just throw caution to the wind and be however I chose to be, and I wrote my college essay in the form of a poem. About the Shah of Iran, of all people. I don’t recall why. Maybe it was an anti-war missive, a commentary on regal abuses of power. It could not have been an homage, unless it was written by someone who wasn’t me. Needless to say, I did not get in. But life does indeed go on, and not having gone to Yale didn’t make me turn on poetry. It’s just that what I think of as the solitude of reading and writing poetry made it harder for me to sustain an interest in it, so I kept up with books, but poetry fell away, except for occasional forays.
Then I stumbled across this poem–We Lived Happily during the War–and I was brought back immediately to what I never stopped loving about poetry. The immediacy, the imagery, the clarity in brevity. It was all there. And I needed more. So off I went to a local bookstore and found a copy of Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian Jewish emigre from the Soviet Union. Who happens to be deaf. This poem in two acts is so far utterly breathtaking. And could have been ripped from today’s headlines, or those of decades ago. It was published in 2019. But the thing about poetry, even in its particularity, is that it calls to something that crosses boundaries of time and space. Perhaps that’s because human beings remain forever on some version of the hamster wheel of our own brutality, of our own inability to evolve past the basic baseness that seems to be at our core.
I don’t know how act two will end, but act one is full of piercing cruelty, of cowardice, of courage, of shame, of women, of children, of those left behind, of those who stand up, of those who hide, of cries unheard, of screams that pierce the sky. It is nothing more or less than what we are at our worst when we think we might, for a moment, become something better. Perhaps there’s an ending that leads us to that something better, but I found myself reading two lines over and over, because they seemed the truest of all. And never not so, no matter the the century, the decade, the epoch, the moment:
At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?
And in those words is everything to be found of the heartache of being human, but also of its infinite possibilities. And therein might lie the one thing that remains to each and to all of us: the consolation of poetry, but in truth, the consolation of choosing. The echo calls to us, always. The only question worth asking is: how will we answer?