One of our brilliant Segullah editors shared a poem with our staff recently that had us all grieving for the sorrow of the world, but also brought out our collective fierce resolve to “risk delight” in the face of such sorrow. Here is Brittney’s story and the poem.
Today, a woman I love very much is dying. I wish you could know her. Truly, she has the most beautiful soul. This evening, I walked the streets of my small, northern town and could barely breathe for grief. I know you know the feeling. Yesterday, one of you (us) buried a child; kissed a marriage goodbye; wept before sunrise; wept through the night, lost the house; lost a job; lost the way. If not one of us, then someone we know. There are never six degrees of separation in sorrow. Truth: the lone and dreary world can be downright lone and dreary sometimes, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not gonna lie, I’ve cried. And cried. And cried. I’ll cry some more before it’s all done. Dripping mascara, puffy face. Sometimes this is what it means to say, “I love you.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Because I do love her, and because we both love words, I’ve taken to sending her poems. I don’t write poems (the very thought of it scares me stiff), but I’m profoundly thankful that there are those who do, who can articulate the landscape of the heart. A few nights ago, I came upon a poem I’d never read before. “Sorrow everywhere,” its first line reads, so of course I read it. I read it again and again and again. Risking the maudlin, I am tempted to say that it changed me somehow, like, forever. I’ll say simply that I sent it, that in the morning there was this response: This one made me well up. Well up: such a sensation, such fullness, and then beautiful tears.
Truth: I am often moved by language. Studying chemistry last week, I nearly cried at a description of polar covalent bonding. A very simple concept, but the language was so lovely, I tell you. It really was. And so I’m not ashamed to say that the poem filled me too, and like my friend, I shed tears. The language, of course, has perfect pitch. But it’s the truth of it that is the poem’s heart. Sorrow, yes, everywhere. And yet, in spite of it, no, perhaps because of it: also joy.
I’m not saying a poem will heal what hurts. It doesn’t make cancer less cruel or the heartwreck of divorce less savage. Goodness, that’s what time’s for, time and the timeless atonement of Jesus Christ. But give this a read, and tell me what you think. Tell me that last image—the stillness of water, the sound of oars (that small, insistent hope)—doesn’t make you well up in a good way. Tell me it doesn’t make you cry.
Tell me, too, what other lines (or whole other poems) you love.
A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert
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.