Last night I went to a benefit for Red Hook, a neighborhood you may have read about in the post-Sandy news. Red Hook houses a mix of industry, art, and projects — it’s an odd convening, without subway access, but with a water taxi jetty and an IKEA. The benefit was a convening of mostly writers, some musicians, reading work of their own or others related to Red Hook or storms or resilience or hope. One of the organizers was an acquaintance of mine, the music writer Jody Rosen, who I met in a café in Brooklyn, which proves that Brooklyn is so lousy with excellent writers that one can meet them just by sitting in cafés, though the chances are higher if one also happens to be writing.
Anyway, this is a text-only post. And I almost never do this — a post without an image — so it must be something important I want to share with you, and the demands of the day are pressing on me to get a move on, so… The poet Mary Karr closed the evening with this poem by Jack Gilbert, read in a full clear voice that brought me to the edge of tears. This is the argument for joy in a world of suffering.
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 loves 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 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 a 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.
By Jack Gilbert
Discussion (4 Comments)
Thank you so much for Jack Gilbert’s astonishing, surprising poem. No pictures needed.
Thanks, Linda. It is astonishing, isn’t it?
I met Jack Gilbert a few times; he was his poems, especially this one. Thanks for the reminder.