I wanted this to be easier.
I wanted to pick a poem I could just rave about and be done with, not because I like simple poems or any such thing, but because I’m tired and coming off a cold, but no, I saw this poem shared by The Academy of American Poets on Facebook earlier today and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.
There’s a lot to love about Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming with its sweeping universalism – the tapestry of experiences, small and intimate and vividly specific but which we can all relate to – and a lot to sift over, to wonder at. We begin with the declarative title, emphatic in its twofold certainty: the world is broken, an unbroken one is coming.
The very first line immediately counters it with a question: It must be coming, mustn’t it? The contrast immediately sets up the narrator, the poet as unreliable and so it’s difficult to trust what follows. The skill of the poem however, is that you do, buoyed by your own optimism no less as we come to the heart of the poem – a simple summation of humanity itself, as seen through the prism of our most basic desires and actions.
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
Lux abruptly shifts out of this mode, as fast as the bullet metaphor he uses to do so. It proves only a brief interruption before the soliloquy on universal pleasures resumes, now more emphatic and explicit in its reaching:
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Were the poem to simply continue in this vein, I think I would still love it, for saying what needs to be said and saying it plainly. Sometimes poetry needs no varnish. But instead, it returns to the creeping uncertainty with which the poem began. “And if there is a long train of cattle cars”, it’s no big deal we’re assured, it’s just heading to the abattoir. The problem with that assurance is it no longer rings quite true, and the following lines now acquire a kind of desperation which belies its earlier optimism:
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!),
He wants it to be around the corner, he sees the tenets of basic decency all around, so it must be so, right? Right? That questioning lingers, as does the final ambiguous image of the poem. The more I think about it, the more ominous the cast of the entire poem, the more I feel tricked. I, like the poet, wanted so much for that reaffirming humanity to continue to be outlined, the common ground, the things we’ve all (and it is all of us, right? …Right?) felt or lived or desired, but ultimately, that quavering note is bound to enter our voices. Ultimately, we’re just not sure.
Perhaps that is for the best, as Bertrand Russell says: “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
For reminding me of that, and for lifting me, however briefly, out of a wan day, this is my poem of the week. Give it a read.