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Filtering by Tag: hope

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

William Coleman

  27 Coleman Photo

Not long after the towers fell, poems began appearing. “People in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand,” Philip Metres wrote in an essay for The Poetry Foundation a decade after 9/11. “Outside the immediate radius of what became known as ‘Ground Zero,’ aided by email, list serves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written.”

One such poem, set at the center of the back page of The New Yorker a week after the devastation, is called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”:

Try to praise the mutilated world. Remember June's long days, and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.

The work was written a year and a half before the planes that felled the towers were compelled toward destruction; it was composed by Adam Zagajewski in a language foreign to most American ears, Polish, and later translated into English by Clare Cavanagh. The images recall a trip the poet and his father took within a part of their homeland that now falls within the Ukraine—villages emptied of people when Stalin’s dream of supreme rationality held sway. One of those villages, Lvov, was the Zagajewski family home for centuries.

“I remember how this poem was passed around from person to person during 9/11,” Mary Oliver later reflected. “It was profoundly moving and apt (it still is), and I remember how thankful I was that poetry exists (I still am).”

In a state given to uncertainty, in a time when meaning’s occluded by ash, we long for the “felt change of consciousness” poetry provides. The term belongs to Owen Barfield, the “first and last Inkling” who in Poetic Diction likens the act of reading poetry to wire coil passing through magnetic space: we are charged with a change of state, ordered at our most elemental levels. His metaphor is decidedly materialist (for such was the philosophy the young Barfield, witness to World War I, was forged within), but it is one that reinvests the phenomenal world with a sense of wonder, refigures awe toward invisible forces whose work, by such poetic accounts, is aimed at making us feel a sense of integrity beneath surface fissures, a sense of connectedness with a fundamental order we cannot otherwise perceive.

Once we were one with the given world, Barfield continues. Our language (what he calls a fossil record of consciousness) is evidence of such a union. In ancient days, single words denoted what now we describe as distinct phenomena: pneuma in Greek, for example (the same is true for spiritus in Latin) conveyed, at once, wind and breath and spirit—a vestige of a prior consciousness in which mankind participated directly (and seamlessly) with reality: mortal coil charged with the grandeur of God.

And so, when we come upon the leaves eddying over the earth’s scars in Zagajewski’s poem and imagine water and air in one instant, or when we envision the nettles in single perception as both a means of imprisonment and a method of protection from further coercive incursions, we are participating in a rich ambiguity which allows us once again to feel the pulse and pull of integral life.

Upon inspection, of course, such ambiguity is not a comfort. An executioner sings. Pleasure boats are drowned. But such ambivalence is also the means by which the revivifying power of poetry can find passage to our loss- and doubt-ravaged consciousness, minds grown accustomed to an often stupefying awareness of multiplicity (of motives and actions). A feather lost presumes—however dimly—the existence of the rest of that thrush, the one the despairing Thomas Hardy found on the eve of the twentieth century, the one participating directly with “some blessed hope,” and which almost exactly a century later, arrived to Zagajewski, and then to us. And those gathered acorns—they may well come to nothing; the ones that remain, sheltered without question by fallen leaves, will largely come to the same dead end. Such hope, surely, is negligible. But it is no less real for our negligence, and no less real for being, for the time, beyond our sight, and able to emerge only through a scarred and breaking surface.

The Good Apocalypse

J Mark Bertrand


When doomsday literature goes highbrow, you might expect real-life survivalists to cheer. My favorite criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, however, comes from a popular survivalist forum, where the book and film were taken to task for presenting an apocalypse with “no hope for the future.”

But wait––Isn’t hopelessness the whole point of the apocalypse? Doesn’t the popularity of end-of-the-world stories (whether the end is brought about by zombies, nukes, aliens, or melting ice caps) draw back the curtain on a bleak cultural death wish? If you’re one of those cultural critics always looking to trace our pleasures back to our pathologies, the answer is probably yes. Threatened by the pace of change, powerless to adapt, we find solace in fantasies of apocalypse, misanthropy writ large.

Maybe so.

I’ve always been fascinated by these stories, however, and find them shot through with a perverse optimism. They appeal to people who, for whatever reason, want the end to come. Environmentalists cheer as nature takes out the human trash in The Day After Tomorrow. Social Darwinists cheer as the niceties of so-called civilization are stripped away in favor of survival-of-the-fittest reality. Religious conservatives cheer the punishment of the wicked. After the cataclysm a better––or at any rate, more honest––world emerges. The coming fire, as it destroys, will also cleanse. Once the decadence of the old order is purged, the apocalypse, paradoxically, brings hope. We envision an end of the world which does not encompass our own end.

Survivalists may daydream about living in their own version of 1990s Bosnia or modern-day Syria, but they don’t move to such places, or to Haiti, to live the fantasy. The dream is not to suffer, but rather to live in a world better suited to people like you. It’s important for such dreams that the disaster befall your world, not someone else’s.

The society you want to see destroyed by the good apocalypse is your own.

The greatest apocalypse is that of St John, which has had Christians longing for the world’s end since the inception of the faith. In some ways the anticipation of a final reckoning that persists in our culture seems like a distorted echo of that ancient eschatology, which might explain why hand-in-hand with the orgy of destruction comes a ray of light.

“The end is nigh,” proclaims the street preacher’s placard in so many doomsday films, leaving this question unanswered: the end of what? What Christians long for is not the end of the world but the end of the world under sin. Not an end to existence, but an end to captivity. The rule of sin is creation’s ruin, but the Savior’s reign restores the world.

(Photo is a still from the film The Road)

Sudden Loss


Bonnie Ponce urges Relief readers to pray for the people who have been hit hard by the recent tornadoes. There seems to be a lot of natural disasters happening lately.  Joplin, Missouri was hit hard by tornados last week and the Springfield Massachusetts was also hit hard.  In times of natural disasters we see so many tough pictures of destruction and chaos.  Families left homeless or a loved one gone, they are stunned by how quickly their lives changed for the worse in a matter of minutes.  But also there are pictures of hope, people gathering, hugging, praying, and handing out food and water to survivors.  It is in the times of greatest loss that people often turn to God.  In loss we realized that we are not self sufficient and able to hold everything together and we search for answers.  The deepest longing of our hearts wants to know that God cares about us, our hurts, pains, loss, and needs.  So I challenge you to pray for the people of Joplin and Springfield that they would be comforted while they rebuild their lives.

Bonnie Ponce is the Director of Support Raising for Relief and lives in Huntsville, Texas with her husband and betta fish.  She has a BA in English from Sam Houston State University.  After work she enjoys relaxing with a good book or working on her novel.

Hope Springs Eternal (from the Superficial)

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson relishes this time of year: a time of awards, good intentions, and hope.  He believes that shows, like the Golden Globes, the Miss America Pageant, and the Bachelor not only fill our time but also our lives.

Amid controversy about Ricky Gervais' hosting of The Golden Globes, the possibly worst set of "talents" ever displayed on the Miss America Pageant, resulting in the crowning of the youngest Miss America ever, and perhaps the dumbest Bachelor ever (or are they the dumbest Bachelorettes?), it would be easy to give up on things.

If I add to this the new book out showing that I might be devoting my life to a complete waste of time, as students learn mostly nothing at college, then it might be even easier to just say...pooh!

But I can't.  I just can't.  I know that this season of American Idol will be a complete debacle without anyone Simon-ish to reign in the Hollywood dream factory, but I want to watch the train steadily ignoring the "Bridge Out Ahead" signage.

What's my secret?  Well, there are a couple of things.  First, there is a hope built into this sort of cycle.  There is a realization that sometimes things can surprise you.  Steven Tyler might come out tonight and tell contestants to stop dreaming and grow up.  I doubt it, but it'd be cool if he did.

The hope comes from two main sources.  First, hope comes from the succession of exciting things coming up.  We've got the playoffs in the NFL, Valentines, the Oscars, March Madness, Easter, opening day of baseball, mid-terms, and a new dedication to trying to at least work out twice a week.

There is not time to give up.  One can shift from hope to hope like when video gamers desperately lean to try to get Mario over the gap that he jumped just a pixel or two too early.  We can lean a long way before we collapse around July.  We can keep moving forward in an effort to maintain momentum.  And, sometimes it works!

Secondly, and perhaps more powerfully in the long-term, there is the comraderie of watching the oncoming, impending doom.  You can turn to the person beside you and give a look that says, "This is REALLY happening!"  The look also says, "Thank goodness we're not on that train."  And, for a second before the horror hits, we find comfort together.

I do not, obviously, mean to imply that Miss America or The Bachelor is like a train going off a cliff.  It's nothing like that at all, but it takes so much more time to explain to students and people around you about what's going on in Haiti or Tunisia than why Brad does not deserve to "win" anyone, even these women who've asked for it.  It's so much easier to give the context of Hollywood wheeling and dealing around the yearly awards than to discuss the federal budget, healthcare, or education.

Therefore, I take momentary hope and relief from the grind towards the lowest common denominators of disorganization, incivility, and violence to just complain about the sparkly, red rose on Natalie Portman's dress and gossip about how it could be that we didn't know she was pregnant. It's just easier to keep with the flow and to hit only the most recent and superficial of information, to go with the "gut".  The brain and logic only get in the way of fun and living.

Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and approaches to analyzing detective narratives in terms of ethical responsibility.

Lent: The Ultimate Sacrifice

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson, despite his public expressions of dislike of columns governed by the calendar, writes about a personal struggle with "snark".

"Snark", a Definition and Use

In addition to the definitions from urbandictionary that I link to above, I think it important to give a personal definition in order to further what might be perceived as an overly general terminology.  "Snark", the combination of "snide" and "remark", fills a large quantity of time in on-line communication and chiefly serves as a tone for self-righteous indignation and belittling of others.  For that reason, my omission of snark for the coming weeks might appear as a wholly beneficial enterprise, and to some degree, they have significant points.

At the same time, my snarkiness also serves as an outlet of frustration and a mask for more overtly offensive reactions to others.  Rather than calling someone an idiot or just staring at them aghast and their comment question, I can compose a snarky reply in my mind which I will post later.  It allows for some degree of fantasy play where I star in an amazingly hilarious sit-com filled with cutting commentary and insightful absurdity.

The Cost of Snark

However, as with all fantasies, there remains a significant price to be paid.  Just like hours-upon-hours of GTA can breed a desire to not stop for a stoplight or an urge to pull in front of a better car and pull the driver out to claim their wheels as your own, snark can explode or, in my case, leak.

I find myself leaking snark in a variety of ways.  First, I make noises.  A not-so-subtle "humph" or a snicker that is not quite masked by a cough can emerge at the most inopportune times, faculty meetings for example.  Second, my eyes tell my story.  It is not just the huge eye-roll of adolescence.  Even a looking away or a squint can be noticed and queried by a friend, student, family member, or coworker.  It's unavoidable.  We are conditioned to pick up non-verbal cues, and when they are left unexpressed, the audience can interpret them as they will, often to my own detriment.  After all, people will often assume the worst when left to their own devices.

What to Do?  What to Do?

Well, I'm hoping to employ a two-pronged approach.  First, I'm going to work on composing the snark into specific communications, things I CAN actually say or write to people.  This will not only still allow me to think and create an outlet for my feelings but also force me to channel that into something public and more productive.

For example, this week in a college meeting, I was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of direction in the meeting.  We'd been there two hours and not really made any progress.  A member of the campus communications and marketing area was having a devil of a time of pinning faculty down on who they were supposed to reach out to and what the message needed to be.  Generally, I would spend that time creating snark.  It's fun.  It makes for good bar/party stories and generally makes me feel better.

However, it does not really solve the underlying problem, and that's the problem that I'm really seeing with snark, especially when compared to effective satire or critique.  It papers over the issue and ignores the underlying causes, and I've determined that these sorts of communication represent central concerns in any hope in overcoming significant issues to our culture today.  It's much easier to snarkily point out others and label them as such.

As I tell my students, it's easier to construct a fallacious argument or a general opinion than it is to construct something thoughtful and useful.  I need to give it a try.  I need to cage the snark.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in detective narratives.

Relief News Tuesday 1.12.2010

Ian David Philpot

Congratulations to Allison Smythe!

Congratulations to author Allison Smythe, whose essay "The Significance of Place" (Relief 2.1) has been listed as "Notable" in Best American Spiritual Writing 2010 (now published by Viking Penguin).

Best American Spiritual Writing is an annual anthology edited by Philip Zaleski. Out of hundreds of essays, thirty were selected for publication in this year's edition, and another twenty-five (including Allison's!) are given honorable mention as "Other Notable Spiritual Writing of the Year."

Another notable item

As you may have noticed, we haven't featured a photo haiku on the blog in two months.  We are doing our best to bring this feature back, but we did notice something that we thought you might like:

Michelle Pendergrass, Editor of The Midnight Diner, has started her first in a year-long series of themed photo postings on her website.  This week's theme is Hope, and Michelle's picture of it is beautiful.  (The story behind it makes it even better!)  Check out her picture here.

As of right now, there are two people who I've found that took up the challenge.  One is this post from Karina, and the other is this post from Heather A. Goodman (whose poetry you can find in Relief 3.1!).