The Cure at Troy

I love reading poetry – it is my preferred leisure activity – poetry and dog-walking. But in the pace of my daily life my poetry bandwidth is constricted, and so it’s now, when things slow down and get quiet, that I can really dive in. Last night I read a wide variety of poetry – from my old favorites to some new titles I have recently acquired. And I found myself returning inexplicably this morning to some lines from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes.

I was working downtown, at the corner of Fulton and Williams, on September 11, 2001. I was there and I know the entire terrifying madness first hand. I have written about it here before. The harrowing experience of that day continues to haunt me when I least expect it, and the only thing that has helped has been poetry. There are, in particular, four poems that have stayed with me as my salve: Try To Praise the Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski, Fragment by CK Williams (you can hear him read this poem on Slate, which I highly recommend), I, May I Rest in Peace by Yehuda Amichai, and a few lines from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy. I have memorized these poems and carry them around with the other poems I have memorized.

My fears and grief from that day are so strong, so intense and demanding, that I cannot manage them; they are beyond anything else I have ever known by an gigantic margin. When that sudden, inexplicable deep fear and anxiety from that day in Manhattan returns unexpectedly, I reach for one of those four poems, turning them over in my mind. I don’t think of them as hopeful poems; to me they are mostly dark, a way of expressing and understanding my own fears and grief from that day. One of the poems, Fragment, is very dark. Then they are by degrees more hopeful, going from Try To Praise the Mutilated World to I, May I Rest in Peace, to Seamus Heaney. But to me they have always been dark poems, poems I reach for only when it is pitch black and I cannot imagine any future.

So why am I writing about this?

Well, because these days I think about our coming child a lot. Every minute, just about. And I have been thinking about poetry for him – even writing a poem for him. Last night I was like Mark Strand: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. / There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry.” Eating poetry, gorging myself on its sweet fruit, looking for poems that spoke to the odd but gratifying mix of intense emotions that accompany the anticipation of my son. I was not coming up with much. But this morning Seamus Heaney’s lines came back to me as I brushed my teeth, and I wondered why that poem – a poem that I have always classified as one of my dark, September 11th poems – why that poem was coming to mind as part of the joy I am feeling around fatherhood:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

It is a birth poem at it’s core, a vision of redemption for all of us. “Believe that a further shore / is reachable from here.” That’s what I believe for my son, for Asa – a vision of the world’s future that is hopeful, “…a great sea-change / on the far side of revenge”. My desires for Asa’s world are filling me with an energy and willfulness that I have not known before – it is something even beyond hope, it is a sort of parental ferociousness to bring about a better world.

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