Sunday, July 22, 2007

Recuperation From the Dead Love Through Christ and Isaac Babel

by Mary Karr (published in The New Yorker, February 12, 2007)

If you spend all night reading Babel and wake on an island
metropolis on your raft bed under a patent-leather sky
with the stars pecked out, you may not sense
the presence of Christ, the Red Cavalry having hacked up
all those Poles, the soldiers hugging each other
with their hatchets. This morning, my ex-man
is a caved-in box of disposable razors to ship back.
He wore a white Y on his baseball cap. Night
was a waterfall down his face.
Marry me meant You’re a life-support system
for a nice piece of ass, meant Rent
this space. Leaving the post office, I enter
the sidewalk’s gauntlet of elbows. All around me,
a locust buzz as from the book of Job. Yet I pray, I
pray: Christ my Lord, my savior,
and my good brother, sprinkle me
with the blood of the lamb. Which words
make manifest his buoyancy in me.
If the face of every random pedestrian is prayed for,
then the toddler in its black pram
gnawing a green apple can become Baby Jesus.
And the swaggering guy in a do-rag idly tossing an orange
into the crosswalk’s air might feel Heaven’s winds
suck it from his grasp as offering.
Maybe the prospect of loss—that potential emptiness
granted his hands—lets him grin so wide at me.
His gold teeth are a sunburst.
When the scabby man festooned with purple rags
shoulders an invisible rifle to shoot him, he pirouettes,
clutching his chest. Light applause follows
his stagger to the curb. The assassin bows.
These are my lords, my saviors, and my good brothers.
Plus the Jew Isaac Babel, who served the Red Calvary,
yet died from a bullet his own comrade chambered.
That small hole in his skull
is the pit on the map we sailed from.


I first read this poem in a copy of the New Yorker that I lifted from the open bag of a colleague in the office shared by adjunct instructors in my university department. I was so impressed by it that I took the magazine to our department's administrative office to photocopy the poem, intending to return it immediately to my colleague's bag. Coming back to the adjunct office a few minutes later, however, I was chagrined to see that he had left in my brief absence, making me the reluctant owner of a magazine pilfered from someone I respected from a distance.

I am an admirer of Isaac Babel. For some reason, Red Cavalry was the book I brought with me to the hospital to read while recovering from my son's birth. I stayed up those nights in new-mother exhaustion, underscored by horrified sadness at the brutal fate of the Jews in early twentieth-century Russia.

And I'm also a New York woman who has more than once lived through the crushed, dazed, hopeful and equivocal feelings that Mary Karr describes. By this time, however, her poem, though skillfully and beautifully written, strikes me as winsomely, almost pathetically over-optimistic. She is smiling bravely through her shocked tears and attempting to recuperate from the dead love by distancing herself from it, applying the prism of aesthetics to her broken heart. Yes, the poem suggests, life does and must go on. I like the addition of praying for random strangers, an act of charity akin to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, by which the suffering of random strangers is accepted and taken in by the practitioner and peace is given back. But Karr's poem also implies that the fate of a modern woman, especially a modern intellectual woman, is that she must use her abilities to reason, to remember, to recognize or perhaps invent allusions, and to compare the particular sorrows of her life to the universal sorrows of art, to pick her way through the minefield of modern love. Why must it be this way? Why must modern women expect so little from modern men? Why are we left to heal our own hearts by trying to find some cosmic universality to our personal suffering? I do not say that a universality doesn't exist. I simply believe that modern love, such as it is, has caused modern women too much pain, and it saddens me that we must use such paltry tools to heal our own hearts.

That said, however, I remember reading long ago in a book by an early-twentieth century Indian scholar of English literature that the aim of literature was the total eradication of sorrows and miseries. If only it were so easy. As Goethe wrote, addressing the Muses, "You cannot heal the suffering that love inflicts; yet assuagement comes, dear ones, only from you."

1 comment:

RA said...

Modern Love?

Believe me, baby when I say this: Ancient love wasn't any easier on women.