Four Poems

Many people have sought poetry in response to the death, terror, courage, and disruption following the recent attack and massacre. Here are four poems: Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The House on the Hill,” which meditates on absolute loss and the inadequacy of words; Marianne Moore’s “What Are Years?” on the subject of courage; Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Souvenir of the Ancient World,” in which it is normal life that becomes the remote, ancient time; and Czeslaw Milosz’s defiant invocation of the good, “Incantation.”

The House on the Hill
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

They are all gone away,
The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill;
They are all gone away. 

Nor is there one today
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say. 

Why is it then we stray
Around that shrunken sill?
They are all gone away. 

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say. 

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,

There is nothing more to say.

What Are Years?
by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt,—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
          encourages others
          and in its defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
          in its surrendering
          finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
          This is mortality,
          This is eternity.

Souvenir of the Ancient World
by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Mark Strand

Clara strolled in the garden with the children.
The sky was green over the grass,
the water was golden under the bridges,
other elements were blue and rose and orange,
a policeman smiled, bicycles passed,
a girl stepped onto the lawn to catch a bird,
the whole world—Germany, China—
             All was quiet around Clara.

The children looked at the sky: it was not forbidden.
Mouth, nose, eyes were open. There was no danger.
What Clara feared were the flu, the heat, the insects.
Clara feared missing the eleven o’clock trolley,
waiting for letters slow to arrive,
not always being able to wear a new dress. But
she strolled in the garden, in the morning!

They had gardens, they had mornings in those days!

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Robert Pinsky

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,

And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
It is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo,
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit,
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.