A Brief for the Defense

A Brief for the Defense

Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.

view the whole poem here

This poem starts abruptly, like a slap to the face, with images we have all seen and which are so hard not to look away from. Then there is the sudden change of direction that catches our breath and attention.

 

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants./Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not/be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not/be fashioned so miraculously well.  It is true, we realize as we read. There is beauty to be enjoyed in the world. There before our eyes, if we but pay attention.

The poor women/at the fountain are laughing together between/the suffering they have known and the awfulness/in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody/in the village is very sick. There is laughter/every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,/and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.  Suddenly we are back in the suffering again, the awfulness, even as he speaks of the laughter that exists in its midst, the surprising contrast.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/we lessen the importance of their deprivation./We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,/but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world.   These are the lines that are etched in my heart, that drew me to this poem as I struggle with my privilege. This is the message that yes, there is suffering in the world and yes, we must allow ourselves our moments of happiness, pleasure, gladness in the ‘ruthless furnace of this world’ or else we ‘lessen the importance of their deprivation‘.

It is difficult with all the horrors in this world to enjoy our lives while others suffer, whether in war-ravaged countries or within our own families. And yet, Gilbert reminds us, we must ‘risk delight‘. As you sit with this poem, these words, can you hold both realities so that any small moment of beauty, as he says at the end,  can be ‘truly worth/all the years of sorrow that are to come‘?

7 thoughts on “A Brief for the Defense

  1. Thanks Jan. Yes our privilege can be very hard to understand. It does however give us the opportunity to learn more, grow more and make a bigger difference in the world. With priveledge comes responsibility.

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  2. We must risk delight… yes, above all and in the darkess places, maybe delight in what remains possible and makes us human again. Thank you for sharing this one.

    Like

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