Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, September 10, 2006

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks raise the idea of a permanent fracture between before and after. The scale and nature of both calamities suggest a permanent change not only in the lives of those directly affected but also of life itself, for everyone. For example, our concept of what an American city is may be changed forever by driving past mile after mile of ghost neighborhoods in New Orleans -- block after block of devastation, still, a year later. The time before a disaster can come to feel like a lost innocence. Losing the unconscious assumption of safety is a minor, persisting echo of the greater, actual loss.

Is there a poem related to that feeling, or about disaster so transforming that it seems to destroy normality itself? Often, the best poem about a momentous event may be written long before the event happens. (Walt Whitman's great elegy for Abraham Lincoln is an exception. Here, in a translation by Mark Strand, is a poem by the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), written decades ago:


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.

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