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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:

SOUVENIR OF THE ANCIENT WORLD

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!

The title invites us to expect a poem about some artifact or picture out of antiquity. It also upsets another expectation, the idea that disaster must be evoked by extreme rhetoric, or images of horror Here, the dreadful is called up by quiet, by small anxieties and by understated observation. .

Another element in the emotion of this poem is the specific, repeated name. It is not just that "Clara" connotes light and clarity, but also that she is not anonymous. Her name -- like any name -- implies disparity between the human scale of any specific and the massive scale of technologies so lethal that they can make names irrelevant. The intimacy of the first name in a way contradicts the remoteness suggested by "ancient world" and in another way emphasizes the distance of "they" and "those days." Or to put it differently, a reader can feel very close to Clara and those quiet days, as well as very far from them.

Mark Strand's translation of Carlos Drummond de Andrade's poem "Souvenir of the Ancient World" is from Strand's "Looking for Poetry: Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Rafael Alberti and Songs from the Quechua." Knopf. Copyright 2002 by Mark Strand.

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