"Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming
Thomas Lux, 1946 - 2017
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks."
A Letter to Thomas Lux
by Mary Jo Balistreri
The poem you included in your letter, Ode to the Unbroken World, Which is Coming, has affected me profoundly. I bring it with me into the kitchen, place it on the breakfast table, start the coffee, and open the blinds. Fists of wind attack the few leaves left on the tree. I stand there a few minutes shivering. Now, though, as I sit here on this eighteen-degree morning with a cup of coffee, I return to your poem. It holds me like a magnet. Your yearning is palpable. And it is mine. Our country can’t even turn on TV anymore without encountering violence both physical and mental, and no wonder. Unanchored, without a stable government, fear runs rampant.
We witness our cities in pain, our countryside burning, our oceans warming, winds ferocity and the lashing power of water. The hell that Puerto Ricans still endure months after a hurricane decimated their land. Though I don’t believe apocalypse is imminent, these tragedies do appear ominous.
You have a couple of lines that say, “People laugh, all over the world, people laugh. We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad.”
I thought of those lines as my husband and I met friends for dinner last week. We laughed. We cried. We touched on fair housing, and wages, discussed the latest tweets, the unsettling political climate. We left uplifted, but to refer back to your title, Tom, I don’t see any signs of unbrokenness. We have broken with the mountains, the secrets they must hold. Don’t you wonder about the miners inside those dark and damp interiors, how the men were paid with black lung disease? If stone could talk, what would the mountains say? Or the plum tree fruiting violet, the ox-eye, or the star-studded yarrow withering and dying with insecticides?
Sure, my husband and I have sent checks to assist the homeless from the havoc of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. We do what we can, but the thing is, Tom, an unbroken world is a delusion. We were never given that kind of perfection. Instead, we were given something more powerful than unbrokenness. We were given tools to make this earth a better place. We are co-creators. Masters of space between all the jagged pieces of our world.
We’re basically good people, we’re in agreement there. Your line reads, “A man wants to love his wife.” Quite right. We want to love our families, take care of our friends, and as your poem says, “we dislike injustice and cancer.” I’d add Alzheimer’s and unemployment. Maybe doctors. We’re all a little scared of them.
Listen, we have a lot to do just trying to keep up. There’s never enough time. For me, Tom, it’s taking care of the house, the garden, getting dinner on the table. Doctor appointments. Illness. Some of my friends work full-time jobs. We’re tired at the end of the day. We want to unwind—maybe read the paper and sip an elderberry tea, flop in front the TV. Basically, do nothing. We’ve been accustomed to doing the least amount possible. It’s understandable if not ideal. I think the world’s wrongs are so many we don’t know where to begin. In pondering your poem, I’m wondering if part of the problem is—we’re thinking too big. We have to begin on a smaller scale.
Here’s what I mean. Yesterday, I met a woman, at a poetry roundtable. After our critiques, we all chatted. By and by Jean spoke about an organization she’s involved in. We learned that she and a friend started Grandmothers Beyond Borders. Can you imagine? An organization for grandmas? Being a grandma, I perked right up. We were eager for the back story.
It began with a Ugandan grandma who lost fourteen children to AIDS. As the story unfolded on NPR, Jean knew something must be done. The grandmother was living in abject poverty trying to raise ten grandchildren. She had no language skills to connect with others.
After the broadcast, Jean and her friend contacted the reporter who covered the story, and with his help they got Grandmothers Without Borders off the ground. Today, this group has over 500 grandmas. Like a small village, they work together raising money through their crafts to assist people in Uganda. All of us at the table bought tickets for a fund-raising dinner and auction.
Another example is W.S. Merwin. Did you know he bought an old Pineapple Plantation in Hawaii? That nothing would grow because of chemicals leftover in the soil. It did not deter him. He and his wife decided to get rid of the poisons and enrich the soil with nutrients. He started where he was, Tom. Just like the grandma I mentioned above. All the Merwins had was land. They couldn’t save the Amazon, but they could plant one palm, then another. He and his wife began collecting seeds from around the world. One rainy season they planted a tree every single day. Think of it, Tom. Today they have over 3000 trees, 400 varieties. They created a palm preserve, a genetic safety net of palm germplasm.
There is hope even if an unbroken world is not coming. You can see how we can make a better world by becoming part of that world. You may wince when you see the calligraphy of charred trees out West, but there is the valediction of sage, the rage of sunflowers in all their brilliance, and yes, your clouds and choirs too. We are not finished. We get one chance after another. We have a choice every single day.