Reading in the Dark
C. Dale Young on Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense”
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. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
From Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert. Copyright © 2012 by Jack Gilbert. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, we asked poets to write about the poems they return to in difficult times—to find solace, perspective, or even a moment of delight. Subscribe to the PSA newsletter for more Reading In The Dark responses and to keep updated with the PSA.
A basic truth of my life is that I am a poet and a physician. But as with all truths, those two roles are not equal, nor are they often seen equally. I spend the vast majority of my days being a doctor. I can assure you the vast number of people who encounter me in my day-to-day life have no idea whatsoever I am a poet. For the past three weeks, the medical staff and the entire team at my hospital have been dealing with the coronavirus issue. Do we cancel elective cases? Do we screen? Every single day, the information has changed and we have had to adapt. Many of us in healthcare are already so tired because every day we are managing people's panic and fear.
And day after day, as I hear the panic and fears of my patients, friends, others, my mind keeps turning to a specific poem. As San Francisco went to "shelter-in-place" and the city started shutting down, people began to feel as if the world had slowed almost to a stop. We could no longer go to restaurants, cafes, bars, sporting events. And Jack Gilbert's poem kept surfacing from deep inside me. Every news item mentioned the virus, and I kept hearing Jack Gilbert. This poem, "A Brief for the Defense," is complicated and not always loved by people, but in it I hear a call for resistance in the face of overwhelming sadness and despair. I come back, again and again, to these lines: "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."
—C. Dale Young
C. Dale Young practices medicine full-time and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He is the author of a novel in stories, The Affliction, and four collections of poetry.