Page 42 - WTP VOl. IX #1
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Like Never Before (continued from preceding page)
fear and sadness, is the vain hope that we can right ourselves, that understanding our own nature can save us, that although we cannot know eternity while we remain adrift in time, it is not too late. As Seamus Heaney has put it, “If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” It is a poet’s dutiful faith, that when world and word match up
we are back, if only for moment, in the garden. But we also know, and seem to have always known, that when we fail to find the words, we murder.
Inside the Nabi Habeel Mosque outside Damascus is a sarcophagus twenty-three feet long, draped with green silk on which are verses from the Qur’an. It seems to have survived, so far, the present violence in Syria that has damaged or destroyed so many other shrines. Islamic tradition has it that Abel is buried there, and the local people seem willing to believe that, along with the rest of his family, he was nearly that tall. No doubt if one were to argue that nowhere on earth have human bones of such length ever been found, one would be viewed as an ignoramus for
not acknowledging and accepting that we are in the realm of the imagination, where the suspension of disbelief is the beginning of spiritual understanding. It is a fiction, an invitation, a prompt, a sacred region of consciousness reserved for poetry. Our forebears were giants.
Similarly, a change of perspective is required to grasp the intimate immensity of time, to appreciate that Abel’s corpse exists in eternity because noth- ing ever vanishes. Even science would concur: what exists eventually becomes unrecognizable but it never wholly ceases, and certainly our pedestrian view of time as an arrow from birth to death is mistaken, as wrong as a literal belief in the move- ment of the sun across the sky, both products of our limited perspective.
And so, Blake’s painting: The ephemerality of the event here succumbs not only to ars longa, but to
its reverberating and compounding consequences, meaning that the entire drama continues to exist and ramify, and therefore our response to it must be, can only be, in the present. The painting remains an illu- mination of present reality, not merely the illustration of an old story.
According to the Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh. “When we’re able to embrace our suffer- ing, we’re also embracing our ancestors, and the heal- ing goes back through the generations.” According to the writer Marilyn Robinson, this was also the view of Puritan Divine, Jonathan Edwards, “there should be two judgments: one when we die, and one when the
full impact of our lives has played itself out.” In other words, the meaning of an event can be changed after the fact by action in the present to change “the full impact” even of historical crimes.
Look again at Cain’s face! Look at his eyes: what he sees is not what is in front of him but what is behind: Abel’s grave, Abel’s body, and his parents, from whom he is fleeing as surely as from God, no matter what the title of the painting says. He is a human comet, hurtling toward us, his descendants.
Human nature, its interplay of memory and genetics and culture, seems to be an endless and inexorable cascade of violence. And while poetry, defined as language meant to describe, contain, understand, and mitigate that destiny, an oceanic reservoir of possible concord, seems the only way out, there is, in fact, no such thing as “out.”
And so, where does that leave us after millennia of carnage, horror and grief? Either you believe in the sanctity of an individual human life without excep- tion, or you believe that some people are expend- able and deserve to lie on the earth without moving while those who love them wail and moan over them. If we are thereby descendants of Cain, we are worse, much worse, than he, because we have made ourselves a world in which our a priori rational- izations relieve us of the horror and shame of our murders. Worse, we call that exculpatory arrange- ment civilization.
I feel sure that just as Adam’s open mouth emits no sound whatever, Cain is howling, a roar from his broad chest, and that the echo of this event is history. If there were any of us outside the nightmare, any of us outside the frame, if there ever could be, we would only perceive a disquiet, a stirring in sleep, a muffled cry, a whimper. After all, the rest of nature seems undisturbed; the stars crowd the heavens and ani- mals call to one another in the night outside. Would that it were so easy, that we could take history by the shoulder and give it a squeeze: Cain, Cain, wake up, you’re dreaming.
Hoffman is author of the memoirs Half the House and Love &
Fury; the poetry collections, Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, win- ner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Shei- la Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and most recently Noon until Night. A fiction writer as well, his Interfer- ence & Other Stories was published in 2009. A former Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.

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