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A scan of Monet's painting "Poppies" (1873).

You Must Praise the Mutilated World

I’ve always held the belief that joy is most easily found in tiny, silly, easily missed and dismissed things. This is why I love the smell of old books. This is why I’m always excited when the cicadas start leaving their shells everywhere. It’s why I understand when my students come in from recess with a thick coating of mud on their legs. (Don’t tell them that, as I’m fairly certain they would go out of their way to provide me with that experience, and our classroom really can’t handle that much mud.)

It’s also why I’ve always been so interested in Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to Praise The Mutilated World”. Besides being a beautiful poem, I am convinced that Zagajewski has written a handbook on properly using these tiny sources of joy, specifically targeting the demographic that most needs help remembering how to do this: namely, adults.

The poem begins by repeating the title as a command to the reader. The next four lines are snapshots of tiny, silly, easily missed and dismissed things. He directs the reader to:

“Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.”

Zagajewski doesn’t ask his readers to start with the events anyone could pick out as joy-inspiring. He does not provide us a picture of birth, justice, mercy, or kindness. He pulls our gaze down, toward nature. “Remember,” he says, and asks us to recall that even in the most vile times, where mercy or justice might be in short supply, there are still wild strawberries and plants growing in unexpected places. There are still long days in June, even when there are exiles forced to abandon their homes. Amongst the dirt on the path – dirt which may be the cruelest evils of mankind – there is still some hope for gentleness.

Frequently, the response I’ve received to this belief is something along the lines of, “Why even bother?” To some extent, that’s a fair question. The world isn’t going to suddenly become soft around the edges just because I noticed a patch of clover in a spot I might not have expected it. Evil men aren’t going to forgo their evil when they hear tell of a second grader who laughed for five minutes straight after one of the chickens tried to steal his pencil from his hand. And, if that’s the case, it seems foolish to invest time and energy in the appreciation and cultivation of small things. Luckily, Zagajewski’s poem continues with a response to this concern.

“You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.”

Zagajewski tells us that, exactly because of the evil that has happened, is happening, and surely will continue, we must find these moments of joy. It is not just necessary for our survival, or for the sake of avoiding despair. It is necessary for the obstruction of these injustices. By holding on to the tiny joys he’s already shown us, we are holding on to the hope that there is something to save. Some ships will sink, but others arrive safely to the distant shore; giving up only keeps us from trying to shift the odds in favor of a long trip.

He doesn’t stop there, though. Zagajewski continues, even having shown us both the starting place and the necessity of this mission he tasked us with. “You should praise the mutilated world,” he says, almost repeating the previous admonishment. Almost. This “should” is not the “shall” of the Ten Commandments, or the “must” of the previous section. Instead, this is a return to his snapshots, with a new subject in focus.

“You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.”

Here, Zagajewski provides us with three more sources for joy. If nature is not abundantly available – if, for instance, we live in a big city where nature has to crack through concrete or crop up at the edges of dirty bayous – then we can look elsewhere. To community, romance, and friendship, as we “remember the moments when we were together.” To beauty and art, such as “the concert where music flared.” To the rest we may take from doing something simple and unnecessary, something like gathering “acorns in the park in autumn.”

I am not sure that I would read this poem to a child. It’s a good poem, but it’s also painfully aware of, to borrow Zagajewski’s phrasing, the world’s mutilation. On the one hand, children aren’t blind. They can see that there is evil in the world; that people are cruel; and that sorrow is a readily available, renewable resource. But a child’s duty is to grow, not to dwell in the wounds adults have scored into the earth. Not to mention that, beyond their not needing to wallow in grief for the fallen world, I’m not sure that children need these instructions.

In math class one Friday, I asked two of my students to bring me their worksheets. They’d been sitting together, giggling for the past ten minutes, and I wanted to make sure they were doing their assignment. As they handed me the pages, they explained that, actually, their identities were reversed and each of them had done the other’s work. (To explain: Student A was actually Student B but had done Student A’s work.) This was so funny, that it took them several minutes to stop giggling so they could properly fix their desks and gather their backpacks for the end of day.

A few weeks ago, another student decided that the funniest thing in the world was to throw herself on the ground and then bounce up and shout some nonsense word as she did so. That was the whole game, and she played it for probably half of recess that day, until there were too many children around her to continue the game. The whole time, she was laughing so hard her face had turned red and, all around her, other students were joining in.

Even these two stories don’t capture the ease with which the students I teach and watch over are able to catch hold of joy. I’ve seen students sink into quiet reading or careful artistic projects, totally comfortable in the world and in their own quiet enjoyment of the action. Students who, on a surface level, are rambunctious or even disruptive, will turn quiet and contemplative when they find an interesting bug on the playground or while watching the chickens in their coop. There are a handful of students who come up to me with the treasures they find while tromping through the field – dirty rocks, interesting leaves, tiny shells, shiny acorns, a long piece of grass. These things are small even in the tiniest hands and yet they are no less important to the intrepid treasure hunters in our school.

It’s not the children that need help appreciating small things.

I’d like to say that I have some further insight into how to make this easier, or that this is where I reveal that, actually, it’s not a hard task at all. Both things would be a lie. Staying joyful is hard, made harder by the world we live in and I have no idea how to make it any easier. Maybe through repetition, like practicing scales on a violin. Maybe through sheer force of will and stubbornness. I don’t know. I just know that we must,

“Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”