sam sax reads “Prayer for the Mutilated World”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of September 3rd, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: sam sax frequently writes about his experience as a queer Jewish poet. His debut collection, “madness,” explores the links between desire, addiction, and his own family history. He also has a new book coming out, called bury it.
Lindsay Garbutt: We have two poems by sax in the September issue. One of them, “Prayer for the Mutilated World,” was inspired by “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” by Adam Zagajewski. Zagajewski’s poem ran in the New Yorker shortly after September 11th. It became one of the best-known poems of the decade.
Don Share: sax said he was immediately attracted to Zagajewski’s poem as a jumping-off point for his own work.
sam sax: I’m writing a series of poems with that title that are all Anthropocene poems that try to celebrate queer joy in our last moments on this earth as we sprint towards extinction.
Lindsay Garbutt: The poem in the September issue explores the meaning of praise and prayer.
sam sax: I’m thinking about the difference between praise the current moment we have and a prayer for the future and for the continuation of the mutilated world.
Don Share: Here’s sam sax reading “Prayer for the Mutilated World.”
what will be left after the last fidget
spinner’s spun its last spin
after the billboards accrue their thick
layer of grit masking advertisements
for teeth paste & tanqueray gin
after the highways are overtaken
by invasive forests
after the ministers give up their gods
& the rabbis their congregations
after new men rise to lead us sheep
toward our shearing, to make bed
sheets from our hair
after the high towers have no airplanes
to warn away & instead blink purely
toward heaven like children
with one red eye
after phone lines do nothing
but cut the sky into sheet music
& our phones are just expensive
bricks of metal & glass
after our cloud of photographs collapses
& all memories retreat back
into their privatized skulls
after the water taps gasp out their final
when even the local militias run
out of ammunitions
when the blast radii have been
chalked & the missiles do all they were
when us jews have given up our state
for that much older country of walking
& then that even older religion of dirt
when all have succumbed to illness
inside the church of our gutted pharmacies
when the seas eat their cities
when the ground splits like a dress
when the trash continent in the mid-atlantic
at last opens its mouth to spit
what will be left after we’ve left
i dare not consider it
instead dance with me a moment
late in this last extinction
that you are reading this
must be enough
Christina Pugh: This poem is such a … kind of astonishing rethinking of the Zagajewski poem. Along with being a poem about extinction and apocalypse, you know, it manages to do that while still kind of doing the work of—as he said—prayer, litany. There is a strangely disquieting, soothing aspect to it, even as the world falls apart in this poem. And then, you know, that ending with the invitation to dance is also doing an interesting reaching back towards Zagajewski’s poem, that’s also trying to find beauty in the midst of chaos and things like executioners singing joyfully in the Zagajewski poem. And I think that the idea that someone is still reading this poem, sort of at this time, there is some reach-out to the reader, is quite moving.
sam sax: Dance with me a moment / late in this last extinction / that you are reading this / must be enough ...
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I think I normally think of prayer as requesting something. That you are asking for something to happen. And instead this poem is filled with more questions than answers or requests, it’s asking when these things happen, what will be the result, or what will occur after all of this destruction. And the poem doesn’t have an answer for that; it very explicitly avoids trying to answer what will happen, and instead tries to make peace with what could be enough in that situation. And so, I agree with you, Christina, I think that’s a very hopeful note, even despite this very sad scene that the poem lays out.
Don Share: Hmm. Well, it’s a gentle hope. And that hopefulness also consists in the accomplishment of making something whole, you know, taking a poem about mutilation, but instead of leaving things in pieces, it creates a new poem, and sort of stitches many things together from that list, which … you know, even the idea of a litany as opposed to a list means there’s a kind of music or prayerfulness in it. And some of the advertisements and things at the beginning of the poem remind me a little bit of Hart Crane, there is sort of a ... there is sort of a passionate observation ... A sense of the urgency of being observant. Not just kind of protesting but noticing things, because you might be among the last people to see them or to articulate them.
sam sax: After the billboards accrue their thick / layer of grit masking advertisements / for teeth paste & tanqueray gin ...
Don Share: A word that gets repeated in the poem in the first part of it is “after.” After, after.
sam sax: After the highways are overtaken / by invasive forests / after the ministers give up their gods / & the rabbis their congregations / for drink ...
Don Share: So there must be an after. It’s sort of that hopefulness in the time to come…
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: ...which then shifts over in the second half of the poem to being “when.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: So there is a kind of faith built into the poem, which is very moving because … I think it touches on a few things relating to faith.
sam sax: When us jews have given up our state / for that much older country of walking / & then that even older religion of dirt ...
Don Share: It’s sort of even stitching back together religious divides and other kinds of things that are invidious now, or we experience as invidious. It’s a way of saying, you know, there are other ways to sort of move around the world, but it requires sacrifice. It requires giving things up. Which is as old as any kind of system of belief.
Christina Pugh: Hmmm. I was really struck by how this poem opens, with:
sam sax: What will be left after the last fidget / spinner’s spun its last spin ...
Christina Pugh: That feels like... a fidget spinner feels like something very contemporary. Maybe it comes out of a kind of child’s play but it’s being used in a very different way, to focus energies, right, sort of at a time when our energies are so scattered by all of our different technologies and things like that. And I was really struck by how of the moment that wonderful opening is, and just all the play with spinners, spun, spin … with the kind of pleasure in that. And then the kind of emptying out of all of those accoutrements, really, of culture, like a lot of that, kind of like, paraphernalia of the gin and the “teeth paste,” which I really like,... (LAUGHING)
Don Share: (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: ... and then, you know, to this much much much more dire, almost primeval kind of scene, is very moving and very … very sobering.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I think that combination of the contemporary and the dystopian, and also the sort of anaphora that we’ve been talking about, the repetition of after, after, after… when, when, has a very long and old tradition in poetry, and also in political speech, and also congregations, so rabbis and priests have long used anaphora to, sort of, drive the message home. Martin Luther King did that, Barack Obama was famous for doing that. But it’s also, you know, hearkening back to the Zagajewski poem. Which, you know, has multiple versions of the phrase “try to praise the mutilated world” within it. But I thought this poem also reminded me of Allen Ginsberg in a way too, the way he repeats these sort of dystopian views of contemporary life in order to drive a sort of political message home, and also to hopefully enact change. I mean, that also seems like a large part of this poem, that this is how the world will end up if we don’t make changes in the way that we show care, show love, care for our planet, all those kinds of things.
Christina Pugh: That’s a great point. And I think that’s one of the really interesting paradoxes of something like anaphora, right? Because it’s got that kind of lulling musicality that, in certain situations, like the ones that you were describing there, really, you know, want people to be active, to enact change, you know. And I think it does that very effectively here.
Don Share: You can read “Prayer for the Mutilated World” by sam sax in the September 2018 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all September episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from The Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.