A Brief for the Defense

I’m feeling melancholy today. I found out my childhood music teacher passed away this weekend, and even though I’d been preparing for it since her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s a few years ago, it still hit me hard. She encouraged me to make music, and through that she helped ease the pain of some difficult school years.

I missed her the minute I knew the world was losing her. Now I miss her more.

At the same time I was thinking about that, my friend Jason posted the following beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert, who passed away on Monday just after my teacher.

In death and suffering, in atrocity, and in mourning the brokenness of the world, works of art can honor what we’ve lost and lift our souls like nothing else. This poem comforted and inspired me today. I hope it does so for you as well.

A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert

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 REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)

(Photo by John Nyberg)

2 Responses to “A Brief for the Defense”
  1. latravelbug says:

    Sorry for your loss Joanna. I’m sure you let her know how much she touched your life and that meant the world to her. It’s so interesting. This poem reminds me SO MUCH of my favorite Russian poem by Anna Akhmatova:

    Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold out.

    The wing of black death has flashed,

    Everything has been devoured by starving anguish,

    Why, then, is it so bright?


    From fantastic woods near the town

    Wafts the scent of cherry blossoms by day,

    At night new constellations shine

    In the transparent depths of the skies of July –


    And how near the miraculous draws

    To the dirty, tumbledown huts …

    No one, no one knows what it is,

    But for centuries we have longed for it.

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