Thoughts and Thickets - 2
A Blog By Carol Jeffers
This time, the thorny thickets have pricked enough to make me believe that paradox bleeds together with irony, coincidence, and poetry. Could it be true then, that the droplets oozing from the scratches smear such categories (experiences? absurdities?), and define human nature more precisely?
Take, for instance, the Decemberists new album, What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World, the title more than a proposal. Will it explain the paradox? Or offer its unfinished poem to coincidental ironies? “How can the world be both?” asks Colin Meloy, the band’s singer-song writer in an NPR interview. Though a bit rhetorical, the question is just provocative enough to vitalize the truth of human experience, what is breath-taking at times, beastly at others, and always validating. Of course the world is both—it must be. We cannot know beauty without terror, nor terror without beauty.
Surely, the album title is meant to evoke the perverse and the poetic, the bitter and the sweet. In my case, it also prompts a memory of a ninth grade English class when “bittersweet” was indeed presented as an example of paradox—what the dictionary decreed to be the “thing” or “situation” that “combines contradictory features or qualities.” Surely, the underwhelming class would have been more interesting had a thicketed world replaced the chocolate candy used to illustrate, but not to poke the “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory proposition” that when “investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true.”
Taking into account the absurdity of such an investigation, I propose to jack-hammer the beautiful and the terrible apart, and tiptoe in what cracks open between them. Jagged, even jittery, this is a coincidental world made reluctant to give up the troves of irony and poetry it harbors. Still, the Decembrists’ songs can be coaxed free, among them one inspired by Meloy’s little boy, then a six-year-old thriving in first grade at the same moment in time as the first graders attending New Town’s Sandy Hook Elementary School on that fateful December day. Coincidence? Irony? Poetry? Or is it the flutter of crayon drawings that unites them all? What a terrible world that murders its children, what a beautiful world that loves them more and grieves their loss.
What about the absurdity of Gitmo? How much is required to prove its contradictions true? Is the outlier an expression of irony captured by Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s newly-published Guantanamo Diaries? Or are the poetry of paradox and meaning of coincidence revealed when the inmate author uses the language of pain to share a moment of relief? What a terrible world that throws the prisoner in a limbo outside any criminal justice system and holds him in torturous stress positions. What a beautiful world that moves the guard to kick the prisoner and reduce the pain of the stress position.
What about the history of such ironies—the record written when a friend, who at the age of eleven, bore witness to the eerie coincidence of different planes landing at a Malaysian airport during the Vietnam War, all of them carrying the same question. “What lies ahead?” danced in the eyes of the Peace Corp volunteers who arrived fresh-faced and dedicated, ready to take up a new mission. “What lies ahead?” haunted the faces of the Marine Corps warriors who departed haggard and disillusioned, still unsure of what the mission had ever been. What a beautiful-terrible world that wonders about the arrivals and the departures, and finally welcomes both.
A century ago, was anything different? More absurd? Less? Were the same answers—questions—tumbling out? The same contradictions proving to be true? Was it always the irony of coincidences that could not be explained? What was the beautiful-terrible world like in June, 1915 when it sang of its potential, chortled with hubris? The very soundtrack that was turned up loud when a group of four women, my twenty-one year old grandmother among them completed their teacher training in Kansas City and then joined the millions attending the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. How magnificent would the pavilions—“palaces”—prove to be, one dedicated to “Education,” another to “Fine Arts,” others to “Horticulture,” “Manufacturers,” and “Varied Industries”? What must it have been like to the “Avenue of Progress” and sparkle with the “Tower of Jewels”? Oh yes, the music smiled: What lies ahead?
Grandma and her friends were on the verge, ready to celebrate the future and launch themselves into its promise. They mirrored the country, and like it, looked West, set their sights on the beautiful, bustling world captured in the microcosm of a city newly rebuilt—bigger and better—after the terrible quake. The sleek locomotive had carried them fifteen hundred miles to the Pacific port expecting to prosper with the opening of the Panama Canal. Now, ships would sail shorter, routes profitable routes even as German U boats stalked the Atlantic shipping lanes.
No, they would not look East, nor consider the coastline of another continent bombarded by too many entangling alliances. It would be another two years before they saw the weariness of war, and the loss of cities newly-destroyed in a world once so beautiful. In another three years, my grandmother would see her new husband leave for France. And when the Armistice was signed at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the millions who had smiled on the Avenue of Progress would weep for the millions lost in the trenches, for the ones still quaking in the mud of Flanders’ fields.
What does my thicket’s splatter have to say, but that the world of human nature is all that it is, terribly, beautifully absurd. It leaves the poem unfinished.