Ruth, you are angry at the world
for its miscarriages. It is early November
and we are walking again in the Haagse Bos,
wondering at the rusty-headed ducks,
the yellowing of the common beech,
the noon light on the pond.
For three days you have spoken
only of Loujain, waterchoked
& raped in a Saudi prison, pummeled
into vanishing. The hawthorn trees
are bare now, except for their fruit:
bright red, closer to wine after rain.
Bob Hass says it is a gift, this human
incapacity to sustain wonder. ‘We’d never
have gotten up from our knees if we could.’
And as for the sustenance of despair—
In the underbrush by the path home
the wood piegeons mottle the leaves.
Silent, I picture Gramsci, beating his head
bloody against the walls of Mussolini's jails.
'I am a pessimist by intelligence,'
he wrote, 'but an optimist by will.'
Above us, on a dead limb, a woodpecker
goes back to feeding: tok-tok-tok-tok.
One of the first poems I ever felt attached to was Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”, which begins:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
In the lines that follow, Berry describes finding temporary salve in the natural world—but not, crucially, lasting reprieve. Lately his poem has been on my mind, despair being a familiar emotion to me over the last year and a half (from the French désespoir, meaning a lack of hope). My own poem arrived at one such moment, when I was wrestling—not for the last time, I am certain—with the question of what we may do when our narratives of progress are incontrovertibly dashed.
Some references, explained: “Voy a hablar de la esperanza” is the title of a poem by César Vallejo. It translates to “I am going to speak of hope.” Loujain al-Hathloul is a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist. In 2018, the government of Saudi Arabia arrested her, imprisoning and torturing her for nearly two years before sentencing her in a sham trial. She was released from prison in early 2021 following a hunger strike and the application of international pressure, though she remains trapped in the country under a travel ban. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist. He was intentionally denied medical care during his eleven-year imprisonment by Mussolini’s fascist government, and died in 1937 as a result, at the age of forty-six. The quote comes from his Prison Letters.