"The Tragic Sense of Life"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Dec. 10 1998 3:30 AM

"The Tragic Sense of Life"

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To hear the poet read " 'The Tragic Sense of Life,' " click here.

The bus is crowded. It's the morning rush.
I'm reading Francis Fergusson on how
"drama is an art which eventuates in words,
but which in its essence is more primitive."

A fight breaks out at Ninety-Sixth and Fifth
around the choked doors--some libidinal spark,
almost unnoticed, just a touch, a gaze
gone wrong, the whispered poison of a phrase--

and two men beat each other with their fists
without a word. Backward and down the stairwell
they plunge like one convulsive animal,
each broken from the moment's smeared surfaces

into a more perfect concentration
on how the other might be best undone,
after long years, the infant wish fulfilled
to remake, with bare hands, the rude flawed world.

Watching, I feel the rise of bliss and shame,
covert, defiant, envious of such freedom,
and then compose myself to better hear,
with the remoteness of a thing apart,

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that hard birth, now expelled onto the street,
the slack language of flesh receiving blows--
in which consists "the tragic sense of life"
(the phrase, says Fergusson, is Unamuno's).

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Karl Kirchwey is the author of six books of poems, most recently Mount Lebanon, and of a translation of Paul Verlaine's first book of poems, as Poems Under Saturn. Professor of the Arts and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College, he is serving as Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome from 2010-13.