The Insistence of Beauty
The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark,
gray and white ribbons of it
on their way to evanescence.
And at impact, no doubt, certain beholders
and believers from another part of the world
must have seen what appeared gorgeous –
the flames of something theirs being born.
I watched for hours – mesmerized –
that willful collision replayed,
the better man in me not yielding,
then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge.
The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,
and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensity – or was it the coldness? –
of each photographer’s good eye.
For years I’d taken pride in resisting
the obvious – sunsets, snowy peaks,
a starlet’s face – yet had come to realize
even those, seen just right, can have
their edgy place. And the sentimental,
beauty’s sloppy cousin, that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?
Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?
When word came of a fireman
who hid in the rubble
so his dispirited search dog
could have someone to find, I repeated it
to everyone I knew. I did this for myself,
not for community or beauty’s sake,
yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.
The first time I read this poem I was struck by how well it captured the ambiguity of my own response – not merely to 9/11 but to most things that are conventionally touching / beautiful. I too take “pride in resisting the obvious”, a trait that has earned me a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being a snob. I too, as a result, end up feeling conflicted and somewhat guilty every time I find myself deeply moved by something cliched and sentimental.
Dunn’s poem both limits and legitimizes this search for the non-obvious. What it does, I think, is distinguish between the claims of beauty and the claims of art. There may be no place for the sentimental in art, but not everything beautiful is artistic. The trick then is to balance the two claims – one the one hand to continue to look for the non-obvious and seek beauty where it is not commonly seen, on the other hand to accept and treasure beauty when it is given to us (that is, when we experience it – for beauty, in truth, lies more in the heart of the beholder than in his / her eye). When something moves us deeply, we must express and celebrate it, not because it makes for great art, not for “community or beauty’s sake” but simply to savor our own emotion.
Dunn himself, of course, spends considerable time in the poem seeking the non-obvious. “must have seen what appeared gorgeous – / the flames of something theirs being born” are lines that few people (hopefully) will be able to read without experiencing at least some shock. That 9/11 is a terrible, terrible thing is so hard coded into our minds that the idea that someone may actually have exulted in it, though obviously true when you think about it, is not one that comes easily. The mind revolts against the word “gorgeous”, as against the idea of the collapse of the twin towers being somehow a birth (I am reminded of Yeats – “a terrible beauty is born”). And it is this difficulty that the rest of the poem seeks to resolve. “The better man in my not yielding / then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge”, Dunn writes. But what is being fought and eventually yielded to here is not revenge alone, but the idea of a response that is conventional precisely because it is human.