A Design Against Darkness

Poetry for Troubled Times

By Kim Addonizio on 9.02.09

Sometimes the world seems to me utterly random, possibly malevolent, and therefore frightening. I always go back to Robert Frost’s sonnet, “Design” which closes, “What but design of darkness to appall?—/ If design govern in a thing so small.

When I read this poem, I end up feeling oddly comforted. Someone else was asking the same questions, feeling the chill, getting it down in language. Someone was fashioning a poem. A design against darkness.

Photo by rachel_r on Flickr

And then there are the small synchronicities that sometimes seem like little upwellings, glimpses into the beautiful order of things. Here’s one example: I told a new lover a story about a man and woman who had dated in high school. Years later they found themselves living across the street from each other in New York. Tragically, the man’s wife committed suicide. But today these two are married.

The day after I told my lover this story, I went for the first time to his house. It turned out to be across the street from the building I used to live in.

So, some lovely fate proved, or intuited, in that moment. But what if, instead of discovering that I had lived across the street, it turned out that someone he knew committed suicide the next day? The felicitous intersection of events might seem ominous. We might see the design of darkness to appall.

And all we have to do is look outward to the rest of the world to seriously entertain the idea that it’s all chaos, driven by the erratic winds of violence and greed, of religious dogma and fear and hatred.

All of which is to say that we—most of us, anyway—can’t know the core mysteries of life. What we do know is that the creative impulse is toward design, toward fashioning some outer representation of our inner lives and of life itself—whether we believe we are revealing an underlying order or, as Frost has it in an essay, creating “a momentary stay against confusion.”

Those who have had a deep spiritual experience say there is an unfolding, and we can be one with it. They know; they have experienced it in a way that leaves no doubt. I’m grateful for those writers, too. I think about being alone in Colorado Spring, Colorado, in the after of September 11, with that sense of stunned despair so many of us had. I was on a five-week teaching gig in a comfortable but sterile corporate apartment, set adrift from my friends, my books, almost everything that gave me some kind of context. The context, instead, came from the images on TV. The context was the drama of human suffering, a drama that began, no doubt, with the first humans. The context was the history of violence that continues unabated. At any moment, in the modern world, there are more than a hundred wars occurring somewhere on the planet.

When I couldn’t stand watching anymore, I turned off the TV and looked through some videos I’d brought from home, hoping for some mindless, distracting movie. What I pulled from the stack was Bill Moyers’ “Language of Life” series, the segment on Rumi translator Coleman Barks. So in the midst of this catastrophic event, this wholesale murder in the name of Islam, I listened to the words of a thirteenth-century Islamic poet. Some of the words Barks recited were these:

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of way to kneel and kiss the ground.

This is what poems do, whether they originate in skepticism or faith. They are gifts. They are the designs we make and give to others, or the ones given to us, and they help us to take heart. Assalamu alaikum.

topics: Columnists

1 Comment

Thea said on 9.05.09 at 7:53pm:

A few hours after you quoted the Frost poem to me in person, I visited this site on a whim, and this column was listed first in the randomized “Featured Columns” section.

I keep double-checking my browser history to make sure I didn’t somehow arrive here deliberately, then forget the route I took. Perhaps it’s natural that a column about synchronicities would attract more of them.