The world tells me I am its creature

We will miss you, Adrienne Rich (1929-2012).

picture of poet Adrienne Rich

from The Dream of a Common Language


My body opens over San Francisco like the day –

light raining down      each pore crying the change of light

I am not with her     I have been waking off and on

all night to that pain     not simply absence but

the presence of the past      destructive

to living here and now      Yet if I could instruct

myself, if we could learn to learn from pain

even as it grasps us      if the mind, the mind that lives

in this body could refuse      to let itself be crushed

in that grasp     it would loosen      Pain would have to stand

off from me and listen     its dark breath still on me

but the mind could begin to speak to pain

and pain would have to answer:

We are older now

we have met before     these are my hands before your eyes

my figure blotting out      all that is not mine

I am the pain of division      creator of divisions

it is I who blot your lover from you

and not the time-zones or the miles

It is not separation calls me forth      but I

who am separation      And remember

I have no existence      apart from you


I believe I am choosing something now

not to suffer uselessly     yet still to feel

Does the infant memorize the body of the mother

and create her in absence?     or simply cry

primordial loneliness?      does the bed of the stream

once diverted      mourning       remember the wetness?

But we, we live so much in these

configurations of the past      I choose

to separate her     from my past we have not shared

I choose not to suffer uselessly

to detect primordial pain as it stalks toward me

flashing its bleak torch in my eyes     blotting out

her particular being     the details of her love

I will not be divided      from her or from myself

by myths of separation

while her mind and body in Manhattan are more with me

than the smell of eucalyptus coolly burning      on these hills


The world tells me I am its creature

I am raked by eyes     brushed by hands

I want to crawl into her for refuge     lay my head

in the space     between her breast and shoulder

abnegating power for love

as women have done      or hiding

from power in her love     like a man

I refuse these givens      the splitting

between love and action      I am choosing

not to suffer uselessly      and not to use her

I choose to love      this time      for once

with all my intelligence.

I don’t want to forget who I am

It seems that rain poems are not out of my system just yet, perhaps due to the lovely downpour happening outside my kitchen window as I type. Here’s a powerfully compact one from Denise Levertov (1923-1997).

“The Five-Day Rain”

The washing hanging from the lemon tree
in the rain
and the grass long and coarse.

Sequence broken, tension
of sunlight broken.
                            So light a rain

fine shreds
pending above the rigid leaves.

Wear scarlet! Tear the green lemons
off the tree!     I don’t want
to forget who I am, what has burned in me
and hang limp and clean, an empty dress —

I am a breath Of fresh air for you

On this gray March day, after the landscape has been cleaned by a week of rain, this poem from the devastating Stevie Smith (1902-1971) comes to mind.

“Black March”

I have a friend
At the end
Of the world.
His name is a breath

Of fresh air.
He is dressed in
Grey chiffon. At least
I think it is chiffon.
It has a
Peculiar look, like smoke.

It wraps him round
It blows out of place
It conceals him
I have not seen his face.

But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs
In March, and heard him say:

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

(Such a pretty time when the sky
Behind black twigs can be seen
Stretched out in one
Cambridge blue as cold as snow.)

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.

Leave metaphor, and walk with me.

“Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world—his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.”

Naomi Shihab Nye


The beloved and formidable Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish would have turned 71 today had he not passed away in 2008. Today, I share some words from one of his last works, Almond Blossoms and Beyond, to honor his legacy and everything he stood for.

An excerpt from “Like a Hand Tattoo from an Ode by an Ancient Arab Poet”

I am he.
He walks before me and I follow.
I do not say to him,
was something simple for us:
a green stone. A tree. a street,
an adolescent moon, a reality no longer real.
He walks before me.
I follow his shadow.
As he hurries, his shadow rises over the hills
and covers a pine tree in the South,
and covers a willow tree in the North.

I said:Did we not part?
He said:Yes.
I owe you the return of fantasy to the real,
and you owe me the apple’s surrender to gravity
I said: Where are you taking me?
He said: Toward the beginning., where you were born.
Here, you and your name.

If I could return to the beginning,
I would select fewer letters for my name,
letters easier on the foreign ear.

March is a month of storms and lust.
Spring looks on, like a thought between two people,
between a long winter and a long summer.
I remember nothing but allegory.
I was scarcely born when I woke
to a clear image between the horse’s mane,
and my mother’s braids.
Give up metaphor, and walk quietly
on the earth’s down, he said.

Sunset brings the stranger back
to his well, like a song that is not sung.
Sunset stirs up in us longing for an obscure passion.

Things acquire new meanings at sunset.
Memories wake and call,
like a signal of death at sunset,
like the beat of a song not sung to anyone.

(On cypress tree,
east of emotions,
gilded clouds,
in the heart, a chestnut brown
transparency of shadows, drunk like water.
Come, let us play;
come, let us go
to any star.)

I am he. He walks over me
and I ask him,
Do you remember anything here?
Tread softly-remember,
the earth is pregnant with us.

He said: I saw the moon shining here,
its grief plain, like an orange in the night.
It guides us in the wilderness to stray paths…
Without it, mothers could not meet their children.
Without it, wanderers could not read
their names in the night: Refugees,
guests of the wind.

My wings felt small in the wind that year.
I always thought the place was identified
by the mothers and the aroma of sage.
No one said to me,
this place is called a country,
around the country are borders,
and beyond the borders is another place,
called diaspora and exile for us.

I did not yet need an identity,
but they, men who came to us on tanks,
are carrying off our place on trucks.

The place is a feeling.
Those are our remains, like hand tattoos
in the mu’allaqa of the ancient poet.
They pass us and we pass them.

Thus said the one I was the day I did not know
the details of the names of our trees or the names
the birds who gather in me.
I did not remember the words to defend the place
from its removal, from its strange, new name
hedged with eucalyptus.

The signs say to us,
You were not here.

The storm abates.
The place is a feeling.
Those are our tracks, said he who was I,
Here our two orders of time meet and part.
Who are you in the presence of now?

I said: I am you, were it not for the smoke of factories.
He said: Who are you in the presence of yesterday?
I said: I am we, were it not
for the intrusion of
a verb in the imperfect tense.
He said: And who will you be tomorrow?
I said: A love poem that you will write when
you choose-since you are, yourself, a legend of love.

(Golden as old harvest songs
dark from the sting of the night,
white from the water’s endless laughter,
as you approach the spring
your eyes are almonds,
your lips two wounds of honey,
your legs towers of marble,
your hands on my shoulders two birds.
You give me a spirit that flutters
around the place.)

Leave metaphor, and walk with me.
Do you see traces of the moth in the light?

I said: I see you there, I see you pass
like one of the thoughts of our ancestors.
He said: Thus the moth recalls its poetic labor:
a song that the astronomers recognize
as proof of eternity.

I walk slowly by myself
and my shadow follows me, and I, it.
Nothing brings me back.
Nothing brings me back.
As if a part of me were departing,
anxious for tomorrow.
Do not wait for anyone.
Do not wait for me.


[the rest of the poem–which I highly recommend you read–is available here ]

The winter is not too sad

From Maggie Nelson‘s Something Bright, Then Holes:

“Winter Song”

Solitude is a gift
Say it to yourself
under a canopy
of phony stars

Think of Lily in
her old season, living
with three pale cats
Her mind a lavender wash

Think of the man floating spray mums
at the feet of the colossus
before a day spent staring
at the wall

On the great ceiling of plates
and grates, a single leaf scrapes by
as the clear poison singes its path
from nostril to deep brain

The winter is not too sad, say it
then sing it
from your new pod, your new fig
made of glass