Now that the streets are empty and you press a compass to your chest

Let’s wind down National Poetry Month with this poem by Nathalie Handal (1969-). Her border-crossing life (she’s French-American, was born in Haiti to a Palestinian family and has lived around the world) emerges in her collection Poet in Andalucía, which explores otherness and togetherness so beautifully.

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“Now That”

Ahora que está tan sola la soledad
Joaquín Sabina, “Ahora que”

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Now that we’ve counted
the seasons for exile
and stopped wondering
if it’s us or the birds who weep

Now that the canvas is wet
and paint drips on our bodies
now that we have crossed
the borders of hearts
and know what’s real
now that disappearance
can’t be understood after all

Now that we stay in bed
and I lay you out inside of me
now that the streets are empty
and you press a compass to your chest
stack a sorrow after a wound
and measure the map of want

Now that two people run inside of you
one searching for its lost head
while the other watches
now that we have learned
to love each other
the way we are told we should

Now that I say goodbye
and write about leaving
I feel alive
now that nothing is urgent
and everything is here
now that waiting keeps us away
from a forest of thorns

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Mama is a time-traveling word

Today’s selection is dedicated to my mother. I was once the five-year-old in this poem from Lhena Khalaf Tuffaha, an American poet of Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage. I, too, wondered why my mom kept calling me “mom,” and felt mystified by language and everything encompassed in that magical word.

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“Translation”

She asks: why do you say Mama
when you
call me?

Six o’clock and I am tired.
And making dinner right now.
An Arab with a five-year-old demanding
neat-and-tidy American answers.
I phone it in:
That’s just how Arabic works.

Translation is a complicated dance.
Mama is the word
that holds you in
even when you are walking around in the world
with your own name,
so that calling you to me
I discard the self and
respond to the name you gave me,
becoming the person you made me.

Mama is a time-traveling word,
a song to you and to my own mother,
so that whenever I reach out to you
she is there too.
And calling you I am once again
the daughter, tethered to her
just as I am
locked in this lifelong embrace
with you.

I call myself and my own mother and you
all three of us, in one breath.

from Water & Salt 

fill your vases with water for spring is here

From the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), translated from Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali.

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Poem

You who wear shirts
ripped at the collars:

       it has come:
       the great calm
       with its harvest of silence:

       all lips have been sewn
       perhaps some wounds also.

And rebels,
my friends:

       fill your vases with water
       for spring is here:

       in this blossoming of wounds,

       some roses may also.

 

I want a future making hammocks out of figs and accidents.

This poem by Jennifer Chang is what recently led me to her lovely new collection, Some Say the Lark, which I’m very much enjoying now.

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“Freedom in Ohio”

        on my birthday

I want a future
making hammocks
out of figs and accidents.
Or a future quieter
than snow. The leopards
stake out the backyard
and will flee at noon.
My terror is not secret,
but necessary,
as the wild must be,
as Sandhill cranes must
thread the meadow
yet again. Thus, autumn
cautions the cold
and the wild never want
to be wild. So what
to do about the thrum
of my thinking, the dangerous
pawing at the door?
Yesterday has no harmony
with today. I bought
a wool blanket, now shredded
in the yard. I abided by
dwelling, thought nothing
of now. And now?
I’m leopard and crane,
all’s fled.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore

The poem I carry in my pocket today has been a touchstone for years, as has the poet, the wonderful Arab-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye. May we all cultivate and encounter kindness in this life so threaded with sorrow.

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“Kindness”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

There is no world in which I am not haunted

My copy of the new chapbook TUNSIYA/AMRIKIYA by the Tunisian-American poet Leila Chatti (1990-) arrived just in time for the weekend, and it was so hard to choose just one from this stunning collection.

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“Night Lament in Hergla”

This is what the fearful do:
when a burning star torments them, they go to the sea.
–Mahmoud Darwish

There is no world in which I am not haunted,
no willing God to relinquish me.
My mother taught me death comes
wailing from the shadows, my father
all ghosts exist in smoke. I search
the sky for light long extinguished,
make wishes on their bright graves.
In the dark I try every language you might
recognize but nothing calls you back;
the words hang in the air, their own
brief phantoms. The ocean offers
no solace; I stand at its black edge
as it retreats, draws close, backs away again.
Like this, your memory wavers
in the threshold. How many nights
your name appeared on my lips
like an incantation, how many times
you’ve arrived in a dream pale
as prayer at dawn–your absence
burns its hole through my waking.
I stalk the shores of your sleep,
which allow no entry. The moon
reveals nothing of heaven, a brined window.
You are gone, in this country and all others.

I come into the peace of wild things

In honor of Earth Day, I’m sharing a poem by the amazing writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry (1934-) that many of you are probably familiar with but can never be read too much.  And if you’re jonesin’ for some more Earth Day verse, here are the Walt Whitman poems I usually post.

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“The Peace of Wild Things”

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,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.