I go to where I love and where I am loved

Here’s a captivating excerpt from a longer piece by the great modernist poet H.D. (1886-1961).

hdpoet

from “The Flowering of the Rod”

[2]

I go where I love and where I am loved,
into the snow;

I go to the things I love
with no thought of duty or pity;

I go where I belong, inexorably,
as the rain that has lain long

in the furrow; I have given
or would have given

life to the grain;
but if it will not grow or ripen

with the rain of beauty,
the rain will return to the cloud;

the harvester sharpens his steel on the stone;
but this is not our field,

we have not sown this;
pitiless, pitiless, let us leave

The-place-of-a-skull
to those who have fashioned it.

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In my dream, I am the president.

I rarely do this, but the spirits are moving me to re-post (with slight updates) this amazing, necessary verse I shared two years ago:

“Landai belong to women,” Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian, said. “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”

“A poem is a sword,” Saheera Sharif, Mirman Baheer’s founder, said. Literature, she says, is a more effective battle for women’s rights than shouting at political rallies. “This is a different kind of struggle.”

Today I share a testament to the power of verse from the women of Afghanistan. The following couplets are called landays (or landai), an oral and often anonymous song, each with 22 syllables, created by and for the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether sung to the beat of a hand drum in a rural village centuries ago or whispered furtively into a phone hotline run by Mirman Baheer (Afghanistan’s largest women literary society), each landay is a stunning reflection of a layered life–a life in which singing and writing these poems does not come without grave risks.

I beseech you to read this article from the New York Times, Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetryand explore more landays and images online from this beautiful issue of Poetry magazine.

Members of Mirman Baheer, Afghanistan’s largest women’s literary society

If you couldn’t love me from the start,
then why did you awake my sleeping heart?

_

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

_

May God make you into a riverbank flower
so I may smell you when I go to gather water.

_

My love gave his life for our homeland.
I’ll sew his shroud with one strand of my hair.

_

Today I spilled spinach on the floor.
Now the old goat stands in the corner, swinging a two-by-four.

_

O darling, you’re American in my eyes.
You are guilty; I apologize.
_

In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

Translated and presented by Eliza Griswold in
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan

What is the distance between my voice and my longing?

I hope that after reading this poem you will understand why I’ve recently been captivated by the work of Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (1969-), who was forced into exile in 2012 and now lives in London. He is often described as one of today’s leading African poets writing in Arabic; if you’d like to read more of these beautiful translations, check out the collection where this poem lives, A Monkey at the Window

al-saddiq-al-raddi_427x0_481_320_90_s

“A Body”

The body of a bird in your mouth
breathing songs.
Raw light spills from your eyes,
utterly naked.

You must breach the horizon, once,
in order to wake up.
You must open window after window.
You must support the walls.

I let alphabets cling to me
as I climb the thread of language
between myself and the world.
I muster crowds in my mouth:
suspended between language and the world,
between the world and the alphabets.

I let my head
listen to the myth,
to all sides praising each other.
And I shout at the winds from the top of a mountain.

Why does my tongue tell me to climb this far?
What is the distance between my voice and my longing?
What is there?

A body transcending my body.
A body exiled by desire.
A body sheltered by the wind.

Translated by Sarah Maguire and Atef Alshaer

 

And if the sun comes How shall we greet him?

I can’t believe I’ve let nine years of this blog pass without posting the work of the inimitable and essential Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), so let me amend that now with one of her great early poems.

 

brooks

“truth”

And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

Each carries a tender spot: something our lives forgot to give us.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
–Bertolt Brecht  

Dear readers,

Welcome to my ninth round of daily postings for National Poetry Month. This past year, when I found myself overwhelmed, heartbroken, and angered by the state of the world and the state of this country, I once again turned to poetry. It was verse that helped lift me out of the quicksand of scrolling through endless polemics and social media posts. In stanza after stanza, I remembered the enormous struggles of humankind not just now and here but everywhere and across history. In line after line, I rediscovered what is worth celebrating and fighting for in our lives. In word after word, I fell back in love with language.

Let us begin this month with one of my touchstones: the Palestinian-American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-). Let us remember the tender spots we carry in our brains and our bodies and our lives. And let us read poetry, together.

naomishihabnye-shevaunwilliams

“Jerusalem”

“Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.”
—Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it’s ridiculous.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.

what would it mean to not possess a permeable skin?

There is no poet who brings me to all of my senses in this physical world quite like the magnificent Adrienne Rich (1929-2012).

 
adrienne-rich-sized

“Itinerary”

i.

Burnt by lightning      nevertheless
she’ll walk this terra infinita

lashes singed on her third eye
searching definite shadows      for an indefinite future

Old shed-boards beaten silvery hang
askew as sheltering
some delicate indefensible existence

Long grasses shiver in a vanished doorway’s draft
a place of origins      as yet unclosured and unclaimed

Writing cursive instructions on abounding air

If you arrive with ripe pears, bring a sharpened knife
Bring cyanide with the honeycomb

              call before you come

ii.

Let the face of the bay be violet black the tumbled torn
kelp necklaces strewn alongshore

Stealthily over time arrives the chokehold
stifling ocean’s guttural chorales
                                        a tangle
of tattered plastic rags

iii.

In a physical world the great poverty would be
to live insensate      shuttered against the fresh

slash of urine on a wall
low-tidal rumor of a river’s yellowed mouth
a tumor-ridden face asleep on a subway train

What would it mean to not possess
a permeable skin
explicit veil to wander in

iv.

A cracked shell crumbles.
Sun moon and salt dissect the faint
last grains

An electrical impulse zings
out      ricochets
in meta-galactic orbits

a streak of nervous energy rejoins the crucible
where origins and endings meld

There was this honey-laden question mark
this thread extracted from the open
throat of existence—Lick it clean!
—let it evaporate—

Tonight your name is a small thing falling through sadness

I find myself drawn to this poem by the Cuban American poet Silvia Curbelo (1955-) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Tampa Bay setting, a landscape I spent many years of my life and that I don’t often encounter in poems.

silvia

“Tonight I Can Almost Hear the Singing”

There is a music to this sadness.
In a room somewhere two people dance.
I do not mean to say desire is everything.
A cup half empty is simply half a cup.
How many times have we been there and not there?
I have seen waitresses slip a night’s
worth of tips into the jukebox, their eyes
saying yes to nothing in particular.
Desire is not the point.
Tonight your name is a small thing
falling through sadness. We wake alone
in houses of sticks, of straw, of wind.
How long have we stood at the end of the pier
watching that water going?
In the distance the lights curve along
Tampa Bay, a wishbone ready to snap
and the night riding on that half promise,
a half moon to light the whole damned sky.
This is the way things are with us.
Sometimes we love almost enough.
We say I can do this, I can do
more than this and faith feeds
on its own version of the facts.
In the end the heart turns on itself
like hunger to a spoon.
We make a wish in a vanishing landscape.
Sadness is one more reference point
like music in the distance.
Two people rise from a kitchen table
as if to dance. What do they know
about love?

__

from The Secret History of Water