Thank you kindly for following along for another April of verse. I want to close this month with one of my favorite poems, written by the brilliant Ross Gay (1974-).
I realize many of the works I selected this month (and for years prior) may seem a little dark at times. But I love this poem so much because it speaks to my most hopeful self, the self that believes so fervently that amidst all this darkness there is so much life and light to be grateful for–not the least of which are beautiful words and all of you for taking the time to appreciate them alongside me.
“Sorrow is Not My Name”
—after Gwendolyn Brooks
No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.
—for Walter Aikens
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.
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.
Marie Howe (1950-) has a way of capturing loss and grief, of describing what it is to live with–and beyond–sorrow, that has always resonated with me. If you enjoy this poem, I recommend not only reading her books (especially What the Living Do), but also listening to this podcast on “The Poetry of Ordinary Time,” in which she’s interviewed by Krista Tippett.
So now it has our complete attention, and we are made whole.
We take it into our hands like a rope, grateful and tethered,
freed from waiting for it to happen. It is here, precisely
as we imagined.
If the man has died, if the child’s illness has taken a sudden
turn, if the house has burned in the middle of the night
and in winter, there is at least a kind of stopping that will
pass for peace.
Now when we speak it is with a great seriousness, and when
we touch it is with our own fingers, and when we listen
it is with our big eyes that have looked at a thing
and have not blinked.
There is no longer any reason to distrust us. When it leaves
it will leave like summer, and we will remember it as a break
in something that had seemed as unrelenting as coming rain
and we will be sorry to see it go.