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
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.
Ahora que está tan sola la soledad
Joaquín Sabina, “Ahora que”
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
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.
She asks: why do you say Mama
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
I call myself and my own mother and you
all three of us, in one breath.
from Water & Salt
From the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), translated from Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali.
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.
fill your vases with water
for spring is here:
in this blossoming of wounds,
some roses may also.
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.
“Freedom in Ohio”
on my birthday
I want a future
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,
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,
A striking flash of verse by the acclaimed Serbian poet Radmila Lazic (1949-).
I sharpened knives
To welcome you
In the brilliance of their blades,
And among them,
My love sparkles
For your eyes only.
Translated by Charles Simic
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.