Posts Tagged ‘religion’

poem is on palm tree


Poem in Thanks

by Thomas Lux


Lord Whoever, thank you for this air

I’m about to in- and exhale, this hutch

in the woods, the wood for fire,

the light—both lamp and the natural stuff

of leaf-black fern, and wing.

For the piano, the shovel

for ashes, the moth-gnawed

blankets, the stone-cold water

stone-cold:  thank you.

Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here–––where I’ll gnash

it out, Lord, where I’ll calm

and work, Lord, thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!



Thomas Lux’s “Poem in Thanks” is a good prayer for the self-described “spiritual but not religious,” all those people who call the woods their church and the birds their choir. Given modern distaste for high-holy formality and the corresponding love of irreverence, Lux has a big audience.


The speaker in the poem is on a retreat of sorts, trying to get work done or work things out. He’s holed up in the woods in an old cabin with an old blanket, a fire pit, and water from the creek. In other words, his basic needs are met. He has air to breathe, water, shelter, light, warmth and presumably food. For these he offers thanks, beginning and ending his prayer in less-than-ecclesiastical language:


Lord Whoever. . .

thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!


The poem has a wonderful slapdash spontaneous quality, as if the cranky poet were drawn into prayers of gratitude against his will.


Funny thing though. Look past the cheeky irreverence and improvisations, and there’s actually theology and structure (call it formality).


I was surprised to count the lines—fourteen—and realize Lux wrote his prayer as a sonnet.


And then surprised again to realize “Poem of Thanks” is less spoken prayer than a hymn. It’s no accident that


Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here


echoes the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:


Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home


The last four lines, with the thrice-repeated, direct-address “Lord,” sound hymnal as well.


As for the theology, look no further than the first line, “thank you.” Gratitude is foundational to all religions, and Lux has trained his eye to see the graces in every part of life, the good and the bad—in the things we have that we need (Give us this day our daily bread); in those things we have that we need but aren’t perfect (the moth-gnawed blankets); in the things that are bonuses, a few levels-up on a Maslow scale (the ability to make music and art whether it be on the piano or on the page); and in those things that irritate and distract us from our work (the goddamn birds).


That Lux is a true believer in giving thanks for all things at all times is illustrated by this anecdote from poet, memoirist and novelist Mary Karr:

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.


Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.


For what? I wanted to know.


. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.


It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.


At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?


To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.


In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?


No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.


(You can read her complete essay here.)


I taped “Poem in Thanks” to a palm tree next to Hanalei’s Waioli Mission Church, established 1834.


I’ll re-post Lux’s biography from a past post.

Thomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist—his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.


Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.


He directed the poetry program at Georgia Tech. He was married three times, had one daughter, and died in 2017 of lung cancer.



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the poem’s first home


“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”



A few weeks back I left this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on the Maha’ulepu Trail on the island of Kauai. Maha’ulepu is revered not only as the last undeveloped coastline in southern Kauai, but also as a Hawaiian heritage site, with ancient burial grounds, ruins of a heiau (Hawaiian temple), and the bones of extinct species still being discovered.


The trail, 8 miles round trip, runs along limestone cliffs high above the crashing surf, dropping to empty beaches and rising up again. On one side of the trail are ancient fossils, petroglyphs, and caves, and on the other a lush golf course and mountain view. Each turn of the sandy path brings an ever more beautiful view. It was tough to decide where to leave the poem I carried in my pocket.


my niece adds to the natural beauty around her


I first attached it to a twig and stuck it in the sand, but the day was windy and would quickly turn Whitman’s words into trash. I was not going to be the haole who left trash in a place of such archeological, historical and spiritual significance.


So I walked on. Then I remembered that further up on the trail was a hideaway spot where visitors are encouraged to leave something behind on a makeshift altar to friendship and aloha.


So there the prose poem found a home.

wonder if it’s still there


I’m calling this a “prose poem” but it’s actually taken from an essay that prefaces Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Leaves, our quintessential American epic, is a collection of 343 poems (originally published as twelve and re-issued and expanded throughout Whitman’s life) that are optimistic in tone, democratic in spirit, innovative in form, and bold in subject matter. Whitman was after a new and looser form of poetry, a new openness towards the body and sexuality, a new approach to race relations, and a new American religion. Still, there’s something ancient about his words. They sound as if they were etched on stone tablets. I’m no Whitman scholar, but I noticed right away how similar the first sentence of Whitman’s paragraph is to Exodus 12:11. This is the passage where God gives Moses instructions for the first Passover:


This is how you shall eat it: with your waist girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand


More to the point, the same sentence of Whitman’s has kinship with Exodus 19, the passage where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments:


This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: Exodus 19


The echo must be deliberate. The Old Testament structure is the perfect foil for the new American commandments Whitman offers. In place of ten commandments, he gives twelve. In place of Thou shalt not’s (eight of the ten, anyway), he offers You shall. His commands are all stated affirmatively. And then there’s the content, which is anti-command-following, at least anti the rules people of his time were accustomed to. Re-examine, dismiss, he says, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown. And this, my hands-down favorite: STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY. I put it in all caps because in this age of extreme division, it needs to be shouted. People of all political persuasions would do well to think, STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY, every time they encounter views opposite their own.


The covenant, too, differs sharply from the one in Exodus. The Israelites’ “reward” for following the commandments was to be called God’s chosen people. The reward for following Whitman’s is to be called a poem, a living, breathing poem. From between the lashes of your eyes to every joint in your body the flesh becomes word and not the other way around.


Because I left Whitman’s piece in Hawaii, an unlikely spot if there ever was one for the words of a native New Yorker, I can’t help but think of another set of commandments. Or to put it differently, another guide for righteous living. I’m talking about the Aloha Spirit, and it’s got nothing to do with leis and hula dancers. Hawaiians take the Aloha Spirit so seriously they even put it in their state constitution.


Even though it’s long and will stretch the length of this post past anyone’s patience, I want to print the law in whole. I leave it to others to write the dissertation on how Whitman’s philosophy relates to the A.S. law–I only suggest that although one celebrates the individual and the other a culture of collectivism, both place a high value on connection, authenticity and the spiritual aspects of life.




[§5-7.5] The Aloha Spirit.


(a) The Aloha Spirit is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the Self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, Aloha, the following unuhi laulâ loa (free translation) may be used:


* Akahai, meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;

* Lôkahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;

* Olu`olu, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;

* Ha`aha`a, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;

* Ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.


These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.


* Aloha is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation.

* Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.

* Aloha is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.

* Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.


(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to The Aloha Spirit. [L 1986, c 202, §1]



Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, the second of nine children. His mother and his father, a carpenter, were sympathetic to Quaker thought but never actually became Quakers. The same is true of Whitman throughout his life.


The family was poor and forced to move often. When he was eleven Whitman quit school and started to work, first as an office boy in a lawyer’s office and then as an apprentice to a printer, where he stayed till he was seventeen. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse for five years, and in his early twenties became a full-time journalist and started a weekly newspaper. He worked as an editor for newspapers in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Orleans. Meanwhile he was writing the poems that would form the original Leaves of Grass, which he produced and published himself in 1855. The sexual content in the book was controversial—even banned in Boston–and over the years Whitman failed to get work and lost work because of it.


During the Civil War he served as a nurse and later as a government clerk. The last eighteen years of his life he faced serious health issues but continued to work on new editions of his masterwork. He published the “deathbed” version only four months before he died at age 72 of tuberculosis.


Leaves of Grass has inspired more than mere controversy—it’s inspired writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsburg and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s been translated into every major language and continues to inspire both pop culture (Gilmore Girls, Dead Poet’s Society, Breaking Bad, Levi’s commercials,) and more highbrow pursuits (Iggy Pop’s recitation is worth listening to; here’s one by Lana del Rey, and here a nude dance interpretation), not to mention romantic ones. (Bill Clinton’s gift to Monica Lewinsky, remember?)



** If you want to read more about Leaves of Grass, link to this this piece by poet Robert Haas. Interestingly, in the excerpt from his book (scroll down when you link), Haas mentions that poet Galway Kinnell once said that Leaves of Grass is so rich in vowel sounds it might as well have been written in Hawaiian.





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If I had any sense I’d be in the kitchen right now, chopping and endlessly washing mixing bowls and spatulas. Instead I’m sitting at the computer. I’ll pay for it tomorrow with panic and exhaustion, but meantime, here’s a few poems for Thanksgiving.


At the grocery store I left Czeslaw Milosz’s”Encounter” in an empty aisle  where I would encounter no one, next to one of Paul Newman’s products.


O my love, where are they, where are they going–  sounds like a lovelier version of what my husband and I say to each other after the too-quickly-grown-up kids leave home after the weekend.


(The words that got cut off in the picture are “at dawn.” Sorry for that.)


Outside another grocery store (because one grocery store is never enough for Thanksgiving preparations), I left e.e. cummings’ poem in an abandoned grocery cart. Maybe it was mine. (Poem is to the right of the “Ayar” ad, on the seat of the grocery cart.)


i thank You God for most this amazing/day could be the start of dinner time grace. Little kids might like the twisty-ness of the lines.



Still at the grocery store, I put Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by a credit card machine at the check-out.


I’ve long had a few lines of this poem committed to memory

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–

A Ribbon at a time–


and this, one of my favorite images from any poem, ever

The Hills untied their Bonnets–


The beauty of that, when I see it and when I read it here, fills me with gratitude for the world as it is and the world as only a poet can see it.



Finally, I left Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” at Starbucks. Where I was sitting for over an hour, once again not cooking.


What does the agony in “Vietnam” have to do with Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder. As we gather with family and friends to enjoy a bounty of food and the comfort of safe shelter, let’s remember those who have none of those things. Let’s give our thanks for what we have and leave space in our hearts for victims of war, for refugees losing hope–



And in the last few minutes before I give myself over to cooking, let me thank all you dear readers and commentators. I am so grateful for your readership and support.


Happy Thanksgiving to all!





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The Travelling Onion

by Naomi Shihab Nye


“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an

object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion

entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook


When I think how far the onion has traveled

just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise

all small forgotten miracles,

crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,

pearly layers in smooth agreement,

the way the knife enters onion

and onion falls apart on the chopping block,

a history revealed.


And I would never scold the onion

for causing tears.

It is right that tears fall

for something small and forgotten.

How at meal, we sit to eat,

commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma

but never on the translucence of onion,

now limp, now divided,

or its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,




It is right that tears fall, Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her ode to the onion. I love the onion as much as anyone, but I can’t take such a philosophical view of it. I dread the chop. The dice is worse. Mincing is torture. What with my dry sockets from thyroid eye disease, dismantling onions can feel like the knife is working at my eye rather than the onion. I’ve tried it all—biting on a wooden spoon, wearing goggles, refrigerating the onion, cuisinarting the heck out of it, rinsing after peeling. Nothing helps. (To my fellow sufferers: I’ve just learned, thanks to a youtube video of the inimitable Julia Child, that painless onion chopping is possible if the knife is sharp enough. A sharp knife reduces onion juice splatter and allows the chopper to chop faster than tears can form.)


Mulling over that same line–It is right that tears fall–I heard something familiar, something ecclesiastical. In the Catholic mass and in many other Christian church services, the priest (or minister) says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” The congregation responds, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” (Or in the newly translated Catholic mass, the less melodious, “It is right and just.”) I don’t think this is coincidental. Shihab Nye was, after all, a religious studies major in college, and in this particular poem, religious phrasing and imagery are around every corner, like an old chapel stuffed with icons and statues.


Beginning with the epigraph on the ancient worship of the onion, the poem elevates the lowly vegetable, injecting it with a spirituality most cooks do not. The speaker considers the miracle of the onion and wants to fall to her knees in a prayer of praise. As the onion is peeled apart and unlayered, it’s layered with more meaning, becomes a holy object. The crackly, pearly paper of its skin is like a sacred text, its inside a fleshy sacrifice split open by a knife. Then comes a shared meal, a communion of sorts, graced by a limp onion, a death of sorts, and the understanding of the onion’s core purpose, the sacrifice of one for the good of all:


its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,



As much as the poem identifies the onion’s honorable career, it describes another honorable career, that of the poet. What is the work of a poet but to find “all small forgotten miracles”? It’s one of the reasons I love Naomi Shihab Nye. She shines light on ordinary events and people and things to show readers the wonders of the world as it is.


I left “Travelling Onion” at the motherhouse of a religious order my niece is in. This is a teaching order and semi-cloistered. The sisters interact with the outside world as students, teachers and principals—but back at the convent they practice silence, sleep in cells, and keep to a strict schedule of prayer, communal meals, communal exercise, and housekeeping. These sisters wear the full habit, shoe-length gowns with oversized rosaries hanging from their belts, hair shorn under long veils, blue aprons for kitchen work, blue overcoats for the cold. Their contact with family is limited and most everything they do is regulated.


Like the onion, these sisters work quietly behind the scenes, unheralded, unknown to most. Their work of teaching and praying is all for the sake of others.


My niece and her grandmother

My niece and her grandmother

You’d think this kind of order would be dying out in this age of selfies and self-promotion, but the convent is busting at the seams with postulants. Whenever I’ve visited, I meet cheerful and well-spoken sisters who love to laugh. You won’t find young women of such poise and confidence outside the debate team at Wellesley College or re-runs of Xena: Warrior Princess.


(I just saw my niece at her sister’s wedding in Tallahassee where she walked down the aisle as a most striking bridesmaid. She was excited when I told her I had left a poem at the convent back in the spring, so here, Sister Marianna, this is for you!)


I’ve posted on Naomi Shihab Nye before, so I’ll just copy and paste the bio I wrote in a previous post.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 1.52.15 PMNaomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.

She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels. She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours. Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.

In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.

She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.

You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together. Gravelly and fun.

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poem is inside clear bag of clean laundry for the homeless

The Beginning

“Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?” the baby asked

its mother.

She answered, half crying, half laughing, and clasping the

baby to her breast-

“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.

You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games; and when with

clay I made the image of my god every morning, I made the unmade

you then.

You were enshrined with our household deity, in his worship

I worshipped you.

In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my

mother you have lived.

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have

been nursed for ages.

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered

as a fragrance about it.

Your tender softness bloomed in my youthful limbs, like a glow

in the sky before the sunrise.

Heaven’s first darling, twain-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you

have stranded on my heart.

As I gaze on your face, mystery overwhelms me; you who belong

to all have become mine.

For fear of losing you I hold you tight to my breast. What

magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of


Rabindranath Tagore

hidden in a flowered pillowcase


Where do I come from, Mommy? is a question most children ask.  (Usually not, however, as early as the infant in the poem.)  For some parents the question is the chance they’ve been waiting for to expound on ideas ontological or anatomical. For others it’s an uncomfortable confluence of two bugaboo subjects—sexuality and spirituality.


Prudish parents of the past might have skirted around the question with talk of birds and bees, a visit from the stork, or a trip to the baby store.  Today’s more enlightened parents (or maybe just more verbose) might discuss mommy and daddy’s “special hug” (is it just me or is this off the charts in the ick factor?) or describe in confusing detail the sperm’s pursuit of the egg.


But I can think of no answer to Where do I come from? as beautiful as the one the mother in this poem gives her baby:

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered as a fragrance about it.


The poem combines a powerful message of parental love–

What magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of mine?

with a spiritual claim for the existence of the soul–

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have been nursed for ages

with a nearly scientific explanation–

twin-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you have stranded on my heart.


Or at least I see that as a scientific explanation.  Maybe because I’m the daughter of a physics professor, that line calls up an image of a light wave floating around the universe for eons until the light, landing on the mother’s heart, becomes more particle than wave and comes to fruition in the womb.  (Note:  if you are a scientist or have any training in the sciences, pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain. Pay no attention!)


“You who belong to all have become mine” sounds like an idea based on the First Law of Thermodynamics, that is, matter cannot be created or destroyed.  We are all made up of the same matter, matter that has existed in various forms since the beginning of time.  Regardless of religious beliefs, the First Law of Thermodynamics connects us to each other and to the earth.


"You were in the dolls of my childhood games": my oldest nurses her babydoll DeDe

Pseudo-science aside, it’s hard to believe this poem was written by a man.  “The Beginning” is tender, full of what is traditionally thought of as “feminine” sentiment.  A little girl plays with dolls and dreams of her future children.  The poet celebrates maternal love, not as a rigid way of defining gender roles, but as the primary creative force in the universe.  The child is loved by the mother of all mothers, the “deathless Spirit.”  This deity is clearly female.  She breastfeeds her babies, just as the God of the Old Testament in one passage is characterized as nursing her people.


Deep, soulful parental love imbues a child with a sense of her specialness.  Of course parents can go overboard with telling a child how special he is.  We’ve all witnessed failures of the self-esteem movement.  But when the specialness comes not from how well the child climbs the jungle gym but from a tremendous, a priori love from parents human and spiritual, security takes root.  And from security, responsibility.  A passage by Jewish theologian Martin Buber has always stuck with me, probably because it echoes what the nuns used to tell us:


“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique.  It is the duty of every person . . . to know . . . that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world.”


How wonderful if every child could have such knowledge.  For that reason I hid this poem in a bag of laundry I washed for South Oakland Shelter.  S.O.S. is a local Detroit organization that houses and feeds the homeless in shelters that rotate weekly from church to church and synagogue to synagogue.  Volunteers serve breakfast and dinner, and provide beds, bag lunches, showers, and transportation. It’s a beautiful program because the homeless come right to the tidy doors of the suburbs.  The ease of volunteering brings in many who might not choose to go to an inner city shelter.  It’s beautiful too because the homeless can feel part of a wider community.  I know I’m always going on and on about connection, but connection is what we all crave, especially those who can feel invisible at best and despised at worst.  Tagore’s poem speaks to each person to say that they are loved, they are a special part of the universe, they are a beautiful mystery.


Even for those who had an abusive mother or no mother at all, this poem offers a universal mother’s love.  Poet Rabindranath Tagore lost his mother in early childhood.  Perhaps this poem is a re-creation of the mother’s love he missed.


If you can put a western label on an eastern figure, Tagore (1861-1941) was surely a Renaissance man.  Born in India, he was a poet, novelist, composer, playwright, educator and painter.  And he was not just a dabbler.  He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote the national anthems for India and Bangladesh, his plays are still performed today, he founded a university, and his work in music and writing has influenced sitar maestros and poets from Neruda to Paz.  He was a close friend of Ghandi and Nehru, his work was championed by Yeats and Pound, and he was a very handsome man to boot.



After finding (or inventing) scientific ideas in this poem, I was excited to learn that Tagore was interested in physics.  He met with Albert Einstein a few times in 1930.  If you’re curious about theories of causality, you can read a transcript of their conversation here.  I found the discussion a little dry until the two got around to music and improvisation.  Who knew Einstein was so interested in music?


More to the point, who knew about Tagore?  I didn’t anyway.  It’s humbling, isn’t it, to discover such a towering figure of global culture.  Makes me realize that the gaps in my education are much, much bigger than the ones I’m already aware of, like those in science and sitar music.

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may 21

poem is taped to small post in front of truck


by Grace Paley

Some people set themselves tasks

other people say      do anything       only live

still others say

oh  oh     I will never forget you     event of my first life

I taped Paley’s poem to a post in front of a doomsday truck down on the national mall about a month ago.  Swarms of cheerful folks with matching black end-of-days t-shirts were handing out flyers on the cataclysm they expected on May 21.  Like everyone else, I avoided them as if their flyers were chocolate-coated doggie turds.

It’s a busy high school graduation weekend here in the Poem Elf household so I’m not going to spend much time teasing apart Grace Paley’s poem.   I’ll let the pictures do most of the work as I enjoy all over again the juxtaposition of poem and location:  Paley’s tiny breezy poem and the heavy-handed proclamation on the truck; Paley herself, Jewish and liberal, and those who would consign someone with her beliefs to the fires of hell.  On the other hand, both Paley and these rapturous conservative Christians could be described as activists and radicals.

What makes people drawn to these movements?  Maybe someone who doesn’t fit into any of the three categories Paley lists in her little poem.  Someone like Henry James’ character John Marcher in the short story “The Beast in the Jungle.”  Marcher believes so fervently that he’s destined for some great and spectacular fate that he spends his life waiting for it.  He misses out on the love that sits adoring before him in the person of his friend May.  His life, he realizes at the end of it, has been a waste.

Which translates neatly to the brethren waiting today for The Rapture.  Unless of course you’re unable to read this because your computer and yourself have been consumed in an earthquake.

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poem is on narrow tree just above the white arrow


by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The first task I set myself when trying to penetrate this poem (oh dear—a disturbing image–sounds like I keep a sex toy by my bookshelf) was to Google “blue iris.”  Did it have a symbolic meaning or cultural significance that I was unaware of? No, but I discovered it sure is a popular name for spas, paint colors and cafes.  The significance of the blue iris in this poem is simply that it’s a spectacular, Grand-Canyon-kind of flower, and looking at it could lead to an awe-filled experience of the Sublime such as the Romantic poets were fond of.


That kind of lofty emotion, Oliver says, does not have to be the starting point of prayer.   It’s interesting that her own starting point is a negative statement.  Sometimes it’s easier to define a complex idea by stating what it’s not: love is not jealous, or love is not all, as Edna St. Vincent Millay would say (who is relevant to this discussion, as you’ll see shortly).


In the second stanza Oliver employs two more negatives:  “don’t try” and “this isn’t.”  A pattern emerges underneath the seeming loose construction of the poem.  The three negative statements fall in the first two stanzas of the poem; the third holds only positive statements. The negative sets a tone of unease, of struggle. To enter in a prayerful state, the stillness and divine presence described in the third stanza, requires letting go, whittling away extraneous experience such as feelings of inadequacy or competition.  Oliver whittles away in a very mathematical fashion:  the first stanza has five lines, the second three, and the third, two.  A tidy little subtraction problem for the work of beginning a prayer.


The invisible structure of the poem is evident too in the last words of each of the first two stanzas. (I know from reading Oliver’s very helpful book on poetry that last words of lines have special import.) The word “patch” bridges the first two stanzas and recalls, even as it’s used as a verb, the weeds she studies.  And the word “doorway” is just that—a doorway into the gratitude of the third stanza, into prayer itself.


Gratitude is at the root of all major religions, and so it’s no wonder this poem can be found on blogs by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.  And Unitarians, of course.  The importance of gratitude may be today’s version of Kumbaya or have-a-nice-day-namaste, easy to dismiss as overused hokum, but, really, do you know any happy people who don’t radiate a spirit of gratitude, of wonderment?   Oliver seems to be a happy lady herself as is clear in her poem, “When Death Comes”:


When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


Mary Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935.  As a teenager she made a pilgrimage to the upstate New York home of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  She ended up living on Millay’s estate with Millay’s sister on and off for years. Millay was an early influence on Oliver (and you can read Oliver’s tribute to her predecessor here).  When I began writing this post, I would never have connected the two poets:  one is so formal, the other unpretentious and conversational.  (Listen here to Oliver’s plain-speaking recitation of a poem and compare it to Millay’s affected delivery.)  But now I see connections abound:  both are passionate lovers of nature, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, and are more popular with the public than with literary critics.


At the Millay house Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who was to become her partner of 40 years. (Six degrees of separation moment:  Cook was a close friend of filmmaker John Waters, who is the cousin of a good friend of my husband’s in high school, a boy I once kissed and who later told my husband he shouldn’t date me because I was too quiet.  Down, bitter girl, down.)


On a hike with some friends, feeling very grateful indeed for November sunshine and temps in the 60s, I taped the poem to a tree for the next hiker to find. I felt a little like a mother hiding holy cards in her grown children’s luggage.




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Just wanted to share a collage my daughter made using a picture she had taken for her photography class and a paraphrase of a favorite passage of mine.  The paraphrase is taken from Life of the Beloved, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who died in 1996.  Nouwen wrote the book following a request from a secular friend, journalist Fred Bratman, to explain the spiritual life to a non-spiritual audience.

The particular passage that I love begins with the idea that every situation, good or bad, leaves us with a choice to be bitter or grateful.

“When an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place; when a relationship is restored, there is always the question: ‘For how long?’;  when a wound is healed, there still can be some leftover pain. . . Where there is a reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness.  It is here that we are faced with the freedom to make a decision.  We can decide to be grateful or to be bitter.

[Nouwen describes the mentally handicapped residents he lives and works with as people who continually choose to be grateful and holds them up as models to follow.]

. . . When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant. What fascinates me so much is that every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for.  Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.”

November ushers in a season of sunless days in my state.  I’ll keep this collage on hand for when the dreariness gets the upper hand.

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