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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

poems are on car windshields all the way down the block

 

Thanks

by W.S. Merwin

 

Listen

with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

standing by the windows looking out

in our directions

 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

 

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you

 

with the animals dying around us

taking our feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

thank you we are saying and waving

dark though it is

 

 

I had a few more left so I left “Thanks” on another street—

 

Who doesn’t believe in gratitude? Every religion and most women’s magazines instruct us to grateful. It’s the key to happiness, we’re told over and over. I myself love to be grateful and raised my kiddos to believe it’s the thank-you note, not cleanliness, that’s next to godliness.

 

But there are limits, as we see in W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks.” Does it make sense, he seems to ask, dark though it is and even with nobody listening to run around saying thanks, thank you, thanks so much. We begin to look like idiots. Because the rote “thank you” can be as empty as “thoughts and prayers” if there’s no accompanying action. Against Merwin’s litany of terrible events— illness, violence, death, injustice, ecological disaster, aging and memory loss—saying “thanks” seems anemic if not downright silly.

 

Someone else might read the poem differently, perhaps as an injunction to stay grateful no matter what. But given Merwin’s activism, I can’t read it any other way.

 

I left the poem in downtown Detroit, the same day the city learned it had not been a finalist for the Amazon headquarters. Thanks a lot!

 

Here’s a bio of Merwin from an earlier post:

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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(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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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–

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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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Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like  getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling,  a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)

 

Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the deadand the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.

 

I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.

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There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:

How like you to be kind

Seeking to reassure

It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.

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At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)

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Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:

peering into each other’s faces,

slow to let go of each other’s hands

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Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”

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How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death

another space emptied by loss 

Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.

 

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No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.

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Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —

no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums 

–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.

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I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:

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Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.

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One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:

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A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).

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I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:

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Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.

 

 

 

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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,

disappear.

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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,

disappear.

 

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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