What Issa Heard by David Budbill

Two hundred years ago Issa heard the morning birds

singing sutras to this suffering world.

I heard them too, this morning, which must mean,

since we will always have a suffering world,

we must also always have a song.

What Issa Heard

Issa was an 18th century Japanese haiku master and while this short poem doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 syllable format of traditional haiku, for me it has the same essence, that is, a profound message in very few words.

Budbill effortlessly makes the link between the morning birds singing sutras or wisdom teachings, to the suffering world over two hundred years ago and hearing them singing today. This must mean, he says, that there will always be the music of birds since we will always have a suffering world. Such a tender message of compassion for the universal experience of suffering and one of its counterparts, the comforts of the natural world.

I take comfort in the simple acknowledgement that the world suffers and that birds continue to sing – sorrow and beauty – always one with the other, no matter how great the suffering. While this message is simple, it is far from simplistic. Rather it is truth as only poetry can tell it.

I also want to add for your pleasure another deliciously brief and succinct poem of Budbill’s which needs no added words:

Oh, this life,
the now,
this morning,

which I
can turn
into forever

by simply
what is here,

is gone
by noon.

The Unbroken by Rashani Rea

There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open
to the place inside which is unbreakable
and whole
while learning to sing.

The Unbroken

I posted this poem three years ago, so it may be familiar to you. Feeling wrecked, I was searching for one that might speak to the unspeakable sorrow that I and many others are feeling following the horror this past weekend that placed Nova Scotia on the grievous map of mass shootings.

Nova Scotia is my heart home and though I did not specifically know these places nor their residents, I feel a personal resonance. And like all such incidents that we grieve, I am searching for a message of underlying possibility for going forward, for love and even beauty, strange as that may seem.

We are broken and shattered by these terrible deaths, yet Rea calls forth the unbroken, the unshatterable which she assures us is within us. There is sorrow beyond all grief leading to joy, and fragility that leads to strength. This hollow space too vast for words is what we must pass through, a darkness we must experience with each loss. We cannot be too quick to move away from this toward the light, and yet.

That cry deeper than all sound cuts our hearts open so that we may discover the place inside which is unbreakable and whole. The truth is that we all have that place inside which we can find when we give our grief voice, when we don’t turn away from it but allow it to be as it is until the time when we can once again find our joy and strength.

In the midst of our grief and outrage, we can learn how to sing. Will you sing with me?

For the Sake of Strangers by Dorianne Laux

No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another—a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them—
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.

For the Sake of Strangers

I love this poem for the way it brings together the apparent paradox of the grief that we all experience and the kindnesses that we also recognize – universal sorrow and the beauty of humanity.

I believe it to be true, her statement about grief, that we are obliged to carry it, regardless how heavy the weight. Carrying grief is really all we can do since it cannot be fixed or willed away. It is a natural part of our experience of living that we are invited to embrace.

But then she presents us with poignant examples of people helping one another – the young boy giving directions, the woman holding open the door, a stranger singing, a child who lifts his almond eyes and smiles. All these kindnesses reaching toward one another. Have you too not noticed the small kindnesses we are offering one another, because as another poet Naomi Shihab Nye says then it is only kindness that makes sense any more.

And we do not even have to search for these sweet offerings, they find us, wait for us, determined to keep me from myself. She reminds us that we all suffer, all experience the impulse at times to step off the edge / and fall weightless, away from the world. What keeps us here can be the simple acts of kindness we receive from strangers, each carrying their own grief yet still able to give of their own tender-hearted generosity.

May the many acts of kindness in this world reach out to you in your moments of sorrow as we go through these times.

Making Sense by Carrie Newcomer

Finding what makes sense
In senseless times
Takes grounding
Sometimes quite literally
In the two inches of humus
Faithfully recreating itself
Every hundred years.
It takes steadying oneself
Upon shale and clay and solid rock
Swearing allegiance to an ageless aquifer
Betting on all the still hidden springs.

You can believe in a tree,
With its broad-leafed perspective,
Dedicated to breathing in, and then out,
Reaching down, and then up,
Drinking in a goodness above and below
It’s splayed and mossy feet.
You can trust a tree’s careful
and drawn out way
of speaking.
One thoughtful sentence, covering the span of many seasons.

A tree doesn’t hurry, it doesn’t lie, 
It knows how to stand true to itself 
Unselfconscious of its beauty and scars, 
And all the physical signs of where 
and when It needed to bend,
Rather than break.
A tree stands solitary and yet in deepest communion,
For in the gathering of the many, 
There is comfort and courage, 
Perseverance and protection, 
From the storms that howl down from predictable 
Or unexplainable directions.    

In a senseless time
Hold close to what never stopped
Making sense.
Like love
Like trees
Like how a seed becomes a branch
And compost becomes seedlings again.
Like the scent at the very top of an infant’s head
Because there is nothing more right than that. Nothing.

It is all still happening
Even now.
Even now.

Making Sense

These are challenging, senseless times, these pandemic days, so what better time to hear from a poet who directs us toward finding what makes sense, what grounds us now. Grounding ourselves in the earth beneath our feet, the hidden springs beneath rock, and the trees. You can believe in a tree she says, its faithful breathing in and out, its broad-leafed perspective.

A tree knows how to stand true to itself, how to bend rather than break. A tree stands solitary and yet in deepest communion, and this is what we most need now in our solitude, this deepest communion with others where we can find comfort and courage, / Perseverance and protection.

At this time, the poet says, Hold close to what never stopped / Making sense. You know what those things are – love, trees, seeds – you will have your own list and it will be long. And yes, yes, the incomparable scent of an infant’s head – there is nothing more right than that. Nothing. Nothing.

Perhaps most importantly in these senseless times, is the reminder of what never stops, is the message: It is all still happening / Even now. Remember that. Remember that the love and the trees and the seeds and newborn life are all still happening to help ground us in our confusion. We can each find what makes sense to guide us in these disorienting times.

Written by the poet and songwriter Carrie Newcomer March 1, 2020

We Are of a Tribe by Alberto Rios

We plant seeds in the ground
And dreams in the sky,

Hoping that, someday, the roots of one
Will meet the upstretched limbs of the other.

It has not happened yet.
We share the sky, all of us, the whole world:

Together, we are a tribe of eyes that look upward,
Even as we stand on uncertain ground.

The earth beneath us moves, quiet and wild,
Its boundaries shifting, its muscles wavering.

The dream of sky is indifferent to all this,
Impervious to borders, fences, reservations.

The sky is our common home, the place we all live.
There we are in the world together.

The dream of sky requires no passport.
Blue will not be fenced. Blue will not be a crime.

Look up. Stay awhile. Let your breathing slow.
Know that you always have a home here.

We Are of a Tribe

Seeds and dreams, earth and sky, the iconic image of tree roots below spreading in a mirror image of tree limbs above. The poet says we all share the sky, all of us, the whole world. Never more so than now, we are standing on uncertain ground, standing in the unknown. Yet together, we are a tribe of eyes that look upward, as one being.

We know the earth is moving now, its boundaries shifting. Yet there is something steady to balance this, the dream of possibilities, of sky impervious to borders, fences, reservations. There is a place where we are all together in this world, our common home, our common humanity.

In this home we all share, Blue will not be fenced. Blue will not be a crime. Is this not true, when we look up at the sky – it is without boundaries, it does no wrong, it is simply blue. He invites us to look up, slow our breathing, rest in this knowing that you always have a home here.

This poem speaks to me of our deep need to remember that we belong to a tribe, a human family which shares this earth. To remember that if we ground ourselves in this knowledge, we will will feel our connection with one another. So, remember to look up, to know in your heart that blue is not a crime, to remember the bigger picture.

This poem was written in 2014 by Rios, the then Arizona state poet laureate. I first encountered this poem in Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai & Ruby R. Wilson. This is a collection well worth having and I will be drawing on it often in the coming weeks.