A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

A Small Needful Fact

After all the news, the facts – truth and untruth, it takes a poet to tenderly place such horror, such outrage into a story-image that people can digest and remember and not turn away from. As you will know, Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York 6 years ago; this poem was published the following year. Many have been killed since but the latest murder of George Floyd, echoing Garner’s phrase “I can’t breathe”, sadly shows how little has changed.

What I appreciate about Gay’s approach to this almost impossible-to-talk-about subject (and impossible not to talk about), is that he speaks of the time before, of Garner’s work as a gardener for the city. The repetition of perhaps, and in all likelihood, shows that he is imagining what this man’s life may have been – a real person, like you, like me. Plants which he put gently into the earth and which most likely continue to grow and continue to do what such plants do. All the necessary, important and pleasant things they do, like making it easier / for us to breathe.

A man helping plants grow to create oxygen so that we can breathe more easily. A man whose own oxygen was taken away from him so that he could not breathe – six years ago, last week. This is such a potent image that, to me, says so much more than ‘he was killed’ or even that ‘he was murdered’. The contrast between creating plant life and taking away human life is excruciatingly painful and it is this poet’s voice which conveys all this so memorably. A small needful fact that may make it harder for us to breathe.

The Happiest Day by Linda Pastan

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
Perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

The Happiest Day

Well, it’s late May but the scent of lilacs and other flowering trees is much more than a promise. Our parents, the house/s we grew up in, our children – all this such a part of our everyday lives that we rarely stop to consider if we were happy, focusing instead on the small irritations that are like salt on melon even though they simply made the fruit taste sweeter. Now there is a memorable, sensory image – can you taste it?

The news of the day, the bottomless litany of strikes, wars, fires and now of course, covid-related stories, can keep us fully occupied. And yet, if someone could only stop the camera / and ask me: are you happy? How often do we ask ourselves that? Would you notice how the morning shone in the reflected / color of lilac? Would that not be a definition of happiness itself?

After reading this poem yesterday, I noticed a sensation, difficult to describe even to myself, that was certainly contentment, an ephemeral burst of happiness. This is how happiness is – fleeting, transitory, yet real. Would I have noticed it if not for the question? I believe it is there more often than not if I simply turn my attention toward the color of lilacs, the song of the mating cardinals, the children playing on the street.

Are you happy? May I offer you a steaming cup of coffee?

When Giving is All We Have by Alberto Rios

                                              One river gives
                                              Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

When Giving is All We Have

I first heard this poem spoken in Ireland at a gathering of lovers of poetry I attended and it has stayed with me since. I’ve long been intrigued by the inexorable twinning of giving and receiving, how one cannot exist without the other.

Rios speaks of the many elements of giving. We give because we received, we did not, we were changed, we were not, we are better for it or wounded by it. Giving has many faces with an old story we return to over and again.

When we each give what we have, blue for you, yellow for me, together we are simple green. Simple, yes. We give what we do not have, what we do have to give. Surely you know those times you have given when you thought you had nothing to offer. And together, we made / Something greater from the difference.

This is how it is every day. We give, we receive, hand to hand – mine to yours, yours to mine, really two sides of the same coin. And each time, something new is created. Try it and see if that isn’t true – simple green, like the colour of spring that surrounds us now. And isn’t it delectable.

The Word That is a Prayer by Ellery Akers

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

The Word That is a Prayer

What is the word that people all over the earth are saying with you? Did you guess it right away? I didn’t on first reading but as soon as I read Please, it caught my heart and the poem has lingered long in my mind. In any language it can hold a similar meaning – a request for attention, for assistance, a petition.

The child, the woman, the man knocking at the window though you don’t go back, though someone just prayed to you the way you pray. How many times in a day do you silently or aloud make that request no matter to what being you pray, even if you don’t believe, don’t even call it prayer.

This small weightless word that could float up to God like the feather it is, asking for whatever we want to be or not, before it falls back to earth as rain, as ice, and you walk in that weather every day. Because this is what we do with that one-word prayer, offering it up each time we hope to be heard.

I had a lovely exchange with Ellery Akers last week in which she generously offered for me to post this poem to share with you. This is one of several on her website which I encourage you to visit. https://elleryakers.com

Day Dream by A.S. J. Tessimond

One day people will touch and talk perhaps
And loving be natural as breathing and warm as
And people will untie themselves, as string is unknotted,
Unfold and yawn and stretch and spread their fingers,
Unfurl, uncurl like seaweed returned to the sea,
And work will be simple and swift
as a seagull flying,
And play will be casual and quiet
as a seagull settling,
And the clocks will stop, and no one will wonder
or care or notice,
And people will smile without reason,
Even in winter, even in the rain.

Day Dream

This poem was written by the British poet Tessimond in the first half of the last century and introduced to me by my dear friend John Hillman a few years ago. It has a timeless quality, sounding as relevant today, perhaps more so, than when it was written.

I love the imagery of people untying themselves as string is unknotted, unfolding, unfurling – all the language of tightly curled bodies as we perhaps find ourselves now. Uncurled, like seaweed returned to the sea, which if you have ever seen it, is so liquid and languorous and supple.

Work will be simple and swift, play will be casual and quiet. Imagine. Without struggle, just as natural and normal as breathing. And the clocks will stop because we will not need them – time will take on a new dimension.

And people will smile without reason as we do when we are at ease with ourselves, when we feel part of the larger community of this world. Even in winter, even in the rain – because weather will not define us, will not inhibit us.

And so, this is his daydream. Perhaps it may be yours also – to live more effortlessly, as I believe we long to live. Perhaps it is a dream we will embody as we move forward into our new unknown world. Regardless, it is a daydream worth dreaming.

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.