The Beauty of Hopelessness by Rebecca del Rio

You are hanging from a branch

by your teeth. No way to save yourself

or others who hang, too. Arms that cannot reach

any branch, legs stretch but

cannot find the smooth safe trunk.

All around, your loved ones, friends, strangers hang–teeth clamp bony twigs

that suspend necessary hopes

and plans.

It is hopeless. No rescue will arrive. So you relax, taste the clean, unfamiliar

tang of sap, feel the forgiving wind against

your waving arms, arms

that swim through emptiness.

Without hope, life is

focused, fluid, a ledge

of fragile earth suspended

over the ocean of unknowing, the end

of the branch. Life is

the glorious moment

before the fall when all

plans are abandoned, the love you give

as you hang, loving

those who hang with you.

The Beauty of Hopelessness

I’ve debated many choices this week, feeling the ripple effects of last week’s trauma which I cannot ignore, yet wanting as always to offer some of the beauty that is inherent in this life. I was intrigued of course by the paradox in this title – when have I ever heard those two concepts paired? Trust a poet to find a way.

As she opens with the image of hanging from a branch by your teeth, I immediately recalled the expression “hanging on by the skin of my teeth”, that tenuous hold on life that we have all experienced at some time. No way to save yourself but look, you are not alone, you are surrounded by loved ones, friends, strangers, hopes and plans suspended together.

Since the situation is hopeless and no rescue available, you relax, stop struggling, feel the forgiving wind against / your waving arms. Here in this place of no hope she tells us life is / focused, fluid, a ledge / of fragile earth suspended / over the ocean of unknowing. It is the glorious moment / before the fall when all / plans are abandoned. What I hear is that we meet that place of uncertainty, unknowing, which is out of our control and in that place what we have is the choice to give our love, to love all those who also hang by their teeth.

And by the end, I can see how there is beauty in hopelessness, room for more compassion and kindness when we stop hoping and wishing for things to be other than they are. May you know beauty in whatever state you find yourself at the start of this never-before year.


For a New Year by Holly Wren Spaulding

Let plain things please you again

and every ordinary Monday.

Bean soup in a white bowl,

firewood in your arms.

The weight of longing.

That you have survived is evidence

that nothing is assured

but you are lucky.

Looking up from this page

let all of it surprise you –

piled mail. other people, the air.

For a New Year

There are many poems about the new year, a time that causes all of us, much less poets, to reflect on what has transpired in the previous twelve months and what the coming months may bring. I first had in mind Anne Hillman’s We Look With Uncertainty but realized I had posted it back in March as we embarked on the unknown journey of the pandemic. The title still calls to me but I chose this one for its immediacy and simplicity which feel necessary as we move deeper into uncertainty albeit with a tender hopefulness.

What could be more simple than her invitation to Let plain things please you again as well as every ordinary Monday. In other words, any ordinary day, with ordinary things we tend to take for granted – soup, a white bowl, firewood in our arms. The weight of longing – this too is something we experience at times, perhaps not even knowing for what, just that inarticulate sense of something we are wanting.

That you have survived is evidence / that nothing is assured / but you are lucky. Reading this, know you have survived these challenging past months, yet as she says, this is not evidence that life is guaranteed but that good fortune has been with you. These are words to take in deeply and then, let all of it surprise you – and she returns us to the plain things, the ordinary days. This is what our lives are made of. Let us be surprised and aware and grateful as never before. May this new year please you.

Presence by Melissa Shaw-Smith

The year has rocked this world to its roots.
What if for one day each being put down
their burdens, their words of hate, their inhumanity
and breathed in the presence?
Stopped fighting for history, for fears, hopes, dreams
and stood facing the morning sun
letting the warmth of the moment
and the next, the next, accumulate like dust at their feet
Listened instead of spoke, acknowledged truth,
embraced silence.

What if for one day each being acknowledged the fear
and let it go? Suspended beliefs
opened their arms, drew strength
through earth, grass, rock, sand
Found the sparrow singing from a lone bush
the small heart-shaped cloud
Felt the currents of air wash over them, mingle
with the breath, and let the seams unravel
borders blend, walls dissolve
and be as
one.

Presence

This poem was written in December of 2016, a different year that rocked this world to its roots, and yet it seems appropriate again at the end of 2020. The poet offers the ‘what-ifs’ that I’m sure we all have contemplated especially as we reflect on what is going on now in this world. What if each being put down / their burdens, their words of hate, their inhumanity / and breathed in the presence? If we stood facing the morning sun, listened, acknowledged truth, / embraced silence – to listen more than to speak, to actually hear the silence.

And what if each being acknowledged the fear / and let it go? Do I even know how to do that? If we suspended beliefs that keep us locked into our narrow viewpoint. If we drew strength from the earth, the singing sparrow, the small heart-shaped cloud. What if we felt the air around us mingling with our breath so that the seams and borders and walls disappeared until we became one.

Though it might seem an unrealistic, idyllic imagining, I believe she is saying it is all premised on being in the moment, being present to the presence of all that is around us, our unity, letting the warmth of the moment / and the next, the next, accumulate like dust. As John Lennon said, Imagine.

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

A Portable Paradise

Paradise originally meant ‘an enclosed garden’, so I’ve heard, perhaps Eden or even heaven. But in this poem, Robinson is speaking of the now, this moment, wherever you are. I’ve also heard of it as a ‘place of contentment’ which suits me just fine – I know what my paradise moments are; I’m sure you do too.

I didn’t have a grandmother who advised me to carry it always on my person so I’d be the only one to know it existed, but I think we all learned something about this. How there is a place, whether in space, time, memory that we know is our own paradise. And you know if life puts you under pressure, what we commonly call stress these days, its outline is there to feel in your pocket, smell its piney scenthum its anthem under your breath.

And if your stresses are sustained and daily, and whose are not, then he advises us to find an empty room and empty that paradise from your pocket onto a desk: your white sands, green hills and fresh fish. Love that he includes water through fish; I need my maritime touchstones. Then he says Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope / of morning, knowing it will take you into sleep – a peace that you carry with you, always within reach.

What is your paradise? Do you keep it close? Does it bring you contentment? Know that no one can take it from you – it’s portable; it belongs to you. May you know the paradise of this moment.

Imaginary Conversation by Linda Pastan

You tell me to live each day
as if it were my last. This is in the kitchen
where before coffee I complain
of the day ahead—that obstacle race
of minutes and hours,
grocery stores and doctors.

But why the last? I ask. Why not
live each day as if it were the first—
all raw astonishment, Eve rubbing
her eyes awake that first morning,
the sun coming up
like an ingénue in the east?

You grind the coffee
with the small roar of a mind
trying to clear itself. I set
the table, glance out the window
where dew has baptized every
living surface.

Imaginary Conversation

How often have you heard that admonition to live each day as if it were your last? More than once I’m guessing; certainly I have. It’s a kind of pay attention/wake up to your life piece of advice. Especially considering the day ahead of you – that obstacle race / of minutes and hours, / grocery stores and doctors. We all have our own obstacle race through the busy days that keep us focused ahead of ourselves.

But why the last? the poet asks – such an important question. Why not / live each day as if it were the first – / all raw astonishment ? The first day! I so love that question – the first day of your conscious life, an innocence never again to be felt. And how would you live it? Grinding the coffee, setting the table, glancing our the window / where dew has baptized every / living surface. Even the word baptized intimates an initiation into life. And every surface is living if we can look past our preconceptions.

So why not let yourself be astonished – live this day as if it were your first. You may be surprised, even a little, by how the world reveals itself to you.

Prescription for the Disillusioned by Rebecca del Rio

Come new to this day.
Remove the rigid overcoat of experience,
the notion of knowing,
the beliefs that cloud your vision.

Leave behind the stories of your life.
Spit out the sour taste of unmet expectation.
Let the stale scent of what-ifs waft back into the swamp
of your useless fears.

Arrive curious, without the armor of certainty,
the plans and planned results of the life you’ve imagined.
Live the life that chooses you,
new every breath, every blink of your astonished eyes.

Prescription for the Disillusioned

It is always a good time to be reminded of these simple truths but perhaps never more than right now. Come new to this day. What an invitation! Taking off that rigid overcoat of experience, our certainties and beliefs that cloud your vision. Del Rio invites us to let go of old stories, the sour taste of unmet expectation. the what-ifs we all carry, our useless fears.

Instead she directs us to Arrive curious, dropping the armor of certainty, those ways we protect ourselves from what we don’t know and perhaps fear. Leave behind the plans and planned results of the life you’ve imagined – these are the matters of expectations and disappointments, the ways we become disillusioned.

Most of all, Live the life that chooses you – make it yours, new in every breath, be astonished at all it has to offer. What if each day holds all the possibilities we cannot foresee? Come new to this day!

There is much to create disillusionment at this point in history and yet, a poet can remind us how to meet these times, allowing life to choose us and each of us to choose how to greet each day as new, with every blink of your astonished eyes. May we each be astonished in wonderment and gratitude as we live our lives each new day.

Joy by Julia Cadwallader-Staub

Who could need more proof than honey—

How the bees with such skill and purpose
enter flower after flower
sing their way home
to create and cap the new honey
just to get through the flowerless winter.

And how the bear with intention and cunning
raids the hive
shovels pawful after pawful into his happy mouth
bats away indignant bees
stumbles off in a stupor of satiation and stickiness.

And how we humans can’t resist its viscosity
its taste of clover and wind
its metaphorical power:
don’t we yearn for a land of milk and honey?
don’t we call our loved ones “honey?”

all because bees just do, over and over again, what they were made to do.

Oh, who could need more proof than honey
to know that our world
was meant to be

and

was meant to be
sweet?

Joy

On this dreary beginning of December day, I went looking for something to lighten the day, a drop of sweetness. I’ve enjoyed Cadwallader-Staub’s poetry before and posted Blackbirds just this past June.

She opens and closes with her inviting question Who could need more proof than honey? Then begins with the bees who sing their way home to make new honey just to get through the flowerless winter. I love the phrase ‘flowerless winter’ because it is true in this part of the world and is in such sharp contrast to the image of bees in and out of summer flowers.

Then we see the cunning bear raiding the hive until it stumbles off in a stupor of satiation and stickiness. Oh happy alliteration! Reminds me of Pooh bear in my childhood and his constant craving for the sweetness of honey which I also shared.

Next she describes how humans cannot resist its taste of clover and wind. Clover yes, of course, but wind I had not considered. She reminds us of honey’s metaphorical power: an idyllic land of milk and honey; the term of endearment we have probably all used to express our love.

And all of this just because bees do what they were made to do. She offers their honey as proof that our world / was meant to be. And more than that, it was meant to be / sweet. Makes me appreciate our disappearing bees even more than before. So go taste a spoonful of honey before it’s too late – our pandemic world needs all the sweetness it can get.

Choices by Tess Gallagher


I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

Choices

This is the kind of poem that invites me to read slowly and read again. I like it for its haiku-like simplicity – not many words but capable of expressing what most of us would require many words to say.

I suppose on the surface, when she sees a nest clutched in / the uppermost branches, it could just be about the value of nests and the birds they harbour. But I hear so much more about choices we make that may have effects we do not even realize. She plans to cut saplings, / and clear a view to snow / on the mountain but seeing the nest, suddenly she realizes taking away the trees to see the mountain will also take away the nest.

We make choices and there are consequences we may not even realize. It’s both simple and complex – the view of the mountain or the nests in the trees; in fact, in every tree, / an unseen nest / where a mountain / would be. Neither one right nor wrong, just different outcomes. Makes you think about your choices, yes?

Candles by Carl Dennis

If on your grandmother’s birthday you burn a candle   
To honor her memory, you might think of burning an extra   
To honor the memory of someone who never met her,   
A man who may have come to the town she lived in   
Looking for work and never found it.   
Picture him taking a stroll one morning,   
After a month of grief with the want ads,   
To refresh himself in the park before moving on.   
Suppose he notices on the gravel path the shards   
Of a green glass bottle that your grandmother,   
Then still a girl, will be destined to step on   
When she wanders barefoot away from her school picnic   
If he doesn’t stoop down and scoop the mess up   
With the want-ad section and carry it to a trash can.   

For you to burn a candle for him   
You needn’t suppose the cut would be a deep one,   
Just deep enough to keep her at home   
The night of the hay ride when she meets Helen,   
Who is soon to become her dearest friend,   
Whose brother George, thirty years later,   
Helps your grandfather with a loan so his shoe store   
Doesn’t go under in the Great Depression   
And his son, your father, is able to stay in school   
Where his love of learning is fanned into flames,   
A love he labors, later, to kindle in you.   

How grateful you are for your father’s efforts   
Is shown by the candles you’ve burned for him.   
But today, for a change, why not a candle   
For the man whose name is unknown to you?   
Take a moment to wonder whether he died at home   
With friends and family or alone on the road,   
On the look-out for no one to sit at his bedside   
And hold his hand, the very hand   
It’s time for you to imagine holding.

Candles

The first time I read this poem, I felt as if someone had told my story, not all of it but the first part, the part my mother told to me. About how as a young girl in the 1920s a man came to their door one day looking for work, asking for food. My grandmother made him a thick ham sandwich which he ate on the porch with a glass of milk while she gave him directions to the Ford Motor Company not far away where he might ask for work. My mother knew nothing more of this story but it stirred a curiosity in me – whatever became of this wandering man?

Suppose someone in your family could trace their history back to a simple event such as this, a small kindness that led to an apparently random series of events – a friendship, a marriage, a loan, an education that works its way to you, to your life.

As the poet says, why not light a candle for the man whose name is unknown to you and to wonder how his life unfolded, whether he died at home with family and friends or alone on the road. Can you imagine this person you have never met, imagine holding his or her hand, whispering thank you, wondering how different your life might have been without this unknown person.

For whom might you light a candle now?

Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

Sometimes

Apparently, the poet Pugh now disclaims this poem, originally written about a sportsman with a drug problem, expressing her hope that he would get over it, because it has since been misunderstood as simplistic optimism for the world in general. Nevertheless, in this week after the week of high anxiety and bated breath, it seemed to me to speak to the idea that in fact, sometimes things do work out.

She gives examples of how things can go right, from muscadel / faces down frost through to what people are capable of, becoming what they were born for. There is genuine and realistic optimism in her belief that Sometimes our best intentions do not go / amiss. For surely that can be true, especially when there is great effort behind it.

I especially like the line The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow / that seemed hard frozen. Whether that be the literal sun in our universe or the warmth of the kindness of others, our grief which can feel solid and immovable, can be softened. As the poet says, may it happen for you, because sometimes things don’t go, after all, / from bad to worse. Sometimes they really do get better.