BY MISHA PONNURAJU · It is weird being a poet as the world seems to be on the brink of apocalypse. The time to reverse climate change is dwindling, the United States is continuing its tradition of human rights violations, and it’s likely that there will be another recession soon. When all of this is happening, I always wonder, “Why poetry?” What does it offer to the poet, to its readers?
Poetry can make everyday objects from ordinary life sacred, and I believe there is hope in everyday life. None of these poems may solve the world’s problems, but it teaches that there is beauty that can put the mind at ease, and enough of the world that is worth saving. It is essential to take the steps we can protect our Earth from heat and hatred, but it is equally necessary to protect our hearts from getting cold. These poems bring warmth. To begin New Forum’s summer blog, I thought I’d share some poems that fosters light in an ever-darkening world.
- “The Travelling Onion” by Naomi Shihab Nye – from The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry
“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.
Nothing makes me feel softer than the thought of a vegetable traveling thousands of miles just to feed me. By the second and third line of this poem, my heart feels like it has been stopped in its track. The line, “all my forgotten miracles” makes me want to consider all of the wonderful and healthy meals I have eaten, all of the kind hands that have prepared them and say a proper thank you.
- The Simple Truth by Philip Levine – From The Simple Truth
I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes, took them home, boiled them in their jackets and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt. Then I walked through the dried fields on the edge of town. In middle June the light hung on in the dark furrows at my feet, and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers squawking back and forth, the finches still darting into the dusty light. The woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables at the road-side stand and urging me to taste even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way, she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said, "Even if you don't I'll say you did." Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme, they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker, the glass of water, the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames, they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves. My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965 before I went away, before he began to kill himself, and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious, it stays in the back of your throat like a truth you never uttered because the time was always wrong, it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken, made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt, in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
“Some things/you know all your life.” This line sneaks up on me. Levine elevates these essential truths—whether it be the way your world looked when you were a child, or the goodness of the strangers around you—and puts them on the dinner table. We are not to divert our eyes away from these truths. The world is falling apart, we know this. But we have control over our essential truths, and we can hold onto them and taste their goodness. We can live on this.
- “If All My Relationships Fail and I Don’t Have Children, Do I Even Know What Love Is” by Patrick Rosal – From Poem-a-Day
This fireman comes every afternoon
to the café on the corner
dressed for his shift in clean dark blues
This time it’s the second Wednesday of January
and he’s meeting his daughter again
who must be five or six
and who is always waiting for her father like this
in her charcoal gray plaid skirt
with green and red stripes
She probably comes here straight from school
her glasses a couple nickels thick
By now I know that she can sit (except
for her one leg swinging from the chair)
absolutely still while her father pulls
fighters’ wraps from his work bag
and begins half way down the girl’s forearm
winding the fabric in overlapping spirals
slowly toward her fist then he props
her wrist like a pro on his own hand
unraveling the black cloth weaving it
between her thumb and forefinger
around the palm taut but
not so much that it cuts off the blood then
up the hand and between the other fingers
to protect the knuckles the tough
humpback guppies just under the skin
He does this once with her left then again
to her right To be sure her pops knows he has done
a good job she nods Good job Good
Maybe you’re right I don’t know what love is
A father kisses the top of his daughter’s head
and knocks her glasses cockeyed
He sits back and downs the last of the backwash
in his coffee cup They got 10 minutes to kill
before they walk across the street down the block
and out of sight She wants to test
her dad’s handiwork by throwing
a couple jab-cross combos from her seat
There is nothing in the daughter’s face
that says she is afraid
There is nothing in the father’s face
to say he is not He checks his watch
then holds up his palms as if to show his daughter
that nothing is burning In Philadelphia
there are fires I’ve seen those in my lifetime too
This poem is a whirlwind. Receiving the poem of this title in the subject of a Poem-a-Day email was a gut-punch in the middle of my morning. However, the poem’s blunt confrontation of deep fear is balanced with a tender observation. The poem’s speaker takes note of the interactions between the firefighter and his daughter with such earnestness and amazement. Seeing love happen in the plain sight makes me feel safer, even if it is within the world of the poem. Also, I think the title does so much for the poem. Looking at a beautiful interaction between a family is sweet. But looking at a family while acknowledging your own loneliness and lovelessness? I love poet’s ability to hold two unlike things in the same breath, and this poem does it so perfectly.
- “Distant Regard” by Tony Hoagland – from Mark Oakley (@CanonOakley)
If I knew I would be dead by this time next year I believe I would spend the months from now till then writing thank-you notes to strangers and acquaintances, telling them, “You really were a great travel agent,” or “I never got the taste of your kisses out of my mouth.” or “Watching you walk across the room was part of my destination.” It would be the equivalent, I think, of leaving a chocolate wrapped in shiny foil on the pillow of a guest in a hotel– “Hotel of earth, where we resided for some years together,” I start to say, before I realize it is a terrible cliche, and stop, and then go on, forgiving myself in a mere split second because now that I’m dying, I just go forward like water, flowing around obstacles and second thoughts, not getting snagged, just continuing with my long list of thank-yous, which seems to naturally expand to include sunlight and wind, and the aspen trees which gleam and shimmer in the yard as if grateful for being soaked last night by the irrigation system invented by an individual to whom I am quietly grateful. Outside it is autumn, the philosophical season, when cold air sharpens the intellect; the hills are red and copper in their shaggy majesty. The clouds blow overhead like governments and years. It took me a long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,” but I am grateful for it now, and I am grateful for my heart, that turned out to be good, after all; and grateful for my mind, to which, in retrospect, I can see I have never been sufficiently kind.
This is the poem I read the day I found out Tony Hoagland passed away. This poem is one of such grace, coming from a poet who – at times—was not always graceful. Hoagland’s past poems were oftentimes sardonic and even problematic. However, this poem takes a beat from those tendencies and instead invokes a deep gratitude.
- “Ark” by Camille Dungy – from the Mr. African Poetry Lounge
Dungy transforms scenes of calamity and destruction into a moment of peace. She fixes our sights on the ark, who speaks to its refugees and gives them assurance. This poem acknowledges what cannot be done, what the ark cannot do. And yet – it goes through rain and dreams of the desert still.
- “Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams- from the Poetry Foundation
If I when my wife is sleeping and the baby and Kathleen are sleeping and the sun is a flame-white disc in silken mists above shining trees,— if I in my north room dance naked, grotesquely before my mirror waving my shirt round my head and singing softly to myself “I am lonely, lonely. I was born to be lonely, I am best so!” If I admire my arms, my face, my shoulders, flanks, buttocks against the yellow drawn shades,— Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?
I believe that silliness is an important antidote to the pains of living. William Carlos Williams’s poem embodies that silliness. It glorifies our moments in privacy when we can dance in our underpants. Who’s to say we are not all the happy genius of our households?
- “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver – from Wild Geese
|You do not have to be good.|
|You do not have to walk on your knees|
|for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.|
|You only have to let the soft animal of your body|
|love what it loves.|
|Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.|
|Meanwhile the world goes on.|
|Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain|
|are moving across the landscapes,|
|over the prairies and the deep trees,|
|the mountains and the rivers.|
|Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,|
|are heading home again.|
|Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,|
|the world offers itself to your imagination,|
|calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –|
|over and over announcing your place|
|in the family of things.|
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.” Mary Oliver’s poem offers a type of mercy to its reader is unlike any I have read. Every time I finish reading this poem, I want to offer myself compassion and forgiveness. This poem teaches me the possibility of poetry, to create what doesn’t exist yet but I might work towards.
8. “Valentine Chapter” by EJ Koh – from A Lesser Love
I tell you there's a devil in my wall. You ask, Does he like Spartacus? On Showtime, we watch the part where Glaber murders his wife's father -- I ask, Would you kill my father to have me? Of course, you say. This minute, you smell of red ginseng. I ask how you could be with me, How could you forgive me; I can't change. You look up and say, I am patient. I can take the lives you couldn't live and hold them in my arms.
EJ Koh’s poem begins with humor and ends with tenderness. Demons become less scary when we consider their favorite TV shows. The cleverness in this poem combats the fear it holds. It makes light of what we fear: devils, parents, self-forgiveness. It makes me believe that we can confront them, and that there will be a lover who will hold me and all my shortcomings at the end of the day.
9. “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition” by Wisława Szymborska — From View with a Grain of Sand
So these are the Himalayas. Mountains racing to the moon. The moment of their start recorded on the startling, ripped canvas of the sky. Holes punched in a desert of clouds. Thrust into nothing. Echo- a white mute. Quiet. Yeti, down there we've got Wednesday, bread and alphabets. Two times two is four. Roses are red there, and violets are blue. Yeti, crime is not all we're up to down there. Yeti, not every sentence there means death. We've inherited hope- the gift of forgetting. You'll see how we give birth among the ruins. Yeti, we've got Shakespeare there. Yeti, we play solitaire and violin. At nightfall, we turn lights on, Yeti. Up here it's neither moon nor earth. Tears freeze. Oh Yeti, semi-moonman, turn back think again! I called this to the Yeti inside four walls of avalanche, stomping my feet for warmth on the everlasting snow.
Szymborska packs all of her poems with such intelligence and wit, but this one in particular is so imaginative in its hopefulness. Could you imagine trying to translate the nature of humans to a yeti? The speaker in this poem does so and somehow finds good things to say. “You’ll see how we give/birth among the ruins.”
- “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith – from Good Bones
The world is broken, but in order to fix it, we need to claim it as ours. We need to purchase this world with our time and love. Maggie Smith teaches us that this world has been built with good bones, and we must build off of these traces of goodness. “Good Bones” was written in 2016, when many of us lost hope as a result of the Pulse shooting, of the most recent presidential election. The poem captured a national consciousness, and remains relevant today. But Smith teaches us that there is goodness, still. “You could make this place beautiful.”