Showing posts from October, 2020

You Asked Me to Write You a Poem

You asked me to write you a poem,
one to remember me by, someday:
Please don’t type it. Write it out.
It’s more personal that way.

Do you believe my hand is steady,
my scribbles easy to read?
Do you think the paper of my life is clean
and the ink will never fade?
There’s no perfect in me or what I make;
only struggle, and play, and a jot of grace.

I tell my pen now: Move straight, stroke slow.
Pay attention to what comes before it goes.
Set down the text in the plainest speech you know.
Laugh aloud at your clunkers and mistakes.
Don’t worry—you get as many tries as it takes.
Leave enough space to find yourself
between the letters, the words, the lines.
Nap between stanzas, or have a glass of wine.
Abandon this desk to walk in the world.
Absorb the rhythms and rhymes that swirl.
When you’re back inside and begin to write more,
nothing will be as it was before.

These shaky lines are my right hand’s best.
May they matter to you, though we’ve never met.
I do what I do for the sake of love—
every poem, too soon, is over and done.

Play notes: This poem surprised me. I almost always write in free verse. But when the fairly regular meter and rhyme began to appear in my first draft, I relaxed into what the poem wanted to be, without binding myself to a particular structure or rhyme scheme.

The Next Thing That Love Demands

In the moment we wake up, lost
and alone, choking on desert sand,
we understand: we can go home again.
We wait to move until the cool of night
when animals come out to hunt and play.
Wind has erased every trace of our old
steps from the dunes. We look to the stars,
follow their compass toward morning.
We lap up dew from desert grasses.
We sleep in the shadow of red rocks,
lazy vultures spiraling high above.
We track pigeons and doves for miles.
Just as our throats begin to burn with despair,
the straight line of a wild bee leads to a well.
Here by yellow primroses we swill down life.
Here we soothe our parched skin and soak
our clothes, preparing to carry on. Here we fill
goatskin bags with water and shimmy up
tall palms to pick sweet dates, gifts to slake
the thirst of those we love but left so long ago.
Now we know how desperate a body can be
for even a sip to swallow. Now we know
how a spirit can rejoice to find in desolation
what keeps it alive. It is here, in wilderness,
where we learn to do the next thing that love
demands. It is here where our wandering guides
us back to the home we left but did not lose.

Play notes: I jotted down the title for this poem on my recent retreat in the woods. I can't remember where the words came from—I don't think that I dreamed them up, but I can't locate their source anywhere. I had no idea what the poem would be about. It led me into the desert, of all places!

Praise This Life

            for Pat Schneider, 1934-2020

The bowl looks down from the highest
shelf, nearly beyond your reach.
Had it been meant for ringing,
its maker would have cast its bronze
as a bell, but this bowl is meant for singing
a tone, like you were meant to sing in poems.
Shades of night are crowding in, but
fugitive light from a single lamp gleams
on metal as you lift the bowl down.
The gift once given to you, you give to me,
laying it in my palms like an old book of psalms,
hymns of praise illuminated by paint and gold.

One last time you tap the wooden mallet
on the side of the bowl—strike, too harsh
a word. A deep voice rises up to bless
and soothe. The bowl always answers
when called upon, more faithful than a muse.
We sink into the stillness of the sound.

This is the patience of ordinary things.
They live among us, awaiting our full attention;
are faithful until we pass them on, with full affection.
And like this plain bronze bowl, held by hands
that love but dare not cling, their voices always
praise this life when asked by the heart to sing.

Play notes: The poet Pat Schneider, whom I counted as a friend, passed away in August. I didn't learn of her death until October. When I sat down to write a tribute poem for her, my way of grieving, my mind filled with the night she gave me her singing bowl. It was the last time I saw her in person. I sound that bowl each morning upon rising from bed. Also in the background of this poem were some of Pat's writings, including her poem "The Patience of Ordinary Things" and a blog post in which she describes "trouble ... [as] the key that opens the door for praise to come through." Rest in peace, Pat. No more troubles. 

Conversation with My Nice White Self

I’m not a racist.
I’m a nice person. 

      We know
      a lot of really nice
      just like us.

But I don’t see race.
I only see people.

      Is that why we’re afraid to be alone
     in an elevator with a black man?

Black people are racist, too.

      Don’t change the subject.
      We’re talking about us.

It’s impolite to notice
the color of someone’s skin.

     It’s impossible not to notice.
     Impolite is pretending
     color doesn’t matter.

Talking about race divides the country.

       Not talking about race divides the country.
      We’ve never learned how to do it.

Being white in this society
doesn’t benefit me one bit.

      Like being a fish in water
      doesn’t help the fish?

That’s just your opinion.     

      Ask any fish.

There’s no such thing as white privilege.

      We’re swimming in it.
      We can only see it
      if we’re brave enough
      to beach ourselves
      on dry land.
      We can only change it
      if we learn how
      to stand up  
      and breathe
      out of water.

Things will get better faster
if we just make nice. 

      History suggests otherwise.

Why don’t they just get over it?

      Maybe because
      it’s far from over.

Everything I say
they take the wrong way.

      Maybe if we talk less
      and listen more?

But you don’t understand.

      What don’t we understand?

I’m a nice person.
I really am.
Isn’t that enough?

Play notes: This poem has a very different style and tone from much of my poetry. I'm not sure it works, but I wanted to try. I believe that along with every other white person in this country, I'm racist. I can't help but be, having been born into a racist society as a member of the dominant caste. Racism isn't everything I am, but it's built in. With effort I can learn to be anti-racist.