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What I like best about poems, beyond their sheer aesthetic pleasures, is the way that the intimacy of a single voice speaking across time and space can become a call to empathy. In this poem, the close and particular focus invites a kind of mindfulness — a way to recognize ourselves in others, linked by our common need.
The Word That Is a Prayer
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.
We grow, including the intellectual and the spiritual, without being deeply aware of it. In fact, some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is what is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or person who explained it to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. I remember the waves of anxiety that used to engulf me at different periods in my life, always manifesting itself in physical disorders (sleeplessness, for instance) and how frightened I was because I did not understand how this was possible.
With age and experience, you will be happy to know, growth becomes a conscious, recognized process. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.
“I became a father two years ago, and parenthood seems to have opened new emotional currents in me, which are working their way into my writing. This poem of course takes its title from Margaret Wise Brown’s beautiful book for children, Goodnight Moon, published in 1947. My wife and I have been reading the book to our son, Henry.”
I used to be as unsentimental as anyone could be.
Now I’m almost absurd, a clown, carrying you on my shoulders
around and around Palmer Square, through the cold night wind,
as stores lock up, and begin closing down. Goodnight,
fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes. Goodnight soon,
my little son. You’re a toothy, two-foot-something sumo–a giddy,
violent elf–jabbing your finger at the moon, which you’ve
begun noticing in the last week or two. Moom, moom–for you,
the word ends with a mumming, as it begins. For me, beginnings
and endings are getting hard to tell apart. There was
another child your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading
and teaching you to read–who we threw away when he or she
was smaller than a watermelon seed. The chairs, the domestic bears,
the clocks, the socks, the house–once again a strange cow
springs from the green ground, beginning the enormous leap
that will carry her above the moon.
This particular diver was expected to win the entire event. The diver knew as soon as he hit the water his form was flawed and that he might have just lost it all. I was fortunate enough to witness this moment as it was unfolding underwater. I captured the sequence of emotion just a split second after he hit the water and began to sink to the bottom with a sense of defeat written in his body language. This was the image I chose from the series. I have felt this emotion and disappointment before as many athletes do. My chance to capture it underwater was rare but beautiful. It is a moment no competitive athlete wants to relive but something important that many of us can relate to. It is raw and human and real.
[Design student Pei-Ying] Lin solicited the list of “unspeakable” words from colleagues at London’s Royal College of Art, and found that their definitions in English usually came down to something like, “it is a kind of (emotion A), close to (emotion B), and somehow between (emotion C) and (emotion D).”
Next, to visualize the relationship between the foreign emotion-words and English ones, Lin used a linguistics model to map out five basic emotions (large yellow circles), along with several descriptive words related to each (smaller green circles). Finally, she used her sources’ descriptions to place the new/foreign words on the English map.
click on the map above for a closer look or go here for the fancier version. in the meantime, here are a few examples:
Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love
Gezellifheid (Dutch): Comfort and coziness of being at home, with friends, with loved ones, or general togetherness
Saudade (Portuguese): A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for something that might never return. Yearning.
Tocka (Russian): Great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. Ache of soul, a longing with nothing to long for
Viitsima (Estonian): The feeling of slight laziness, can’t be bothered by anything. Don’t want to work nor go anywhere.