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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.
this illustration by dotunfolded captures the late night/early mornings that push your snooze button to the limit. the drawings translated:
No no no no no
No no no no no no no
No no no okay
The act of putting our losses into words and letting the world eavesdrop seems some sort of consolation, or at least an acknowledgement that we all suffer such losses.
in the poem below, lloyd schwartz lets the world eavesdrop on him losing a friend (note how he does it in a way that’s unique/personal to him yet still relatable to others). share your reactions to the poem + similar experiences in the comments. via poets.org:
To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death
by Lloyd Schwartz
In today’s paper, a story about our high school drama
teacher evicted from his Carnegie Hall rooftop apartment
made me ache to call you–the only person I know
who’d still remember his talent, his good looks, his self-
absorption. We’d laugh (at what haven’t we laughed?), then
not laugh, wondering what became of him. But I can’t call,
because I don’t know what became of you.
–After sixty years, with no explanation, you’re suddenly
not there. Gone. Phone disconnected. I was afraid
you might be dead. But you’re not dead.
You’ve left, your landlord says. He has your new unlisted
number but insists on “respecting your privacy.” I located
your oldest son, who refuses to tell me anything except that
you’re alive and not ill. Your ex-wife ignores my letters.
What’s happened? Are you in trouble? Something
you’ve done? Something I’ve done?
We used to tell each other everything: our automatic
reference points to childhood pranks, secret codes,
and sexual experiments. How many decades since we started
singing each other “Happy Birthday” every birthday?
(Your last uninhibited rendition is still on my voice mail.)
How often have we exchanged our mutual gratitude–the easy
unthinking kindnesses of long friendship.
This mysterious silence isn’t kind. It keeps me
up at night, bewildered, at some “stage” of grief.
Would your actual death be easier to bear?
I crave your laugh, your quirky takes, your latest
comedy of errors. “When one’s friends hate each other,”
Pound wrote near the end of his life, “how can there be
peace in the world?” We loved each other. Why why why
am I dead to you?
Our birthdays are looming. The older I get, the less and less
I understand this world,
and the people in it.
My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears
by Mohja Kahf
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares
Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom
My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,
as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”
Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display
I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I
hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.
here’s a brand new poem for the atomic lemon drops series. i’ve been working on this one for a while and recently got it to a spot where it’s worthy of your attention. check it out + the usual background on the piece below. share any questions & reactions in the comment section.
Blue Roses Pt. II
When the quiet comes,
watch me pop-lock into Death’s
old school Caddy. Bloodclot
red, rims lean to the side,
we cruise the city of angels
looking for God. That bum
on the corner said:
“You’ll see Him near Sunset,
draped in everever & grace.
At His heels swoon stars,
burning for true scriptures
and a picture near Perfection.
He signed mine with a rainbow.”
Her sign said: