Mary Oliver (white American female, born 1935)
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
We hope you have enjoyed this month’s poetry journey.
~Jill and Jamie
God is no noun
Glen Thomas Rideout, (contemporary African American male, UU).
god is no noun.
and certainly not an adjective.
god is at least a verb,
and even that shrinks her.
god is not so much a woman
as she resides in the improbable
hope of brown mothers.
god is not so much a man
as he is at work in the memory
of my grandfather’s laugh.
god is not trans.
god swims in the tears
of the one who sees
her real self,
at long last,
in the bathroom mirror.
god is not black; neither is he white.
god is wading in the contradiction of songs from slave shacks.
and I have seen god in the alabaster smiles
of children at play.
we’re getting michelangelo all wrong.
god is not the bearded one surrounded by angels,
floating over the sistine.
he is not adam with his muscled back pressing the earth.
god is the closing inch of space
between their reaching fingers.
don’t believe for a moment that god is catholic.
for god’s sake, he isn’t even human.
have you heard the wood thrush
when the sun glistens the huron?
can you see the flowers,
how they speak to bees without a word?
still, god is no spring blossom, no wood thrush.
god is neither the sun nor the bee.
god is what you see in the blossom.
god is when you hear the river
and suddenly discover how
much of it is part of you.
to be clear,
god is not you.
god is somewhere in the 14 billion years
which have come to mean that you are.
god is, after all, at least a verb.
she is neither pharaoh’s rod nor moses’ staff.
we must be the ones to cease our slavery.
she is not interested in blame, neither does she offer praise. truth, gratitude are ours to breathe.
she will not have your answers.
she is too large for answers.
she dances too wildly to be fastened to them,
and answers are nouns anyway.
god is at least a verb,
twirling in the radiant reds of spring blossoms,
singing in the rare silences between rapid opinions,
attending the tears of dark-skinned deaths, learning in tiny, alabaster smiles.
god is waiting in the space between fingers
that might connect.
he is waiting for us
to stop naming her.
she is waiting for us to
see all of him.
god is waiting
to be un-shrunk
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken
Rainer Maria Rilke (White German male, 1875-1926)
English version by Anita Barrows and Joanna MacyI believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
Billy Collins (White American male, born March 22, 1941)
Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your waking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.
Today begins cold and bright,
the ground heavy with snow
and the thick masonry of ice,
the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.
Through the calm eye of the window
everything is in its place
but so precariously
this day might be resting somehow
on the one before it,
all the days of the past stacked high
like the impossible tower of dishes
entertainers used to build on stage.
No wonder you find yourself
perched on the top of a tall ladder
hoping to add one more.
Just another Wednesday
then holding your breath,
place this cup on yesterday’s saucer
without the slightest clink.
Our Journey on Earth
Mark Nepo (white American male, born 1951)
To learn how to ask for what we need,
only to practice accepting what we’re
given. This is our journey on earth.
To Not be Done
Rose Ausländer (Ukrainian Jewish female, 1901-1988)
To not count your heart beats
To allow dolphins to dance
Discovering new countries
Evoking words out of worlds
To listen to what Bach
has to say
To admire Tolstoy
To be glad
Over and over
To not be done
Anyone Who Is Still Trying
David Hernandez (Latino American male, born 1971)
Any person, any human, any someone who breaks
up the fight, who spackles holes or FedExes
ice shelves to the Arctic to keep the polar bears
afloat, who talks the wind-rippled woman
down from the bridge. Any individual, any citizen
who skims muck from the coughing ocean,
who pickets across the street from antigay picketers
with a sign that reads, GOD HATES MAGGOTS,
or, GOD HATES RESTAURANTS WITH ZAGAT RATINGS
LESS THAN 27. Any civilian who kisses
a forehead heated by fever or despair, who reads
the X ray, pins the severed bone. Any biped
who volunteers at soup kitchens, who chokes
a Washington lobbyist with his own silk necktie –
I take that back, who gives him mouth-to-mouth
until his startled heart resumes its kabooms.
Sorry, I get cynical sometimes, there is so much
broken in the system, the districts, the crooked
thinking, I’m working on whittling away at this
pessimism, harvesting light where I can find it.
Any countryman or countrywoman who is still
trying, who still pushes against entropy,
who stanches or donates blood, who douses fires
real or metaphorical, who rakes the earth
where tires once zeroed the ground, plants something
green, say spinach or kale, say a modest forest
for restless breezes to play with. Any anyone
from anywhere who considers and repairs,
who builds a prosthetic beak for an eagle –
I saw the video, the majestic bird disfigured
by a bullet, the visionary with a 3-D printer,
with polymer and fidelity, with hours
and hours and hours, I keep thinking about it,
thinking we need more of that commitment,
those thoughtful gestures, the flight afterward.
A poem for Earth Day
Susan Kinsolving (contemporary, white American woman)
Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
Nazim Hikmet (Turkish male, 1902-1963)
Trans. by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk (1993)
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
II Let’s say you’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get
up from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast …
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
III This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space …
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived” …
What Is There Beyond Knowing
Mary Oliver (White American female, born 1935)
What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me? I can’t
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Naomi Shihab Nye (Palestinian-American woman, born 1951)
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
Three Poems from William Stafford
(White American male, 1914-1993, US Poet Laureate 1970, Oregon’s Poet Laureate 1975-1990)
Reading the Big Weather
Mornings we see our breath. Weeds
sturdy for winter are waiting down
by the tracks. Birds, high and silent
pass almost invisible over the town.
Time, always almost ready
to happen, leans over our shoulders reading
the headlines for something not there. “Republicans
Control Congress”- and the world spins on unheeding.
The moon drops back toward the sun, a sickle
gone faint in the dawn; there is a weather
of things that happen too faint for headlines,
but tremendous, like willows touching the river.
This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us
something with its continuous scripture of leaves.
Looking at You
Over your shoulder I see it there,
That other faith once part
Of your life, gone when wisdom came
And the plan: ”Learn to survive.”
In your face now instead of that vanished
look, this look has come: “Wait, find
what is coming and accept it” – no longer
that lifelong lunge for worlds to be found.
But that other faith leaps at night. It glances
aside sometimes; it stares at the fire.
After all the stars in the sky go down
it says, “There is another star.”
I Have A Witness
Among the stars one light shone below
The line of mountains, a campfire maybe. Steady.
All night I kept in mind that sun, my chosen
place, and let the earth gyrate. With dizzy
certainty I slept inside that reckoning.
Sometimes a center the soul can recognize
will speak from anywhere, inside a mountain, of from
a whirlwind…. The world can take, the soul
restores. A million wrong voices proclaim.
One light lives forever.
Eavan Boland (Irish female, born 1944)
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Let Evening Come
Jane Kenyon (White American female, 1947-1995)
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Joy Harjo (Native American (Muscogee) female, born 1951)
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
As It Was
Dale Willey (White American male, 1925 – 2001, UUFC member)
Do you remember the thunder of wave
on wave of hill rolled against
the mountain range,
the spouting geysers of cumulus spray?
And preparing to drink,
my horse pawing away water by the sandbar?
A great blue heron with a gravelly croak
heaved himself above the rive,
thin feet trailing an indelible
streak on his shadow.
The mystery is not so much
the sounding air
or the intricate ear’s machinery
As that from an incomprehensible other
through delicate bones and cords
comes what strikes, rings, makes resonant
the silence within me
and opens at my call
for all the world as it was.
won’t you celebrate with me
Lucille Clifton, 1936 – 2010 (African American female)
won’t you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both non-white and woman
what did I see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
I bump into all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones
those coded messages that send me down
the wrong street again and again
where I find them
the old wounds and misconceptions
and I lift them one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
Let America be America Again
Langston Hughes (Black American gay male, 1902-1967)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!
Linda Hogan (Native (Chickasaw) American female, b. 1947
There is nothing more innocent
than the still-unformed creature I find beneath soil,
neither of us knowing what it will become
in the abundance of the planet.
It makes a living only by remaining still
in its niche.
One day it may struggle out of its tender
pearl of blind skin
with a wing or with vision
leaving behind the transparent.
I cover it again, keep laboring,
hands in earth, myself a singular body.
Watching things grow,
a cut blade of grass knows
how to turn sharp again at the end.
This same growing must be myself,
not aware yet of what I will become
in my own fullness
inside this simple flesh.
Mark Nepo (White American male, born 1951)
Brave your way on.
You are a blessing waiting
to be discovered by yourself.
The wisdom waits in your heart
like a buried treasure which
only loving your self can
bring to the surface. And
yes, loving your self is like
diving to the bottom of the
ocean with nothing but who
you are to find your way.
the patience of ordinary things
it is a kind of love, is it not?
how the cup holds the tea,
how the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
how the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
or toes. how soles of feet know
where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
of ordinary things, how clothes
wait respectfully in closets
and soap dries quietly in the dish,
and towels drink the wet
from the skin of the back.
and the lovely repetition of stairs.
and what is more generous than a window?
Robert Browning (white male)
The sweetest lives are those to duty wed,
Whose deeds, both great and small,
Are close knit strands of an unbroken thread,
Whose love ennobles all.
The world may sound no trumpet, ring no bells;
The book of life, the shining record tells.
Thy love shall chant its own beatitudes,
After its own life-working. A child’s kiss
Set on thy singing lips shall make thee glad;
A poor man served by thee shall make thee rich;
A sick man helped by thee shall make thee strong;
Thou shalt be served thyself by every sense
Of service thou renderest.