Saturday, 8 November 2014

Wholly Alive in This Short, Exquisite Life: Seven Poems I Love

Written, once again, for the edX Art of Poetry course I'm doing. This week we gathered seven poems that mean something to us and wrote about them. It was a wonderful experience--a lot of work for one sitting but to see how they all folded together was a blessing.

  1. Sugarskulli: “Ode to Boyhood” (USA)
  2. Eileen Kernaghan: “Mohenjo-daro: a poem” (Canada)
  3. Seamus Heaney: “A Sofa in the the Forties” (Ireland)
  4. Julian of Norwich: “I it am” (England)
  5. Togiram (Emile Célestin-Mégie): “M’ap Ekri Youn Powèm/I’m Writing a Poem” (Haiti)
  6. Thich Nhat Hanh : “Please Call Me By My True Names” (Vietnam)
  7. Mirabai: “The Plums Tasted” (India)

Sugarskulli is Alex Barr (b. 1998, USA), a sixteen-year-old transgendered girl. She says she’s not a poet, but “Ode to Boyhood” shook me as good poetry can when it strikes a personal chord.

She tells about a girl who’s a boy inside, and the clash with family expectations, fellow students, self.

A pink dress, hanging in the/
closet with/
chains in the pearl necklace./
Weight /
Weight, and the color of shame./
blocks in the shape of high heeled shoes,/
a mother who makes too many tomboy jokes./
“That’s my girl,” she says “You’re just like your/
dad.” The role of the daughter never fit./
More than just clothes are in that closet.

Recently, a young man I know (now a young woman I know) dove into self-harm, shutting inward, grief. In my youth, I rejected the stereotypes of girlhood—if this was what we were allowed, I wanted out. Then later, the uneasy awareness that though men are cute—so are women. Say that out loud in 1970? Puhleeze.

I could write yards about this, but I won’t, only that Sugarskulli’s pain hits close to home. Her last stanza is one line:

Dysphoria is the ugliest poet.                     

Eileen Kernaghan’s (b.1939, Canada) “Mohenjo-daro” introduces her beautifully written novel about the Indus Valley, Winter on the Plain of Ghosts. I find Kernaghan’s writing absolutely magical, whether in prose or poem; here I’m swept off to a long-dead yet vibrantly once-living place.

The salt earth is bleached/
and brittle as old bone, in winter/
on the plain of ghosts./
Shrill and thin down the grey/
millennia, the spirit voices/
cry on the parched wind.

This sort of writing takes me to my childhood when I was just discovering the awesomeness of ancient history. It was utterly news to me that there were whens that were not now; I shook with excitement to reach out with my mind and touch anything from the mighty “microbe hunters” (van Leeuwenhoek, Madame Curie, etc.) to the knights of the Round Table to the massive-bodied dinosaurs that once roared above the land. In those days I didn’t need excellent writing to propel my imaginings, to bring me right there, but nowadays I’m more jaded. Without fail, Kernaghan is able to get me there. This poem led into the novel, and it, too, transported me, with great shivers of delight, to another place and time.

Seamus Heaney’s (1939–2013, Ireland) “A Sofa in the the Forties” delights me! I can’t read it too often. Childhood’s a blank in many ways until something like this hurls me back into the funnest bits of it. Like Heaney, we had little TV, one channel—hardly watched, mostly dull stuff for adults—like him we had low class talk, not like the proper-speaking newsmen of the day. The rabbit ears were always falling over, the roof antenna blowing out of kilter by the wind, the images remote from our lives. But ah, the games of imagination! The chesterfield—not a sofa to us—was indeed a magic carpet on which we flew to different realms, or to this realm, writ large, ourselves as the central figures for a change. A train? Yes, even a train. Or a wagon train. Or a fishing boat. Or a horse.

Out in front, on the big upholstered arm,/
Somebody craned to the side, driver or/
Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air/
Of one who had run the gauntlet.../
Like unlit carriages through fields at night,/
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,/
And be transported and make engine noise.

Julian of Norwich (1342 – 1416, England): “I it am”.  Wow—if only I had seen this as a child! (Devout as I was.)

I it am./
The greatness and goodness of the Father,/
I it am;/
the wisdom and kindness of the Mother,/
I it am.

Male God is “great” and female God is “kind”: I get that this is still stereotyping and harmful. But that there was admitted to BE a female side of God—what a revelation! That the female and male were not God and his mum, who gets none of the good lines and acts a tad too holyholy for young me, but two clearly equal quantities—what an antidote to the institutional and ubitquitous sexism that strangled me at every step. And both sides of God are me! There is even a mysterious neuter side “I it am” to reflect on.

I am grateful that as a young adult I did discover Goddess, and could begin to reconstruct my relationship to Divine, to self, to world. But imagine if I had known that centuries before my birth there was a deeply spiritual, brilliantly creative, Christian nun and mystic who saw God in this way...

Togiram (Emile Célestin-Mégie, Haiti) (b. 1922): “M’ap Ekri Youn Powèm/I’m Writing a Poem”.

Togiram has struggled long to have Creole recognized as the main Haitian language—beginning at a time when it was considered worthless, and educated Haitians spoke only French. Not surprising, then, his vigorous sympathy with the poor and maltreated people of Haiti and all the world.

I’m writing a poem/
For the guy too poor to be able to have a woman/
For the woman without a husband without any other support.../
For the people who are homeless who sleep in doorways.../
I’m writing a poem that can never end./

Togiram’s sentiments cut deeply for me. I have lived in Haiti, befriended children sleeping on the pier, but I have also been a child powerless to feed or protect myself. I grew up feeling like a person outside the center of society, unwanted, yet I had humanity, too, I had wishes and talents and dreams. I also longed for respect from the world for my people and me, and to cultivate those feelings and capacities in myself.

Apologies. The only version I can find is me reading “Powèm”, in both languages:

“Please Call Me By My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh (1926, Vietnam)—it’s difficult to express this poem’s immensity. It’s simple, beautiful:

every second I am arriving/
to be a bud on a Spring branch,/
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings

We learn deeply of our interconnectedness with all things, but not only the lovely.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,/
refugee on a small boat,/
who throws herself into the ocean/
after being raped by a sea pirate./
And I am the pirate,/
my heart not yet capable/
of seeing and loving./
My joy is like Spring, so warm/
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth./
My pain is like a river of tears,/
so vast it fills the four oceans./

I’ve long felt keenly this connection to living things, and burn with anguish when I see an insect deliberately squashed or a child humiliated. I also keenly feel my own violence, my own withholding, the knife’s edge between who I’ve become and who I might have become. I’ve suffered deeply, but with Thay’s poem I’m liberated to soar as well, to claim all that I am, all that we are, take action, and rejoice.

Mirabai’s (1498-1557, India) “The Plums Tasted” in a way enfolds all of the previous poems into one rapturous exhalation. Mira speaks of the dirty, uneducated, low-caste girl who has the audacity to suck the plums in such an ill-mannered way. But the god is not deflected by manners and appearances. He sweeps her to heaven to live in ecstasy with him because, of them all, she knows how to “practice rapture like that”. “She knew how to love.”

Although I didn’t plan this, the sweep of my anthology is to shake us awake to what is truly relevant to living wholly alive in this short, exquisite life, to cast aside the mental shackles that allow us to force one child into shame and another into entitlement, to free ourselves from the programming that keeps us half alive and collusive with the oppression of our souls and our world.

She was ungainly, low-caste, ill mannered and dirty,/
but the god took the fruit she’d been sucking./
Why? She knew how to love.


The Lord of Fallen Fools.../
will save anyone who can practice rapture like that—/
I myself in a previous birth/
was a cowherding girl/
at Gokul.

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