mindful poems

two young women reading a book. Original from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The poems I have gathered here have offered me spiritual companionship over the years. For me they show just enough of a glimpse of wisdom, compassion, peacefulness, and good cheer to help me over many an edge in my meditation practice. Each poem can be an example of “mindful reading,” almost like the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina in the Christian contemplative tradition.

John Austin

Awareness

Awareness-
her gaze is so constant,
our every move
watched
with such affection,
a ceaseless vigil
without condition
or agenda,
silent,
patient,
unrelenting in her
embrace.

There is endless room in
the heart of this lover,
infinite space for whatever
foolishness we may
toss her way.

But she is also
crafty, this one-
a thieft who will steal away
everything we ever cherished,
all our beliefs,
all our ideas,

all our philosophies,
until nothing is left
but her shimmering
wakefulness,

this simple love
for what is.

Ellen Bass

Gate C-22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching—
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after—if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now—you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.

from The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007).

Basket of Figs

Bring me your pain, love. Spread 
it out like fine rugs, silk sashes, 
warm eggs, cinnamon
and cloves in burlap sacks. Show me

the detail, the intricate embroidery 
on the collar, tiny shell buttons, 
the hem stitched the way you were taught,
pricking just a thread, almost invisible.

Unclasp it like jewels, the gold 
still hot from your body. Empty 
your basket of figs. Spill your wine.

That hard nugget of pain, I would suck it, 
cradling it on my tongue like the slick 
seed of pomegranate. I would lift it

tenderly, as a great animal might 
carry a small one in the private 
cave of the mouth.

from Mules of Love by Ellen Bass, Copyright © 2002 by Ellen Bass. All rights reserved.

Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

Copyright © 2016 by Ellen Bass. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 18, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Waiting for Rain

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener

someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on

making and unmaking. Maybe it’s wrong
to think of better and worse.
There’s no one who can carry my fear
for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.
The rain they say is coming
sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.
But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling
their massive legs without hurry, flaring
their great dusty ears. Once they drank
from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows
we’re just atoms combining and recombining:
star dust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out.
How tenuous it all is.
My daughter’s coming home next week.

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.

Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Bass. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on September 30, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Wendell Berry

I Go Among Trees

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

from Sabbaths, by Wendell Berry

The Peace of Wild Things (excerpt)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For the time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The Silence

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

'It is golden,' while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men's silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.

The Clear Days (Excerpt)

The dogs of indecision
Cross and cross the field of vision.
A cloud, a buzzing fly
Distract the lover's eye.
Until the heart has found
Its native piece of ground
The day withholds its light,
The eye must stray unlit.
The ground's the body's bride,
Who will not be denied.
Not until all is given
Comes the thought of heaven.
When the mind's an empty room
The clear days come.

Our Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings. 

“The Real Work” by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words

C.P. Cavafy

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your wayas long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
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.

C. P. Cavafy, “The City” from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems.

Leonard Cohen

Leaving Mt Baldy

I came down from that mountain
after many years of study
and rigorous practice.
I left my robes hanging on
a wooden peg in that old cabin
where I sat so long,
slept so little.
I finally understood
I had no gift
for spiritual matters
‘Thank You, Beloved’
I hear a heart cry out
as I enter streams of screaming cars
on Santa Monica freeway
westbound for L.A.
A number of people,
some practitioners,
are asking me angry questions
concerning ultimate reality.
I suppose it’s because
they don’t like to see
old Jikan smoking.

from The Book of Longing

Leonard Cohen was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in August 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center by Sasaki Jōshū (1907-2014) zen master (rōshi). He was given the Dharma name of “Jikan’ (Silent One). Cohen left the Center in Spring 1999.

This is from a review of his poetry by Terebess here.

Most of the poems in this book relate to his experience as a monk during the five years or so he spent at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, the monastery he left in 1999. I know the place well, having spent some time there in the early 1980s.

“I came down from the mountain” is a literal statement, but it is also a metaphor, for coming down from any high notions of what spirituality means, coming back to join ordinary life and people on earth.

But I reflect that the poet is not just another guy stuck in a traffic jam westbound for L.A. He has just put in five years or more of hard spiritual practice on that mountain. He has more than a notion of the way his mind works. And now his practice is to rejoin the messiness of the world.

“Old Jikan,” as Cohen calls himself in this poem (Jikan, meaning Silent One, was the name he was given at the monastery) smokes. That would be a problem for someone who has the idea that smoking is incongruent with spirituality, but Cohen admits to a lifelong delight in smoking cigarettes, which he faced full on while a monk on the mountain.

The candor and forthright imagery stays with me.

Stephen Dunn

Sweetness

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear   
   one more friend   
waking with a tumor, one more maniac   

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness   
   has come   
and changed nothing in the world   

except the way I stumbled through it,   
   for a while lost   
in the ignorance of loving   

someone or something, the world shrunk   
   to mouth-size,   
hand-size, and never seeming small.   

I acknowledge there is no sweetness   
   that doesn’t leave a stain,   
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ….   

Tonight a friend called to say his lover   
   was killed in a car   
he was driving. His voice was low   

and guttural, he repeated what he needed   
   to repeat, and I repeated   
the one or two words we have for such grief   

until we were speaking only in tones.   
   Often a sweetness comes   
as if on loan, stays just long enough   

to make sense of what it means to be alive,   
   then returns to its dark   
source. As for me, I don’t care   

where it’s been, or what bitter road   
   it’s traveled   
to come so far, to taste so good.

from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994.

Happiness

A state you must dare not enter
   with hopes of staying,
quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle
   that doesn't exist.
But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above
   the crocodiles,
and its doors forever open.

also from New and Selected Poems 1974-19

Before We Leave

Just so it’s clear—
no whining on the journey.
If you whine, you’ll get stuck
somewhere with people
like yourself. It’s an unwritten law.
Wear hiking boots. Pack food
and a change of clothes.
We go slowly. Endurance won’t
be enough, though without it
you can’t get to the place
where more of you is asked.
Expect there will be times
when you’ll be afraid.
Hold hands and tremble together
if you must but remember
each of you is alone.

Where are we going?
It’s not an issue of here or there.
And if you ever feel you can’t
take another step imagine
how you might feel to arrive,
if not wiser, a little more aware
how to inhabit the middle ground
between misery and joy.
Trudge on. In the higher regions,
where the footing is unsure,
to trudge is to survive.

Happiness is another journey,
almost over before it starts,
guaranteed to disappoint.
If you’ve come for it, say so,
you’ll get your money back.
I hope you all realize that anytime
is a fine time to laugh. Fake it,
however, and false laughter
will accompany you like a cowbell
for the rest of your days.
You’ll forever lack the seriousness
of a clown. At some point
the rocks will be jagged, the precipice sheer.

That won’t be
the abyss you’ll see looking down.
the abyss, you’ll discover
(if you’ve made it this far),
is usually nearer than that—
at the bottom of something
you’ve yet to resolve,
or posing as your confidante.
Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will
say such things, and mean both.

from Lines of Defense: Poems (W. W. Norton & Company).

Donna Faulds

Allow

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes

Hafiz

Now is the time to know

Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God?
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child's training wheels
To be laid aside
When you can finally live
with veracity
And love.
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
That this is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
But Grace.
Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Is Sacred

The God who only knows Four Words

Every Child
Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of Don'ts
Not the God who ever does anything weird
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come dance with Me"
Come Dance

We Have Not Come here To Take Prisoners

We have not come here to take prisoners
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
to hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear, From anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings,
Run like hell, my dear,
From anyone likely to put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience of our house
And shout to our reason
"Oh please, oh please
come out and play."
For we have not come here to take prisoners,
Or to confine our wondrous spirits
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
our divine courage, freedom, and Light!

Jane Hirschfield

Today, when I could do nothing

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

Marie Howe

After the Movie

My friend Michael and I are walking home arguing about the movie.
He says that he believes a person can love someone
and still be able to murder that person.

I say, No, that’s not love. That’s attachment.
Michael says, No, that’s love. You can love someone, then come to a day

when you’re forced to think “it’s him or me”
think “me” and kill him.

I say, Then it’s not love anymore.
Michael says, It was love up to then though.

I say, Maybe we mean different things by the same word.
Michael says, Humans are complicated: love can exist even in the
murderous heart.

I say that what he might mean by love is desire.
Love is not a feeling, I say. And Michael says, Then what is it?

We’re walking along West 16th Street — a clear unclouded night — and I hear my voice repeating what I used to say to my husband: Love is action, I used to say to him.

Simone Weil says that when you really love you are able to look at
someone you want to eat and not eat them.

Janis Joplin says, take another little piece of my heart now baby.

Meister Eckhart says that as long as we love images we are doomed to live in purgatory.

Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can’t drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I’ve just bought —

again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.

What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he’s saying is “You are too strict. You are
a nun.”

Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things
of me even if he’s not thinking them?

Above Manhattan, the moon wanes, and the sky turns clearer and colder.
Although the days, after the solstice, have started to lengthen,

we both know the winter has only begun.

from her book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

from an interview the poet gave to NPR about the following poem of hers:

A few years after her younger brother John died from AIDS-related complications in 1989, poet Marie Howe wrote him a poem in the form of a letter. Called “What the Living Do,” the poem is an elegiac description of loss, and of living beyond loss.

“When he died, it was a terrible loss to all of us,” she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “As you know, as everybody knows, you think, ‘My life is changed so utterly I don’t know how to live it anymore.’ And then you find a way.”

Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” was anthologized in The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry. Howe discusses several of her poems, which deal with topics such as loss, love, spirituality, gender, sexuality and intimacy.

“Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die,” says Howe. “The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that — and poetry knows that.”

Howe is the author of What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and The Good Thief. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia and New York University.

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss — we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you. 

Just Now

My brother opens his eyes when he hears the door click
open downstairs and Joe’s steps walking up past the meowing cat

and the second click of the upstairs door, and then he lifts
his face so that Joe can kiss him. Joe has brought armfuls

of broken magnolia branches in full blossom, and he putters
in the kitchen looking for a big jar to put them in and finds it.

And now they tower in the living room, white and sweet, where
John can see them if he leans out from his bed which

he can’t do just now, and now Joe is cleaning. What a mess
you’ve left me, he says, and John is smiling, almost asleep again.

the last two poems are from her book What The Living Do

Kabir

I Said To The Wanting-Creature Inside Me

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don't go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

Jane Kenyon

The Blue Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole. It fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
that grew between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows much keener than these.
Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.

from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.

Galway Kinnell

St. Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   
began remembering all down her thick length,   
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

from Three Books. Copyright © 2002 by Galway Kinnell.

Oatmeal

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unsual willingness to disintigrate, oatmeal should
not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had
enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John
Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something
from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the
"Ode to a Nightingale."
He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words "Oi 'ad
a 'eck of a toime," he said, more or less, speaking through
his porridge.
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his
pocket,
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas,
and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they
made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day if
they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket
through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the
configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up
and peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark,
causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about
the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some
stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal
alone.
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words
lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there
is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field go thim started
on it, and two of the lines, "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their
clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours,"
came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering
furrows, muttering.
Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneaously
gummy and crumbly, and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh
to join me.

from New Selected Poems (Mariner Books).

Here is a YouTube video of the poet reading this poem:

Galway Kinnell reads Oatmeal 10/08/2010

RD Laing

untitled

The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
there is little we can do
to change
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.

Danusha Laméris

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote this about the above poem in The New York Times:

Sometimes a poem just strikes a precise moment. “Small Kindnesses,” by Danusha Laméris, feels utterly necessary for our time — a poem celebrating minor, automatic graciousness within a community, which can shine a penetrating light. It’s a catalog of small encouragements, unfolding as might a child’s palm filled with shiny stones. It almost feels like another hope we remember having. Acknowledging the modern plight of autonomy and so many separations, the poem then easily passes through them, breezing compliments and simple care.

The Watch

At night, my husband takes it off
puts it on the dresser beside his wallet and keys
laying down, for a moment, the accoutrements of manhood.
Sometimes, when he’s not looking, I pick it up
savor the weight, the dark face, ticked with silver
the brown, ostrich leather band with its little goosebumps
raised as the flesh is raised in pleasure.
He had wanted a watch and was pleased when I gave it to him.
And since we’ve been together ten years
it seemed like the occasion for the gift of a watch
a recognition of the intricate achievements
of marriage, its many negotiations and nameless triumphs.
But tonight, when I saw it lying there among
his crumpled receipts and scattered pennies
I thought of my brother’s wife coming home
from the coroner carrying his rings, his watch
in a clear, ziplock bag, and how we sat at the table
and emptied them into our palms
their slight pressure all that remained of him.
How odd the way a watch keeps going
even after the heart has stopped. My grandfather
was a watchmaker and spent his life in Holland
leaning over a clean, well-lit table, a surgeon of time
attending to the inner workings: spring,
escapement, balance wheel. I can’t take it back,
the way the man I love is already disappearing
into this mechanism of metal and hide,
this accountant of hours
that holds, with such precise indifference,
all the minutes of his life.

Antonio Machado

The Wind, One Brilliant Day

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

'In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I'd like all the odor of your roses.'

'I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.'

'Well then, I'll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.'

the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
'What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?'

Derek Mahon

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Mary Oliver

Singapore

In Singapore, in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something
in the white bowl.
Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.
A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.
Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.
I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want to rise up from the crust and the slop
and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
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
was terrible.
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 voices 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 you could save.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Pablo Neruda

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves
with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Taigu Ryokan

to a friend Ryokan could not reach

Your smoky village is not so far from here
But icy rain kept me captive all morning.
Just yesterday, it seems, we passed an evening together discussing poetry
But it’s really been twenty windblown days.
I’ve begun to copy the text you lent me,
Fretting how weak I’ve become.
This letter seals my promise to take my staff
And make my way through the steep cliffs
As soon as the sun melts the ice along the mossy paths.

In my youth, I put aside my studies

In my youth I put aside my studies
And I aspired to be a saint.
Living austerely as a mendicant monk,
I wandered here and there for many springs.
Finally I returned home to settle under a craggy peak.
I live peacefully in a grass hut,
Listening to the birds for music.
Clouds are my best neighbors.
Below a pure spring where I refresh body and mind;
Above, towering pines and oaks that provide shade and brushwood.
Free, so free, day after day --
I never want to leave! 

William Stafford

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air? 

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts? 

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life – 

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

The Way It Is

There's a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

Nadine Stair

If I Had My Life to Live Over

I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd
have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.

Oh, I've had my moments and if I had it to do over
again, I'd have more of them. In fact,
I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments.

One after another, instead of living so many
years ahead of each day.

I've been one of those people who never go anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.

If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

(written at age 85)

David Whyte

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb tonight.
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness to learn
anything or anyone that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
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