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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?'
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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)
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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