April 18, 2014
Today’s post–the third in my National Poetry Month series–is especially meaningful because its author is the person who first inspired me to take a second look at poetry. Please enjoy this honest, timely meditation from my friend Katherine. –Nishta
I don’t remember the moment that I was introduced to poetry. My mother read poetry to me amidst my bedtime stories as a child. My father sat at the kitchen table and wrote poetry on Saturday mornings. The first poem I remember crafting by myself for myself was during a long car ride sometime my seventh grade year. I wrote poetry off and on through high school and into college, but I only began to read poetry in those college years. That’s not quite right. I read poetry – a lot of poetry – in high school courtesy of the specially printed Tome that girls of my era at my school toted around risking permanently stooped shoulders. I was introduced to poetry, but I didn’t fall in love with poetry. We were cordial.
It might have been Jorie Graham who baffled and intrigued me; it might have been Li-Young Lee with his peaches. Something began to connect. I read the poems of Denise Levertov and found someone whose heart flickered with faith. I laughed with Billy Collins, and I breathed deeply with Mary Oliver. My poetry crush began to develop. Somewhere along the way as I met these poets, I found that I loved reading poetry and somehow that reading poetry loved me. Poetry certainly accepted my attention span, and then I discovered that poetry enlarged my faith with its metaphors and its loose ends. Then I learned that poetry swelled my voice as it hunted for beauty. We weren’t just cordial, and the flush of first love had passed, we were partners now.
I don’t write much poetry these days (insert usual litany of excuses here), but since I climb in and out of church pulpits with some regularity, I find myself leaning on others’ poetry as a second scripture. Those metaphors, so much like parables. Those loose ends, so much like my weak grasp. The hunt for beauty, so much the truest call to faith I can claim. Poetry is part of why I’m a believer, and often offers me the best words for what I believe.
I figured out somewhere along the way that I can be most faithful to poetry in its wide span. I love an anthology more than a single poet’s voice – perhaps the Tome shaped more than my vertebrae. Or maybe it’s because poetry is another scripture, and my Bible is an anthology of stories and poems and perspectives and strangeness and of the faithful seeking forward. If you’re looking to fall in love or just interested in meeting a poet or two, try Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems or the (often unfortunately named) anthologies curated by Roger Housden. They are as worn as my Book of Common Prayer.
As for my choice of “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, this isn’t the first poem I loved. It’s not even my most recent favorite. But it’s the one that I thought of immediately when Nishta invited me to share. Now she tells me that my post will go up on Good Friday, a day of darkness that for me as a Christian must be lived and not avoided. A day for all the hurt and the pain that is all too real. “Kindness” speaks to that, and also professes the hope that follows. If, as someone has said, our bruises and wounds are how the light gets in, then when we rise battered but not broken, that’s how the light gets out.
“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 purchase bread”
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 purchase bread,
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 everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © Eighth Mountain Press, 1995.
Katherine McQuiston Bush is a wife of an actual public servant, mother of twin boys, younger sister, second daughter, all too fair-weather friend to many, Episcopal priest, school chaplain, occasional writer, secret blogger, poetry reader, and friend of Nishta’s for something like 15 years now.
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