Poem of the Week, by John Ashbery

img_5354Growing up in the age of Darwinian elementary schools –the gym teacher would choose the two best athletes to captain every team, and one by one they would pick off first the good athletes, then the midlings, then the uncoordinated, until finally there was only one child remaining, huddled against the wall– I hated gym class. Not because I was bad at sports (I’m not) but because I can’t stand cruelty. And that little ritual was fundamentally cruel.

I don’t see the point of competition unless you’re competing with yourself, trying to get better at something you value, something you love. All the years I sat on bleachers cheering on my children, it was an effort to remember that I was supposed to cheer for their team and not any random child on the field who made a great goal, who ran fast, who helped lift up another player. There were times when the other parents glared at me because in my absentmindedness/idiocy I would cheer for the opposing team.

I still don’t like team sports. What I don’t like about them is exactly what I despise in my country today, which is the idea that there are winners and losers, and winning is what matters. What is happening in my country right now is so far beyond right vs. left. What is happening right now is wrong, and on some level, every single one of us knows it. No matter how you spin it, there is no excuse –not one, ever– to torture children and their families. Democracy is crumbling and fascism is rising and the elected officials who should stop it, who should call out injustice and hold abusers accountable, are silent despite our protests. This poem starts out sweet and ends up terrifying, and boy does it feel familiar. It doesn’t end this way, but I would like it too: We are all one here, and if one of us goes the other goes too. 



How to Continue, by John Ashbery

Oh there once was a woman 
and she kept a shop 
selling trinkets to tourists 
not far from a dock 
who came to see what life could be 
far back on the island. 

And it was always a party there 
always different but very nice 
New friends to give you advice 
or fall in love with you which is nice 
and each grew so perfectly from the other 
it was a marvel of poetry 
and irony 

And in this unsafe quarter 
much was scary and dirty 
but no one seemed to mind 
very much 
the parties went on from house to house 
There were friends and lovers galore 
all around the store 
There was moonshine in winter 
and starshine in summer 
and everybody was happy to have discovered 
what they discovered 

And then one day the ship sailed away 
There were no more dreamers just sleepers 
in heavy attitudes on the dock 
moving as if they knew how 
among the trinkets and the souvenirs 
the random shops of modern furniture 
and a gale came and said 
it is time to take all of you away 
from the tops of the trees to the little houses 
on little paths so startled 

And when it became time to go 
they none of them would leave without the other 
for they said we are all one here 
and if one of us goes the other will not go 
and the wind whispered it to the stars 
the people all got up to go 
and looked back on love


For more information on John Ashbery, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Naomi Shihab Nye

img_5982I’m the mother of an immigrant and the aunt to immigrants. Family members and many of my dearest friends are gay. I am both a patron and former client of Planned Parenthood. I do not identify as Christian. These four facts alone make me –a white, middle-class born-and-bred citizen of this country– and my immediate and extended family current targets for persecution by my own government. Beyond that, many of my students, colleagues and friends are a) not white, b) Muslim, c) immigrants, d) people living with mental and physical disabilities. Being a patriotic American, which I most certainly am, means that my responsibility is to speak out against fascism. Being a progressive, which I also most certainly am, means keeping my focus on the bigger picture, which is the world as I know it to be, the one that Naomi Nye so beautifully brings to life in this poem.

Gate A-4, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to 
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just 
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I 
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

For more information on Naomi Shihab Nye, please click here.