October 19: “Praise Song for the Day”

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

— Elizabeth Alexander

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October 4: “On the Eve of a Birthday”

As my Scotch, spared the water, blondly sloshes
About its tumbler, and gay manic flame
Is snapping in the fireplace, I grow youthful:
I realize that calendars aren’t truthful
And that for all of my grand unsuccesses
External causes are to blame.

And if at present somewhat destitute,
I plan to alter, prove myself more able,
And suavely stroll into the coming years
As into rooms with thick rugs, chandeliers,
And colorfully pyramided fruit
On linened lengths of table.

At times I fear the future won’t reward
My failures with sufficient compensation,
But dump me, aging, in a garret room
Appointed with twilit, slant-ceilinged gloom
And a lone bulb depending from a cord
Suggestive of self-strangulation.

Then, too, I have bad dreams, in one of which
A cowled, scythe-bearing figure beckons me.
Dark plains glow at his back: it seems I’ve died,
And my soul, weighed and judged, has qualified
For an extended, hyper-sultry hitch
Down in eternity.

Such fears and dreams, however, always pass.
And gazing from my window at the dark,
My drink in hand, I’m jauntily unbowed.
The sky’s tiered, windy galleries stream with cloud,
And higher still, the dazed stars thickly mass
In their long Ptolemaic arc.

What constellated powers, unkind or kind,
Sway me, what far preposterous ghosts of air?
Whoever they are, whatever our connection,
I toast them (toasting also my reflection),
Not minding that the words which come to mind
Make the toast less toast than prayer:

Here’s to the next year, to the best year yet;
To mixed joys, to my harum-scarum prime;
To auguries reliable and specious;
To times to come, such times being precious,
If only for the reason that they get
Shorter all the time.

— Timothy Steele

September 13: “Kindness”

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 gaze at 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.

— Naomi Shihab Nye

September 8: “Hope”

always the hopeless asked to give others hope
the ones pushed up against wall after wall

when you’re done unpinning yourself
from the wall, please give hope

those who work twice as hard to seem half as good
being asked to do one more thing

we need to be seen
because things are not going well
and the crows are up to no good

— Ali Liebegott

August 23: “Improvisation”

Wind:
Why do you play
that long beautiful adagio,
that archaic air,
to-night
Will it never end?
Or is it the beginning,
some prelude you seek?

Is it a tale you strum?
Yesterday, yesterday—
Have you no more for us?

Wind:
Play on.
There is nor hope
nor mutiny
in you.

— Alfred Kreymborg

August 3: “The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

— Emma Lazarus