Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The War Horse

by Eavan Boland

This dry night, nothing unusual
About the clip, clop, casual

Iron of his shoes as he stamps death
Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth.

I lift the window, watch the ambling feather
Of hock and fetlock, loosed from its daily tether

In the tinker camp on the Enniskerry Road,
Pass, his breath hissing, his snuffling head

Down. He is gone. No great harm is done.
Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn—

Of distant interest like a maimed limb,
Only a rose which now will never climb

The stone of our house, expendable, a mere
Line of defence against him, a volunteer

You might say, only a crocus, its bulbous head
Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.

But we, we are safe, our unformed fear
Of fierce commitment gone; why should we care

If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted
Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?

He stumbles on like a rumour of war, huge
Threatening. Neighbours use the subterfuge

Of curtains. He stumbles down our short street
Thankfully passing us. I pause, wait,

Then to breathe relief lean on the sill
And for a second only my blood is still

With atavism. That rose he smashed frays
Ribboned across our hedge, recalling days

Of burned countryside, illicit braid:
A cause ruined before, a world betrayed.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"If we read one another, we won't kill one another."

That is one of my favorite quotes from Naomi Shihab Nye. But though I steal it from her, the words were originally those of a different Arab scholar, Dr. Salma Jayyusi.

What do they mean? I don't pretend to know. I am not a politician or a world leader, and I have never tested the theory of reading poetry to end our wars.

Does the Israeli Prime Minster read the poetry of his Palestinian enemies? Would it make a difference if he did? Do the Palestinians, in turn, read the poetry of his people?

Could we change the world with words?

But then, what is "the world" anyway? Do I mean yours, or mine, or the place where they intersect?

Intersecting worlds is something that I do know something of. I stand in the strange and empty space where Arab and American collide. Where Muslims and Christians break bread together. And where a small Tunisian girl, with dark brown eyes, once smiled at her Western friend with golden curls.

And I know this is no more (or less) a miracle than a moment of connection, one Sunday over tea, in the tiny college town of Newberg, Oregon.

On a Given Sunday
by Kohleun Seo

Newberg, Oregon, February 2009

Nothing extraordinary or epic happens on Sunday afternoons. A small group of students meets in a campus apartment with blue mismatched furniture. We sip hot tea—steeped extra strong—and eat the benefits of my domestic skills. This week a tray of Scottish shortbread serves as our centerpiece on the coffee table with a bowl of almonds. Beside the table sits a stack of poetry, including an anthology titled Very Bad Poetry. We have no philosophical revelations. We pass around the volumes of verse. Pour the tea, stir in sugar and milk. And in that space we meet each other through metaphor and stanza.

Julia snatches up the Very Bad Poetry, and reads an ode to cheese, the elegy of a little blond girl who dies after eating her beefsteak supper, and the utter tragedy of a flopping dead man, who, upon his death, gives a resounding “Plop!”

“That was tragic,” I say.

“Kohleun, read ‘The Shirt’ in a ‘sexy’ voice,” Amberle says as I flip through Jane Kenyon’s collection, Otherwise.

“I don’t think I can do a ‘sexy’ voice without laughing, and I don’t have a ‘sexy’ laugh,” I reply.

“Just do it,” Arianne demands with her legs flung over the arm of a once-puffy chair that could easily fit two average-sized adults in its embrace. Four other voices echo Arianne’s sentiments, and I begin to read (and laugh). As I deepen my voice, we retrace the path of “the shirt” as it caresses a man’s neck and “slides down his side.” Karith and Alicia begin to laugh uncontrollably—one croaks and the other squeaks—both sound like they are hyperventilating as they try to hide flaming faces in each other’s sweatshirts, failing miserably. Meanwhile, Heidi is laughing at Karith, and Julia is straining to maintain a ‘serious’ demeanor, holding a smile down with her hands; but at the closing line, “Lucky shirt,” everyone rocks back in her seat and cheers.

“This is definitely going on Facebook,” Amberle says, turning off her digital camera, which has video capabilities, apparently.

“More! More!” Alicia chants and wipes her eyes.

Julia continues to thumb through Very Bad Poetry. “’Only One Eye’ by Lillian Curtis,” she reads then clears her throat, “I love the gentle girl, But oh! I heaved a sigh, When first she told me she could see Out of only one eye.” Groans and various other ‘verbal responses’ escape our lips.

“The appropriate title, “Arianne asserts, “should be ‘The Two-eyed Idiot.’”

Amberle looks to Arianne and says, “I’ve found the poem of your life!” and hands her Mary Karr’s Sinners Welcome, opened to page thirty-two.

“’Miss Flame, Apartment Bound, as Undiscovered Porn Star’?”


“Read it in a ‘sexy’ voice,” I tease.

And she does.

We learn things about Arianne we had never imagined.

I am on my third cup of tea. Julia runs into the kitchen to put another kettle of water on the hob to boil, and rushes back to recline on the large pillow beside me. While cold rain hits the roof and windows, inside, the heater creates a hum of its own as it floods warmth into the room.

From her corner on the couch, Karith moves her body forward, as if immerging from a secret cavern. She has been cradling Naomi Shihab Nye’s You & Yours for the past fifteen minutes. “I want to read a serious poem. It’s one of my favorites, but first, are there any staunch Bush supporters?”

If there are, no one admits it.

We chuckle a bit when Karith reads from “He Said EYE-RACK”: “On St. Patrick’s Day 2003, President Bush wore a blue tie” But we go silent when she reads:
. . . He said, “We are
against the lawless men who
rule your country, not you.” Tell that
to the mother, the sister, the bride. . .
the librarian careful with her shelves.

“Hmm,” we buzz in our throats, surrounded with books of our own. I straighten a dog-eared corner; Karith closes the book and smoothes its golden cover with her fingers. Alicia twists her wedding ring around its freckled finger. We are all sisters. Some of us are married. We have witnessed our own personal ruinations, though missiles have not exploded our markets and neighborhoods. Heidi, who recently lived in Cairo, leans closer to Karith. Amberle collapses her chin into her hands. And I remember the Palestinian mothers I met in Bethlehem. We chew our almonds quietly.

In this quiet moment, I turn to Ted Kooser and “The Jar of Buttons.” The poem begins like an epic tale on the high sea: “This is a core sample from the floor of the Sea of Mending,” a circle of women that spans generations. I look around the room at friends—some of whom have never met each other before this Sunday—this gathering around tea and shortbread, and I continue reading:
generations of women set forth,
under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side
on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

After a few more rounds of tea, and we are all more than sufficiently caffeinated and smell of butter and nuttiness, each woman rises to leave. We say our good-byes for the day, maybe even the week, and embrace or kiss air by the cheek.

I stand at the door as rain continues to pour over the eaves, watching my friends walk away, and I squeeze Karith’s shoulder. The almond bowl is almost empty, and the striped fabric napkin, which played the role of tablecloth, is covered in crumbs. I know we have done nothing grand here, nor have we mended shirts or curtains, but we swabbed the decks of other generations with our tea, and rinsed them in the splash of our laughter.