At a writing residency last year, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space are my response to Lia’s invitation.
* * *
A Poem Asks Us to Be Still
It’s been a busy spring. I’ve spent good time in classrooms talking about the craft and pleasures of poems. I’ve been reading and writing and mothering. The days are finally, mercifully longer, and more of them are filled with light. My favorite new word is Maienschein, from the German, literally, “May shine,” used to describe the green-gold light falling through new leaves. The birds in the wetland near my home are downright noisy—their varied songs begin with the first threads of morning and carry through the trees until the sun goes down. Everything around me seems imbued with an intense energy, buzzing and chirping and blossoming and spilling petals onto the pavement.
But poems (and people) do not necessarily move at the pace of spring.
In “Keeping Still,” Pablo Neruda writes:
Now we will count to twelve
and let’s keep quiet.
For once on earth
let’s not talk in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
A moment like that would smell sweet,
no hurry, no engines,
all of us at the same time
in need of rest.
I think about this poem often, especially as the life force of spring crescendos and is juxtaposed against the devastations we witness around us or read about in the news.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and go for a walk with their brothers
out in the shade, doing nothing.
I thought about this poem driving up to Skagit Valley Poetry Festival, where I’ll be this weekend, taking the time to delight in poetry among students and readers and so many esteemed poets from the Northwest and across the country. The road to La Conner, where the festival is held, winds through the tulip fields, now subdued and peaceful, the bright swathes of yellow and pink now a modest earth flecked with green. There’s no way around the bends in the road, no more direct route. I always turn the radio off for this part of the drive, revel in the stillness of the post-tulip fields.
Writing poetry feels very much like the drive to La Conner—there are long silent expanses between stirring images—a dilapidated barn, a rhododendron spilling white blossoms with burgundy eyes at their centers, so that it feels like a thousand flowers stare back at you. And the path through the poem winds and doubles back on itself, clings to the curve of the field, turns sharply at the bridge into yet another landscape.
On opening night of the festival, I had the pleasure of reading alongside poets Ada Limón, Robert Pinsky, and Brian Turner. The organizers named the reading, “Dear America: Poems of Resistance and Hope.” One of the poems I read is entitled, “Mountain, Stone.” The poem eulogizes children who die in conflict, their names often unknown to us. Among the children of the poem are Hamza, the boy whose brutal torture sparked the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, and Muhammad, Zakariya, Ahed, and Ismail, now often known as the boys on the beach in Gaza. They were killed by a missile strike while they played soccer along the shore in the summer of 2014. When I introduced the poem, I told the audience that I believe the way we grieve is too fast. That I come from a tradition that takes its time with grief, that expects it will require a long while to wind through it. No hurry, no engines. An acceptance that the body wants to move forward but cannot yet: the heart wants to stay with the names, with the loss.
If we weren’t so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and could maybe do nothing for once
a huge silence might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves,
of threatening ourselves with death;
perhaps the earth could teach us;
everything would seem dead
and then be alive.
This weekend, the poets at Skagit Valley Poetry Festival will share their own work and the poems that inspire them on themes including “Good Poems in Hard Times,” “Crossing Borders,” and the “Mess of Love.” There will be laughter and conversation and writing and community. But there will also be the treasured stillness that a poem ushers into a room. We will be invited into ourselves, we will be inefficient and unhurried and wandering. Come join us here.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium.