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Caution: Poetry at Work

May: Working it out

May 11

Last week we explored the ways cultures and communities interact in the same time and space. This week we consider how characteristics, skills, loves and hatreds can span generations. This poem tells the story of a surprising shared activity that helped me see something across four generations, though I will never know precisely what the activity meant to those who came before nor to those who follow.


You have to get it at the rootdandelion seeds
my grandpa always said
as he dug into his perfect grass
If you just pull the top it comes right back
He'd hold the forked spade sure and easy in his palm
putter eyeing the birdie cup
a divining rod seeking the source of all
He'd spy a weed and the tool would
furrow past lush blades of succulent green 
down between the spiked leaves that dared invade
and sever the thing just beneath the surface of the ground
Ah, you see? That one won't be back
The small town dentist of immigrant stock
made another clean extraction and
looked with pride at nature purified

Sometime after my grandpa died my lawyer dad
who cut and mended with words, not tools
began to hunt for weeds in his hitherto untended yard 
A friend watching him one day puzzled over
his sudden love of unbroken turf
I told her about his sire, vigilant
against the yellow blooms and spreading leaves
Did he feel the thrust of an ancient seed?
Or reach an understanding with the stoic Nordic son
who really did walk ten miles in the snow each day
to go to school? Which root did he find
when he sighted down the slightly rusting blade?

I too bought a dandelion fork
one of the first things when I had a yard and kids and cares
I try to keep the prickles down but they love to gather buds of pure gold
and present them to me with anxious pride, breathe the seeds into the wind
I leave a portion of the yard for them 
not just because of the ache in my lower back
and the fatigue of stooping low
but to leave some roots unbroken  
and work for my children's chosen tools

                                -- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Think of an object that came to you from a parent, grandparent, or ancestor, or of a skill or characteristic that you share with one of them. Write a poem where you pass the object back and forth, telling one another what it means, or where you describe the recognition you feel at a tone of voice, a tilt of the head, a way of laughing, an ability that you share.

May 4

Hands clapsedPoetry can give us an avenue for entering imaginatively into what we know and don't know, about ourselves, about others. Some of our knowing and not knowing reveals itself horizontally through community groups that jostle one another, sharing space willingly or resentfully, perhaps most productively when we are seeking common ground. What we see in ourselves can be mirrored in people very like us, and very different from us. A few years ago, I wrote a poem called "Boarders," describing the feeling of being crowded out of my home by the refugees clamoring at the door.  It ends with these lines:

                                Do I want to come inside this crowded
                                Needy place
                                Or run to where no bodies touch
                                And isolation waits
                                Armed  sterile   bright?

Since I wrote that poem, the world and I have changed. I've spent the last four years volunteering one morning a week as an English language tutor for adult immigrants. And though more people arrive in our classes and in our country every day, seeking refuge, the world and my heart now seem spacious enough to give all of them a home. In Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher says, "Everything really interesting happens at borders. Borders teem with life, color, and complexity." One of those borders is the one between cultures and languages.  Sometimes poets write beyond the end of a poem they thought was finished.  That's what I did, and here's the new poem, called not "Boarders" but "Borders."


In the crowded classroom at Discovery School
waves of language rise up in a tangle of tongues-
English is the lingua franca in this little world
its devilish inconsistencies
embellished with laughter and pantomime.
Here in this haven
as we toss questions back and forth over the borders-
                Are you scared of death?
                Will wars ever end?
                How can we raise good children?
rumors and terrors fade
and friendships flourish.

The students come day after day
walking as tall and straight as queens and princes
or bent under old wounds or burdens they can't lay down-
                A sister dead of starvation in south Sudan
                A brother shot before her child-eyes in Mogadishu.

I've learned only one word in Somali-nur, hill, with a river of
trills at the end.
Every day we climb the hill of language, my students and I,
celebrating small successes with high fives, 2 thumbs up, or a pat on the back.
Sometimes we're nourished for the climb with a feast of sambusas or kababs.
One day we'll reach the top
and though we all know that our classroom isn't Heaven
we can almost see it from there--
the world as God dreams it
drenched in the dew of kindness
green with hope for peace.

"See you next Tuesday," I say.
"Inshallah," they reply.
"God willing," I agree.
        --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing :  Write beyond the end of a poem you thought was finished (or at least abandoned some time in the past.)  Or try writing between the lines of one of your poems.  See if what appears between the lines is the real poem or part of the original.

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