April is National Poetry Month. Rural and Progressive is posting favorite poems shared by writers and poets. Today’s was contributed by writer and artist Patti Digh.
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 mail letters and purchase 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, “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995
I studied English and Art History in graduate school, specifically the interplay between art (spatial, instantaneous form) and literature (linear, temporal form). So I thought to share a series of poems written about one painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” to show how spatial forms are translated differently by various writers into written form.
And then I realized I was letting my head lead. I decided to let my heart lead instead, and chose this poem about kindness.
I have known for some time what I want on my tombstone: “She was kind and generous.” This poem about kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye was the first poem I ever read by her. My friend, Catherine Faherty, pointed me to it years ago and it resonated deeply with me. Naomi is a songwriter as well as a poet, Catherine told me.
When Catherine’s friend, Mary Ann, was dying of cancer just a year after Mary Ann’s 20-year-old daughter, Meta, had died in a car wreck, Catherine called Naomi Shihab Nye. She told her that when Meta was a baby, Mary Ann had sung songs by Naomi to her. She asked if Naomi would sing some of those songs to Mary Ann on the phone as she prepared to die and be with her daughter again.
And so, the poet sang to a dying woman she had never met.
The size of the cloth of sorrow is so huge, and only kindness makes any sense anymore.
Patti Digh is the author of “Life is a Verb” and “The Geography of Loss,” along with 5 other books. She lives near Asheville NC with her family.