Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
This poem is in the public domain.
That summer, she had a student who was obsessed with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard, she wrote: The mother took warm homemade bread from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade is essential to bread . He copied this down, but he wanted to know if his brothers were lost before older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern. When he first arrived, he did not know enough English to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part of Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color. Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal. After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.
From Mortal Geography by Alexandra Teague. Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Teague. Used by permission of Persea Books.
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker slapped the back of my head and made me stand in the corner for not knowing the difference between persimmon and precision. How to choose persimmons. This is precision. Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted. Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one will be fragrant. How to eat: put the knife away, lay down newspaper. Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat. Chew the skin, suck it, and swallow. Now, eat the meat of the fruit, so sweet, all of it, to the heart. Donna undresses, her stomach is white. In the yard, dewy and shivering with crickets, we lie naked, face-up, face-down. I teach her Chinese. Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten. Naked: I’ve forgotten. Ni, wo: you and me. I part her legs, remember to tell her she is beautiful as the moon. Other words that got me into trouble were fight and fright, wren and yarn. Fight was what I did when I was frightened, Fright was what I felt when I was fighting. Wrens are small, plain birds, yarn is what one knits with. Wrens are soft as yarn. My mother made birds out of yarn. I loved to watch her tie the stuff; a bird, a rabbit, a wee man. Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class and cut it up so everyone could taste a Chinese apple. Knowing it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat but watched the other faces. My mother said every persimmon has a sun inside, something golden, glowing, warm as my face. Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper, forgotten and not yet ripe. I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill, where each morning a cardinal sang, The sun, the sun. Finally understanding he was going blind, my father sat up all one night waiting for a song, a ghost. I gave him the persimmons, swelled, heavy as sadness, and sweet as love. This year, in the muddy lighting of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking for something I lost. My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs, black cane between his knees, hand over hand, gripping the handle. He’s so happy that I’ve come home. I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question. All gone, he answers. Under some blankets, I find a box. Inside the box I find three scrolls. I sit beside him and untie three paintings by my father: Hibiscus leaf and a white flower. Two cats preening. Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth. He raises both hands to touch the cloth, asks, Which is this? This is persimmons, Father. Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk, the strength, the tense precision in the wrist. I painted them hundreds of times eyes closed. These I painted blind. Some things never leave a person: scent of the hair of one you love, the texture of persimmons, in your palm, the ripe weight.
Li-Young Lee, “Persimmons” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.
My therapist says I’m afraid of vanishing.
Last week his ceiling caved in, ending our session
in a shower of words and water.
I’m serious. I’m always serious
when I talk about therapists and cave-ins.
This morning I’m serious in a train
sliding past a clock-tower constructed
when this city thought it was flourishing. Flourishing
is a form of vanishing, a verb embedded in what comes after.
Once there was a city that flourished, its spires confident and secure
as my therapist’s ceiling. Once there was a train
that pulled out of a once-flourishing city.
One morning I was on that train, speeding between woods and river,
through a village of wooden houses and plots in a cemetery,
moving on, vanishing
too fast to become part of local history.
Vanishing was fun, like a sky skydiving.
I was the sky into which I dove.
I brooded above the little wooden town
and postage-stamp cemetery.
Time said, “Welcome to the fountain.”
History said, “You’re already forgotten.”
Wind-scalloped river, algae-covered pond, fronds of goldenrod,
a patch of reeds and then a factory parking lot, cars and men
moving slowly, lit by Sunday morning.
The train slowed to a stop, waiting to claim the single track ahead.
I will tell my therapist, when we meet again
beneath his brand-new ceiling,
“Once I was sitting on a train,
stopped dead and already gone.
From The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Joy Ladin. Used with the permission of the author.
This poem is in the public domain.