Six poems that celebrate magic acts of living

What is poetry? Why does poetry matter? Does it?

These questions are often posed during National Poetry Month. They are also boring. Year after year, poetry endures, whether it has definition or significance. So when I began curating a collection of poems to feature for National Poetry Month, the word that nagged at me was not “poetry” but “national.” How do you decide what to include in a nation’s poetry when the nation is fraught? When the poems may emerge from Native voices, which preexist the nation, or from those who withstand discrimination and violence here — trans and queer writers, immigrants, and people of color?

The original poems I’ve collected here do not encapsulate America. They do gesture to the multitude of voices and forms that American poetry encompasses.

Fady Joudah’s “Bonsai Weeping Willow” invokes the miniature in its title, but the poem feels large, traveling from a laconic meditation on a dead pet to the prohibitive cost of insulin to an explosive final question. Kwame Dawes’s “Bird in Flight” is a freeze-frame of a little girl running. Dawes converts a simple image into a complex one that roots her small body in the hugeness of history. Marilyn Hacker’s sonnet, an excerpt from a sequence, plays with negation: She records all the things she didn’t do in rhyme that surges with life, even when it concludes with regret. Monica Sok’s “The Hallway” plunges into magic: The narrator literally turns the world upside down. Ray Young Bear’s “From the Insect World” is a translation from Meskwaki. “Apparently,” each stanza begins in English, a repetition that prompts us to notice how much lies behind appearances, behind language. Jenny Xie’s “The Untitled Years” evokes the sleepless, ceaseless care of early parenthood in lines that keep breaking in the middle, like thoughts that can’t quite finish.

All of these poems record the daily reshaping of a person’s relationship to their context, whether that’s family, memory, nature or, yes, the nation. They reveal the intimate negotiations and magic acts of living despite — despite what? Despite.

Elisa Gonzalez is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection “Grand Tour.”

My dog contracted diabetes and left me
stuck with the bill. A lover boy
he never met a person he didn’t like
or a food he didn’t taste.

A lucky dog, he can’t attain enlightenment,
but no heaven without hell.
In the next life he’ll come back
as a person who can’t afford their insulin.

Of those, I’ve met many. One buried
the little of it she rationed
in the damp fertile ground
so that it would keep.

Another was comatose,
a soldier in an army that didn’t care.
What is an army that cares?

Fady Joudah has published five poetry collections. He is a practicing physician in Houston.

The child sprints up a flight
of steps. Her calico frock,

worn to a stiffness,
catches the wind, making

her hands like blurred wings.

Like a single finger, the tip
of the wing, is the line

I follow to map her living.

Against the ancient
stones of her city of a million

civilizations, this still flight
is a type of promise,

the animation upon which
everything depends

in the land of the dying.

Kwame Dawes is the author of numerous books of poetry and other books of fiction, criticism and essays. His most recent collection, “UnHistory,” was co-written with John Kinsella.

‘What was not, although it might have been …’

What was not, although it might have been
worse than it was, was still a train-wreck. Why
did I stop going to the bakery,
buying pears, kale, chicken, cheese — eating, when
September ripened, spread its ample plen-
itudes? Platitudes! With despair in my
face, up close, every diminishing day,
I locked the door that ought to stay open
to people, possibilities. Those nights
and days a blur. I slept. I bathed. I dressed
and sat there, mind blank, everyone I missed
missing. I was dragged out, and forced
alive, under the vilifying lights,
where once again, I wished it were the past.

Marilyn Hacker is the author of 16 books of poems, most recently “Calligraphies,” two collaborative books, one with Karthika Naïr and the other with Deema K. Shehabi, as well as 18 books of translations of French and Francophone poets.

I walked on ceilings when nobody was watching.
If I opened my stance, lowered my head, and pushed down my hands,
the ceiling became the floor. Nobody believed me.
They had not seen me do it. Nor had they paid attention
to my developing skills. The hallway was the best place to practice
my upside-down world. To concentrate on walking,
I closed the brown shuttered doors to all the bedrooms.
Sometimes my hair would fly up, and I would have to tie it back.
When my head grew dizzy, I floated down on my back
and lay flat on the floor right below the light.
Who would believe in me if I did not believe in myself?
I knew the power I had could be tamed by the family.
To this day, nobody knows where I am when I am not home.

Monica Sok is the author of “A Nail the Evening Hangs On” and the chapbook “Year Zero.”

From the Insect World, a Fall 2019 Message

this Spider has arrived
to hunt behind my home.

this Spider has lowered
its rope behind
my home.

Ray Young Bear, 72, Meskwaki Nation, has published poems and tribal word-songs in the New Yorker, the Iowa Review and the National Audubon Society’s “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project Vol. 1.

For four days    heat from the temporal artery
Arched spine across your lap

Milk linens       wails warmed in the midnight hour
Your body only a surface for this       small body to press on

Days and days and smaller days       outside of stanzas
Thinking done at the edges       loose script

Long ago you drew       passages on foot
along the rim of Prospect Park       dandruff where pear trees itched

What meaning roused from a line
nights you rested temple       against train glass panes?

Rushing to meditation cushions in Chelsea    evenings washed clean
back when death hadn’t yet       caught a look

You wore wool and silk dresses
Thought your real life was only one       softly out of earshot

Hurtled tunnel through tunnel       trying to sound out
the years stationed ahead       the soft then harder stresses

Jenny Xie is the author of two poetry collections, “Eye Level” and “The Rupture Tense.”

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