Let the mystery be…

Here’s a poem I just like. To me it says, like Iris Dement, “Let the mystery be.” Poetry is the closest thing  in words to a language my body understands. Experience it, intervene in it, but don’t look to it for all the answers… it’s just a poem, after all.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Phenomenal Women

If we’re talking favorite poems, I have to include this one. I first became aware of Maya Angelou and Alice Walker when they were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, back when she still had two names. I think it was 1987 or 1988. I was in college. Seeing and hearing these women changed me, changed my life. I became — GASP! — a feminist! Or, actually, realized I already was one and embraced it. (Later I would drop the noun and now mainly use the term as an adjective… less limited by people’s ideas of what a “feminist” is.)

I read everything they had written up to that point, including a lot of poetry. There’s not a single book by either of them that I don’t recommend.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Audre Lorde keeps it real

Here are two hard poems by Audre Lorde. I love the way poetry uses the power of language to effect visceral emotion and give sharp focus to the human impact of systemic injustice … I was going to say, atrocity. You decide. Strip away comfortable illusion, and as my teacher says, DENY NOTHING.

Sisters in Arms

The edge of our bed was a wide grid
where your fifteen-year-old daughter was hanging
gut-sprung on police wheels
a cablegram nailed to the wood
next to a map of the Western Reserve
I could not return with you to bury the body
reconstruct your nightly cardboards
against the seeping Transvaal cold
I could not plant the other limpet mine
against a wall at the railroad station
nor carry either of your souls back from the river
in a calabash upon my head
so I bought you a ticket to Durban
on my American Express
and we lay together
in the first light of a new season.
Now clearing roughage from my autumn garden
cow sorrel    overgrown rocket gone to seed
I reach for the taste of today
the New York Times finally mentions your country
a half-page story
of the first white south african killed in the “unrest”
Not of Black children massacred at Sebokeng
six-year-olds imprisoned for threatening the state
not of Thabo Sibeko, first grader, in his own blood
on his grandmother’s parlor floor
Joyce, nine, trying to crawl to him
shitting through her navel
not of a three-week-old infant, nameless
lost under the burned beds of Tembisa
my hand comes down like a brown vise over the marigolds
reckless through despair
we were two Black women touching our flame
and we left our dead behind us
I hovered    you rose    the last ritual of healing
“It is spring,” you whispered
“I sold the ticket for guns and sulfa
I leave for home tomorrow”
and wherever I touch you
I lick cold from my fingers
taste rage
like salt from the lips of a woman
who has killed too often to forget
and carries each death in her eyes
your mouth a parting orchid
“Someday you will come to my country
and we will fight side by side?”
Keys jingle in the door ajar    threatening
whatever is coming belongs here
I reach for your sweetness
but silence explodes like a pregnant belly
into my face
a vomit of nevers.
Mmanthatisi turns away from the cloth
her daughters-in-law are dyeing
the baby drools milk from her breast
she hands him half-asleep to his sister
dresses again for war
knowing the men will follow.
In the intricate Maseru twilights
quick    sad    vital
she maps the next day’s battle
dreams of Durban    sometimes
visions the deep wry song of beach pebbles
running after the sea.


The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

a haiku

A couple of years ago, I challenged myself to write 10 haikus a day for 100 days. With a few exceptions (some days I couldn’t quite get to 10!), I completed the 100 days and ended up with almost 1000 haikus. A few of them were even ok!

In the process, I read a lot of haikus. I learned that the best haiku speak to the heart. I wrote a poem about it:

Richard Wright wrote haiku. I’m reading it.

Mostly I just read along: ok, ok, ok
and then
a little gasp
I pause
he gets something exactly right.
your KNOW that place
recognition. it strikes softly in the body. But it does strike.
you FEEL it.

head head head — heart. yes. that’s it.


Here’s one of Wright’s haikus:

And though level full

The petal holds its dew

And without trembling


time_cover_-_america_baltimore_3ff5a1d633dd79261261a745f650ed40.nbcnews-ux-1024-900Sometimes we need poetry to help us feel the pain of the injustice all around us. Fifty years ago today, violence abruptly ended the life of one of this nation’s most impactful proponents of civil rights, and social and economic justice. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy lives in our continued attempts at nonviolent protest and direct action against the injustices of our day. And, we are still met, far too often, with violence.

Today, a poem from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. You can read more here.


Stevie Edwards


Ithaca, NY – June 24, 2015

What if we built a God
out of justice. If we prayed
for justice to lead our daily actions
before scrambled eggs and coffee,
if we tithed to justice, dated
only people who believed in the right
justice, got our knees dirty
kneeling on asphalt
in front of police stations
and banks praying for justice
to banish the infidels. What if
we worshipped justice
as much as comfort,
didn’t move our protest lines
when the cab drivers honked.
What if after the vigil
nobody asked if people wanted
to do a die-in, if it wasn’t
perhaps too late. What if
we asked justice what she thinks
we should do to the town
tonight. What if justice
says we need more cowbell,
more pots and pans,
more yell with our lily white
liberal mouths. What if justice
says she doesn’t even need us—
checking our cellphones
on the crowd’s periphery
as a black woman talks about fear.

A poem for learning nonattachment from a cat


I love the Beats. A couple of years ago my partner brought me this book as a present from City Lights when he was in San Francisco. Bukowski clearly has an admiration for cats, but he doesn’t see them as sweet, cuddly little love bugs. He sees them as sometimes grouchy, mischievous, interloping, existential thinkers and great hunters of the wild, which they also are. Bukowski’s cat don’t give a F(*&! what you think of them!

This poem illustrates well the cat’s nonchalance in contrast to the poet’s attachment.

the devious good of rescuing the suffering

once very thin and nervous
like a starving musician
I fed him well
and he has gotten fat
like a Texas oilman and not so
but still

asleep in bed I will awaken
and his nose will be touching my
nose and those
yellow great eyes
down into what’s left of my soul
and then I will say —
off, bastard!
get your nose away from my
purring like a spider full of
flies he will walk off a

I was in the bathtub yesterday
and he came walking in
high on his feet
tail flicking
and I am in there
smoking a cigar and reading the
and he leaped up on the edge of the
balancing on the slippery ivory
and I told him
sir, you are a cat and cats
don’t like water.
but he went around to the faucets
and he hung there with his black feet
and the other part of him was
head down
sniffing at the water and the water was
HOT and he started drinking it
the thin red tongue
bashful and miraculous
dipping into the hot water
and he kept
wondering what I was doing in there
what I found so good about it
and then that fat white fool
fell in! —
we all came out of there
wet and fast;
cat, me, cigar and NEW YORKER
spitting, screaming, sputtering, soaked
and my wife ran in
I spoke through my unraveling cigar:
a man can’t even have a little privacy
in his own bathtub, that’s what!
she only laughed at us
and the cat was not even angry
he was still wet and fat
except for his tail and very sad and
he began licking
I used a towel,
then I walking into the bedroom
got into bed
and tried to find my place in the

but the good mood was broken
I put the publication down
and stared up at the ceiling
up into space where God was supposed to be
then I hear it:

the next stray cat who comes to my door will
remain a

yoga sturasNonattachment is one of the central teachings of yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali begins:

1.1 Now the teachings of yoga.

1.2 Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

1.3 Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.

1.4 Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.

In other words, we can begin to identify with the things we think. The things we think can come to define us. Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita teaches that we can come to identify with the things we do. This kind of attachment is a source of our suffering, blinding us to the fuller truth of reality. The Sutras teach that effortful practice (abhyasa) along with detachment (vairagya) are the keys to clarity. Work hard at what you do for the sake of the work itself; don’t be attached to the outcomes or what you think the outcomes should be. This lesson is the heart of karma yoga, the yoga of action.