I was invited by the San Jose Mayor’s office some weeks ago to give the invocation at the last City Council meeting of the season before their holiday break. I thought you might like to read the address I gave which I revised this weekend after last Friday’s tragedy. I had roughly five minutes and because of the subject matter, I had to round a few corners off, but I think I got the main point across. Let me know what you think in the comment section, below.
Honorable Mayor and Council Members,
Thank you for inviting me here today. Before I begin my formal remarks I would like to express my gratitude to this Council and the City of San Jose. Your support of the Poetry on the Move project has enriched the lives of the people in the entire county in a tangible way. Where art thrives, people draw closer to “the better angels of our nature.” Thank you.
Just last week I’d planned a very different Invocation for today’s Council meeting. I had planned to talk about how poets—in trying to make the world look like what it feels like — learn to rely on close observation of the sensory world. We were going to specifically consider sound and the difference between hearing and listening. I was composing a poem just for the Council around this consideration. I planned to read that poem and then wish you all a quiet season of listening in the days ahead.
Then came last Friday’s horrific shooting and the world, as it does, as it will again, changed. And I felt that instead of talking about how poets rely on the senses to choose words, which is true, that I should talk instead about how poetry makes sense with words or through words, or even by what lies under the words, which poetry also does. Poetry not only says what is often unsayable, it says it in a way that lets us recognize something of our own experience in it. Poetry offers a way in. But how can we make sense at such times?
People turn to poetry in times of crisis. We saw this at 9/11, poems posted on the internet and read on TV. Poetry is our earliest collective expression of what it means to be a people, of how life is ordered. Perhaps because poetry still endeavors to express what it means to be here—alive—now, people still turn to it and find consolation in the pattern of words. Poetry takes the personal and the specific and searches for our universal experience that inhabits it. A poem gives shape to that experience.
In Poem # 372, Emily Dickinson begins a consideration of grief. She writes “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” The poem concludes:
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Stupor. That is a brilliant and exact word for grief, for shock, for the initial leaden feeling that paralyzes us when tragedy strikes. Stupor is not an easy place from which to write poetry. Usually some degree of distance is required to gain the type of insight we hope to discover in writing a poem, that we hope to offer to a reader. So I bring today a poem written by Naomi Shihab Nye, an American poet of Palestinian descent. The poem is written for her grandmother who lives outside of Jerusalem. Through telling a particular story about an old woman in a distant land, Nye is able to uncover a larger significance that connects to you and me.
The Words Under the Words
for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem
My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes,
the damp shine of a goat’s new skin.
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them
covering my head like cool prayers.
My grandmother’s days are made of bread,
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car
circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,
lost to America. More often, tourists,
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.
My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her.
Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.
She knows the spaces we travel through,
the messages we cannot send—our voices are short
and would get lost on the journey.
Farewell to the husband’s coat,
the ones she has loved and nourished,
who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.
They will plant themselves. We will all die.
My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
“Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”
Naomi Shihab Nye
It is my hope that in the quiet days ahead, through poetry or prayer or sharing bread or gathering together, we each find the grace and wisdom—the words under the words—for such times.
Santa Clara County Poet Laureate