To add up

My son’s supervisor at his summer internship in New Jersey is Indian, and suddenly my son says to me that he’d like to read more about India. His aim, I suppose, is to have more to talk about at work. But, being the ever-annoying poet-mom, I replied, “you can always know more about India, but if you want to understand, you should read Mahabharata.”

Not the whole thing, of course, because no one does that. It has not been translated that thoroughly anyway. I was thinking of it because I’d just read K. Srilata’s recent poems in Poetry at Sangam— poems that sift stories from the silences of the Mahabharata. It’s interesting to think of the silences themselves as a significant substance— solidity, matter — in the energetically dramatic spaces of the epic.

One way or the other
it had to add up to
eight hundred moon-white horses
with one black ear,
guru dakshina for Vishwamitra.

from “Says Madhavi to her friend” by K. Srilata

Since I’m still reflecting intensively on my art of teaching, it occurs to me that we teachers have two direct modes. One is to tell someone what they don’t want to hear but must. The other is to bring one to the silence, and let the matter become clear as glass.

Both are difficult. You know the saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” So we have a couple of indirect modes. These require a bit of cunning and insight to employ well. When my teacher, the poet Jody Gladding, wanted me to travel deeper into my literary heritage, she advised me indirectly, saying “you should translate.” When poet Matthew Dickman wanted our workshop group to write closer to the social/humanities issues at hand, he assigned us to watch a film clip for the sake of ekphrasis from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Then I think of teachers and visionaries of humanity, past and present-day ones, who set an example and skillfully encourage the strongest tendrils of growth in their communities. I’m listening to an audiobook by Thich Nhat Hanh, who inspires me so much in his life and work.

Add this all up, and you can see why my gratitude for my teachers keeps growing. Of course I didn’t recommend reading Mahabharata to my son for anything less than a direct route to understanding the meaning of human life.

If you want to make… a poem

Taking the same mode of inquiry that K. Srilata used to write her poem sequence, choose a character from a wisdom story that has some significance for you. Then write a one-sided conversation between that character and their best friend.

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