Given earth

Startled from a swollen seedpod, they look up. We look up. Call it hope.

A gesture captures attention far faster than an image. When a peace lily growing next to my kitchen window taps my friend on her shoulder as she’s getting a cup of punch, it’s like a poem just slapped my face. Call it a wish.

Since I finished watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, I’ve been in a lost mood. It seems like nothing else ever could gesture so brilliantly. Call it flash blindness.

Sculpture in Peekskill, New York by Basha Ruth Nelson – BeyondHudson Valley MOCA

Luckily, it is National Poetry Month, and there are dozens and dozens of things that are pulling poets like us out of our dark seedpods and into the light. Yesterday, I had the honor of reading a poem to celebrate Arbor Day and Earth Day at River Hook, a preserve dedicated to environment, education and arts, which is just up the road from my house. Neighbors and friends gathered to honor our village historian Win Perry, who has served 50 years in the role, and to plant trees, to hear a cellist play some beautiful Bach, and to read local poetry posted around the old sheep meadow.

Call it harmony.

Naturally since I’m moping in the wake of Satyajit Ray’s films, I picked up Tagore’s poems to read myself through this last week of National Poetry Month.

Verse 35 from Gitanjali
by Rabindranath Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
  Where knowledge is free;
  Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
  Where words come out from the depth of truth;
  Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
  Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
  Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
  Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Sculpture by Carole Feuerman – The Golden MeanHudson Valley MOCA

Let’s choose to be alive to what songs arrive in the moment. Lucky for us, so many free, high-quality readings and talks have been online this month already to inspire us. Here are a couple of noteworthy ones for you:

The Bellevue Literary Review hosted a reading with the winners and runners-up for their annual awards in poetry, fiction and nonfiction. I adore Jehanne Dubrow for her poetry, and I remember being surprised and delighted to see her in the MFA program at Vermont College in summer 2021 working on creative nonfiction. Of course, she’s won this year’s BLR award for nonfiction. She’s featured around minute 19:00 in this recorded event.

Orion Magazine is a startlingly beautiful print publication that is committed to environmental consciousness through art and culture. But science and journalism are not excluded from their mission, as this panel discussion, “Deny and Delay,” makes clear. I was fascinated by the ideas Amy Westervelt shared about helping people across divisions of identities and ideologies to join together for the planet.

Also in Orion Magazine, I found myself circling back on Tagore through an essay by Sumana Roy on one of Tagore’s friends: Jagadish Chandra Bose, a scientist who studied the living experiences of plants. Maybe “studied” isn’t the right word. Call it discerning.

from an essay by Jagadish Chandra Bose on understanding plant linguistics
- quoted in Sumana Roy's essay in Orion Magazine, "The Man Who Listened to Plants"

Do plants say anything? Many will say, What kind of a question is this? Have plants ever spoken? Can man express himself clearly? And what he cannot express, is it not language? We have a child — he cannot speak clearly; the few words that come out of him are so half-formed and even broken that it is impossible for anyone to understand their meaning. But we can understand everything that our child says. Not just that though. There are many things that our little boy does not say aloud in words; his eyes, the movements of his face and hands, the shaking of his head — he speaks through these gestures, we understand that language as well, but others don’t. One day a pigeon from a neighboring house came and sat on our house — it then began cooing and grunting at the top of its voice. Our little boy was thus introduced to the pigeon; he soon began imitating the pigeon’s doob doob. How does the pigeon call? As soon as we asked him this, he would imitate the bird’s call. . . .

Returning home one day, I found the little boy with fever; a severe headache had made him lie limp on the bed. The naughty boy who prances around the house restlessly all day was now struggling to even open his eyes. I sat by his bed and ran my fingers through his hair. Recognizing me from my touch, he opened his eyes with a lot of effort and looked at me. He then made the pigeon-sound. I heard many things in his pigeon-call. I understood that the little boy was saying, “You’ve come to see the little boy? The little boy loves you a lot.” I understood several other things, things that I wouldn’t be able to express in words.

If you ask me how I could hear so many things in that pigeon call, there is only one answer — it is because I love the little boy. You have seen that by looking at her son’s face a mother understands what he wants. Often there is no need for words. If one observes from love, many qualities are revealed, one is able to hear many things.

The gestures of touch and sound here, but, look, we’ve circled back to where we started in this blog post. The seedling looks up. Given earth, artists have to work cunningly with time, space, material and thought to create gestures that will move others to deeper listening and connection.

Call it singing.

2 thoughts on “Given earth

  1. Satyajit Ray, Tagore, Jagdish Chandra Bose, all great personalities one a movie Director, a great poet and knighted scientist: you combined them all as with great creative minds!
    Very nice! (all three from the state of Bengal which gave us many more giants in many fields)

  2. Oh yes, so much is about the singing. Look at Mark Strand in “Lines for Winter” “…tell yourself/
    what you know which is nothing/ but the tune your bones play/ as you keep going…” Or Mark Van Doren in “Undersong” – “…of the whole world it hums, and yet more near,/more secret in my ear/ keeps coming to me, coming, and I know/ as long as I go forth it shall be so”

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