On Being with Krista Tippett

‘Poetry Unbound’ Returns, With Wisdom For Living Now

Last Updated

September 24, 2020


Poetry rises up in human societies in times of crisis when official words fail us and we lose sight of how to find our way back to one another; how to hear each other’s voices. This week we offer a preview of the next season of our Poetry Unbound podcast, which returns on Monday, Sept. 28. Each episode takes a single poem as its center, with host Pádraig Ó Tuama reading the poem and meditating on it. In this hour, we dwell with six poems that accompany the struggle, strangeness, and possibilities of being alive in this time.

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Guest

Image of Pádraig Ó Tuama

Pádraig Ó Tuama is the staff poet and theologian at The On Being Project and hosts the Poetry Unbound podcast. He was formerly a leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. His books include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles, and a poetic memoir, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World.

Transcript

Krista Tippett, host: Poetry rises up in human societies when official words fail us and we lose sight of how to find our way back to one another; how to hear each other’s voices. This hour we dwell with six poems to accompany the struggle, strangeness, and possibilities of being alive in this time. We traverse worlds with words — from the tender work of forgiving ourselves to the mighty Lucille Clifton, asking: “Won’t you celebrate with me what I have shaped into a kind of life?”

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

We’ve crafted what follows from excerpts of the newest season of the Poetry Unbound podcast. Each episode takes a single poem as its center, with Pádraig Ó Tuama reading the poem and meditating on it. This is a new adventure of On Being Studios, and Pádraig is The On Being Project’s very own poet/theologian. He’s esteemed in Northern Ireland and around the world at the intersection of language, spiritual insight, and conflict resolution.

[music: “Praise The Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Pádraig Ó Tuama: My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama, and the longer that I’ve written poetry and read poetry, I realize that poetry is asking me to be brave, to go into the moments of my own failure and to narrate those, not as projects of self-hatred, but as projects of observation, in the possibility that I might be able to offer some kind of compassion in the space of a poem to the self that’s writing, as well as, from that, begin to offer compassion in the wider world.

Ó Tuama: “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed:

“For leaving the fridge open
last night, I forgive you.
For conjuring white curtains
instead of living your life.

For the seedlings that wilt, now,
in tiny pots, I forgive you.
For saying no first
but yes as an afterthought.

I forgive you for hideous visions
after childbirth, brought on by loss
of sleep. And when the baby woke
repeatedly, for your silent rebuke

in the dark, “What’s your beef?”
I forgive your letting vines
overtake the garden. For fearing
your own propensity to love.

For losing, again, your bag
en route from San Francisco;
for the equally heedless drive back
on the caffeine-fueled return.

I forgive you for leaving
windows open in rain
and soaking library books
again. For putting forth

only revisions of yourself,
with punctuation worked over,
instead of the disordered truth,
I forgive you. For singing mostly

when the shower drowns your voice. For so admiring
the drummer you failed to hear
the drum. In forgotten tin cans,

may forgiveness gather. Pooling
in gutters. Gushing from pipes.
A great steady rain of olives
from branches, relieved

of cruelty and petty meanness.
With it, a flurry of wings, thirteen
gray pigeons. Ointment reserved
for healers and prophets. I forgive you.

I forgive you. For feeling awkward and nervous without reason.
For bearing Keats’s empty vessel
with such calm you worried

you had, perhaps, no moral
center at all. For treating your mother
with contempt when she deserved
compassion. I forgive you. I forgive

you. I forgive you. For growing
a capacity for love that is great
but matched only, perhaps,
by your loneliness. For being unable

to forgive yourself first so you
could then forgive others and
at last find a way to become
the love that you want in this world.”

[music: “Every Place We’ve Been” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: The first time I read this poem, I thought, Who is this speaker? They sound like a total dick. And then it became clear to me, as the poem went on, that the speaker in the poem had such intimate knowledge of the person they were speaking to that it could only be a person speaking to themself, because they know so much. And then I thought, Oh, they don’t sound horrible. They sound intimately aware of the things that we hold against ourselves.

And that’s what I think this poem is about, in many ways, the things we hold against ourselves that prevent us from being loving in the moment, because we’re so caught up, perhaps, in the stories of failure, some of them deserved, and some of them not deserved, the stories of failure that we hold against ourselves from our past, or from the ideal version of ourselves that we think we should be.

This person seems to be tired a lot, seems to be in a rush. They’re exhausted from parenting. They forget things. They are concerned about how they are perceived, and they are trying to appear perfect. And they’re giving themselves forgiveness for all those things, and treating their mother poorly. And they’re filled with capacities for love and loneliness. All of these things in this poem seem to be deserving of forgiveness.

This poem is saying that self-forgiveness isn’t the end. Self-forgiveness is the beginning, in order to be able to love.

And that makes you think of the title, then, “Phase One.” This is just the first step in the project of being human and in the project of being human at this age, whatever age the speaker of the poem is. I love that Dilruba Ahmed has done this in such a way to say that self-forgiveness comes early so that all these other things can come after that; so that you can be present to your life without holding the life that you never had, against yourself, in such a way that you might never live the life that you have.

[music: “First Grief, First Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: For many years I led a project that looked at forgiveness. It wasn’t a forgiveness evangelism project; it was looking in the context of the North of Ireland and in the long context of British-Irish relations over the last number of centuries and thinking about how do we think about forgiveness, wisely? I think that forgiveness is one of a number of good options, provided you’re choosing it freely. Forced forgiveness — I wouldn’t even call that forgiveness; [laughs] that’s called forcing. But to approach forgiveness — I always wanted to look at how do you define it? And I — over the course of the years that I led that project, I must’ve read hundreds of definitions of forgiveness. But the one I keep on coming back to is, holding something against someone. That someone might be yourself. And to hold something against someone requires energy. They mightn’t even know it.

Like if I’ve been angry at somebody, they mightn’t know that most mornings, do you know, while I’m having a cup of tea, I rehearse that argument that I wish that I’d had with them and that final, declarative, tour de force of a comeback that I wished I’d given. I might be stoking the fire of anger for a week or a month or a year. And that is deepening the pain. And I think it is giving a lot of attention somewhere where I would hope, perhaps, we could give attention creatively.

There’s all kinds of reasons why we get caught in anger, and anger is a magnificent and important defense. And if forgiveness is ever to happen, there needs to be a level of safety. And sometimes anger is a reminder to ourselves that safety hasn’t been achieved, yet, so anger is the protection. And anger has a deep intelligence in that moment.

But the intuition of this poem is that the forgiveness that Dilruba Ahmed is offering to herself is a forgiveness that’s freeing, that’s opening her up to being present to other people in love.

[music: “What Did You Not Hear” by Gautam Srikishan]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today meditating with poetry and Pádraig Ó Tuama.

[music: “Every Place We’ve Been” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: “Transubstantiation” by Molly McCully Brown:

“It’s the middle of the night. I’m just a little loose on beer, and blues, / and battered air, and all the ways this nowhere looks like home: / the fields and boarded houses dead with summer, the filling station rowdy / with the rumor of another place. Cattle pace the distance between road / and gloaming, inexplicably awake. And then, the bathtubs littered in the pasture, / for sale or salvage, or some secret labor stranger than I know. How does it work, / again, the alchemy that shapes them briefly into boats, and then the bones / of great felled beasts, and once more into keening copper bells, before / I even blink? Half a mile out, the city builds back up along the margin. / Country songs cut in and out of static on the radio. Lord most of what I love / mistakes itself for nothing.”

[music: “At Dusk” by Gautam Srikishan]

This poem comes as part of an interlude from a book that explores, imaginatively, the legacy of a building and an institution called The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, which is a true place; she grew up near it. And this poem is part of the interlude, and in this interlude, we’re in a nighttime vista that seems to mistake itself for nothing, an abandoned place. And she’s locating us here, in rhythm and rhyme and image. And the poet is inviting us into the imagination of the poet, that says, this place is loved, even though it imagines itself as nothing, even though it imagines itself as unlovable. This isn’t charity. I don’t think this is a poem that’s trying to be pitying or show sympathy. This is a poem where somebody is relaxed and loosened up by beer and is telling the truth. And this is a poem where the poet sees alchemy, sees magic, and has a powerful message about the ways in which someone might imagine a place or a person or an area or a population as discardable — useful, only, but not valuable for itself — and invites us into a different way of looking, to see the multiple possibilities of meaning and use and their own magic, that people and places have.

[music: “At Dusk” by Gautam Srikishan]

The narrator in this poem has an extraordinary, expansive gaze and can see all around, from the cattle to the bathtubs to the filling station, “rowdy / with the rumor of another place,” and there’s the city off in the corner. This poet knows so much and travels so much in this poem, as opposed to falling into a category that somebody might have, for a poet who’s a wheelchair user, and what the expectation of the kind of poetry that that poet might write.

It’s a night poem, and I think it’s an important thing to recognize, that this “gloaming” light that she speaks about, this strange light that’s present in the middle of the night. And she’s speaking about the “battered air” at the start of the poem, and I always wonder, what is battered? Is it like an old car, or an abandoned car? Is this about a former industrial place that’s now post-industrial? Why is the air bruised or battered? Maybe something from which much is asked, but little is given back. Maybe there’s a lot of factories there. And she sees that this place, this nowhere, nonetheless might look like home.

The bathtubs are so interesting. She speaks about the bathtubs as being “littered in the pasture.” And I assumed, when I read this at the start, that if there were bathtubs in the pasture, they’re for the cows to drink from, to put water in it and to just use as a trough. But she has all these questions about the bathtubs. They’re “for sale or salvage, or some secret labor stranger than I know.” Suddenly, these bathtubs have multiple functions. And then she speaks about them maybe being like a boat, somewhere to go, or a beast in and of itself, or a bell, bringing music into it again. And in this gloaming alchemy that she’s speaking of. The magic seems to be that this nighttime hour suggests that things have many functions, not just one. And she seems to be introducing to these various things that she can see, the possibility that things that think they’re just on the road to nowhere, could begin to imagine that they can be many things.

[music: “Fjell_Flor Vjell” by Blue Dot Sessions]

This poem is called “Transubstantiation,” and that’s the word that Catholics use to describe what happens when the ordinary elements of bread and wine get inhabited by the presence of God, during the Communion, and are changed then into the body and blood of Christ. And this poem seems to be imagining that the ordinary stuff of an agricultural suburb, caught between blues and country in places where things shift and people only pass through, this poem seems to imagine that this can be transformed into something. And the question is, by who? What is the transubstantiation? Who’s the priest here? And it seems to be, the poet is the priest here, looking around at a place that seems functional, industrial, maybe tired and battered, and is giving a name to a place that considers itself to have no name, is giving something sacred to something that considers itself desecrated.

[music: “The House You Wake In” by Gautam Srikishan]

“Transubstantiation” by Molly McCully Brown:

“It’s the middle of the night. I’m just a little loose on beer, and blues, / and battered air, and all the ways this nowhere looks like home: / the fields and boarded houses dead with summer, the filling station rowdy / with the rumor of another place. Cattle pace the distance between road / and gloaming, inexplicably awake. And then, the bathtubs littered in the pasture, / for sale or salvage, or some secret labor stranger than I know. How does it work, / again, the alchemy that shapes them briefly into boats, and then the bones / of great felled beasts, and once more into keening copper bells, before / I even blink? Half a mile out, the city builds back up along the margin. / Country songs cut in and out of static on the radio. Lord most of what I love / mistakes itself for nothing.”

[music: “Ashed to Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re drawing nourishment from poems with poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama.

[music: “Ashed to Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: The dialect of Irish that I speak is the Munster Irish and maybe, specifically, the Cork and Kerry Irish. And other Irish language speakers around the country laugh at us because we tend to overemphasize these long vowel sounds. But that’s what I’ve always loved about poetry, is long vowel sounds create music and listening. And much and all as, initially, when I moved up north and people were laughing at the way I speak Irish, I’m now very proud of that. And I speak my own dialect with great joy and engage in happy banter about why I think it’s better to overpronounce long vowels.

[music: “Ashed to Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: Today’s poem is by the Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. And it’s called “Ceist na Teangan.” And I’ll read it in Irish and in English.

“Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh
i mbáidín teangan
faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
i gcliabhán
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feileastraim
is bitiúmin agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thóin
ansan é a leagadh síos
i measc na ngiolcach
is coigeal na mban sí
le taobh na habhann,
féachaint n’fheadaraís
cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
an bhfóirfidh iníon Fharoinn?”

“The Language Issue” by Nuala NÍ Dhomhnaill, translated by Paul Muldoon:

“I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant
in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,
then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river
only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.”

[music: “Into The Earth” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill wrote, when she was Ireland professor of poetry, she wrote that she lives with the reality that she speaks and writes in a language that might be dead before she is. And that is such brutal talk. In the ’70s and ’80s, she was considered one of the Irish language revival poets — there was a whole troupe of them, brilliant, brilliant poets, who she said sometimes were in competition with each other. And they were wanting to write in Irish about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, so they were wanting to bring this old language into speaking about very contemporary things.

And the knife edge on which languages like Irish dwell is a really careful knife edge, because it’s so dear in the hearts of people, but, so often, in policy and in provision, and in education, too, that language might suffer from neglect. And so I see this delicate, delicate image that she has — a powerful image, as well as delicate — of a woman wishing for a language to live, knowing that she mightn’t be the one to be able to make it live. And she, like the mother of Moses, places this language in a basket and sets it afloat on a river, hoping that it might be picked up by the daughter of an enemy and that that picking up might be something that helps it revive.

And I just think that that image is such a powerful one and is such a different kind of image that you see in comparison to so many other ways of speaking about language preservation. There is reciprocality here. There’s an old reference to enmity, in this poem, and, similarly, this poem is a poem that dwells in the economy of women. And Irish language poetry has so often been dominated by the voices of men, and not only Irish language poetry, but English language poetry from Ireland; so many of the names that are known internationally are the names of Seamus Heaney or Yeats or Kavanagh. And Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is making a point about gender and language, as well as a point of endangered indigenous languages, like the Irish language here.

[music: “First Grief, First Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: It’s hard for me to imagine my life without the layer of the Irish language. While I operate 99.9 percent of the time in English, I’m always, at some point during the day, thinking about how would I say that in Irish? What’s the context of saying that in Irish? Or I’m talking to myself in Irish. The other week, a robin came into the house and was trapped inside the house. And I went to try and free the robin out through a window. And it was only after I’d gotten the robin out that I realized I’d been speaking to the robin in Irish; that it was a language of consolation, it was a language of tenderness. Even though Irish can say harsh things, nonetheless, for me, it’s a language that holds something of the heart in it.

The Irish language doesn’t have a particular word for yes or no. If you ask me a question, and I want to say no, I’ll have to respond with the verb of that question. So if you say, “Are you coming to the party?” I can’t say, “Yeah.” I’d have to say, “Yeah, I’m coming to the party” or “No, I’m not.” And I love that, that there’s a courtesy of paying attention to the verb that’s used in a question; that you have to conjugate that verb in the reply.

I think that’s influenced the way that Irish people go about conflict, as well. It’s influenced our joy. It’s influenced our sadness. The Irish language doesn’t have a verb for love, and so, instead, we’ve had to find ways around that constraint. And so one of the ways of saying that you love a person, particularly romantic, deep, erotic love, is to say to them, “Mo cheol thú” — “You are my music.” And that’s a way of getting around the constraints, where there isn’t a formal verb for something, and nonetheless finding a new way, with the poetry indigenous to the tongue, to say the very thing that you mean.

[music: “Into The Earth” by Gautam Srikishan]

“Ceist na Teangan” by Nuala NÍ Dhomhnaill:

“Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh
i mbáidín teangan
faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
i gcliabhán
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feileastraim
is bitiúmin agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thóin
ansan é a leagadh síos
i measc na ngiolcach
is coigeal na mban sí
le taobh na habhann,
féachaint n’fheadaraís
cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
an bhfóirfidh iníon Fharoinn?”

“The Language Issue” by Nuala NÍ Dhomhnaill, translated by Paul Muldoon:

“I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant
in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,
then setting the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river
only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.”

[music: “Praise The Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Tippett: After a short break, three more poems presented by Pádraig Ó Tuama. These are excerpted from the upcoming second season of the Poetry Unbound podcast. The first season was wildly successful and wonderful, and we’re so excited to bring it back. You can subscribe now to Poetry Unbound wherever you get your podcasts. The trailer is already there, and the first episode arrives September 28.

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. We’re delving into poems to accompany the struggle, strangeness, and possibilities of being alive in this time, with Pádraig Ó Tuama. 

[music: “Praise The Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: Poetry is a fairly solitary art. While it can, sometimes, get shared in books or in readings, mostly poems are written by a person, alone, with a computer or with a pen or a pencil. And that can be lonely, but, also, it can be a magnificent way to find a language that suits yourself, in those alone hours, maybe in the morning, maybe late at night. But, in so doing, you can find a language for yourself that can help you survive.

[music: “Praise The Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: “Song at Midnight” by Lucille Clifton. This poem has an epigraph at the beginning: “‘ … do not send me out / among strangers’ from Sonia Sanchez.”

“brothers,
this big woman
carries much sweetness
in the folds of her flesh.
her hair
is white with wonderful.
she is
rounder than the moon
and far more faithful.
brothers,
who will not hold her,
who will find her beautiful
if you do not?

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”

[music: “What Did You Not Hear” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: So often, people are used to being disempowered in how they’re observed, and Lucille Clifton lived a very difficult life, and she survived with tremendous power. And she defined her own terms. She did not live a life of luxury. She had been evicted a few times, and she speaks of the difficulty of all of that. And she is inviting what the gaze should be, having lived a life that would have been observed through a gaze of judgment, for all kinds of things, and she is redefining and reclaiming, and in a way with great precision and music, dictating what the imagination of the gaze towards her should be.

[music: “Keo Keo” by Blue Dot Sessions]

The intuition of this poem is that survival is not enough. And even powerful surviving, and thriving — thriving alone and flourishing alone isn’t enough. She is inviting people into a new way of imagining flourishing, where they recognize everything that she’s lived through, and they see that as a celebration, see that as beautiful, see that as worthy of touch and sensuality and holding, because she knows it is. She’s not asking for pity or charity, to be included; she’s already included, and she’s inviting people into this new economy of observing the body, the physicality of the body and every way within which that body has had to survive, in light of systems that would have tried to annihilate that body.

And I think that that is so meaningful and powerful. Coming from very far away and being Irish, who looks at the impact of Irish migration overseas and the racist history of Irish people overseas, as well, I find myself strangely moved and guiltily moved, really, that Lucille Clifton has written something that’s so generous.

I’m always so careful — like I hear other people speaking about poems, and they say things like, “Well, obviously, I know what she’s talking about here as a Black woman.” And regularly, it’s white men saying that. So, while I see this as a song about a Black woman, I’m very careful not to try to colonize it by saying, “Here is what she means,” because — so I see myself in this poem, as a white man, and I see myself as a white man listening to this and realizing that me, and people who look like me, especially men who look like me, are the ones who are being appealed to listen to the voice of this Black woman speaking to us — and by “us,” I mean men like me — and listen and pay attention and to reform our eyes and to reform our imagination about what it means to recognize the power present in this person, in her body and in her survival.

And I think that’s the great brilliance of this “song at midnight” is to say, what would it be like, for you to imagine this song for yourself, and what would it be like to imagine that this song is sung to you and that you are being drawn into something new?

[music: “White Filament” by Blue Dot Sessions]

“Song at Midnight” by Lucille Clifton — this poem opens up with an epigraph from Sonia Sanchez: “ … do not send me out
among strangers”

“brothers,
this big woman
carries much sweetness
in the folds of her flesh.
her hair
is white with wonderful.
she is
rounder than the moon
and far more faithful.
brothers,
who will not hold her,
who will find her beautiful
if you do not?

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”

[music: “Cirrus” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today meditating with poetry and Pádraig Ó Tuama.

Ó Tuama: “A Portable Paradise” by Roger Robinson:

“And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and deadly [sic — daily],
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.”

[music: “Memoriam” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: This is the title poem of a book by Roger Robinson, A Portable Paradise. He’s a Trinidadian poet who lives between Trinidad and London.  And so his book pays attention to Trinidad, which is always with him, but as well as being Black British. The book is a phenomenally contemporary one, honoring the struggle to survive in the face of institutional racism and classism in Britain. And it’s a book that honors family with tenderness and a book about art and the importance and value of art. And there is reference to place, place as a great nurturer, as well as, then, place as a place of threat. And I loved that this final poem, the title poem, seems to gather all of those themes together.

The book is a long reflection on paradise. And the word is such an interesting word, “paradise.” It comes into Latin and Greek, and English, through an early Iranian language, Avestan, which is the language of the scriptures, of Zoroastrianism. And it means an enclosed garden. And so, I suppose often, in English, you think of paradise, speaking of the garden of paradise, Eden. And John Milton’s epic poem called Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve losing, or being expelled from, Eden. Or people might think about paradise as heaven, as well.

But Roger Robinson’s paradise is one that’s firmly located in the here and now. It’s located in the shell in your pocket or in the piney scent in your handkerchief or the anthem you hold in your ears. It’s not about a hereafter, it’s about a here. And I think that is part of the political protest of it, because in the here that the speaker of the poem lives in, there are people who want to steal your paradise. They can’t steal it, the grandmother is hoping, but they want to. And clearly, in this poem, there are wounds and sustained wounds and injuries and deaths that can come from your paradise being stolen. I see the word “concealed” there, and I think of headlines where, in London, there might be references to young people of color carrying a concealed weapon. And I think he is deliberately taking this idea of concealed and talking about what do you conceal because other people will deny it and threaten you, other powers will, and people who say that they’re the law-keepers and threaten you with being perceived as the law-breaker. And I think, ultimately, he’s saying that your paradise is a quality of life; but, deeper than that, it’s your life.

[music: “The House You Wake In” by Gautam Srikishan]

I think this poem invites people who have lived under a sustained threat to imagine what has sustained them through living through that threat and whose voices in their ancestors and their matriarchs have given them ways to hold onto something that keeps them alive, as well as then maintain the focus to know that it isn’t your fault, that there is something out to steal, there is a “they” out to steal what’s going on; and from that, then, to keep that in your mind, too — to be aware that you’re in the struggle. And I think, other people who haven’t lived under sustained torture and sustained stealing, and people who have lived in systems that have benefited them, rather than bereaved them, I think the invitation here is to pay attention to, when have I been the person who, whether I admit it or not, has been out to steal the paradises that keep people alive?

[music: “The House You Wake In” by Gautam Srikishan]

“A Portable Paradise” by Roger Robinson:

“And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.”

[music: “Memoriam” by Gautam Srikishan]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, drawing out a landscape of poetry for this world we inhabit, with Pádraig Ó Tuama. He is a poet and writer himself, also a theologian and conflict resolution and social healing practitioner. He was formerly the community leader of the Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland that helped walk that country towards peace.

[music: “Memoriam” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: “One Tree” by Philip Metres:

“They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. / It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our / backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an / arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife, in tousled / hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the carnage, mid-limb. / It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide. / She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. / The worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not / me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast / table, steam of tea, our two young daughters now alone. I want no / trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for yellow blooms when / my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade? Always / the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or / love. Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear / neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they lower / the chainsaw again.”

[music: “Flor Vjell” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Ó Tuama: I love this poem because all my training, initially, in conflict mediation, was about mediating neighbor-to-neighbor conflicts, because that’s such an intimate place, where a person finds their home. And it can be about a fence, it can be about a tree going over a fence, it can be about noise, it can be about a dog, it can be about one side of the conflict being up late and the other side being up early, it can be about your kids; it can be about so much, but neighbor-neighbor conflicts are really, really tense and intimate. And this is a classic example of what seems simple going so very, very deep.

[music: “Outstretched Hand” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: I think of that classic form of short story, called a parable. And this poem is a parable in the truest sense of the word, in that it gets under the skin. You feel these caricatures coming towards you, the worker, the neighbors, the spouse, the poet, the children, everything involved; the history that somebody has invested into a tree; the future that somebody’s invested into the possibility of tomatoes growing. Everything is all there, and there’s a tree there, and there’s a fence. What’s gonna go on? And you’re just left with all that in front of you. It’s almost like a Garden of Eden story, this poem, except this Garden of Eden has neighbors and frustrations. And in it, there’s these archetypes of people, trying to figure out, how the hell do we live near each other in a way that we live well and don’t have to feel like we’ve got to tame ourselves down?

[music: “First Grief, First Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: This is the opening poem in a book, Shrapnel Maps. And one of the things that’s brilliant about having this as the opening poem in the book is that conflict often surprises people. Everything’s fine until it isn’t. And it’s not like you get a memo to prepare you to be dropped into conflict with your neighbor, and the fact that that conflict will open up conflict between you and your spouse or you and whoever you live with. Suddenly, it’s happened, and you’re there. And so much is already happening at the wrong time, and you’re trying to figure out, what happened? And what do I do now? And all of these things feel like they’re pressuring you, bullying you, in terms of trying to figure out what’s my response and how can I have the right kind of conversations with people? Some people will respond intuitively, some people will want space, and then you’re having conflict about conflict and conflict about conflict styles. And all of that can feel like it’s getting very loud. And some people can surf that loudness and find creativity in it, and other people feel the need to step back. Neither of those is better than the other, but conflict can often feel remarkably inconvenient.

One of the really interesting things that this poem does is, while frustrating us, it has this line: “Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” And those three words, beginning with “L” — land, light, love — there’s the imagination that we can expand land; some people try, and that works, or doesn’t, while light — can we increase light? I suppose we can, artificially. But the thing that we can do something about is this word “love.” What does it mean to imagine that there might be love in between people who are fighting about a tree?

And that isn’t meant to sound like a daisy chain. This is meant to sound as muscular and demanding as love is. Love is one of the most difficult things to do in human community, but yet, in politics and conflict resolution, love is often left out of the conversation because it seems like either airy-fairy or impossible. And I like the imagination that he has here, to point out that there does need to be a practice of love in the context of this small conflict that he’s imagining between two neighbors. What does love look like, and not just between neighbor A and neighbor B: what does love look like in a household that suddenly does seem like it’s ripped apart, between one spouse who wants to go out and defend the tree, another spouse who wants to hide in a corner and say, “It’s not about me,” and then these children that are in their care? What’s love going to look like there? What’s love going to look like in the context of people who disagree with each other, never mind that household then in conversation with another household who disagree with them? And, in the midst of all this, you’re still left within the present moment about how, no matter what the past is, do we speak to each other now?

[music: “Outstretched Hand” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: “One Tree” by Philip Metres:

“They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. / It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our / backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an / arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife, in tousled / hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the carnage, mid-limb. / It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide. / She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. / The worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not / me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast / table, steam of tea, our two young daughters now alone. I want no / trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for yellow blooms when / my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade? Always / the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or / love. Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear / neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they lower / the chainsaw again.”

[music: “Praise The Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Tippett: Pádraig Ó Tuama is the staff poet and theologian at The On Being Project. He was formerly a leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. He’s the author of Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, two books of poetry including Sorry for your Troubles, and a poetic memoir, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World.

And the offerings of this hour are excerpted from the newest season of the podcast Poetry Unbound, which is produced here at On Being Studios and hosted by Pádraig. The first season was wildly successful and wonderful, and we’re so excited to bring it back starting Monday, September 28. Subscribe to Poetry Unbound to never miss an episode — wherever podcasts are found.

Special thanks this week to the six poets featured in this episode and also to their great publishers who granted us permission to use the poems: University of Pittsburgh Press, Persea Books, The Gallery Press, Peepal Tree Press, and The Permissions Company on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.

[music: “Into The Earth” by Gautam Srikishan]

The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

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And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

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