Poetry Unbound

Your new ritual: Immerse yourself in a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing. Anchor your week by listening to the everyday poetry of your life, with new episodes on Monday and Friday during the season.

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Has a guest ever been a soothing influence on a complicated family gathering?

In this poem, a son writes to his parents and invites them to a meal, letting them know that his boyfriend will also be there. He gives instruction to his parents on how they should behave, parenting his parents. In all this family tension, the boyfriend’s question “What’s in that recipe again?” offers calm, and builds lines of connection that had otherwise seemed unlikely.

Are there languages that once were spoken in your family that are not anymore? What caused those changes?

This poem considers the plight of a language, how it — like the child Moses in the biblical story of the Exodus — is vulnerable, and might be in need of someone like the Pharaoh’s daughter to nurture it. In considering the precarious situation of many lesser-spoken languages, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill casts a story of language preservation through the archetype of women helping women in ancient texts.

When you’re writing by hand, where is your other hand? What story is the space between your two hands — your dominant hand and non-dominant hand — telling?

This poem considers the posture of the body when writing: writing a letter, writing a note, writing a poem. The poet pays attention to hands — when dancing, when speaking from the heart, in prayer. This poem invites the listener to slow down, to listen to the stories the body is telling by how it’s held in small moments.

Who is in your chosen family?

This poem considers the lines of loyalty in families and how particular memories, like a grandmother keeping “wishbones from chicken carcasses / in an empty margarine container on top of the fridge,” can be a portal to love. The nan in this poem is a character of generosity and permission, and we imagine her through stories of trips, funerals, and visits.

What have you had to explore on your own? What, or who, helped?

This poem explores the archetype of the cave — a cave that calls, a cave that contains secrets and perhaps even information. “Someone standing at the mouth had / the idea to enter. To go further / than light or language could / go.” The poem manages — at once — to convey the bravery of exploration and the solitude and possibility that can accompany such journeys.

What do you notice about how you behave in times of conflict? Do you tend toward avoidance? Or compromise? Or collaboration? Or competition? Or accommodation?

This poem describes a conflict between neighbors: a tree hangs over a fence. The owners love this tree; their neighbors don’t. Somebody responds directly, somebody else avoids, a chainsaw appears. Suddenly this conflict becomes a parable for all conflicts, illustrating how deep they can go and how often they cannot be resolved with a question about what to do.

How do you hold onto hope? And who helped you find it?

This poem is about holding onto paradise in the midst of an environment that seeks to steal or quash it. Roger Robinson praises his grandmother who told him to “carry it always / on my person, concealed.” His deft language helps us understand that paradise is a quality of life; and, even deeper than that, paradise is your life.

In times of isolation, what stories have you turned to for comfort?

This poem is an exploration of isolation as seen through the mythical Irish character, Suibhne. Suibhne was cursed and lived a life on the move, a transitory isolation. In the midst of the sadness at all he’s missed, he also sees beauty — and he holds both sadness and appreciation together.

What is the story of your name?

In this poem, the poet calls on place, ancestors, and history to bear witness to the dignity of their name. They recall how their ancestors “acknowledged my roots grew in two / places” and how their name “is the definition of resilience.” With Black/Indigenous, Pasifika, and West Asian heritage, the poet speaks to those who mispronounce their name: “Say it right or don’t say it at all / for I am Meleika.”

In strength and defiance, Lucille Clifton celebrates her Black body and her survival. When have you said or heard words like this?

Calling herself “both nonwhite and woman,” Lucille Clifton glories in her shape and fact of her life in these two poems. She invites the reader to witness everything she’s lived through, and to celebrate the flourishing life that she has created in spite of everything that has tried to kill her.

How do you speak of and toyour body?

This is a poem dedicated to the body. “The body is a nation I have not known,” Chris Abani writes. Throughout the 21 lines of this work, he describes lungs, skin, bone, touch, smells, sweat, armpits and hunger. For all the embodiedness of the poem, there is disembodiedness too: the poem continues to question how to truly be in your own body.

Are there places you’ve lived or visited that others would disregard? What do you see in them that others might miss?

This poem takes place at night, describing a scene from a town on the edge of a city. The poet feels at home in a “nowhere” town, with cattle pacing in the fields, boarded houses, and rowdy filling stations. This is a place that through the eyes of some would be considered a “shit town,” but to the poet it is home. 

Is there a character (from history, politics, or literature) whose story you want to tell from a new perspective? 

This poem is told from the point of view of “Lot’s wife,” a biblical character who was turned into salt because she looked back to see the burning of Sodom, her home city. The poet shows us what Lot’s wife sees: towers swaying, guitars popping, dogs weeping and roosters howling. By mixing the modern with the everlasting, Lot’s wife is humanized and justified. 

Were you born during a time when laws were different? What impact did those laws have on you? 

In this poem, Natasha Trethewey recalls the story of how her parents crossed state lines to wed because Mississippi forbade interracial marriage at the time. It is written in the form of a ghazal, with birth and belonging, names and death coming together.

Is there a moment of beauty you can recall that’s like a blessing for you? 

This poem takes place at twilight in a field just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, where the poet and a friend encounter two ponies who come “gladly out of the willows / To welcome my friend and me.”  

What’s a chance encounter in a city that’s never left you?

In this poem the speaker is asked a question by a stranger while standing near the water outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Pardon me Old School he / says you know is this a wishing well?” He initially brushes off the stranger, but something happens: a shared coin, a well, a wish that is answered as it is made.

What stories or myths bring you strength?

This poem tells the story of a person living with invisible chronic pain who finds unexpected fortitude from a girl dressed as a superhero. Their encounter, “at the swell of the muddy Mississippi,” doesn’t have a fantasy ending, but instead finds strength and glory in bodies and myth. 

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