Poetry Unbound

What does it mean to help? How can language help? How can we help ourselves, how can we help others? How is it that language itself can be something that recreates a new way of looking at the world? Host Pádraig Ó Tuama is back with an all new season, featuring poems by Rumi, Fiona Benson, Michael Kleber-Diggs, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, and many other brilliant and beloved poets.

Anchor your week with new episodes every Monday and Friday, through December 16.

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While preparing for the next season of Poetry Unbound, host Pádraig Ó Tuama sat down with Krista Tippett for a conversation about the power of poetry to find us at the exact moment we need it. Pádraig and Krista also invite listeners to share their experience of Poetry Unbound through our survey.

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In a poem brimming with love and nostalgia for winter, a poet leaves California to return to their Minnesotan homeplace, a place where winter makes sense, where sadness makes sense, where the isolation that’s at the heart of humanity can be met with a landscape that can contain it. Here, solitude is looked at with wisdom and necessity. A season can deepen the human experience. Joy finds new expressions.

What if the planet were as loved as a child? Taking the story of his daughter’s fever when she was one, Craig Santos Perez reflects on everything he did — and would have done — for his daughter’s health. Her temperature rose and his love and response did, too. The temperature of the world rises, and he wonders who loves the earth enough to respond, and who doesn’t.

Standing at the edge of a desert, surveying the stars on a December morning, the speaker in this poem observes the everything of everything. He is so small; the universe is so loud and so silent. Thinking about the enormity of all this, he thinks of the smallness of the hearts of birds, wasps, moths, bats, and dragonflies — all flying things around him, suspended in space, like the earth is suspended in space. His own heart, too, echoes the universe’s noise.

Yeshiva students stand around in the middle of the night while firemen find the cause of the alarm. It’s a student — distressed by distressing news at home. The teachers cancel classes for the morning after. A poem can describe one thing, but point to another, and beyond the drama of this 2 a.m. scene is a question about whether the presence of God can dwell among those plagued by sadness, or whether God only dwells there.

In a taxi, a poet speaks to the driver. It’s the only taxi in town. He mentions travel, mentions Afghanistan, that he was there with the forces. She’s from Afghanistan and the conversation continues — awkward; complicated; him trying to say good things, but failing; her feeling like she should rescue him, but deciding not to. War is upended by the point of view of a person in whose country the war was fought. Underneath the action of the poem is a question about whether conversation is possible, and an appreciation for silence.

Why do empty places sometimes lend themselves to reflection or contemplation? In this poem, a poet — describing herself as a nonbeliever — goes into a chapel to sit. In the corner there are some girls talking, there are stained glass windows, and the poet is at once at home in herself and far from the woman she loves. The high emptiness of the church seems to give a resting place for the emptiness she’s feeling. While there’s no resolution, the larger empty space offers a holding place for the poet.

In a poem called a “Song,” Linda Hogan crafts a song for turtles and other creatures killed through oil spills in the gulf. At once a praise song for the beauty of the sea, the earth, and its animals, this song also functions as a lament: for the history erased by industrial practices; for the lack of respect and love for living breathing other-than-human lives; for plastic and the plastic containers used to hold the body of a dead sea turtle. The poem veers towards a prayer, too, begging forgiveness for being “thrown off true.”

The exile’s return to the motherland is the theme around which Lory Bedikian’s poem “On the Way to Oshagan” circles. She, a proud Armenian, stops by a roadside stall on a trip to her home country; and is immediately understood as an Amerigatzi, even though she’s speaking Armenian, not English. The poem could end with this awkward exchange, but instead pushes through, and a connection occurs between the returned-departed and the never-departed: there’s a gift, an invitation, and a bridge across exile.

Telling some of the story of the Flower Wars of the Aztec era, Nico Amador’s poem pits wars against creation. In a poem that begins by recalling creation myths from multiple cultures, he then poses questions about why: Why would people sacrifice their own people to keep a god happy? Why would any god benefit from people’s deaths? Evoking how the Flower Wars contributed to the Aztec downfall, this poem also wonders about wars today: Who benefits from a war? Who decides who should die? Why?

In a poem that directly addresses Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Darrel Alejandro Holnes asks questions: who gets to build walls, or guard borders? Do good fences really make good neighbors? Taking a poem that’s been part of an American imagination both of poetry and of citizenship, Darrel offers a critique that places contemporary migrant experiences at the center, challenging contemporary ideas of territory, conquest, and expansion.

This sestina poem considers a scene from Elizabeth Bishop’s own childhood through the sounds of six repeating words: house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears. These six words repeat — in different order — as the final words of the poem’s lines, creating a kind of contemplation on how those repeated words informed her childhood: a childhood marked by loss, displacement, and a kind grandmother. “Time to plant tears” the poem states, in one of its most famous lines, as if the scene recalled has information about the future.

Some friends gather and smoke at a doorway in a city. There’s Malik, and Johnny Cash, and Lefty, and Jësus. And the poet, Major Jackson. They’ve known each other their whole lives, and they wonder who they’ll turn out to be. In a moment of disclosure, Major tells his friends he wants to be a poet, astonishing them, and himself too it seems. In friendship and ribbing, in desire and teasing, this poem wonders who a person is, and what it means to hope.

Andrés Cerpa recollects how his father’s early dementia was an increasing influence on his early years. As he grew, his father diminished. The burden of this was heavy on him — he stayed awake listening for information, and fell asleep at school. Older now, he looks at his younger self with tenderness and sadness. This poem gives attention to the experience of the growing presence of absence, and the ways that affects memory, family, and perspective.

A narrative prose poem about two brothers — one on a visit home from college — who are turning to face east in their small shared room. With seven years between them, one is a young man and the other, the poet, is nearing his teens. Their prayer is interrupted by a sudden surprising noise, and the sound of this makes them fall over each other in laughing. Their bodies, their joy, their uncontrollable delight is the prayer of their own lives.

In a poem that addresses a worm directly as “you,” Gail McConnell considers how these tube-shaped beings live: ingesting the earth, aerating it, digesting it, making its nourishment accessible for all kinds of growth. The worm burrows, knows dead things, and knows underground ways. Tiny and segmented though a worm is, nonetheless it senses that “all there is // can be gone through.” The poem’s close attention to the worm’s tactics of survival seems to indicate that much could be learned from its underground ways.

A club is a place for dancing, for abandon, for music, and for meeting strangers. Romeo Oriogun recalls a gay club that was for all those things, but also for escape. Living in a place where queer lives were under threat, he offers a praise song for this cathedral of safety and movement. Outside the world is silent, but inside the bar, people carry stories of their own desire, of their families, of their hopes; both for the future and the present.

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