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A Conversation with the Poem, Kindness

Posted on Oct 18, 2011 by



by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Oh.  I didn’t get this the first three or four or five times I read this but now I’m reading you more slowly and I’m seeing this bus ride through the landscape as a metaphor for how endless a time of desolation can feel while we’re in the middle of it.  This time I’m reading more slowly.  I see the line “between the regions of kindness” and I see the bus ride in a new way.  In hindsight we can see it’s just a bus ride—between places—the kindness will return—but in the middle of the desolate time it can seem to last forever.  Yes.  That’s so often what gets us in trouble.  That seeming.

And I’m trying to think now what my own metaphor for that desolate time between might be.  I don’t know yet.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Yes, that I see.  And it’s like what Marie Howe wrote in her poem in one of my favorite books of poetry of all time, What the Living Do.  That poem about her brother who was dying and how he was trying to wake her up:  And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t / And I said, I do. And he said, What?/ And I said, Know that you’re going to die./ And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

These are words that just resonate for me—till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.  The size of the cloth.  I so love that.  How enormous it might be.  And how that gives a sense of perspective to each of our own threads.  I once dreamed a whale and somehow I understood that I was going to need to digest this whale one bit at a time.  So enormous.  The size of the whale.  The size of the cloth.  The size of all sorrows laid end to end and pieced together.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

And these are the words I remember.  These last words are the reason that of all the poems I came across last year while I was teaching, this is the one I left on my desk with which to start the year with my students—the thing I want to remember.  Trying to remember this each morning before teaching.  Knowing that I can’t know everything my students are bringing with them into the room.  What happened the night before or over breakfast or on the bus ride on the way to school.  Their own long bus ride between the regions of kindness.  The difficulty, perhaps, of getting out of bed so early.  The wrong reflection in the mirror when one of them looked toward it.  The girl who turned her head away.  The overheard cruelty.  Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that carries me into the classroom, to begin, again.  I forget, and then it’s good sometimes to read a poem and remember.

See also

Full text of kindness

Conversation/dialogue poems

Naomi Shihab Nye on responding to poetry

The Last Time by Marie Howe

What the Living Do by Marie Howe