Not long ago my father-in-law passed. He had been ill for years, turned inward and physically ravaged by Alzheimer’s. His death was a release and a mercy even though it was also a great sadness for family and friends. Those two outcomes from two wholly connected processes, life and death, reminded me of the inadequacy of the binary choices and distinctions to which we are so often subjected. Perhaps for this reason, I find consolation in the Jane Hirshfield poem, MATHEMATICS and the koan-like question posed within it.
I have envied those
who make something
a chair, a pair of boots.
Even a soup,
rich with potatoes and cream.
Or those who fix, perhaps,
a leaking window:
strip out the old cracked putty,
lay down cleanly the line of the new.
You could learn,
the mirror tells me, late at night,
but lacks conviction.
One reflected eyebrow quivers a little.
I look at this
everywhere I question it,
the wallpaper’s pattern matches.
Yesterday a woman
a building shaped
like the overturned hull of a ship,
its roof trusses, under the plaster,
lashed with soaked rawhide,
the columns’ marble
painted to seem like wood.
Though possibly it was the other way around?
I look at my unhandy hand,
shaped as the hands of others are shaped.
Even the pen it holds is a mystery, really.
Rawhide, it writes,
and chair, and marble.
Later the woman asked me—
I recognized her then,
my sister, my own young self—
Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?
How do you take one from the other,
I lied, or did not lie,
Entanglement happens. That would be my proposal for bumper sticker answer to the question. For me, it’s also a way of thinking about the transitional processes of life and death. My father-in-law, Murad Hashim was a wonderful and at times hilarious storyteller. I think he would appreciate being remembered for that.
For Murad Hashim
Life is such a brief thing, really
just a particle in a deepening pool of time;
a haiku collection of syllables and short lines.
But no matter and no end,
for you were good at telling stories:
mirthful and mischievous, engaging and expressive.
Yours reverberate through and with us.
In them we find lodging for our own,
accommodations made possible and prepared by you.
By telling ours we mean to celebrate you.
Gathering in places, in rooms and at tables,
with friends known to you or not, we will sing you.
Lively and entangled, your laughter, fellowship, and remembrances
continue vibrating in the universe
like the throb and hum of a temple bell.
Even when quieted, its sound ripples on
rich, mellow waves touching inside hearts gladdened
by the abiding resonance of a storyteller.
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.