(This is an entry I started thinking about six months ago. I put it aside for various reasons, not all of which were clear to me then, and some of which only showed themselves long since.)
Some things disappear for a while, or they seem to. Thoughts and feelings do that. They break off, go deep, diving from the surface of awareness, sounding far below in unfathomed waters, later emerging in spots and at times we couldn’t anticipate, breaching with new significance, revealing more luminously the lines and directions we require to move forward.
Nicholas Stuyvesant Fish, a dear friend, died on January 2 of this year. We knew Nick from Portland, where he was a labor attorney and a longtime city commissioner. An emigre from New York, a scion of a well-known political family there with ties to the founders of the city and the country, and a transcendent citizen-servant, father and human being—Nick was but 61 years old. His death from cancer, although not sudden, jarred me and it still does.
As it happened, I was in a Brooklyn restaurant with my family, settling in for dinner when a friend called from Portland to share the distressing news. The table quieted when I shared it. We all connected to it, even those who didn’t know Nick well or at all, because death connects everyone and not necessarily in a morbid way. That was made beautifully clear by one of my daughter’s friends, who, in just the right moment towards the end of the dinner, read to us just the right poem by Ross Gay.
“Sorrow Is Not My Name”
by Ross Gay
—after Gwendolyn Brooks
No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.
—for Walter Aikens
Over the six months since my friend’s death, I have read and reread Gay’s poem many times and, always, it uplifts me with its wondrous basket of incongruities all speaking to the fresh fact of renewal.
In mid-February, I attended a memorial service for Nick in Portland. The tide of Covid-19 was rising quickly, we know now. Then, it still seemed distant and there were no qualms about large gatherings. Many turned out to celebrate and honor what Nick Fish had given and stood for.
When the effects of the pandemic began to be felt nationally and globally in the weeks that followed, I often wondered how Nick would have answered those moments and those that have followed. And I read more Ross Gay poetry, including “A Small Needful Fact,” which ends this episode of “Lines of Thinking.” The relevance to the current national reckoning with racism is obvious; far less so is the fact that Parks and Recreation was one of the Portland bureaus that Commissioner Fish championed and stewarded brilliantly during his tenure. He was a great fan of art and artists, and frequently included a poetry reading in official events he led. I’m sure, the affinity to this poem would have pleased him and doubly sure his convictions and leadership would have left no doubts about where or with whom he stood.
“A Small Needful Fact”
by Ross Gay
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
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.