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Lorde, Wright, Sogi

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by | Dec 16, 2020

In memory of the stellar Roger Mandle, former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, passionate advocate for the arts and an all-around champion of creativity and humanity.

I have debated the order of presentation of these poets and their pieces. But it is December after all and, as you may have read, I retired officially six months early to attend to a recurrence of prostate cancer. (The prognosis is good, by the way). Time is more on my mind than usual; it’s the seventh day of Hanukkah, the winter solstice is approaching and then Christmas and the New Year. Eleven centuries ago, the Japanese poet and diarist Sei Shonagon noted among the tricks of time and distance the deceptive proximity of the last day of the year and the first day of the new year: things that were near and far at the same moment. And so it is, with these three poets, in whatever order.

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde is a poet, essayist and activist I have long admired and looked forward to sharing in Lines of Thinking. Her courage in challenging the normative artistically, politically and personally shifted thinking and reflected a capacity to resist identity confinement or being silenced by narratives she experienced as inauthentic. Her refusal to wear a prosthesis after her mastectomy is an example. “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women.” That steely truth telling never compromised her ability to show us the broad humanity from which it was ultimately drawn.

Hanging Fire
(From the Collected Poems of Audre Lorde)

I am fourteen
and my skin has betrayed me
the boy I cannot live without
still sucks his thumb
in secret
how come my knees are
always so ashy
what if I die
before morning
and momma’s in the bedroom
with the door closed.

I have to learn how to dance
in time for the next party
my room is too small for me
suppose I die before graduation
they will sing sad melodies
but finally
tell the truth about me
There is nothing I want to do
and too much
that has to be done
and momma’s in the bedroom
with the door closed.

Nobody even stops to think
about my side of it
I should have been on Math Team
my marks were better than his
why do I have to be
the one
wearing braces
I have nothing to wear tomorrow
will I live long enough
to grow up
and momma’s in the bedroom
with the door closed.

Charles Wright
I was introduced to the work of Charles Wright by the poet Doug Anderson when he gave me a copy of The Other side of the River many years ago. The two pieces that follow are from Wright’s recent collection Oblivion Banjo; facing off on opposite pages. They both deal poignantly with the collapse of human time, with the second poem lifting the frame and understanding of the first and saving us, if we care to be, from the maudlin.

Time Will Tell

Time was when time was not,
And the world an uncut lawn
Ready for sizing. We looked, and took the job in hand.
Birds burst from our fingers, cities appeared, and small towns
In the interim.
We loved them all.
In the distant countries, tides nibbled at our feet on pebbly shores
With their soft teeth and languorous tongues.
Words formed and flew from our fingers.
We listened and loved them all.

Now finitude looms like antimatter, not this and not that,
And everywhere, like a presence one bumps into,
Oblivious, unwittingly.
Excuse me, I beg your pardon.
But time has no pardon to beg, and no excuses.

The wind in the meadow grasses,
The wind through the rocks,
Bends and breaks whatever it touches.
It’s never the same wind in the same spot, but it’s still the wind,
And it blows in its one direction,
Northwest to southeast,
An ointment upon the skin, a little saliva,
Time with its murderous gums and pale, windowless throat,
Its mouth pressed to our mouths,
Pushing the breath in, pulling it out.

The Woodpecker Pecks, but the Hole Does Not Appear

It’s hard to remember how unremembered we all become,
How quickly all that we’ve done
Is unremembered and unforgiven,
How quickly
Bog lilies and yellow clover flashlight our footfalls,
How quickly and finally the landscape subsumes us,
And everything that we are becomes what we are not.

This is not new, the orange finch
And the yellow and dun finch
picking the dry clay politely,
The grasses asleep in their green slips
Before the noon can roust them,
The sweet oblivion of everyday
Like a warm waistcoat
Over the cold and endless body of memory.

Cloud-scarce Montana morning,
July, with its blue cheeks puffed out like a putto on an ancient map,
Huffing the wind down from the northwest corner of things,
Tweets on the evergreen stumps,
swallows treading the air,
The ravens hawking from tree to tree, not you, not you,
Is all that the world allows, and all one could wish for.

My longstanding interest in Japan and several graduate school courses in pre and modern Japanese literature taught by Stanleigh Jones, initiated me to the rich tradition of Zen poetry. Some may find the idea of Zen enlightenment at odds with the worldly pursuit of poem-making. I find nothing of the sort. (I’m especially fond of the pieces where the monk is a former official who storms off stage, invariably to a sacred mountain somewhere, to drown his outrage at colleagues, in meditation and drinking!)

Sogi Iio (known simply as Sogi) was a 15th-century Japanese Zen monk who became the most renown professional poet of his time. He traveled the country widely (and I suspect drank along the way). These translations are by Steven Carter.


That man’s life is but a dream—
is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
to butterflies.


Just a hint of thunder clouds
in the evening sky.
On summer mountains,
the faint disk of the moon—
night just beginning.


Bushes bend toward earth
before a snowy daybreak.

A storm passes
and in the garden, moonlight—
night growing cold.


Not a loud around the moon
in the sky at break of day.

Over my pillow,
it was rain showers and wind
that ended my dream.

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus 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.