Your kindness cannot be said.
You open doors in the sky.
You ease the heart and make
God's qualities visible.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be. But the many forms of kindness tend to take on lives of their own, generating futures and expanding kinships beyond our intention or volition. Kindness begets kindness, making kin with everything it touches, and sometimes, with what it cannot.
This issue of Ruminate figures kindness as an act of opening. The door—threshold of the domestic, the intimate, and the familiar as well as the strange—becomes a literal and metaphorical space of communion. Who takes us in and who shuts us out becomes the hinge that either expands or contracts our circle of kin. Paul Celan says that a poem is handshake, a welcoming gesture that proves the hands conceal no violence. I invite you, then, to enter the space that these poems hold open for you. My hope is that you find within them unexpected kinship.
Issue No. 43 opens with a reprint of Naomi Shihab Nye’s 1995 poem “Kindness.” In it we learn the conditions of kindness: one cannot buy or earn it. Though kindness surrounds us, drawing things into relation with its “tender gravity,” it also remains hidden and elusive, “the deepest thing inside.” Sorrow opens the door to kindness, which, once greeted, “goes with you everywhere / like a shadow or a friend.”
In Lauren Camp’s poem “Just Before,” the speaker watches out her window as a bird builds a nest twig by twig, only for it to be wrecked: “the threshold, the starting / over in another blurred / corner.” It is not possible to preserve the moment just before destruction, and yet, that space of hope is where we build our lives. Camp’s poem “Only Hope Without Rescue” concerns the burden of such building: the mundane to-do lists that preserve a type of order are interrupted as the “hem of the larger world keeps unraveling.” “But who can care?” the speaker asks, exhausted by the relentless repetition of violence that colors each day. However, it is at the point of near-resignation that she is able to notice how “sky is just a few feet from my eyes,” calling her back to the entangled relationships, good and ill, that she cannot simply abandon. Her kin.
Erin Slaughter’s “Mantra” is itself an act of opening. The poem probes the limits of love, attempting to measure its depth by asking, “whose eulogy / you get choked up / imagining in traffic.” What to call love, how to define it, does not come down to a quantifiable sum, but whether you will say yes or no to it. The poem ends by “saying yes. / & saying yes anyway.” Michael Brown, Jr.’s “On the Death of a Boy in Brooklyn” presents itself as a eulogy, an ode to an unnamed boy whose eyes “carry the dust / of us—a dearth—that always was.” Grief, here, is material: “an outpouring,” “a wound / On my heart. ” The speaker yearns to close the gap between self and other, to eliminate the door between them altogether: “I wish / We were not separate bodies but of a single body: Organs underneath the miracle of form.” Maya Pindyck’s poems “Portraiture Lesson” and “Portraiture Lesson 2” materialize grief as well, which becomes a person that haunts the living tasked with remembering: “how direct the gaze of grief […] never forget / to whom this face belongs.” The portrait, not the painter, is the one giving the lessons here, as an “invisible boy” waits to be materialized on canvas, “knocking—I was // here, here, here—” Positioned at the threshold, brush in hand, the painter calculates her “own / inventory of losses.” To open the door to the boy is to open it to these losses.
Jesse Curran’s “April & Elegy” recalls what it was like to be open to possibility—a child-like belief in dead who listen and Nature that heals. The speaker observes how this openness becomes a space that, eventually, can house only loss: a garage filled with potted and re-potted flowers, evidence of the restless shifting of a life that one is “not yet / ready to leave.” The flowers instill no lessons, hold no consolation: the “funeral lilies are heavy / and white, and teach / only fragrance.” Jonathan McGregor’s “Biopsy” struggles to make sense of a body all too open to harm as “the aspirate / needle fracks the marrow, fingers / the core of the body’s silence.” The person undergoing the procedure is never directly addressed by the speaker, a distance that reflects their own: “Six hundred miles, away, I wait / with a book of poems in one hand, / a phone in the other.” The body, splayed and split, knows no kindness outside of this waiting.
“At Kafka’s Grave, I Repent” by Ariel Francisco is also defined by distances: between grandfather, father, and son, between the speaker’s home and his father’s homeland, the Dominican Republic. The speaker is interrupted by his grandfather’s death, annoyed that he must travel to the “atrocious heat of Caribbean summer” when all he wants to do is read The Metamorphosis by Kafka. However, by the end of the poem he is transformed by his father next to him at the funeral, who sits with “head bowed like a dog-eared page.” That the occasion for the poem’s writing is another site of burial, brings full-circle the revelatory power of language, but also leaves us wondering if the speaker will ever learn to express kindness toward his father while he is sitting right next to him. Or, will opening the door to such vulnerability only come at the cost of death?
“Ojai Flying” by Ephraim Scott Sommers is another exploration of kin and closeness. The short lines and long sentences of this two-page poem propel us though what might be the last night shared by two brothers, one of whom is just back from boot camp with “Baghdad on his list / of imminent possibilities.” The brothers do not talk about the “imminent possibilities,” but instead remain open to what the night might offer them. The poem transforms into a space for an ever-expanding kinship that grows to encompass the poem that produced it:
Virginia Konchan’s “Little Mermaid” is a poem interested in evaluation: the potential outcomes and possible futures left open when the dichotomy is split by a “third choice”—“the disruption / of the binary.” In one possible reality, the Little Mermaid says no: “Watch her decide not to risk her life / for the prince—split legs and earth alienation / in exchange for a philandering fool.” The speaker learns to question the choices presented to her, looking behind and around them for another way forward. Melissa Atkinson Mercer’s poem, “Monster Psalm #14,” also disrupts binaries, as the speaker’s body is multiple but not integrated. There is no easy hybridity to come of a body made up of “girl beasts, mother beasts, beasts of the sudden / womb.” She cannot get them to cooperate or commune: they will not “walk the same,” and as half of her is “drowning,” the other half is “murmuring gleefully in the brown water.” Her body must learn to make kin amidst itself, its many moving parts, the ones that obey and the ones that refuse to be tamed.
Sandra Marchetti’s meditative poem, “Depth of Field,” presents the reader with two different perspectives, each of which is only a partial rendering without the other. “From above” we view a tranquil reflection of “a branch / circling in / the pond.” However, “At eye level” this holistic image becomes “dirt / in standing water.” Neither is truer than the other, as both converge to deepen an otherwise simplified view of reality. Mary Buchinger’s poem “Part or Particle of God” is also concerned with the particular and particulate, taking its name from Emerson’s essay on the transparent eyeball. The poem begins: “I am opened wide curious” and proceeds with a litany of questions that do not wait for answers, because to land upon a singularity defeats the purpose of the poem’s unceasing curiosity. Openness, it seems, is being “passed from embrace / to embrace ready to be picked / and vased.” However, to be open to the world is not necessarily to become one with it, as Emerson’s eyeball might desire in its straining toward radical transparency. Rather, by opening the door of oneself to the world, the speaker finds that “whole opposing worlds / have hold on me.”
Fittingly, the issue closes with Alex Mouw’s “NPR’s Science Friday at the Intersection of Grant and 24th.” Here, instead of Shihab Nye’s “tender gravity of kindness,” we find “dark matter.” This other form of matter, “entirely different and, / well, unobservable” resides in “every person, gadget / and meal.” This is not an invitation, an openness that beckons, but an aporia that threatens as much as it fascinates. “We guess at dark matter / by the way stars flow through space,” locating it in the interstices of the nameable, observable objects in our universe. Not faith, perhaps, but an insistence on something other, a posture of remaining open to that which can be named and that which cannot.
Thank you for opening yourself up to these poems. Feel free to comment with any connections, observations, and questions that these poems may have raised for you. Our poets love to hear about their work once it makes its way into the world, so don’t be a stranger! And If you haven't already, pick up a copy of Issue No. 43.
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Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.