The Still Point
Lately, so many lives I know have been strained by what have become ordinary tragedies—fatal accidents, sudden deaths, collapsing marriages, unexpected illness, prison, unemployment, crippling depression and it goes on and on. Nothing much, I know has changed in the world. I imagine that for a pastor, a doctor, a therapist, a lawyer, a nurse, or police officer, this is the way the world is organized, this is the norm. I, however, exist in a space of the uneventful as the norm, such that all events can become just that, events. It is a way of shaping my life into an arc of dramatic consequence: Today all was well, then suddenly, the world was no longer the same. Come tomorrow, calm is restored, and then suddenly the world is no longer the same, and so on.
The still point, of course, is in those things that won’t change. Sometimes I find this still point in faith—though my spiritual growth, the forgetting of what I thought I knew, the manner in which understanding seems to fluctuate, all suggest that even in this, there is flux. Ritual is comforting, I suppose, but even that seems suspect to me. Poetry, like memory, offers the illusion of stability. Not the poems I write, nor the poems that are being written today, for they are, in my mind, caught up in the unpredictability of the now—they seem entirely temporal and fleeting. But some poems that have lasted a while, poems that I have retained without effort, poems, in fact, that I think I have retained, though I probably have not retained them as they were written, offer the comfort of memory, the comfort that comes from what we remember of a place and how that place made us feel. Generally, I am afraid to even find the actual poem. I fear that doing so will disappoint. Instead, I have in my head, the way the poem is remembered—imperfect and yet profoundly meaningful.
I long for
the rice picker
in her wet dress
I found this poem in an old book of Chinese (or was it Japanese?) poems in translation. I liked it right away. I wrote it down and stuck it on my wall. Then I made a fancy version of it—a poster—and stuck that on my wall. I liked looking at the poem, thinking of its beauty and of the space it seemed to evoke. During an office move, I lost the poster. I never replaced it.
But I know that this is not the poem as I found it. I don’t have such a precise memory for poems. I change them all the time. But I take solace in knowing that the poem I first read was a translation, so any version of the simple piece could be seen as accurate. There are other likely versions:
How I miss
the rice girl
working in the field
in her wet dress.
Her dress is wet
the rice grower
in the fields
She bends to work
the rice girl;
her dress is wet.
None of these is entirely satisfying or seems right. But they all have something in common—they all suggest a longing for a picture, a moment in time that is evocative. In my head there is a photograph, an image of a monumental tea colored sky, a stretch of rice groves, and in the foreground, a woman in a thin white dress, muddy at the hem and wet with sweat, rain and the mud in the fields, is reaping the rice with a sickle. It is at once a sensual and mundane scene. She becomes a quick poem caught in a single instance—what she will be after this does not matter.
The comfort in this lies in the memory it evokes—a memory I have never really had myself, but a memory that I know have adopted, and it is a beautiful and tender memory that manages to stand even in the midst of the flux in the world.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...