A poem for the new year.
I think it was one of the many Buddhist monks I listen to in the car who said that red lights were an opportunity to connect to the moment, to stillness. But nothing shifts you into the moment as much as a fender bender. In my case, it was entirely my fault, and the guy I ran into on a narrow street 14 years ago, my brain in a fog from delivering my first child, should have told me, “It’s your fault! What were you thinking? You just reversed right into me.”
But he didn’t.
I put my head on the wheel and turned my voice inward to a scream, and when I looked up, this man, who had a shock of ginger hair, flashed me the smile of an angel, rolled down his window, asked me if I was okay, told me not to worry, and waved me on.
I thought, “Now that’s the way I want to wander the world, with a smile for the damned.”
It was this unexpected smile that came to mind when I listened again and again to Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama’s reading of Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley’s poem “So I give it to you.” To begin the year by sharing a poem is a good enough start as any. It requires no special resolution.
In another poem by Kingsley, “small talk or in my hand galaxies,” the narrator finds his car window shattered, and the mechanic who comes to fix it attempts to connect with him. He demurs. But she persists. And something unexpected happens. The poem is best listened to or the transcript read on Poetry Unbound, Ó Tuama’s podcast. If you prefer to read some of these poems on paper, try his Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World.
The world that Ó Tuama is seeking to connect us to via his weekly meditation on poetry is the world of that smile. Ó Tuama has curly ginger hair, something I learned while reading a review of his project in the New Yorker. He looks exactly like the man I backed into all those years ago, the one who responded to my transgression with no anger.
Ó Tuama says of Kingsley’s poem:
“There’s something about when you write a poem that you are hoping, I suppose, to be in a certain kind of control about what the poem is going to do. And this poem is such an interesting invitation to artists to consider, ‘What would it be like if actually you weren’t in control? What would it be like if you realized that you’re being remade through the art and the art or the experience is looking back at you? How would it be for you to discover rather than describe?’”
When you read the poem and listen to Ó Tuama describe the wonder it reveals, you’ll understand both his and my sense of the epiphany it engenders. So go on, turn to this page, and tell me what you discover.
Leeya Mehta is interim director of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.