The wonder of words

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The wonder of words
Sunrise at Dyke Marsh in Alexandria on Monday. (Photo/Zeina Azzam)
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By Zeina Azzam

Every time we usher in another year, there is excitement about what lies ahead. We offer each other blessings and wishes of happiness. The Germans say to “have a good slide” into the new year, implying an ease of a transition from the old to the new. Many cultures wish for happiness and prosperity. In my culture, and in Arab culture in general, we wish each other good health – “May each year find you well.” On New Year’s Eve, many people sing “Auld Lang Syne,” whose words evoke old friendships and bid goodbye to the old year. The lyrics, based on an old Scottish folk song, were written by 18th-century poet Robert Burns.

Indeed, poets through the ages have provided us with an abundance of verse to mark endings and celebrate new beginnings. They offer us inspiration to keep going and face what is ahead with equanimity and hope. In “blessing the boats,” poet Lucille Clifton writes: “may the tide … / carry you out/ beyond the face of fear/ may you kiss/ the wind then turn from it/ certain that it will/ love you back … ” Clifton’s words offer a comforting and loving blessing to the reader.

Poet Joy Harjo uplifts human history as a profound source of our identity and our connectedness to nature and the world around us. She admonishes us to “Remember” – he title of her poem – repeating the word many times almost like a mantra, a touchstone. “Remember the sky that you were born under,/know each of the star’s stories … / Remember your birth … / Remember the earth whose skin you are:/ red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth/ brown earth, we are earth…/ Remember you are this universe and this/ universe is you.”

In a similar vein, the verses from Alberto Ríos’s poem, “A House Called Tomorrow.” affirm our inherent humanity and deep links to each other. “You are made, fundamentally, from the good./ With this knowledge, you never march alone.” In fact, Ríos writes that each one of us embodies the history of everyone in our family tree who came before us; it is reassuring to reinforce this lineage and draw strength from it. “From those centuries we human beings bring with us/ The simple solutions and songs,/ The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies/ All in service to a simple idea:/ That we can make a house called tomorrow.”

One of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye is “Kindness.” In it she, too, expounds on the idea of a shared sensibility, one that we must feel before we can understand what kindness is. Her poem starts with “Before you know what kindness really is/ you must lose things;” and later she writes the powerful words, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/ you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing./ You must wake up with sorrow./ You must speak to it till your voice/ catches the thread of all sorrows/ and you see the size of the cloth.” Nye enjoins us to have empathy for and feel a collective responsibility toward our community as the first step toward being a truly kind person.

In his poem “God Particles,” James Crews feels a deep connection to the universe. Although these particles seem ephemeral, like stardust and things we will never see, there is an enduring aspect to them, especially as he invokes Einstein in the latter part of the poem. Even though it’s science that explains how such indiscernible particles are there “just to keep my body fixed to its place/ on the earth. Call them God if you must,/ these messengers that bring hard evidence/ of what I once was and where I have been … ” — science seems not to fully explain the heady awareness the poet experiences in contemplating his place in the universe.

These poems are gifts that suggest how to understand ourselves in the world. They ground us in the knowledge that we are all linked across time and space. Such connections call out to us to create hope and kindness in our lives, now and in the new year.

Poetry prompt:

Write a poem personifying and addressing the old and new years, with two stanzas: the first bidding farewell to the old year, with whatever positive or negative events it brought; and the second welcoming the new year and asking it for certain kindnesses. If you would like to share your poem, send it to [email protected]

Poem links:

• www.poets.org/poem/ auld-lang-syne

• https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58816/blessing-the-boats

• www. poets.org/ poem/remember-0

• www. poets.org/poem/ house-called-tomorrow

• www.poets.org/poem/kindness

• www.poetryfoundation.org/ poems/56621/god-particles

The writer is the City of Alexandria’s poet laureate.

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