Being Mindful of the Senses: A Radical Act

In dangerous times like these simple things can become an act of resistance. With all of the harmful rhetoric and natural disasters occurring in rapid succession, distilling an action or observation to the essence of itself can be calming and a great source of beauty. This has always been the heart of why I love poetry so much. Poems often do just that: meditate on a particular act or moment and then illuminate something about that act that was previously unseen/unknown. There’s a new anthology called Joy compiled by Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry. I usually don’t buy anthologies of poems, but this one caught me because of the title. A number of things have struck me about the poems in this book: the topic of joy seems vastly under-explored in poetry, what joy means to each of the poets is quite diverse, and the language that the emotion of joy evoked for each poet. Take this excerpt from Li-Young Lee’s poem “From Blossoms:”

O’ to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background

I love that Lee can take this simple moment of eating a peach, and take it within the span of a few lines to a place of an acknowledged pleasure so deep that it’s “as if death were nowhere / in the background.” That kind of presence of mind, that state, that ebullient pleasure, is accessible to us all if we choose to tune into it. Another poem in Joy that encapsulates one small ritualistic moment is “Meditation on a Grapefruit” by Craig Arnold. Here it is in entirety:

To wake when all is possible
before the agitations of the day
have gripped you
To come to the kitchen
and peel a little basketball
for breakfast
To tear the husk
like cotton padding         a cloud of oil
misting out of its pinprick pores
clean and sharp as pepper
To ease
each pale pink section out of its case
so carefully      without breaking
a single pearly cell
To slide each piece
into a cold blue china bowl
the juice pooling         until the whole
fruit is divided from its skin
and only then to eat
so sweet
a discipline
precisely pointless    a devout
involvement of the hands and senses
a pause         a little emptiness

each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without

I find it interesting that both of these poems are about food. Perhaps there’s something about food that allows us to more easily enter this state of presence of mind since we eat several times a day. Imagine if we could do this with more than just food, and with more moments throughout the day. Imagine if all of us did this, every American, every person in the world. My sense is that this would be a different planet than the one we currently have.