When Things are Finished

The air starts moving again
You almost
Let yourself forget the stillness that paralyzed your lungs
Kept you from shifting your weight even a little
Just in case the floor caved like everything else
Or gravity stopped obeying the rules too

You can almost
Think again, almost
Let one idea flow from another
Without stopping the train at every station to check for contraband
Images that can never be allowed home
Words that can never be respoken

The phone calls know you’re almost
Available, can almost
Pick up and answer, can almost
Affect a lack of hatred towards the voices that say
The sun still sets in the West
You’re still as wonderful as ever

Friends who almost
Have enough courage to talk to you, almost
Make you believe that you can almost
Live through this, almost
Accept that faking it is making it
That this is all there is

But I’m not the like the cowards who hide
Behind uncertainty, support your chance to fail
I’m the one who screams the words you don’t want to hear
That the air has always been moving
That the ground never stirred
And that I don’t believe in almost

Aaj

Aaj

Today, I met her for the first time

As we sat around the fire

the young played and the old told stories

of other lovers meeting

we went around the fire

more stories, some songs

getting dark, time to go

Today, I took her to meet my mother

Sister showed her around the house

father, grandmother, brother all like her

I think they are happy

she hasn’t decided yet

Its fast for her, I’ll give her time

Today, she decided

I face her as the music plays

mother, sister, grandmother

white dresses

she made her decision, her final commitment

it was time for her to take this step

When reading this poem from an English or American perspective it can be seen as a simple love story. Boy meets girl at an innocent campfire get-together, their relationship grows and eventually they decide to marry. By employing familiar symbols we can understand the story—campfire stories, meeting the parents, white wedding dresses.

But some of these symbols, when seen from a different cultural perspective- can have widely different connotations. The title gives the clue as to what culture is involved here. “Aaj” is the Hindi word for “today.” In traditional Indian culture, it was not uncommon for a bride and groom to meet on their wedding day- many times as part of an arranged marriage. Integral in the Hindu wedding ceremony was a fire, around which both extended families sat singing songs, telling stories and playing music. The new couple walked around the fire to symbolize their upcoming journey together. To a reader familiar with this custom, mention of circling a fire would be enough to make the message clear. The couple are now married.

So where does the story go from here? The newlyweds often would move in with the groom’s extended family. Now the references to the sister showing the girl around symbolize more than a friendly tour. This is the bride being inducted into her new life. Hindu girls in this situation often faced the possibility of never seeing their family again. This new family was her family now. This gives new meaning to the groom’s giving the girl some time. He doesn’t have to do this, but wants her to feel comfortable in his home before claiming his rights as a husband.

Now the story takes a turn that only someone familiar with Indian culture would see. In India color symbolizes life: the more color, the more life. In this culture, when all the color is taken away what is left is white. White is the color of death, the color of mourning. When a person dies their body is placed on a pyre and their closest relation stands facing them. Now we understand exactly what the girl’s decision is. She only saw one way out of this arranged marriage. This was her final step.

Although much has changed in India today, the symbols and their connotations are still familiar to modern Indians. Reading the poem from this perspective reveals an entirely different story. Many people- from any culture- take their own perspective for granted. They don’t think to look at any situation from any view but their own. We can learn a lot about the world around us by looking at it from another angle.

Self-Made

In a home of my own making
Amidst the broken glass of an abandoned Colorado factory
The hollowed-out brambles of a Pennsylvania backwoods
Shared blankets and trash can fires of a New York slum

Sticks and sheets and coffee cans
Huddled under a bridge
Decorated with a showcase of my discoveries

Cobbled together handiwork
Make the best found-item artists proud

With friends of my own making
Fellow travelers and lost boys
Street preacher questioning his book
Cop who turns an eye when I “find” bread

Songs and stories and helping hands
The few who look at me from where they are
And accept the journey to who I am

Cobbled together acquaintances
From the throngs of passersby

Through plans of my own making
Tomorrow’s landing site, today’s art medium
Who to say goodbye to, who to invite along
How to respond to the next insult, what hat to wear

Trails and trials and mangled maps
Close my eyes and point
To who I will be next

Cobbled together dreams
Building a sculptor from the clay

From components handed to me
An upwardly mobile society
A forgotten trade
Poor decisions by someone who once was me

Snips and snails and castaway coins
I pick up where you leave off
Twigs discarded at my threshold

Woven together human
Designs from a graduated cobbler

From leftovers handed to me
I weave art from the twigs

Geometric beauty
A mathematical masterpiece

That no one will see
Until the birds pick through it for food