“Bake two loaves of bread

give one away and plant a hyacinth for the soul.” Joan Siegel had a poem from her book, Hyacinth for the Soul, read on The Writer’s Almanac. The poem is Night School. Thank you Mr Keillor

Night School

(for my grandmother)

In a classroom like this one where
her children once sat fidgeting
for the bell to ring so they could grab
their jackets and shout to the cold air and sun
shining on Broadway two blocks from home
where two flights up she had set out bread
and milk on the kitchen table because
she was down the street at the tailor’s shop
turning a shirt collar or mending a man’s coat
and nights she got down on her hands and knees
to wash floors in an office building on Second Avenue
things she had learned as a girl in Poland
and brought with her a boat ride away to Ellis Island
to the man she married and soon enough
their four children (one dead)
and after he died of influenza
to the new husband and his five children (one dead)
and in time to the new daughters-in-law
and sons-in-law in their uptown apartments
and the babies one at a time
she sat practicing her Palmer letters
connecting the fine threads of ink
each graceful curve looping to the next
like crocheting a pair of ladies gloves
making words where silence used to be.

The title poem in the book is about Joan’s mother and grandmother, where the lead to this post appears.

“It was one of those sayings from the old country / that my Polish grandmother passed on to her daughters.”

The poem read on The Writer’s Almanac leads us to images of New York and perhaps the Depression, of how people brought what they knew to this country to make a new life, to better themselves and provide something to their children, their families.

These days, these two weeks after the storm rearranged parts of New York and New Jersey, we are given brief glimpses of this when reports of neighborhoods were destroyed by water and fire, neighborhoods that were home to generations of workers, firemen, police, and probably other pubic service workers of all kinds.

After an election, a political campaign that seems more like a football game than the important process of a great nation trying to choose representatives that will serve the people and country well, it is stories of communities and responders, veterans and laborers from all over, their stories, of going to help those hit hard by the storm, are what move me, make me feel like, yes, this is what makes us a great nation; a nation of immigrants and people from all over the world (my grandfather on my father’s side came from Bradford, England, and his wife was French Canadian) when we act responsibly and with care for our fellow country men and women, we plant a hyacinth for the soul. We, if I can include you, feel less alone and less ignored, and more honorable than the squabbles and divisions we hear about in politics. It becomes evident through things like accidents and disasters, when some of us are hurt or suffering, that others, the rest of us can rise up, give help, give prayers, that we can make a difference, that from unfortunate things, good things can come.

I am reminded of an old children’s story called stone soup, it could be from Europe but stories like it appear all over the world. The one about a man who came to a village where nobody seemed to have enough and he said he would make a soup from stones and feed the whole village. Gradually everyone brought something to put in the soup and in the end the entire village was fed. The story shows us that something else happens when everyone contributes, people can say, we did it.

Some times this story is about a beggar or a soldier that come to a village asking for food and nobody will give them anything. In that vein it is something of a trickster story. In any case it is an example of how stories, literature if you will, can remind us, inspire us, ask us to discover, to move out of our little world and change our minds.

I think this is one of the reasons why poetry is so wonderful. By the arrangement of language, ideas that the author strings together, we are left with something meaningful. It’s not always something we can describe, it’s not always on the page; “making words where silence used to be.”


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