Poetry for the Thanksgiving Table
Happy Thanksgiving! This holiday may mean different things and ways of celebrating (or not) to everyone, especially as we still find ourselves in a pandemic. We can enjoy the harvest, perhaps we gather. Maybe it's a solitary time or a time where some reflect on the fraught history that led to and stems from the first Thanksgiving. We associate Thanksgiving with family feasts, but we do so because sharing the table implies gratefulness for one another, for good food, for safety and warmth, for time spent in shared company. Thanksgiving allows for flexibility in its very name; what we are thankful for and our ways of showing it are as varied and vast as the landscape around us. At the core of it is a notion of reciprocity, for we cannot experience gratitude without something shared, without warmth of feeling for some other element, be it a mother, a grandfather, a wildflower, a bird. In the spirit of sharing, I've picked out two poems to bring, to let sit with you, for this holiday, in the hopes that you, too, can share in the words of small gratitudes the poets have to offer: "Disappearances" by Native poet Linda Hogan and "Wild Gratitude" by renowned poet Edward Hirsch.
"Wild Gratitude" comes from Edward Hirsch's poetry book of the same name, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986. Along with writing many volumes of poetry, Hirsch has published much poetic commentary, edited anthologies, and worked to uplift and spread the form. Though "Wild Gratitude" carries a heavy spirit in some ways, it also celebrates the blessings of the small and faithful (here known as Jeoffry). If you enjoy Hirsch's poetry, keep an eye out for another to be shared in the coming weeks.
Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat's mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In everyone of the splintered London streets,
And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke's
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.
This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
'And all conveyancers of letters' for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,
And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn't until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth
That I remembered how he'd called Jeoffry "the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,"
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn't until I saw my own cat
Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, "a creature of great personal valour,"
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.
And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.
- Edward Hirsch
From Wild Gratitude: poems
Linda Hogan is an award-winning Chickasaw writer and educator who focuses on spiritual, environmental, and political concerns and often addresses Native American relocation in her work. Her poetry doesn't shy away from the challenging and the desolate, as in this poem, and yet here, she finds a way to celebrate the small beauty that blooms even in stark landscapes. The ability to love every step and "every small thing" on earth is the kind of intrinsic gratitude that can carry us with grace through life and lyric.
Whatever we love or hate we hold,
that joined land to land
like passion between bodies.
Street lamps vanish.
The old horse I love,
in the shadow of trees
it will lie down
Nobody is at fault.
I remember how the Japanese women
turned to go home
and were lost
in the disappearances
that touched their innocent lives
as easily as they touched small teacups
These are the lessons of old women
whose eyes are entire cities,
iron dark lattice work
they saw and became.
In their eyes
there is silence,
red ash and stormclouds.
The quiet surprise of space
carrying the familiar shape of what it held.
This moment the world continues.
I pour coffee into a cup my sister made
and count blessings, two daughters
sleeping with open mouths
full of moonlight that ages them one day
through open windows
childhood is leaving.
Outside it is the color of Arizona.
Wide landscape of morning
where people talk, red light,
like the silent old woman
who rode beside me
long ago to the Indian hospital in Chinle.
She never spoke
but her eyes were full
with the loss of children
brothers and sisters
with the certain knowledge
that it is a good thing to be alive
and loving every small thing
every step we take on earth.
- Linda Hogan