'If The Trees Can Keep Dancing, So Can I' : A Community Poem To Cope In Crisis

Apr 30, 2020
Originally published on May 3, 2020 6:13 am

Earlier this month, NPR issued a poetry challenge: submit lines describing how you've been affected by the global coronavirus pandemic.

NPR's poet-in-residence Kwame Alexander pointed to Nancy Cross Dunham's poem, "What I'm Learning About Grief," and asked that submissions begin with those same words.

The responses were deeply emotional and vividly captured some of the ways you are coping with uncertainty and crisis.

As he does with other crowdsourced poems for Morning Edition, Alexander compiled lines from some of the submissions and created a community poem. Contributors are credited at the bottom.

If The Trees Can Keep Dancing, So Can I

What I'm learning about grief
is that it sits in the space between laughs
comes in the dark steals the warmth from the bed covers threads sleep with thin tendrils
is a hauntingly familiar song,
yet I can't remember the words...

What I'm learning about grief
is that it rolls like a heavy mist settles into the crevices lingers on the skin.
Visits, then visits again
Lurking under my chair.
And, when I'm not watching
Reaches out her tiny claws
And bats my ankles —

Grief sneaks up on you.
You find yourself on your couch with a well of rage living in the pit of your stomach and nowhere for it to go.
And, It chokes you.

What I'm learning about grief,
is that it can come like a whisper or storm through loud as thunder
it leaves a hollow, to be filled with a new planting.
And, when you wake for another day that feels oddly the same as the last, It crawls right back into your lap.
an ocean of tears So, you vary the crawl with the butterfly, the backstroke with breaststroke. At some point, drowning is no longer an option.

What I'm learning about grief
Is that it is a language.
Suffering is its own speech
it will not go away just because you won't look it in the eye

He rides shotgun when you go by old familiar places
Eventually, you will get closer and he will say
"See, it's not so bad. I got your back."

This pandemic, this tragedy, this fulcrum of life is a shovel unearthing secrets we wish would stay buried I learn that I am ashamed I love solitude.

Hard times call for soft people. There is softness in stillness, in staying home, in distractions deleted, in a togetherness that stretches great distances.

What I'm learning about grief
is not found in mint leaves, floating in a glass of tears boiled thrice over.
It is an acquired taste which we never crave

It likes nachos
Staying up late
Watching Scandinavian murder shows
Sleeping in
And eating cake for breakfast.

it drips, like water, It gets in everywhere
through the small unseen fissures in the ceiling. You can ignore it like dust.
Just keep yourself too busy with laundry and living.

Grief shows up unannounced
Like when your husband tells you last October
That he's never loved you
And wants permission to leave

So you burrow the ache into carefully guarded well
And wonder if that means the memories have to go there too

What I'm learning about grief
is that it can turn you into someone you don't want to be, can help you become someone you never thought you could be
is that it transcends color, race, Religion, gender.

is that it's an old lover that won't leave. trying to hold your hand again –
that it aches in the arches of feet
that its mother is loss, its father, change
Make room for it.

Is that tiny losses add up
The missed first party my son was to attend
The school days he yearns for with his friends I tell him it will be over soon

What I'm learning about grief
I learned a long time ago.
Knead grief, as you would bread.
Weave grief, as you would thread.

there is no vaccine against it — we can't develop antibodies against it, it is something I have and something you have — but in these times it is something we have

It is anger and denial
It is chaotic laughter from splintered memories
It is jagged cries and single tears
It is numb and indifferent
It is the pinprick of light, promising
A slow semblance of normality returned

What I'm learning about grief
Is to acknowledge its presence
Its many forms and guises
Then, to use it, while reaching out
Connected To everyone who is braving this same storm

What I'm learning about grief is that it is still learning about me
Learning that I am strong and resilient
If the trees can keep dancing,
So can I.


This community poem was created using submissions by:

Jim Binford, Louisville, Ky.

Holly Redmond, Dayton, Ohio

Jennifer Sharpe, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Alicia Richarte, San Antonio

Destiny Gayz, Philedelphia

Ami Simpson, Montgomery, Ala.

Nikki Simchuk, Seattle

Helen O'Connor, Friday Harbor, Wash.

Molly Kelly, Chicago

Tim Stary, Wichita Falls, Texas

Paul Love, Austin, Texas

Michelle Nickol, Tucson, Ariz.

Michaela Esau, Hutchinson, Ka.

Elizabeth Greene, Wilmington, Del.

Elda Mengisto, Lynnwood, Wash.

Michael Hess, Albuquerque, N.M.

Melissa Blankenship, Cochran, Ga.

JoAnne Jensen, Phoenix

Patricia Mosco Holloway, Denver

Tracy Engle, Roseville, Calif.

Stephanie Hubble, Howell, Mich.

Heidi Armbruster, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Margaret Keir Berg, Grafton, Wis.

David Nelson, Des Moines, Iowa

Jasper (13 years old), Clinton, N.Y.

Delroy Roomes, Mishawaka, Ind.

Bailey Gartman, Asheville, N.C.

Angela Winfield, Auburn, N.Y.

Amy Diber, Klamath Falls, Ore.

Judy Chaet, Asheville, N.C.

Lisa Reeves, Buffalo, Mo.

Michael Ruffin, Yatesville, Ga.

Sonnet Medrano, Austin, Texas

: 4/29/20

A previous version of this story misspelled Tim Stary's last name as Start.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here with our poet in residence, Kwame Alexander. There may not be an antidote to uncertainty, but finding a reason to smile right now can really help. Right, my friend?

KWAME ALEXANDER: Can't get any righter than that, Rachel. The truth of the matter is that even though we are in a storm we got to find a way to dance in the rain. We may get fed up, but, Rachel, we got to keep our head up.

MARTIN: So how do we do it? How do we carry on? How do we find those glimpses of normal, whatever normal is anymore in the age of coronavirus?

ALEXANDER: I play softball outside my flat with my kid. I cook. I try to do some of those basic things that remind me that I exist, that I am still here. We can treasure the things we do have and still miss the things we've lost.

MARTIN: Rewind. You're cooking. You can do that?

ALEXANDER: (Laughter) Seriously. I just laid out my soul with such profundity, and that's what you got?

MARTIN: (Laughter) I just didn't know that about you.

ALEXANDER: During this lockdown, I have mastered spinach lasagna, fish chowder, buttermilk biscuits and my mom's fried chicken. Oh, I miss that woman so much. Every time my kid bites into a wing, I know my mom's smiling as much as my kid is. How's the quarantine life treating you?

MARTIN: You know, we're good. We're taking it a day at a time. We shoot hoops every afternoon. We read some "Harry Potter," and we have ourselves some random dance parties from time to time, which definitely can shake you out of your blues.

ALEXANDER: We need those distractions. There is a way to stay positive and upbeat.

MARTIN: Upbeat. I see what you did there because you, Kwame Alexander, you are going to host a brand new NPR show called Upbeat.

Congratulations. It's very cool.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. I'm so excited. We're going to be reading some poetry. We're going to tell some stories. We're going to talk to some friends. We're going to feature some special guests. It's a hope party. You get that, Rachel? A hope party. And it's going to be live, like literally live. I hope you'll be on it.

MARTIN: Well, you do? OK, fine. I'll do it if you insist. This coming Friday, May 1, 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. It's going to be live on MORNING EDITION's Facebook page, and I am just looking forward to the joy.

ALEXANDER: I'm using the blues as my muse.

MARTIN: I love it. I love it. OK. So when we were last together, we asked our listeners to basically do the same thing, right? We read Nancy Cross Dunham's poem titled "What I'm Learning About Grief" and then challenged our listeners to use the title as the first sentence to their poem. And we just received so many powerful responses to this.

ALEXANDER: So I did my best to capture the love, the loss in these submissions. And I compiled a community crowdsourced poem, which I'm really honored to share. Adrienne Rich said poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone. And our listeners did just that. They drilled down to heart. They carved a little bit of comfort with their words.

MARTIN: All right, so shall we read?

ALEXANDER: Let's do it.

(Reading) What I'm learning about grief is that it sits in the space between laughs, comes in the dark, steals the warmth from the bed covers, thread sleep with thin tendrils. It's a hauntingly familiar song, yet I can't remember the words.

MARTIN: (Reading) What I'm learning about grief is that it rolls like a heavy mist, settles into the crevices, lingers on the skin, visits then visits again, lurking under my chair. And when I'm not watching, reaches out her tiny claws and bats my ankles.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) And when you wake for another day that feels oddly the same as the last, it crawls right back into your lap, an ocean of tears. So you vary the crawl with the butterfly. The backstroke with breaststroke. At some point drowning is no longer an option.

MARTIN: (Reading) What I'm learning about grief is that it is a language. Suffering is its own speech. It will not go away just because you won't look it in the eye.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) You ride shotgun when you go by old familiar places. Eventually you will get closer and he will say see it's not so bad. I got your back.

MARTIN: (Reading) This pandemic, this tragedy this fulcrum of life is a shovel unearthing secrets we wish would stay buried. I learn that I am ashamed I love solitude.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) Hard times call for soft people. There is softness and stillness in staying home, in distractions deleted, in a togetherness that stretches great distances.

MARTIN: (Reading) What I'm learning about grief is not found in mint leaves floating in a glass of tears boiled thrice over. It is an acquired taste, which we never crave.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) It likes nachos, staying up late watching Scandinavian murder shows, sleeping in and eating cake for breakfast.

MARTIN: (Reading) What I'm learning about grief is that it can turn you into someone you don't want to be, can help you become someone you never thought you could be, is that it transcends color, race, religion, gender.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) Is that it's an old lover that won't leave trying to hold your hand again that it aches in the arches of feet. That its mother is loss. It's father change. Make room for it.

MARTIN: (Reading) Is that tiny losses add up. The missed first party my son was to attend, the school days he yearns for with his friends. I tell him it'll be over soon.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) What I'm learning about grief I learned a long time ago. Need grief as you would bread. Weave grief as you would thread.

MARTIN: (Reading) There is no vaccine against it. We can't develop antibodies against it. It is something I have and something you have. But in these times, it is something we have.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) It is anger and denial. It is chaotic laughter from splintered memories. It is jagged cries and single tears. It is numb and indifferent. It is the pinprick of light promising a slow semblance of normality returned.

MARTIN: (Reading) What I am learning about grief is to acknowledge its presence, its many forms and guises, then to use it while reaching out connected to everyone who is braving this same storm.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) What I'm learning about grief is that it is still learning about me, learning that I am strong and resilient. If the trees can keep dancing, so can I.

MARTIN: Oh, everyone, thank you so much for all those submissions. And, Kwame, that was just beautiful.

ALEXANDER: Our listeners transformed their pain into beauty. You can see a list of all the contributors on our website.

MARTIN: Kwame Alexander. He's the author of 34 books, including the Caldecott Medal-winning and Newbery Honor-winning picture book "The Undefeated." And as we mentioned, he is the host of a new NPR show called Upbeat. It's going to launch this coming Friday, May 1 10:00 a.m. Eastern time live, MORNING EDITION's Facebook page.

Until next time, my friend.

ALEXANDER: Keep dancing, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.