Before he visits, I read Juan Felipe
with thirty-five new friends,
themselves born in twenty-three countries,
and his words find my heart.
“Look up and see the stars,” he writes,
and I have done that
especially when my life was weeping night.
“A warm cave of conversation,” he invites,
and I know – no matter how many words
we learn of each other’s language,
or how very few,
it feels like that cave,
when we take the time to sit together,
with food, with smiles,
with simply the willingness
to understand and be understood.
“For a moment, the world would stop spinning,”
and all of us remember
just such a moment – often
a child’s first breath, a beloved’s last one.
“The sky was my blue spoon
and the wavy clay of the land was my plate.”
and we follow his words –
not because we were all campesino
and grew up in the country —
but maybe because we ate up life
with apartment buildings,
standing straight and tall like forks,
a summer griddle of city streets,
the full bowl of a harbor.
But then I read,
“inside every word there can be kindness,”
and I stopped — sure this was not so.
I live in a world of bully-words,
and killing words,
of sarcasm, shaming, and lies.
Old Poet, I say, you are wrong
or out of date.
Perhaps, when you were young, there was
ubiquitous verbal compassion,
but no longer.
Juan Felipe replies,
(in my mind and his books, you understand)
“Each word, each language, has its own magic,”
and “My voice is beautiful.”
And I knew he meant –
inside every word there can be kindness,
so, if that does not seem to be true —
check my mouth.
Words of Juan Felipe Herrera from Calling the Doves / El canto de las palomas and the Upside Down Boy / El nino de cabeza. The 21st Poet Laureate of the United States visited a class of international English language learners at the Adult Learning Center in Nashua, New Hampshire, April 12, 2018 under the auspices of the New Hampshire Humanities Council, for which I have the honor often of working.(Photos by Elizabeth Frantz)