Poetry

“Small Kindnesses,” by Danusha Laméris

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

It’s the last week in March, and I’ve had a difficult time concentrating, transfixed like a mouse under the shadow of an owl by all those terrifyingly tall bar graphs on the news. Like everyone, I want to preserve some semblance of order and normalcy to try to keep things going as before. I’ve been thinking recently about what it was like when I had to accept bedrest restrictions for each of my three pregnancies. At the beginning, each many-months hospital confinement seemed like it would never end. That there was, in fact, an end point (pregnancy term) was an enormous consolation—and the possibility of a good outcome so long as I followed medical advice.

Hope, something constructive to do, and an end point. We have those things now, right? What I noticed then and expect will happen now is that eventually a new normal asserted itself, one with its own comforting routine: exercising in bed with arm weights; allotting certain times for work and others for play; balancing chores (done by phone then since laptops were not around) with socializing (again, mostly by phone). So, there was a period of confusion, anxiety, and loss at the beginning, and then things improved. Getting through it required a certain suspension of disbelief, an ability to focus on a positive and not dwell on all the possible negative outcomes.

Helping others was not much of an option then, but when an opportunity presented itself, I noticed how much better it made me feel. The woman in the hospital room next to mine was behind me on the bedrest trajectory, and talking her through what to expect—via our landline telephones and a wall-tapping system—was at least as good for me as it was for her. Helping others helps keep us human and also gives us, maybe, a way to feel like we have some agency in these turbulent times. People are already purchasing gift certificates at restaurants and shopping for others. Our little town has already exceeded the volunteer workforce needed for taking care of our most elderly residents, and a local company, Towery Electric, just retooled its operations to convert to a free grocery delivery service for seniors in Marin County. [Source here] I just read today about a health care worker in Washington who woke up to find two new boxes of masks anonymously left on her porch and about another person in Connecticut organizing a local drive for rounding up and getting masks to the hospitals.

Maybe the best way we can all help now is to stay calm and focused on the goal of emerging from seclusion into a healthier climate in a few weeks or months. And, when we do go out or otherwise interact with others, to be kind and to treat everyone with an extra level of compassion and respect. That’s why “Small Kindnesses” is an important poem to feature this week.

The poem is from Laméris’s new book, Bonfire Opera, released in February and available for order here. I’ve been following Laméris’s wonderful, lucent, and luminous work since I first heard her read ten years ago, and I am very much looking forward to reading her new book. Dean Rader says about it: “Everything is alive in these poems, even loss. Even death. In these finely crafted lyrics, worms, berries, skin, hawks, dirt, and desire exist and even thrive in a symbiotic relationship that is a model for a new way of thinking.” Ellen Bass calls the collection “ravishing” and its lines “melodic and sumptuous.”

“Small Kindnesses” is eighteen lines long, but its proportions—with a clear turn in line 14 and thus at about the same place we’d expect a turn in a conventional sonnet—suggest it may have been inspired by that venerable old form. That the poem has 18 rather than 14 lines does not matter all that much—many have recognized John Berryman’s 18-line “Dream Songs” as sonnet variations. On the other hand, most other “traditional” sonnet criteria like regular meter and a fixed rhyme pattern, are absent from “Small Kindnesses.” Here, the main sound device is repetition, sometimes in the form of consonance (“people pull” in line 2, for example) and also in the form of parallel syntactic constructions like the series of “to + verb” infinitive clauses that begin with line 5’s “to harm.” My take is that the energy allocations here do, in fact, resemble those of a sonnet, with the first three-quarters of the poem devoted to premise and elaboration of premise followed by a turn that opens the poem up to a larger reflection and a resolution expressed as a model for a call to action.

Lines 1-14 tell us what the speaker has “been thinking” about recently: the reflexive actions, sometimes prescribed by politeness, that help us remember to be considerate of one another. We automatically make room for passersby in a movie theater aisle, and we bless one another when we sneeze (hopefully into an elbow or sleeve). The reference to “Bubonic Plague,” besides having an eerie contemporary resonance, also reminds us that many rules we attribute to etiquette had origins in more practical health and safety concerns. Those rules and customs also come from a place of human empathy and basic decency; that is, when we say “God Bless You,” we really mean “Don’t Die,” and our concern is for others as well as for ourselves.

“Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other,” the speaker says, and we just want to be able to be free to enjoy the simple things in life like a good cup of coffee and the chance to show appreciation to the person serving it to us. The poem reminds us that we get these chances to be human with one another all the time in our everyday, non-COVID-19 lives. A waiter uses a term of endearment, a trucker yields the right of way in heavy traffic. These small acts go beyond the urge to “do no harm” and take active steps to do some good in the world.

The turn at the beginning of line 14 is striking. It expands the poem’s frame of reference from enumeration of specific quotidian acts that connect us to a larger, more abstract statement about modern-day social alienation: “We have so little of each other, now.” Again, in these early stages of mandated social distancing, the statement takes on an enormously specific, personal relevance. I am guessing that at the time the poem was written, the alienation had to do with our rampant obsession with screen devices. How ironic that screens are precisely what is connecting us as a nation right now! Or, maybe the poem was speaking to the breakdown of civil discourse in these divided political times. We’ve all been feeling that separation since the last election, making me consider another irony: Those differences don’t seem to matter quite as much now, certainly not as much as the fact that we are all in the same infected ark. Now, though, the separation has become physical. It is painful for me to read about ordinary acts of connection like serving a cup of coffee or a bowl of chowder, things we took for granted before.

At any rate, the turn in the poem is from the iteration of ordinary acts of kindness to a larger view of what connects us now the way “tribe” and “fire” connected us in times past. What we have now are “brief moments of exchange.” I am relearning how to treasure these, feeling my heart lighten when I hear the sounds of kids playing outside in the neighborhood and opening my door to wave to people walking by in the street. I enjoy being able to hear birds now, and even bees, in a tree flowering outside my house, but it is the sounds of other people that really lift me up. The poem gets it so very right. Human interactions—changed, brief, and physically distant as they may be—are “the true dwelling of the holy.” Along with the speaker of this wonderful, healing poem, I am asking the question of what they “will look like now,” these “fleeting temples we make together.” Let’s try to make them something sacred, and maybe even something beautiful, if we can.

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  • Anne G Arsenault May 9, 2020 at 11:28 am

    This poem about kindness reflects our current situation. We are isolated and often lonely. But thanking someone makes them feel loved and us feel lovingly connected.

    Reply