You are what you read

Having a cup of tea early Saturday morning at a bakery in Venice (CA), a couple with a young son were sitting at the table next to me.  The parents were reading, the boy–maybe 5 or 7 years old–was playing a math game on a PDA.  I looked up when the boy was asking for help figuring out what 6 minus 2 was.  The father put down his magazine, and started working with the various cups and plates on the table to make the numbers real. I noticed that he was reading the very article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer I had just finished the day before on the plane, about the Darwinian value of altruism. The article had a cartoon of leaf cutter ants and their bright green leaves across the two-page spread that made it recognizable from a distance, and he and his (I assume) wife discussed it once the mystery of 6-2 was resolved.

It made me reflect on how a certain number of people around the same period of time might be reading and thinking about the survival value of selflessness–and just what selfish and selfless might mean for us and for other species.  There’s a kind of awesome power in that, the ability of a well-written article in a popular medium to support a current of thought and discussion across a broad swath of disparate people.

I guess it’s the desire to be part of that current that keeps me sending out poems. I think each time I get a rejection, I’ll print one here.  Perhaps among a small group, it might spark a conversation. This one happens to address selfishness…

Loaves and Fishes

This weekend, while I poach the perfect pears
in wine and sugar and ginger,
while I bake paté brisée, whip
crème anglaise with its spice-imbued milk,
carefully slice crescents
of cooled, softened pear, and layer them
in geometric circles,
armies of hungry children roam the streets
for trash to eat
somewhere far from here.
I know they’re out there.
My whole generation had to finish
what was on our plates
because children were starving
in India, as if we had to eat
for everyone.

If I could, I would take
this perfect tart and transform it
into loaves and fishes. I don’t pretend
to understand why it’s fallen to me,
this cornucopia of succulent fruit,
of scapes and green garlic, tender baby
lettuces spread on folding tables
at outdoor markets four days a week,
while others probe gutters for crusts.
I think if I were out there, scrabbling
for enough to eat, I would be cunning
and merciless. I would be one
who survives.

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