Would you say, looking back, that one moment
Proved defining, breaking your life
Into before and after, a dark age
Followed by an enlightenment?
Or has your development been more gradual,
A slow-growing commitment, say, to ferry
The light of truth, as it dawned for you, into darkness,
Now making headway against contrary currents,
Now falling back? Did you find the work lonely,
Or did you glimpse a flicker answering yours
And steer in its direction through lingering mist?
Was the meeting a joyful one? Did it end
With a promise to keep in touch and encouraged?
Would you say the thought of the good you were doing
In teaching, for instance, a class in prison
Made the long drive easy? Or did you need
Some help from the scenery, from a question
Like whether an old church by a filling station
Was beautiful still despite the wound
Dealt to its symmetry by the new brick annex?
Were you ever forced to pull off the road
When you suddenly realized that your feelings
For a woman you considered simply a friend
Had a will of their own and an agenda?
Did you yield to their entreaties or resist them
To save your strength for ventures to come?
As for the trips you planned to take but didn't,
Do you blame bad luck, when blaming feels essential,
Or a change of heart? Have you fought fire
With fire, a destructive passion like spite
With a creative one like indignation,
Or have you tried to immerse all flame
In a deep pool of quiet and emerge serene,
With a sheaf of blessings you bound yourself?
Have you blessings left to scatter on likely soil?
On the white-washed wall above your desk,
Do the figures depicted in the reproduction
Look as if they will live forever
Or as if they will die one day, and know it?
Can you tell us about the day you understood
That the tree destined to shade your grave
Was already tall, that the shovel handle
Was already fitted into the steel socket?
Did the resolutions you made then
Suffer more, when they proved unworkable,
From a want of will or a want of focus?
Do you think your focus would have been more clear
If you'd asked yourself what we're asking now?
When he read of a woman in a village
Fifty miles south of Tehran
Teaching English to her high-school class
By teaching Whitman, my friend Herbert
Decided to lead an on-line discussion group
On Iranian poetry. True, he knew little
About the subject; but having been moved
By her conviction that it's hard to spurn
A nation when you know its poets,
He wanted to make the subject his own.
Ignorant, yes, but prompt to admit it
And invite those who knew more
To be generous, once a week, with suggestions;
Grateful if someone helped with a stubborn passage
By offering a translation truer to the original
Than the one in the book he'd chosen.
What had seemed a boulder blocking the path
Suddenly proved a bush whose comely flowers
Travelers paused to admire awhile
Before they stepped around it and moved on.
And still every week he presides for two hours
Of steady progress. And when he turns from the screen
He gives an hour to imagining what went on
That day in the village classroom.
"Can anyone tell me," he can hear the woman asking,
"What the word 'limitless' means in Whitman's lines,
'And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them'?
Is he saying simply 'too many to count'
Or something bolder and farther-reaching?"
And if some students conclude it means "priceless"
To those who are free enough to see
The low as lofty, the last as first,
While others are sure it means "wholly beyond
Our limited human understanding,"
She doesn't push for consensus.
"Whitman would likely be happy," she tells them,
"With either answer. But to take the two
As two twigs leafing out on a tree
Outside our window might please him more."