Into a day filled with the poison of Trumpian taunts and Supreme Court rulings that trashed America’s traditions, came the antidote of poetry.

Listening to Cathy Song and Naomi Shihab Nye read from their collections at the Doris Duke Theater of the Honolulu Museum of Art was like getting a blood transfusion. For 90 minutes, the two poets went back and forth, reading poems loosely organized around themes like immigration, mysteries, places, people, and more.

The end of each reading was met with a spontaneous collective sigh from the audience, as if some spell had set us free just a little bit, for just a little while. A spell that helped us to remember, in these dark days, who we really are, where we come from, and where we might go if we let language, nature and the imagination lead us.

Cathy Song, left, and Naomi Shihab Nye brought a message of humanity, grace and hope to a recent poetry reading at the Doris Duke Theater. The Merwin Conservancy/ Matt Forney

Song’s poems told stories about the dreams that spurred the journeys of her immigrant grandparents from Korea and China to America. She recalled her own memories of what it meant to speak like someone “from the pineapple fields.”

Memories that called to mind the times she rode The Bus that her father loved. Or waited for him at family graves to lay fresh flowers for loved ones long departed. Her regret at passing up the longer bus rides, and her effort to “fill the holes of his forgetting” were an invitation to remember vanished opportunities for time with loved ones, and the holes we somehow did not notice, or failed to fill.

No reproach. Just a remembering that drew us in gently. One poem memorialized her young son’s notion, growing up in Denver, that heaven was in China.

He thinks when we die we’ll go to China.

Think of it — a Chinese heaven …

We can see the mountains

shimmering blue above the air.

If you look really hard

says my son the dreamer,

leaning out from the laundry’s rigging,

the work shirts fluttering like sails,

you can see all the way to heaven.

Children and childhood, their own and that of others, were present from the beginning to the end of the event. Breathing in the fragrance of the lei she had been presented with, Nye spoke of the images that haunt us in these dark days: of children separated at the border from their parents.

“I wish I could place a lei around the neck of every little child taken from their mamas and papas,” she said.

She paid homage to a child journalist from Gaza, telling the audience she had joined Facebook recently just to be able to follow her.

Both poets spoke with gratitude of what they gained from their teaching.

“I sometimes want to steal words from the children I teach,” said Song.

Naomi Shihab Nye, left, and Cathy Song should inspire action in this time when power has run amok. The Merwin Conservancy/ Matt Forney

Nye spoke of hours with her grandson when he would suddenly announce “Dance”— and so they would, to the jazz or classical music that he enjoys. In these times when there are so many reasons to weep, when there is so much cruelty in the air, these two poets offered their humanity, their grace, and their words. Words to help us love more and live better.

Faced with the anguish of so many families torn apart by the viciousness of political whim and power run amok, we might ask, as Nye does in one of her poems: “What do we say in the wake of one / who was always homesick? / Are you home now? / Is Palestine peaceful in some dimension / we can’t see? / Do Jews and Arabs share the table? / Is holy in the middle?”

Another poem suggests that we each can make ourselves useful in small, quiet ways that are essential, if mostly unnoticed. We can make ourselves “famous.”

… in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Right now, on behalf of all the children detained and dispersed across the nation, on behalf of all the distraught parents and traumatized boys and girls of “tender age” towards whom no tender mercies have been shown by this nation, we can make ourselves useful.

Not by doing anything spectacular, but by turning up on Saturday at 9 a.m. starting at the Hawaii State Capitol, to march to the Federal Building at 10 a.m. before returning for a rally at the Capitol.

Let’s do this in solidarity with others here, and across the nation, to say we will never forget what ordinary people can do to resist the perversions of power. We can vote. And we can urge everyone we know to vote. We are as essential as pulleys and buttonholes.

For now, mahalo nui loa to the Merwin Conservancy and to Cathy Song and Naomi Shihab Nye for the gift of an evening of grace and respite; for bringing us the balm of their words for the wounds of our times.

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