Floral illustration, Polly Crossman
Illustration: Polly Crossman

MY LIFE IN POEMS

A poem that reminds us to look out for the tiny joys

After a hard, strange year, Darling Coffee by Meena Alexander soothes Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

Time is always weird when something bad happens. Things go faster or slower than they should; months become seconds; seconds become months, even years. This has been a baffling 12 months, both personally and globally. What happened? He said what? They did that? We did what now? Are you sure?

It’s solidly autumn now; soon it will be winter. The first Christmas things – even here in the desert – are in the shops. When I was small we had a rule that nobody was allowed to say the word “Christmas” until  October half-term, and we’re past that. I can’t quite believe it: where did all those days go?

And I think this sense of being somehow out of control – of things going faster and faster – is one reason I’ve been drawn to mainly, well, domestic poems for this column. There’s not been any vast sweeping epics, not really. Only small, delightful things with some kind of snack in the middle: coffee, olives, peanut butter, lentil soup, a sweet potato, coffee again. I like poems about small things. Ordinary things, if you like: I like poems that make the ordinary world feel like something a bit special and worth slowing down to notice. That’s the point, I think, maybe, of poetry. Or of the kind of poetry I like, anyway: the kind that slows down time so that you can see the things that really matter.

If you’ve also felt like this year has got out of hand – I mean honestly, where do we go next with this? How can we possibly?! – I think you’ll like this week’s poem, which is Meena Alexander’s Darling Coffee.

I love this poem because I can see it so clearly: I set it in the little farmer’s market near the Tiny Flat, where John and I used to go and deliberate over bundles of herbs and artisan pottery. The coffee in the polished cups was so good; the cups were made by the potter there, and were burnished blue and green. I take the snow from another time; a robin from John’s mum’s garden one winter when we stayed. The periodic pleasure / of small happenings / is upon us is how this poem starts, and I love that phrase small happenings: isn’t that the best way to think about being alive?

If everybody’s got their share of grief, you’ve probably got your own share of joy somewhere too

I’m starting to remember the “small happenings” that happened to John and me, as well as the sad things: the farmer’s markets, the coffee (tea for him) in cafés, the one time it snowed – proper snowed – in London when we lived there and the whole thing was like a fairytale. It’s starting to hurt less to remember who we were, and that’s a good thing. It’s starting to hurt less to think of the time before, the time when we were ordinary. We still are ordinary, of course.

It’s funny: you can be so wrapped up in your own sadnesses and your own grief and your own personal tragedies that you can forget that everybody’s got their own. And if everybody’s got their share of grief, you’ve probably got your own share of joy somewhere too. Remember the brazen world? says Meena Alexander, and I am starting to: I’m starting to remember we’re not the only people in it. I’m remembering that we’re more than just a tragedy. That everyone, everywhere, is more than just one thing.

I’m tired of sadness; of looking for people to commiserate with me on my sadness. There is only so long you can carry it as your key trait. I tell a friend: “When I go back to England, I’m just going to start saying Cancer who? Carer what? No, you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”

As we start to reach all kinds of one-year anniversaries – political and personal (for John’s first serious seizure occurred just as Trump won the electoral college) – I think it’s time to start looking around again at the world, and looking for good things in it too. It’s time to start noticing the smell of fresh cut rosemary and glinting thyme; sunlight on trees; beautiful cups; good coffee; sweet potato; red birds.

I’d kind of like to give this poem as a Christmas card, with the red bird and the white snow and the conjugation of joy.  But no: it’s not Christmas yet. It might be “October half-term”, as my mum used to say when we were little, but we’ve got time yet. There’s lots of time yet.

All herbs in due season, Meena Alexander writes, and I am going to try – for what’s left of the year – to give this season its due. It’s been a hard, strange year for everything, and this feels like a small practical measure of goodness: to notice things, to notice everything, to slow down time.

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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