by Meg Hanna House
Poetry for social action can be thought of as provocation, but poetry can also be “the awareness of an encounter in our lives that we have to face,” said poet Kathleen O’Toole in her Poetry and Social Action class at NYAPC last Saturday. And preserving that experience in a poem not only recognizes the encounter but also challenges us to act.
O’Toole began the class by sharing her poem “Mindful,” written during a retreat in the Sierras of California. (The poem is reprinted below.) The class discussed the striking juxtapositions in the poem, and how difficult it can be for our minds to hold both the beauty of God’s creation and the tragedies of the world.
She described her work as “poems of poignant awareness:” Instead of trying to provoke, she hopes to strike a chord.
Another poem, “The Gleaners,” describes school children, some of them immigrants who may have known hunger, responding to a painting by the same name in the Musée d’Orsay. In the poem, “social awareness enters into a scene that’s otherwise childlike innocence,” said O’Toole.
O’Toole has had a career in community organizing, from on-the-ground local efforts to broader work with organizations like Bread for the World and VOICE, the Virginia affiliate of the Washington Interfaith Network. For her, community organizing is a discipline, focused on actionable ways to use power to make a difference. O’Toole has also done community organizing training at NYAPC in the past.
As for poetry’s power? “There are little things that cross your path in life that are like getting a splinter in your finger, that jolt you,” she said. And “sometimes those small things can be woven into something, [into] lament … or praise.”
She closed with a poem she is still working on about the Covid era, which juxtaposes counting blooming irises with counting victims of the pandemic. “Watching what’s blooming was a ritual that became a source of comfort, like a memorial ritual,” she said. “For me, noticing the little things can be a real balm in these times.”
You can find out more about Kathleen O’Toole on her website: https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/
The moment, fleeting as a nuthatch
that alighted on the flowerbox at breakfast,
the lichen-green hummingbird grazing
the impatiens at noon. I toss them
blueberry pits, bread crumbs. This
moment, before a car bomb is planted
beside a schoolyard in Basra,
a swarm of locusts about to alight
on precious maize in Niger. Nuthatch
and nutcracker engineer whole piñón
forests, one seed cache at a time.
The hummingbird’s tongue is longer
than its head and beak, longer
than it needs to extract the dusky
pollen at the petunia’s throat.
Samsara’s in every in-breath, each
shutter click of attention: first warning
signs of famine, children lining up
for the soldiers’ candy, wolf lichen
in a gash on the ponderosa’s downed limb.
From the collection This Far, reprinted with permission from Kathleen O’Toole