wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
I hesitate to quote even that much of this poem, first because it’s so short (13 lines, less than 60 words), and second, because it turns so perfectly on such an honest, unexpected, heart-stopping point, that to cut it up is to do it disservice. Fortunately, it’s available online (thank you, Poetry Foundation).
We’ve become inured to suffering. We’ve even got a term for it: compassion fatigue. We rush past the appeals for help on our way to writing blog posts, finishing online courses, getting to work on time, making dinner. And then one poem makes the suffering of millions very personal, very real, and one little girl shows wisdom that would benefit us all.
The poem is from Joudah’s collection Alight. In a Kenyon Review interview with David Baker, Joudah mentions the poem is in the second half of the collection, where he focuses his attention on “the life of family and parenthood as it relates to the mind in the world.” That’s it exactly: this sweet domestic scene, father and daughter, becomes an emphatic reminder that the world is not the way it is by accident. Refugees don’t just happen. They are created by policy, policy instituted by people.
“Mimesis” is often defined as imitation, the process whereby art imitates life. Plato objected to mimesis, as being inaccurate, prone to misuse, and potentially harmful to the psyche. Aristotle thought otherwise, seeing it as the most natural process by which we learn all things, and as emotionally cathartic. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, as even the best things can be used to harm, and the humblest to heal.
I’m still reeling from this poem. I think I’ve written too much already. I think I’ll let it stand at this, and we can listen to the echoes of that last line: