At the very end of the last century, in 1999 to be exact, the Westminster English Department decided to enhance its already robust contemporary poetry curriculum by creating the Westminster Poetry Series. Every year, the department invites a major poet to visit Westminster for two or three days, either in the winter or the spring. The entire school studies books of poems by the visiting poet, guaranteeing an especially knowledgeable audience, something all of the visiting poets have appreciated. A generous grant from former trustee Maureen Ford-Goldfarb and her daughter Kirsten Ford ’00 funds the series.
As the decades have gone by and the program has grown in reputation, the English Department has come to rely increasing on past Westminster Poets to help secure new ones. David Huddle told the department about Stephen Dunn, for example. Tony Hoagland steered the way to Terrance Hayes who in turn suggested Aimee Nezhukumatathil who in a roundabout way brought Ross Gay. Accordingly, when the department started thinking about a poet for 2021-2022, it turned to Naomi Shihab Nye, herself twice a Westminster Poet, for her advice. Without hesitation, she suggested that Danusha Laméris. Within a matter of days, Laméris agreed enthusiastically to be the next Westminster Poet.
Although Laméris has published only two books of poems (“The Moons of August,” 2014, and “Bonfire Opera,” 2020), those books have garnered incredible acclaim. Lee Rossi writes of “The Moons of August”: “If Laméris has a particular talent, it is for thinking in images. She is primarily a meditative poet, examining mutability from a variety of viewpoints. The directness and felicity of her thinking, in fact, reminds one of Billy Collins or Jane Hirshfield. In poem after poem, she offers objective correlatives not just for feeling states but also for complex ideas.”
Dion O’Reilly concludes her review of “Bonfire Opera” by claiming: “Laméris captivates with the snake-like charm of her description[s]. Ultimately, however, the writer’s metaphors and rhetoric serve to expose complex girders of thought regarding the paradox of living in a human-animal body. Undaunted, she explores the vastness of experience without guilt, shame, or punishment — how to accept losses, transform passions to song, then release them with a full voice — to be both the bonfire and the opera.”
In other words, like so many of the previous Westminster Poets, Laméris writes accessible poems, often in a conversational style, which open up almost imperceptibly to disclose deep-seated meanings and complex emotions. Laméris is flexible and creative in her diction and skillful in her ability to craft wonderfully rhythmical lines of verse. She is especially looking forward to sharing her poems and working closely with high school students.
Prior to her visit, students in all four forms will study the poems in “Bonfire Opera,” which teachers will augment with selections from “The Moons of August.” Laméris will read to the whole school on Monday morning, Feb. 28, 2022, and visit with English classes for the rest of that day and on Tuesday, March 1.
Below are a few poems by Danusha Laméris:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
— The New York Times (9/19/2019), “Bonfire Opera”
Out here, we read everything as a sign.
The coyote in its scruffed coat,
bending to eat a broken persimmon on the ground.
The mess of crows that fills the apple tree,
makes a racket, lifts off.
In between, quiet.
The winter fog is a blank.
I wish I could make sense
of the child’s empty bed,
the bullet hole through my brother’s heart.
The mailman drops a package
on the front stoop and the neighbor’s dog
won’t stop barking. I tread
down the stairs, lightly.
Because we can’t know
what comes next, we say,
The plum tree is blooming early.
There are buck antlers lying in the grass.
A mountain lion left its footprints by the bridge.
— New Letters, Vol 80, No. 3 and 4
Nothing Wants to Suffer
- after Linda Hogan
Nothing wants to suffer. Not the wind
as it scrapes itself against the cliff. Not the cliff
being eaten, slowly, by the sea. The earth does not want
to suffer the rough tread of those who do not notice it.
The trees do not want to suffer the axe, nor see
their sisters felled by root rot, mildew, rust.
The coyote in its den. The puma stalking its prey.
These, too, want ease and a tender animal in the mouth
to take their hunger. An offering, one hopes,
made quickly, and without much suffering.
The chair mourns an angry sitter. The lamp, a scalded moth.
A table, the weight of years of argument.
We know this, though we forget.
Not the shark nor the tiger, fanged as they are.
Nor the worm, content in its windowless world
of soil and stone. Not the stone, resting in its riverbed.
The riverbed, gazing up at the stars.
Least of all, the stars, ensconced in their canopy,
looking down at all of us— their offspring—
scattered so far beyond reach.
— Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 9, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets
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