Empathy (for Mari)

by Jeff Oaks

A few late fireworks popping off around the neighborhood and down by the river. Why not use up everything last night, I wonder. Idiots, I think.

A single bird singing a nightsong in the dead neighbor’s densely leaved pear tree where small green pears are once again beginning to appear. I can’t see the kind of bird, just hear the song being pumped out into the air as it darkens into dusk.

The twitter of swallows or swifts over the adjoining rooftops of our blocks.

Empathy is not sympathy as a pond is not a puddle, as a lake is not a swimming pool. One is a deeper thing says all the definitions I read today; empathy is more complicated. One can get lost in empathy, even drown in it. One sympathizes and moves on.

Artists might be overburdened with empathy, I think. They have a hard time moving on. They move in. Or maybe I’m just thinking of the ones I love. I’m thinking of a specific poem in Mari L’Esperance’s book The Darkened Temple which I keep going back to. It’s a beautiful poem in which she explores her Japanese mother’s past.

By Mari L’Esperance


Slowly we are lowered into the poet’s mother’s experience, through questions and then imagined details down into her experience of her town being bombed, and then we’re brought back to the surface again, changed by the experience, all the characters in the poem back in the present but charged with the knowledge of the past; even seemingly innocent things are charged with new meanings. The poem not only opens up a history for me to enter into, but it also makes it possible for me to think about these same questions in other’s lives–my own mother’s history of war, the experience of civilians now in other places where bombs, some of them my own country’s, are falling.

I love this poem because it suggests empathy as a way of composing and/or organizing a piece of writing. As a method of working. Of learning or trying to learn in the face of no sure knowledge. Look at all the questions in it.

Poetry is a hard art to bear sometimes because it lowers us into these identifications with strangers, with uncertainties, with complicated feelings. In a time of uncertainty like the one we’re in, it can be hard to willingly ask enter into the lives of others. We’re surrounded by so much we can’t control, we can’t know. Questions seem useless. We want answers, quick relief. And poems are quick but not always relieving of uncertainty. The world should be larger and your own mind more generous when you leave the page.

A single lightning bug is bobbing around my small enclosed patio garden. I hold out my hand and it lands there a minute, then breaks open its wing case and flies up again, its pale green phosphorescence signaling desire. His single life seems so peaceful here in this protected space.

When it gets too dark to continue, I head inside. Then suddenly, in the middle of writing this piece, someone nearby lights off a lot more fireworks. A LOT. They go on for long minutes. And they are much closer than last night’s which were the city’s official fireworks. Tonight’s explosions sound more local, probably a few individuals who want to feel the excitement close up of explosion and dazzle. Who may still be drunk from yesterday’s celebrations. Who want that happy drunkenness to go on a bit longer. Then I think–maybe they work terrible hours otherwise. Maybe they want some more space from the pressures of adult responsibilities. Who knows? I want to be generous with them now.

There is for one long minute such a sequence of explosions and of such magnitude that my windows rattle just a little, and then there’s quiet.

The one lone bobbing firefly in the now-dark patio weaving back and forth.

The spider re-building a new web in front of the neighbor’s back porchlight.

Somewhere else, explosions. I try not to forget this time.