On this 20th day of National Poetry Month, I’m thinking of a poet that I met on January 23rd this year at HoCo Open 2015 and Poetic Energetic hosted by the Howard County Arts Council. At the reception, E. Ethelbert Miller read a few poems for the crowd, including “Looking for Omar.”
I see the poem as being about our desperate attempts to make sense of the world – and in the process how we find scapegoats onto whom we place undue blame. It’s also about that moment of decision that we all face. We can decide to say something or not; do something or not. And while many of our day to day choices seem insignificant, there are those that can alter the course of history of a person, of a community, of a world. And the scary thing is that we don’t always know which of these moments will have consequences that we cannot foresee – and which will simply dissipate the moment we make a decision and move forward.
I stare at my wet hands
dripping water on my shoes
and wonder if I should run
and tell Omar or just run.
We don’t know what the young boy speaker of Miller’s poem does – or doesn’t do. Which path will he take? Will he run or will he tell Omar? The poem is called “Looking for Omar” – why? Is the title referring to Pinto and the “big boys” who will look for Omar after school? Or does it refer to the speaker’s search for Omar that day – and for years to come?
The poem ends with the word of the speaker’s mother:
Boy, always remember to wash
your hands but always remember
you can’t wash your hands from
These words are kind of chilling – because they implicate us. And they should. Because I know each of us has faced this decision – to help Omar or to run.
Some time ago – maybe years ago – I was in my car driving when I saw a group of elementary school children on the sidewalk waiting for the school bus. A few boys were chasing around one boy – and I couldn’t tell whether they were playing or if the one boy was being picked on. But something in my stomach told me it was perhaps the latter. I had this feeling that I should pull over and check on them – that maybe I should get out of the car and see for myself what was happening and to intervene if needed.
I didn’t. I kept going, turning my head to look at them as long as I could. I probably convinced myself that nothing was going on, that they were just playing together – that I was overreacting because I am a mom. But I still think about that moment time to time. Not just about the boy but about me – about my inaction.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a long time friend to Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, and I was introduced to him after the reading. Anyone who might have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Miller would agree, I think – he is approachable, funny, and kind. Thoughtful, too.
I feel so lucky – and I count my blessings – to have opportunities to meet and speak with poets. For many years, I feared poetry. As an English major in college, I “saved” the required poetry class til my second semester of senior year. But in the last 10 years of living in Howard County, teaching at Howard Community College, and serving with HoCoPoLitSo, I have discovered poetry as a living thing – something that breathes, feels, thinks, changes, moves, hungers, and grows.