Resident Artist Emily Ruth Hazel’s new poem in response to the theme of Fools as explored through her experiences in Ghana. The poem is in response to:

Proverbs 1:8–9
Proverbs 10:14, 10:21
Proverbs 17:12, 17:28
Proverbs 19:13
Proverbs 29:20
Ecclesiastes 10:12

 

Listen to “Circling the Waist of Wisdom” 

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Circling the Waist of Wisdom
by Emily Ruth Hazel

 

1. A New Side of Knowing

All through college, I had a steady date
with the library. Cozy in a carrel, I held words,
studied the chemistry between them,
listened to their music, and learned
how molten meanings form beneath their layers.
Parting the pages of books, entering headfirst
into the turbulent waters of the world’s deepest minds,
I bartered sleep for knowledge. Wisdom
was a separate goal, something I hoped to acquire
at an antique shop decades down the road
after I had earned my senior discount.
I didn’t expect to meet Wisdom in the flesh
during a semester away in Ghana.

Yet there he was, working in an Internet café
I frequented on campus in Legon.
A friendly gatekeeper of all the world’s ideas,
he sold students access by the minute.
If I had pictured Wisdom as a person,
he would have had a waist-long beard
like cotton batting, the stuff of dreams pulled apart.
Instead, he was a young man, clean-cut,
smooth as Swiss chocolate.
His smile, wide as a banana leaf,
always offered a moment of welcome shade.
His given name a poet’s dream,
I wondered what it must be like for Wisdom
to wear that weighty, golden virtue around his neck:
a single blunder or a chain of poor decisions
could turn his name into an oxymoron,
making fools of his parents.

When my flash drive died mid-semester,
all the words I had carefully strung together
scattered like bright beads from a broken string.
Bargaining with technology was as pointless
as my attempts to whittle down
the price of bananas at the market.
(How was I to know there are some things
one simply doesn’t bargain for?)
Wisdom couldn’t replace my lost memory,
but he knew where to find what I needed.
I handed him hundreds of thousands of cedis—
what seemed like my entire college savings—
and true to his word, Wisdom traveled by tro-tro,
kilometers beyond helpful, to buy me a flash drive
that could hold twice as many insights
as I had time left to gather.

2. Seasoned with Wisdom

In Ghana, I cooked in unfamiliar kitchens,
gleaning lessons from friends. I found my way
through the maze of narrow aisles at the market
in search of rice, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and oil;
discovered which peppers never to buy again;
learned to wait till the plantains’ skins grew black
and trust that the fruit, ready to fry,
would be perfectly sweet inside.

Ghanaians love to season conversations
with proverbs: a joke mixed in with a knowing look,
a warning when somebody stirs the pot.
They say, Where God boils his yam,
that is exactly where the devil roasts his fish.
And doesn’t a pinch of wisdom,
like cayenne pepper, deliver the kick we need?
Doesn’t it, like salt, preserve and bring out
the best in us, and sometimes burn?

A hard saying is the blunt edge of the knife
that spares us from the sharper side of pain,
keeps us from befriending wolves
in shearling jackets, from tripping at the cliff’s edge
and plummeting into the canyon of our appetites,
from running barefoot into the briar patch
of another romance before the berries are ripe.

3. Gold for the Keeping

To get lost is to learn the way. If you want to go
quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
When the desert winds arrive, even the sky is thirsty;
no one can prepare for harmattan by drinking a river.

They are worth more than rubies, these revelations
mined from the mind of an expert guide
or hewn from the rough terrain of a reckless life
or sifted through the swirling, careful spill of years.
How they glitter amidst the ordinary—a vein of insight,
flecks of light floating in a muddy stream.
While keepers of hard-earned wisdom
open their doors to seekers,
they never set out all their treasures
where anyone can see them from the street.
But those who don’t know better
display in their front windows every cheap conclusion
like a surplus of dollar store trinkets.

A simpleton may be mistaken for a sage
if he stays silent, but there is more hope for a fool
than for the speaker of unmeasured words.
The tongue weighs practically nothing,
but few have muscle enough to hold it.

4. Among Family

A man has to hold his mouth open a long time
before a rotisserie chicken flies into it.
When a woman is hungry, she says,
“Cook something for the children so they can eat.”

A nagging spouse is like the constant
dripping of a leaky roof. She thinks,
If he were wise, he would have fixed it the first time.
And he thinks, If she were wise,
she would stop asking and do it herself.
Through the cracks we catch glimpses of each other,
and marriage is like a peanut shell
that must be cracked to see what is inside.

A wise son brings joy to his parents,
a fistful of wildflowers to grace the family table.
A foolish child comes running home,
hungry for trouble, his legs a pair of scissors
puncturing the afternoon ahead of him,
a chorus of matches burning a hole in his pocket.
On greeting his parents, he thrusts out
his fists, demanding that they guess
which one holds a surprise. His fingers uncurl
to reveal what he has brought them,
and both hands are full of disaster.

5. Playing the Fool

Act One: Folly wears a jester’s hat
and stands before the court, clumsily juggling
swords and glass goblets.
Intermission: by the time the fool has learned
the game, the players have dispersed.

Act Two: Folly, in a dunce cap,
faces the blackboard, grasping a stub of chalk,
dragging out the dusty words,
I will not be what I am, I will not be what I am…

6. The Fool’s Apprentice

An over-the-counter remedy for foolishness,
wisdom’s potency, derived from
the root of experience, is easier to swallow
packed into the colorful capsule of a metaphor.

No one with any sense jumps in with both feet
to test the water’s depth.

Only fools know everything;
a wise driver admits to having blind spots.
Pity the fool’s apprentice who pulls out in traffic
in front of the master fool gunning it
toward rash and stupid schemes.
Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs
than to cross a fool hellbent on folly.

A fool won’t flirt with wisdom,
though wisdom will deign to chase a fool.

7. In Hindsight

Wisdom is the often forgotten umbrella.
Sometimes I even choose to leave it dangling
from a doorknob, ignoring the slim prediction
of rain, then cursing my sheer foolishness
when the sky bottoms out.

I am the keeper of a junkyard of regrets,
decisions that have crashed or rusted through—
their engines and wheels, whatever healthy organs
they had, long since harvested.
This is how the rest of us wax wise:
by surveying the wreckage, salvaging
any usable parts, and selling as scrap metal
all that remains, hoping it will be recycled.

8. More Than a Mouthful

Wisdom is at home in the company of listeners
while the know-it-all lives lonely
in a house without a door, trapped within
the walls of pride he has built around himself.
The counsel of the wise is graciously given
and nourishing to many, but starving fools refuse it,
their stomachs stuffed with self-importance,
no room left for wisdom. Consumed by
their own lips, it is the thoughtless who cover their ears
and chew the air, mouths full of empty words.

Unlike the taste of what we know,
if proverbs are not offered as after-dinner mints
that melt away immediately, their pastel flavor
predictably sweet—can the wisdom of God
be contained in a shallow, glass bowl
into which we dip a spoon in passing?
If God’s words are instead as sticky
as Ghanaian toffee, can they be eaten
without being chewed? Perhaps they are meant
to make our jaws work, quiet us a moment,
keep us from filling all the space between us
with the sound of our own talking.

9. How Wide Around

Wisdom is like a baobab tree
spreading its roots and branches,
taking hold of both the soil and the sky.
The ancient trunk of wisdom is a fortress
we stretch to embrace; no one person’s arms
can wrap themselves around it.

10. Wearing Wisdom

What if God’s thoughts hide from human intellect
but reveal themselves to the heart?
What if our own wisdom is only in our minds,
not sewn into the linings of our lives?
What if the threads we wear
as we parade past all the spectators
are the same line of apparel made by the tailors
who fashioned the Emperor’s new clothes?
And what if we are also the people in the crowd,
each of us shamed into silence,
afraid that we ourselves will be exposed,
declared unfit for whatever positions we hold?
I reimagine the tale as it might be told
in Ghana, the Asantehene guaranteed the finest
kente cloth by master weavers:
the storyteller looks at me, declares,
When a naked person promises you cloth,
beware. A stitcher of lies will fit you for
a gorgeous gown woven out of air.

At the market in Accra, I fingered
dozens of fabrics, admiring eye-catching
patterns, swooning over the vibrant colors.
Later came the embarrassment of measurements
taken by strangers, then the excitement of seeing
my own designs take shape as wearable art.
Clothed in the work of their hands,
when I saw my reflection, I felt a new kinship
with the women around me, reminded
how much of what I’ve worn had meaning
to somebody else before it became my own.

Beneath the batik, close to my skin,
a slip of memory: my sister and I at a thrift shop
our mother used to take us to
in the basement of an old stone church.
When I was little, I would weasel my way
into the center of each round clothing rack,
disappear in a forest of dresses and pants.
Tucked in the far corner of the shop, beyond
a set of saloon doors, was a tiny fitting room.
Though I haven’t been back there in decades,
I can see myself now, standing in my stocking feet,
ducking down behind the swinging doors.

I am trying on the hand-me-down ways of wisdom,
slipping them over my head, blindly
fumbling for the armholes. There—
another transformation. Wearing a proverb
I haven’t committed to keeping,
again I am made new, and I am everyone
before me, all their stories echoing in the glass,
the tag’s plastic stem still poking me
from somewhere inside as I turn slowly,
studying myself from other angles
in the mirror of the word.

 

 

 

From the Artist: 

Throughout the book of Proverbs, the foolish and the wise are defined by their
contrast with each other—so writing about foolishness naturally led me to explore
the tandem theme of wisdom. Proverbs are also an essential part of the rich oral
tradition of African cultures. As the meanings almost always hinge on metaphors,
proverbs lend themselves to poetic play and reinterpretation. As I learned from
African friends in college—both in the United States and in Ghana and South
Africa—there is a sense of humor that translates through many African proverbs as
well. (One of my personal favorites is, “A leopard is chasing us, and you are asking
me, ‘Is it a male or a female?’”)

I was interested in creating a poem in which biblical and African proverbs could
be in conversation with each other. Framing the poem partly around my own
experiences as an American traveling in Ghana, I incorporated eight biblical
proverbs, five common African proverbs, and eleven specifically Ghanaian
proverbs—a bicultural exploration that deepened my appreciation for the
universality of wisdom.

Notes on the Poem (Specific to Ghanaian Culture)

Asantehene: the highest traditional ruler of the Asante people of Ghana

Baobab: African tree with an extremely wide trunk—a symbol of wisdom

Batik: commonly worn fabric, dyed using a wax-resist method to create patterns

Cedis: Ghanaian currency

Harmattan: dry season during which the wind blows dust from the desert

Kente: traditional hand-woven cloth featuring bright colors and designs

Legon: suburb of Accra, the capital city of Ghana

Tro-tro: mode of public transportation—a van that operates similar to a bus

 

 

 

Emily Ruth Hazel is a New York City-based poet and writer whose work
wrestles with themes of relationship and faith. As a believer in poetry that feels
accessible and lived-in, she aims to capture the beauty, hope, and humor that
can be found in everyday experiences.

Emily enjoys cross-pollinating with artists of many disciplines and she has
performed her work solo and collaboratively at numerous events. She has been
awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in a national competition
for emerging poets, and a collection of her poetry, Body & Soul (Finishing Line
Press), was published as a finalist in the New Women’s Voices competition. Her
work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature, Brown Alumni Magazine, The Mochila Review, Deep Waters (Outrider Press), Mercury Retrograde: Snarled Communications, Fried Electronics, Transport Mishaps (Kattywompus Press), The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home (Holy Cow! Press), RedeemerWrites, and Creating Space, among other publications.

A graduate of Oberlin College’s Creative Writing Program, Emily has led creative writing workshops for youth at schools, libraries, and community centers in Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, and South Africa. She has also mentored underserved teens through Girls Write Now, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing the next generation of women writers. A freelance editor and visual artist as well, she lives on the border of Brooklyn and Queens.

 

 

Emily Ruth Hazel is a Spark and Echo Arts 2013 Resident Artist

 

Poem is copyrighted by the artist and used here by permission.

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