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Poems of the Unknown (after Nâzım Hikmet)

Poems collected from participants in Dave Johnson’s 10*10*10*2 Workshops!


I never knew you recalled
the light off the end of the pier,
stingray lifting out of the sea
like a sun remembering the sky.
I never knew you recalled
my name one syllable at a time.
Freedom is only a road open when
recollection meets memory.

—Dave Johnson

Things I never knew about myself –
That I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was,
Or as strong, or invulnerable,
Or worthwhile,
Or worth loving, and living –
Things I didn’t know about myself –
That I am more than I thought I was,
And less,
And still growing
And not yet

—Nayana Hein


It’s last day of April, year 2020.
I’ve been ordered in confinement
for well over a month now,
and on some days like today,
I do nothing more than sit,
think, and discover realizations.

I never knew I’d see the day
when I’d prefer fins of a fish
to swim though troubled waters,
instead of wings of an eagle
to soar o’er world poverty.

I never knew I’d see the day
when the block on which I live
would seem my very own—every single square,
broad daylight on cool breezy early noon.
No bikes, no skateboards, no long leashes,
no mutts or pooches trying to sniff me.

I’ve often wished for quiet telephone,
just a few weeks of being left alone,
but I never knew I’d see the day
I’d jump to answer three ringing phones
to hear voices of life through family and friends.

And, I never ever knew I’d see this day
where I’d be ordered in confinement
yet feel this strange sense of freedom—
no mask, no dress up, no costume silver jewels,
and no racing against time clock beating me.
Just me, my real self, just being me.

I never knew I’d see the day
when in dreary hours of darkness
I’d find a pleasing moment of joy
in a teeny weeny breathing twig
hanging on limb of a bare leaning tree.

in my tiny corner of this world
Free to be me.
Oh, what a feeling
I never knew I’d see!

—Kiswana Dee

Things I didn’t know

I didn’t know I’d ever look back on my old man and feel sorry for him—all the anger from the old violence and awfulness that made me leave in the first place, it’s gone. And, yes, disgust sometimes rises and I even catch myself shaking my head. But the need for revenge that I feared would overtake me, it’s not there. Only the need to be by myself and forgo family.

I didn’t know that I’d ever be able to articulate just what it was about my mother that prevented me from loving her. For years I thought whatever was hiding within that cloud of vagueness was worse than what it really was—just a human being human. And scheming and manipulating and selfishness, these are what was waiting. Nothing that could destroy me.

I didn’t know I could live by myself as long as I have without becoming mentally ill or at least unstable. But now I’ve become addicted to having no one next to me: “no kids, no wife, no girlfriend, no life” is the shank I’m always using to bleed some sense into me. I see now it’s just how things were always going to unravel. I have come to this point without regrets for being here, though there are regrets for how I came to be here.

I didn’t know hope still lived and thrived in me as though I were twelve years old all over again, like everything involving women and relationships with them never happened. I say to him I’m not cynical, that I’m not greatly changed by it all. And he replies that I have changed, that it’s neither for better nor worse—but I have changed. My ability to be alone, to be not just content, but as happy as one can be alone, attests to this.

I didn’t know I could choose to love someone, that this is now more important than lusting after someone. And “falling in love,” that thing hanging over me like a question mark shaped like a stalactite—yes, I’ve put that question to myself over and over. It isn’t much when weighed against the power of choice. I look back on all my failures with falling in love—or calling it as much—as exhibits testifying on my behalf.

I didn’t know I wanted her and to be by myself at once. This is why I think I’ve chosen her: finally, someone understands the importance of space, of being able to breathe alone and breathe next to another when the need calls. But it is real, it is here and it is real. And this time I will be as mindful of her feelings as I am about my own.

—Garth Ferrante

Things I Didn’t Understand Were God

The light at any time of day,
but especially when the sun first
rises above an eastern hill; I didn’t understand
this was God illuminating the way.

Birds soaring high above
in a bright blue sky, blissful in
their gift of flight; I didn’t understand
their cries were God singing out my name.

My children’s smiles of enthusiasm,
elation to be creating a life;
I didn’t understand these were exclamation
marks on God’s rounds of applause.

Trees dropping leaves and the magic
of an unfailing rebirth, now
I understand is God’s prompting
us to savor the circle of life.

The liquid warmth of compassion
coursing from heart through hands,
soon I understood to be the most glorious
of all God’s healing graces.

—Carolyn Chilton Casas

Things I did not know that I said “not for me:”
growing up to be a horse (not a vicious pony),
melting like the bar of Dove soap, and going right along with the bath water down the drain,
worms I got from barefoot in the barn,
daily, while Nat King Cole sang on TV, an eruption of blood spraying from a wart trimmed with cuticle scissors,
all my captured yellow and white butterflies dying in my bedroom,
when I thought they loved me,
the bees on the roses, entranced, I thought they loved me and
were my friends because I was so good at picking them by the wings,
until one time I missed and a bee between my fingers stung me,
the neighbor bending my mother to her will because I admired her rose
in the pot in the garage and she tattled that I picked it but I didn’t,
all of this I said with furious rejection, “not for me.”

Things I didn’t know that I said “not for me.”
I just turned away, as if stepping over a puddle.
Not for me the gnawing fear for your child,
the raging fury to protect that little person, not for me,
and I did not know I said that, “not for me.”

Things I did not know that I said “not for me” –
There was plenty that filled me with distaste,
grasping hands, prying fingers, blank hungry gazes
that spoke to me, “you are a thing, nothing but a thing.”

Things I did not know that I kept away from,
pretending that I did not know that they were even there,
impossible, contradictory demands, around me greedy envy,
“not for me, not for me.”
I have felt love shoved back down my throat, and more.
Love was not for me – this I did not even know I knew, “not for me.”

—Devin Dougherty

Dear Dave Johnson,
Hope you are well. Here is my poem from today’s class.


I didn’t know how much
I would miss your face.

I didn’t know how much
I would miss your laugh.

I didn’t know, when I teased you
that one day you would be gone.

I didn’t know, there are some holes
that never can be filled.

I didn’t know, you would die
before me.

I didn’t know, I would miss you
my younger brother.

—Michael Cunningham


I didn’t know the sound of home could be as faint as a whisper,
or that I’d long for a morning that opened with the sweet pungency of exhaust
and closed with ambient rattles.
I didn’t know that quiet would return to me a longing for things I once loved
and even those in the end I did not.
I never knew that giants lose their power to intimidate in unoccupied silence
or that my heart could be so loud.

-Shellie Winkler


I never knew the power of laughter. The kind that starts deep in your gut and then explodes through your body.

Uncontrollable at times. Almost painful. But a discomfort one loves to endure.

I never realized that your laughter could take hold of you and conduct an orchestra of glee so grand that your mind falls free of any ill thoughts, your muscles relax and contract at the exact same time and when it ends , most often too suddenly, a catharsis has taken place.

I never knew this exhaustion could be so freeing, so precious and too often as we age, too infrequent. Tell me a joke, a story, show me a silly gesture….I need to laugh!

—Ellen Goldsteain

Things I didn’t know I wanted

I never knew I wanted a basket of tulips
delivered at the stroke of a key,
two different brands of chewable multivitamins
(for grown-ups),
so I can see which tastes better before coffee,
and, speaking of coffee,
“People who bought that coffeemaker also looked at:
this milk frother, that electric kettle and a special kind of spoon.”

The three sets of spoons crowding my drawer
might just run away to a new job:
helping the dish, who needs therapy
to deal with all the candy he has to hold.

Slippery-flavored pink pillows,
wrapped to look like strawberries,
which everyone’s grandmother kept
next to the blue cookie tin.

—E.B. Fouts-Palmer

Never Knew

I never knew whether my poems,
scrawled on the bathroom wall,
survived by dint of my mother’s
pride or inattention to housework.

I never knew how there could be
no beginning of time, no end to
space. How death could be avoided
once you began to live.

I never learned to reconcile self doubt
with self love or how to banish both.
Or to recapture that shiver of rapture
in the presence of antiquity.

I never fully forgave the father,
whom I loved, for turning
away from my brother
not his son.

I have never forgiven myself
for failing to find the
time to express the love
my mother so deserved.

—Gerald Harris

On the Mekong River

I didn’t know, I’d live for five years in the valleys on the Myanmar border, not far from China.
I didn’t know that you and I’d have so much to do, we’d pass one another on our motorbikes,
driving to and fro from the villages to home on the unpaved roads.
I didn’t know that taking off your glasses, you’d have white ringed eyes
and a rust‐red tan from the dust.
I didn’t know how squeamish I was, till I saw a girl dressed in silk tenderising a freshly plucked duck
with a club, and stirring the blood carefully in a pot until it concealed as sauce.
Or how great sticky rice could taste eaten at a slow pace, dipped in duck juice and fresh chili paste,
face to face with friends from the same bamboo dish.
The New Year had come, I didn’t know what fun it was to be splashed by kids with water buckets
in the hot sun, on my motorbike, and while some boys sped up, I’d slow down and enjoy it.
Or that with the first rain, the cracked earth would burst and transform from brown
to a carpet of green. And that the cows would go with that from thin to fat.
I didn’t know how it was to be awakened at five, by female chatter and chopping knives,
and observe that the cow in the garden had disappeared ‐ and still enjoy that meal,
for it twas the New Year.
I never knew that in the monsoon, we’d shelter together under a bamboo roof and emerge
to find everything new.

—Rachel Clarke
01.05.2020, inspired by the 10*10*10*2 session, on 30 April.
Written at 10 am Berlin time on the following day in Berlin.