“We Sat Together”

photo by Tilon Sagulu
photo by Tilon Sagulu

Coffee Break

by Kwame Dawes

It was Christmastime,
the balloons needed blowing,
and so in the evening
we sat together to blow
balloons and tell jokes,
and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
and he said, “Yes, coffee
would be nice,” and smiled
as his thin fingers pulled
the balloons from the plastic bags;
so I went for coffee,
and it takes a few minutes
to make the coffee
and I did not know
if he wanted cow’s milk
or condensed milk,
and when I came out
to ask him, he was gone,
just like that, in the time
it took me to think,
cow’s milk or condensed;
the balloons sat lightly
on his still lap.

from Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems.
© Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962, but grew up in Jamaica. He has written in nearly every genre, having published poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, and a scholarly study of Bob Marley. In 2009, he received an Emmy for his interactive, multimedia website, LiveHopeLove.com, which used poetry, photography and music to document the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

Dawes wrote “Coffee Break” as part of this project. The repetition of words and phrasessuch as “Coffee would be nice,”lends the poem an incantatory, prayer-like quality. But what we think will be a portrait of a man offering to make his sick friend a cup of coffee on a cool evening, quickly becomes a meditation on life’s transience. “In the time/it took me to think,/cow’s milk or condensed,” the speaker tells us, his friend had suddenly passed away. So much can happen, Dawes gently reminds us, in the space of a single thought.

The American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön has said that this is one of her favorite contemplations: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” Dawes’ poem asks that same question, and he suggests that small kindnesses are all we can give to each other in the midst of illness or suffering, knowing how limited our time on earth will be. When we read the final lines, which also end the long sentence of this poem, we cannot help but grieve with Dawes for his lost friend, seeing those balloons “on his still lap,” filled with the breath that no longer fills him.

—James Crews