Still Life

I walk to the kitchen cupboard to take out plates for dinner, and the corner of my eye catches my husband sitting in the next room. He’s so deeply absorbed in a complicated knitting stitch that he doesn’t notice me, though I’m only ten feet away. I turn to face him and let my eyes linger on his relaxed yet focused body, comfy in the loveseat with his legs stretched out on the ottoman, the table-lamp’s light shining on his hands as he knits.

What a gift that we are together in this life, I’m thinking. I want to hold on to the moment because I know it will pass—into our various chronic illnesses, our awareness of friends’ suffering, of the inevitability of suffering and loss for us all.

One treasure of poetry is that it can hold on to a graced moment like this. Take the speaker of James Harpur’s “Tobacco, Psalms, and Bloodletting” in the current issue of Image (72). Literally bent over by the weight of his sins, he unexpectedly finds one morning that:

There came the stripes of sun through trees,

Illuminating things by chance it seemed at first.

I stared at leaves, tufts of grass now tipped with fire,

And everything appeared to be connected,

The little bits of world ran into one another

And I was part of that confluence

Standing like an angel on a checkerboard of light

And in a trance or slowing down of time

I moved into another world

My heart unclenching, like a fist becoming hand

 

“I moved into another world.” An instant of heaven on earth, “like an angel on a checkerboard of light.” When I’m moved into this graced world—as at that moment watching my husband knit—I cling to it, sometimes literally (it seems) for dear life.

Much of the time I’m bent over with exhaustion and worry, like the speaker in Kathleen Norris’s “Body and Blood” (in her collection Journey), who begins her early morning walk “worn, spent, / torn with sorrows.” Though “stupid with worry,” she stops to gaze at a neighbor’s hollyhocks. And then the magical moment:

I hear the bumblebee

before I spot him

entering a blossom,

his body quivering

like an infant’s mouth at the breast,

drinking the milk of the world.

Miraculous image of nurtured new life—which the poem’s speaker, like Harpur’s, discovers simply by paying attention to something beyond the beaten-down self. It’s as if attention focused on the wonder outside ourselves can bounce back into our souls, transforming them.

If only for a moment.

A hallmark of Pattiann Rogers’s poetry is its tracing of the minute particulars of attention to such a moment, as in the astoundingly intricate weavings of a spider in her poem “Hail, Spirit” (also in the current Image). The spider’s “work is her heart strung / in its tethers, ravenous, abiding.”

I too am ravenous, craving not the spider’s food but the poet’s attention to the spider’s work of the heart. Which abides.

I want to abide in moments of grace: My husband concentrating on his knitting. My friend Tina joyously picking up and fixing (in a miraculous instant, it always seems to me) all our mistakes in the knitting class she teaches. My neighbor Pia performing Antheil’s violin sonata at a concert. My friend Elaine and me doubled over in giggles because neither of us can remember the name of someone we both know very well. The phlebotomist pausing, after drawing my blood for a lab test, to tell me how much he loves his work. A neighbor and me waving to each other as we happen to walk out of our homes at the same time. A friend phoning just to ask, “How are you?”

As I stand there for an instant watching my husband knit, his brow furrowed, the light on his hands, I seem to be looking at a still life. Still—quiet, hushed. Still—continuing. Still—our life.

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times(Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). SeeAmazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

  • Tina Turner

    What a beautiful “story”. I call it story because you are so talented with words that I can actually see in my mind what you are telling about. What kind words you have about the people that enter your life. Thank you for sharing this with me.
    Tina

    • http://www.poetryretreats.com Peggy Rosenthal

      And thanks to you, Tina, for sharing your love of knitting with me…and with so many others (including my husband!).

  • http://writingwithoutpaper.blogspot.com Maureen

    Beautifully written post, Peggy; it gave me a little shiver. Such a lovely expression of love in that last paragraph.

    • http://www.poetryretreats.com Peggy Rosenthal

      Thanks, Maureen. Yes, I have been blessed with this married love for over 40 years.

  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    So lovely. I especially adore those bits of poetry.

    • http://www.poetryretreats.com Peggy Rosenthal

      Thanks, Katie. I think those lines of Kathleen Norris’s, especially, are among my favorite lines of poetry.

  • http://www.terrybernardini.blogspot.com Terry Bernardini

    I had a similar moment this morning when I saw a moth the size of my open hand fly past my window – something I’ve never seen in Memphis, TN. Thanks for putting words to the feeling.

  • http://www.poetryretreats.com Peggy Rosenthal

    And thanks, Terry, for this amazing example.


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