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.