Luci Shaw’s Poetry of Hope and Humility

The pale bits—twigs, fibers,
pine needles—sun struck,
fall through the lazy air
as if yearning to be embodied in
my knitting, like gold flecks woven into
a ceremonial robe.

How perfectly Luci, I thought, as I clipped the poem, “Knitting in the Wild,” from the March 6, 2013 issue of Christian Century.

Would I have known this was one of her poems without seeing the poet’s name? I think so. The pinpoint-focused attention on natural phenomena bursting with life—even “yearning.” Then the giveaway (for me): she is knitting.

When I was writing my book Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting, Luci sent me a rich reflection on how knitting is a metaphor for her life. I included long excerpts in the book. If I’d only had this new poem then, to include as well!

The poem goes on to describe another surprise, as she continues knitting in the wild:

Like a parachutist, a very small beetle
lands on the greeny stitch I have just
passed from left needle to right;
the creature’s burnished carapace
mirrors precisely the loop of glowing,
silky yarn that he has chosen.

I know what this is like: to knit outdoors and have bits of the natural world fall into my knitting. When I now put on a certain sweater that I knit in the backyard of our Tucson home over a year ago, I find tiny flakes of leaves still caught in the yarn. But a beetle has yet to find its way into my knitting. Or maybe it has, but I lack Luci’s sharp attentiveness to the surprises of (literal) life that can fall into our hands.

Spring is wound tight enough to let go / any minute, she writes in “The Green Shiver” (Christian Century, May 3, 2011).

How can we help but hope, sprouts
urged to fulfill a kind of promise—

We are these hope-full sprouts, as we face the cold late-winter sun, ready for

that shiver, the sliver of thrill like a jade thread
through a labyrinth, when within us
something fresh and green explodes.

Luci Shaw’s poetry acts as a spiritual director for me. It shows me how to hold onto hope—especially in life’s late-winter times. It carries the warmth and wisdom of her person—which all who have attended Image’s Glen Workshops over the years have been graced by.

The opening of her poem “States of Being” (Christian Century, April 5, 2011) makes me smile:

Stability is greatly
          .overrated.

Oh? I thought stability was a virtue. But not necessarily:

Why would I ever want to sit
          .still and smug as a rock,
          .confident, because of my great
          .weight, that I will not
          .be moved?

I recall an enormous boulder that awed me as it loomed over a mountain stream; I hadn’t thought it might be “smug.” But here it sounds almost stubborn and arrogant in its refusal to be moved.

In the vision of this poem, it’s the mountain stream that carries the virtues I should emulate:

Better to be soft as water,
          .easily troubled…
          .able to shape-
          .shift, to mirror, to cleanse…

And then the raucous fun of the poem’s close:

To roar when I encounter
          .the rock.

I love the tortoise-and-the-hare upendedness of this poem.

And I delight in the proliferation of images for humility in “No, I’m Not Hildegarde” (in Shaw’s recent collection Harvesting Fog):

I’m merely a floater in the eye of God,
a flake of his winnowed chaff.…
          .          .          .          .a wisp
of the fog that blinds my world today. A drop
from a leaking tap. An odd button. A blot.

Here my spiritual director is showing me that being humble can be fun, light-hearted. I don’t need to get heavy about following the right path. About following Jesus.

From “What Jesus Said,” in Harvesting Fog:

What Jesus said was
          .what he did.
He said, be salt.…
          .yet absolute salt is
          .so sharp,
if all you eat is salt
          .you die.

The words—
          .they sting on the tongue—
The savor of action
          .saves…

Say it first, but then
          .do it—
the salt, and then
          .the savor.

Could there be greater humility for a poet—a crafter of words—than to proclaim that our actions “say” more than our words?

Today’s post is the first of two honoring Luci Shaw, the 2013 recipient of the Denise Levertov Award presented annually to an artist or creative writer whose work exemplifies a serious and sustained engagement with the Judeo-Christian tradition. She will receive the award in Seattle on May 16 at an event open to the public. 

Peggy Rosenthal is currently teaching an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program. Learn more here.

About Peggy Rosenthal

I'm a writer of prose about poetry. I'm interested in all the arts, in how creativity informs our lives. But most of my published books help readers to read poetry in a meditative way. I teach an online course on this at Image Journal.

  • http://writingwithoutpaper.blogspot.com Maureen

    You always select such wonderful excerpts from the poems you discuss; they’re sustaining, Peggy. I love this: “To roar when I encounter / the rock.”

    Luci Shaw is so wonderful a poet (I’ve read “Harvesting Fog” more than a couple of times). Delighted she received the Levertov award.


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