Wellspring: Poetry for the Journey
St. Stephen's Church offers a weekly poetry resource written by our Associate for Religion and the Arts, Allison Seay. These guides may be used by Emmaus Groups or other small groups, or for individual study and reflection. You can read more about poetry at St. Stephen's here.
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March 13, 2017 edition
Note: The next edition of "Wellspring" will be posted March 27.
excerpt from My Skeleton
Angular wristbone’s arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage,
blunt of heel,
opened bowl of the skull,
twin platters of pelvis—
each of you will leave me behind,
at last serene.
What did I know of your days,
I who held you all my life
inside my hands
and thought they were empty?
You who held me all my life
inside your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.
By way of introduction, I’ll note that this poem is considered an ode, a specific form involving direct address. There are several odes in The Beauty, Hirshfield’s most recent collection —“My Weather,” “My Proteins,” “My Eyes,” “My Corkboard,” “My Sandwich.” And in each case, the poem — the ode— pays careful attention to that which might go unnoticed, unexplored.
“My Skeleton” dares to ask, when is the last time you really considered your own bones? There is perhaps something wryly humorous about this notion, but the poem deftly manages what is, finally, a solemn reminder of physical degeneration and our own mortality, asking, What is it to have a physical body that will one day die? What is it to be mortal? What lasts? What disappears? What do we take for granted? In this case, the poem suggests one might take one’s own body for granted, the very frame and structure of one’s physical presence.
While Hirshfield’s interest in Zen Buddhism is rarely explicit in her poems, I can sometimes detect traces of her interest in Buddhist practice. For example, “My Skeleton” is largely about the temporal nature of things, of our own bodies, specifically, and as Hirshfield explains in an interview, “A central teaching of Buddhism is that nothing lasts. Not love, not monasteries, not life itself.” Certainly not the human body. And because the ode is essentially a poem of concentrated attention and address, it is not too far-fetched to connect the kind of concentration necessary for meditative practice with the concentration that an ode invites. How appropriate, then, to consider this a Lenten poem as we enter a season of more attentive reflection and a more deliberate if not more ascetic focus on what it means to live and die.
I am drawn to the last image of a mother “hold[ing] / her own unblanketed child, / not thinking at all” because it illuminates not only attentive devotion but also newness of life. Whether you are a mother or not, there is something primal, something holy, and something altogether delicious, always, about beholding beauty, beholding a miracle. Poems themselves, at their best, have a way of being “unblanketed” this way. A little miracle in your hands. They are clear, without sacrificing complexity. They are able, in Hirshfield’s words, “to know the world in many ways at once — heart, mind, voice, body.” Too, they can reveal rather than obscure and remind us that what we may first have feared was inaccessible or impenetrable is actually something knowable and intrinsic. “Not thinking at all” suggests that when we are able to devote our attention without forcing meaning-making, we are open to a new way of understanding our lives.
The poet Jack Gilbert has a beautiful essay called “Craft of the Invisible” in which he talks about the invisible spirt, the gentle, invisible force poetry has that allows the heart to ripen. In that essay he includes an anecdote from an interview with a famous musician who had been a child prodigy and he ends with this: “...his father was cleaning out his music and dumped some of the scores in the child’s toy box. When the boy found them, he wasn’t sure what they were. When he finally managed to pick out the notes on the piano, he got more and more excited. Finally he ran upstairs to his little sister and said: We don’t have to be afraid anymore.
Indeed, there is nothing to fear with poetry. It is meant to delight, to awaken, to nourish, to inspire. Hold the poem “unblanketed”—lightly, lovingly—the way your skeleton, even when it fails or stumbles, has still held you all your life.
About the Poet
Jane Hirshfield has been awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor formerly held by such poets as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. In 2012, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She will read from her work at St. Stephen’s Church on March 23 at 7 p.m. A reception and book signing will follow. Details and reservations are here.
Excerpted from “My Skeleton,” by Jane Hirshfield, from The Beauty, Knopf Doubleday.
Download a print-friendly version of the March 13 guide here (Excerpt from "My Skeleton" by Jane Hirshfield)
Download a print-friendly version of the March 6 guide here (Excerpt from My Life Was the Size of My Life by Jane Hirshfield)
Download a print-friendly version of the February 28 guide here (On Being Brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley
Download a print-friendly version of the February 20 guide here (Picnic Beside the Railroad Tracks by Jack DeLoyht)
Download a print-friendly version of the February 13 guide here (Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson)
Download a print-friendly version of the February 6 guide here (V from Bucolics by Maurice Manning)
Download a print-friendly version of the January 30 guide here (from A Map to the Next World by Joy Harjo)
Download a print-friendly version of the January 23 guide here (Eating Together by Li-Young Lee)
Download a print-friendly version of the January 16 guide here (I'll Come When Thou Art Saddest by Emily Brontë)
Download a print-friendly version of the January 9 guide here (Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Download a print-friendly version of the January 2 guide here (Piano by Patrick Phillips)
Download a print-friendly version of the November 28 guide here (The Insomnia of Thomas Merton by Lisa Russ Spaar)
Download a print-friendly version of the November 21 guide here (Annunciation by Marie Howe)
Download a print-friendly version of the November 14 guide here (Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins)
Download a print-friendly version of the November 7 guide here (I will put Chaos into fourteen lines by Edna St. Vincent Millay)
Download a print-friendly version of the October 31 guide here (On the Shoreline by Laura Van Prooyen)
Download a print-friendly version of the October 24 guide here (Firefly by Dave Lucas)
Download a print-friendly version of the October 16 guide here (The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost)
Download a print-friendly version of the October 10 guide here (Sancta by Andrew Grace)
Download a print-friendly version of the October 3 guide here (The Rescue by Christine Garren)
Download a print-friendly version of the September 26 guide here (Blue Hour by Jennifer Whitaker)