If I could bring myself to believe—
without fear of self-absorption—
that what the mystics and poets say is true,
that the work which finds you happiest
is your great assignment of love,
is the calling that best shifts
the cosmic balances away from suffering,
then every morning I would find my way
to the winding circle of stones
under the eucalyptus trees.
I would bring a small broom, maybe a rake,
and I would tend to that labyrinth
with a monk’s devotion, clear leaves, carry twigs.
This would be my green and growing nunnery,
the weaverbirds and firefinches my holy sisters.
I would obey my vows with fervour,
with gravity. And then—if what they say is true—
creation would fly towards hope and wholeness,
buoyed by my singing heart.
What work has ever found me happier?
What work has summoned in you this secret song?
in which a quantum state would decay if left alone, but does not decay because of its continuous observation.
I read about quantum mechanics
and am compelled to write poems—
the observer effect,
each more beautifully hinting
at the movements of my own heart
than any religious creed.
I find this blurred border
surprising, a newfound kinship
with a community of minds
I’ve never met.
When I pray to a spirit that I cannot see,
but that I imagine dancing
between me and the rest of the cosmos,
I ask her to hold my heart
in her continuous observation
to keep it from decay.
I bow down in my solitude,
begging for the gift of
Zeno’s merciful effect.
When I run out of prayers,
when the weight has become
too much–this weight of being
human, this experiment in
suffering–does God remember
all those prayers I said
when I was young, the claims
I made in youth groups,
around campfires, the reams
of holy words I wrote when
my babies were small,
or the grace whispered around
my mother’s pots of soup?
Did God gather those prayers,
like tattered squares of cloth,
in a basket by her side, ready
to pull them out now as she watches
my fragile thoughts, hears
so many nights of disappointed
silence, ready to string them
onto tender ribbon, prayer flags
to tether me still to her hands?
There is a story from Vietnam
kneeling in a still room
when the soldiers arrive,
kick in the door I think,
point guns, shout.
All that violence
slashed into all that peace.
And the monks,
they don’t flinch.
They don’t open their eyes, startle,
grab each other’s arms or
look to their leader.
They keep sitting there, silent,
noticing their in breath,
their out breath.
I think of those monks every night
when I hear a loud sound in the street
and my heart races and my eyes
flash open and I’m already
planning how quickly I can get
to my babies, where we could hide
I think of them in the morning
when I read the news,
and during the day when panic pushes
through the spaces around my lungs.
I carry them with me
through my tense and worried days,
breathing the same air as soldiers,
their stillness a foreign language
I cannot decipher.
Sometimes when I read the great poets—
the ones I think are great, that is, my own
anthology of heroes—
the lines and spaces around me become brighter, sharper.
I see the dragonfly beating its wings against
my window and I speak to it with soft affection,
cup it in my palm and admire its shimmering weightlessness,
feel weightless myself–
this because I have been reading the poets
and I feel tentatively that I am one of them,
me and my brief encounter with delicate wildness.
But other days I read the great ones
and I sink through admiration, down to envy,
to resentment, to the swamp floor of despair.
Because who can ever hope to add to all that genius?
How can my attempt at naming the truths of this planet
add anything to the world already written?
Yet each morning, I reach again for the stark stanzas,
wonder if I will float or sink,
willing to risk either for the slippery feel of
a poet’s brilliance, for a chance to swim in this wide water.
I leave my house in the damp
blurriness of morning, walk until
the city cannot reach me.
Stepping out of my shoes, I press
the warm soles of my feet
onto wet stone, damp leaves,
but still the distance between me
and the roots of things is too great.
So I kneel down, dig my fingers into
the blanket of dirt, peel open
crinkly seed pods,
the ideas of so many trees lined up
inside that brown dying skin.
I put a seed in my mouth, taste my
longing to enter the humus,
to close all the gaps between me
and the ground of all growing.
When it starts to rain, I lift my face
toward the downpour, willing
the moving sky and the wet earth
and the tall trees to swallow me
inside themselves, wash away
the boundaries of my skin,
plastic beads, synthetic clothes.
Kneeling with the devotion
of a thousand desperate
saints, I ask the earth to absorb
me with gulping love
into her ripe
Tonight I watched a star slice through the dark
Turkana sky, so bright I thought the
moon was falling, and I realized it
was the first thing I’d seen in this
wide country that made me gasp
for the beauty of it. But this place, too,
is beloved of the earth, this place, too,
holds the million miracles. I suspect it takes
a learning, a leaning into this life, to see
its small offerings, an intimacy with
the blazing heat, the endless sand,
the sharp clarity of no water, no food,
no crops, before your heart can open
wide enough to receive the gift of the golden sun
laying its heart across the lean acacia. Before you
smile to hear the black bird with the caw
like a creaking door and the dove
with its watery whooping. And then,
if you are lucky, you will find you love
the immense courage and artistry of a people
choosing thousands of beads, startling
against the endless browns of this place,
who wear as much beauty as their necks can hold
when beauty seems to have no meaning.
Who find time to attend to the stringing of necklaces,
hard silver bands bent around wrists, tiny braids
against smoothly shaven temples when water itself
is unassumed, when life this week again
is tenuous. When did I learn that beauty
was a luxury? What have I ever known
Maybe it’s middle age,
all the talk of joints
and life insurance, but
my envy has shifted
from the lovely
whatever it was that
once looked like success,
that tenuous beauty-
to the preposterous
hornbill, the beige
and ruffled mousebird,
all those flying things
with their sharp purpose,
those magnificent wings.
I dream of decomposing,
feeding my tired skin to
an earthworm, just
for the final hope of being
swallowed by a bird,
of joining the swooping
confederacy, the hope
of all that air
To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go. ~Mary Oliver
These daughters pressed against my side,
their hair smelling like the warm earth,
the one on my lap, all squirming limbs and softness,
they will die soon- maybe in one year or seventy-
there’s no use denying it, trying to forget.
Like the agapanthus,
all life and exuberance, pressing colour and
movement from every cell until the day when
life begins to wear out, the leaves start
to curl in on themselves, the petals loosen
their small grip, or the fine white butterfly-
how does a butterfly die?
I watched one being eaten this
morning by a swooping green bird,
it fought its sudden demise with fierce flapping,
holding on to life till the last dive
into darkness. But others must fall
silently in the trees, or lay
their tissue wings across warm stones
letting the sunlight swallow them, the wind
lift their papery bodies after they’re gone.
I press my mouth against my daughters’ hair,
the skulls that grew beneath my ribs,
I lean into their aliveness.
There was a time when the Egyptians worshiped Thoth,
the god who gave them writing, wisdom, words,
their god with the head of the ibis,
all beak and no forehead.
They worshiped the ibis itself, too,
not the loud squawky hadada,
but its silent cousin, the white sacred ibis,
collected their bodies for great burials,
painted, in faith, their avian portraits over temples.
Every morning I watch a flock of sacred ibis
float across the valley behind my house,
their black curved bills, their white bodies
drawn like thin gloves
against the grey fog of those early hours.
If I were writing my halting poems
in another time, an ancient place,
I suspect I would fall on my knees
each morning at this sight,
press my forehead into the damp grass,
thanking the benevolent Thoth
for considering me worthy
of this divine visitation.