Inspiration going into the week: Billy Collins

I had quite a bit more written about this poem and author before my infant daughter crawled over and pressed the power button on my computer. Maybe it’s for the best – I tend to gush about things I love and this poem (and all art, at least at first look or read or listen) can speak for itself. I’ll just say quickly that I love Billy Collins because his poetry, lucid, clear and bright, is no less easy for its lack of obscurity. The last stanza of this particular poem may well be my favorite stanza in all of poetry. I get it stuck in my head like song lyrics.

Tuesday, June 4th, 1991

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.

It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.

I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation
until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls,
all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.

This is what stenographers do in courtrooms,
alert at tier dark contraptions catching every word.
When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting
and listening, finger resting lightly on the keys.

This is what Samuel Pepys did too, jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise
slipped into the heavy, amnesiac waters of the Thames.
His vigilance paid off finally when London caught fire

as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee
and says how much he likes this slow, vocal rendition
of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will
make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks
on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,
hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out
a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eye, a long intricate carpet
that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed
knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine
of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.

If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks , a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,

all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,

an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands
are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys,
whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves,
and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle

and the piano at the other end of this room
with its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench.
So convinced am I that I have found my vocation,
tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,

a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing,
when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back.
It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eos
or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,

not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun,
her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim,
her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky.
But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

Billy Collins, The Art of Drowning


Balance, balance, balance.

Yesterday was rough, today was lovely. And I mean in every way. Yesterday was lonely, tedious and gray. Today was full of friends, easy and sun-shiney. I have a tendency, when I’m in the gray days, to believe they will last forever. I think my kids will always be ornery, I will always have mounds of housework to do, and winter will never end. Then one little thing snaps me out of my mood – a kind word from my husband, a warm breeze, or a quiet half-hour – and you’d think I was the cheeriest, most positive person in the world.

I often wish I wasn’t such a roller-coaster of feelings and emotions. (I know my husband often wishes this too.) A friend of mine recently told me that she heard about a study in which women were given higher doses of testosterone and men were given higher doses of estrogen. The women felt calm and in control, while the men were all over the map emotionally and couldn’t wait to get off the stuff. So maybe this up and down stuff is all part of being a woman, or maybe I’m just an emotional person. The key, I think, is somehow reminding myself during the lows that they don’t last forever, and gleaning every last drop of goodness out of the highs.


Inspiration going into the week (late again!): T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot is my first love. I read an excerpt of The Hollow Men at the beginning of a historical fiction novel when I was in middle school, and remember clearly loving not the meaning of the words, but the way there were put together and how they sounded. Ironic, because now I find great meaning in Eliot’s poems, but still love first and foremost the words themselves. It’s a visceral experience, like letting a wave wash over your feet at the edge of the shore. I let his words wash over my consciousness, enjoying first the beauty and letting the meaning seep in afterwards.

This poem is long – I read it in pieces and come back to it. But it’s one of my favorites and appropriate to the season, so I hope you enjoy it as well.

Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, or why I love Lent.

*Note: I wrote this piece several years ago and posted it on my old blog, but as I doubt many people saw it there, and as all the sentiments still apply, I am reposting today.

“This is the time of tension between dying and birth.”
T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Today is the first day of Lent. When I go to church this evening, the sanctuary will be draped in purple. The altar will be bare of the usual floral explosions. It will be quiet and dim. Today my face will be marked with ashes to remind me that I once did not exist as flesh, and that one day again, like so much dust, my body will disintegrate. Having a child made me acutely aware of mortality – witnessing the beginning of a life only drove home that there is an end. Ash Wednesday reminds me of the same thing: Rember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

I know that many people – religious and non-religious alike – don’t understand the season of Lent. To outside eyes, it seems Christians subject ourselves to guilt, berate ourselves with our failings, and give up our pleasures. All for what? To appease an angry God who demands perfection? To strip ourselves of the trappings of earth in order that we might prepare for the white clouds and bright light of a poorly imagined heaven?

No. To acknowledge the holy dirt that forms our bodies, and to seek the sacred light that illuminates our souls.

Every Lent I return to the knowledge that the dust that forms me has been shaped by the breath of God. I love this tension between the earthy and the ethereal. All that comes with being mortal – beauty, love and intelligence as well as hard work, suffering and plain old dirt – is holy. And just to prove to us how beautiful and holy the heaven that our earthly life leads to is, God became dirt himself. Jesus entered into and sanctified humanity in order that we would see how this world reflects His world, and how His world is the fulfillment of this world perfected. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen. Let it be done according to His will.

Inspiration going into the week (a little late) – Anne Porter

I’ve been a little glum lately – nothing serious, just suffering under the weight of ordinary, daily cares. I’ve fallen into the trap of believing I’ll never be much more than a laundress, cook and child-rearer (as if those weren’t the most important of occupations.) Whenever I feel, at nearly 30, that my chance to accomplish anything great has passed me by, I read this astonishing poet, who didn’t publish her first book until she was in her eighties, and saw it nominated for a National Book Award. She is one of my favorites. The beauty and simplicity of her writing stop me in my tracks time after time.


When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

Bur there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.


Anne Porter, Living Things

On discipline, order and balance. (Sounds thrilling, no?)

After about four weeks of consistent writing, I didn’t blog at all last week. Please forgive me, all of you who read this. I have good excuses – my husband was home sick and I’ve been trying to impose a new housework system on myself, with varying success. Anyway, what with all the chores and caring for the sick (not to mention the children) blogging was the thing that had to go, temporarily. But I’m not happy about it.

I’ve never, ever been a naturally organized or ordered person. Sure, I enjoy being in a clean house more than a cluttered one as much as the next person, but in my single days, that desire didn’t usually translate into actual work. At least not on a regular basis. Since getting married and having kids, a desperate desire for order has gradually grown in me. Part of that is due to having a number of people rely on me, part of it is due to the fact that if I’m not at least somewhat organized, nothing will get done, including the things I actually want to do. Part of it is due to just growing up and realizing that if I don’t do it, neither will anyone else.

So, last week I wrote out a schedule of daily and weekly chores and committed to sticking to it, at least for the week. The result was that the house was cleaner than it’s ever been, but a lot of the things that give me life – down time, reading, and especially writing – were sacrificed.

What I realized, I suppose, is that if I don’t bring order to all the areas of my life important things will go missing. Writing, I realize, is just as crucial as swiffering the kitchen floor every week, and I’ve got to schedule blogging just like I’ve got to schedule laundry.

I’ve also got to take it easy on myself. I was so committed last week to my daily duties that the thought of not completing them made me feel like a complete failure. That kind of conscientiousness is just as unhealthy as laziness. So I may not finish every chore on every day of my schedule. And I may miss a blog entry here and there. I’m sure living with discipline is something I’ll struggle with and (hopefully) get better at for the rest of my life. But if I put at least some sort of framework up, I know I’ll get far more done (chores and pleasures) than if I just wing it.

Inspiration going into the week: Wendell Berry

I was tempted to gush and gush about this poem, but I’ll take it’s advice and remain silent in order to let it stand for itself.

How to Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill–more of each
than you have–inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breath with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay way from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that com
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Wendell Berry, Given