Saturday, January 18, 2014

Columns: Poetic keys to ordinary spaces

Chair in basement laundry room at Eastern Point 
Retreat House. 
Heather McHugh's poem sent me happily digging through my electronic version of the OED.  And yes, indeed, the word danger has its roots in the Latin dominus, Lord, the one with power (in this case, to harm).

Any poems that scratch the surface of these ordinary, dull winter days for you?  Share some in the comments!

A version of this column appeared at on 17 January 2014.

A friend wrote to me yesterday, poem hunting. Could I send her some poems? She was seeking words that could help her traverse the spaces where the suffering and the sacramental mingle with tomatoes and birds and dust.

 I sent her Dusting by Marilyn Nelson — perhaps because that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of lately, as I clear out the detritus from last semester.
Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses
winged protozoans:
for the infinite
intricate shape
of submicroscopic
living things.
On the Church’s liturgical calendar, we returned to Ordinary Time this week, and while “ordinary” in this context really means “counted,” for most of us it is also a return to more ordinary times. The busy season of sparkling lights, Christmas gifts, holiday concerts, and traditional treats has vanished, and its place we face a long string of ordinary, undistinguished days. Work. School. Winter vegetables. Tomatoes tough enough to travel.

Yet somehow underneath the routine sameness lurks an invitation from God to celebrate this ordinariness, with a deep joy. A joy that is perhaps different in texture — quieter, less sparkly — but as full and richly consoling as that which inspired us to thunder “Joy to the World” at the end of Midnight Mass.

As part of the poem hunting  project, I came across Heather McHugh’s Etymological Dirge, where she riffs on the hidden history of words, “Calm comes from burning/Tall comes from fast.” Her poem hints at the ways in which the extraordinary and unexpected lie underneath the surface of the commonplace. Scratch the surface of the everyday and you find the mystical, the sacred.

And so I found myself in search of poetic keys to the plain space of Ordinary Time, with its large windows and well-scrubbed wooden floor, a single comfortable chair, and the dust motes, those particles of ocean salt, pearl necklace viruses and winged protozoans, dancing in sheer swaths of warm, winter light. Seeking the sacred space hidden within.

During the Christmas season, the beautiful and haunting Canticle of the Three Young Men from the book of Daniel is recited again and again at Morning Prayer.  All you winds, bless the Lord. Fire, frost, cold, chill, even ice and snow. Bless the Lord.

Ah, like the lone soda can found under the sofa after a party, the Christmas season has left a key behind for me in this litany of the ordinary. A reminder that everything, no matter how mundane or commonplace has the capacity to unlock the sacred, the mystical. Lentil soup, bless the Lord. Dust and mud, bless the Lord.

1 comment:

  1. "Bless the Lord" brought to my mind Psalm 103 which I remember from a long time ago and which I cherish as my love for God always elicits a response of gratitude for God's unmerited love and grace:
    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.
    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and do not forget all his benefits—
    who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
    who redeems your life from the Pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
    who satisfies you with good as long as you live
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

    My physical youth may not be renewed but my childlike faith is renewed as I reflect on God's love and goodness.