Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

sunset charles river willow branches

This summer, I read Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours, which includes an essay on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: his work and life, and the ways they intertwined.

It was (in typical Oliver fashion) a thoughtful, lyrical piece, but one line in particular has stayed in my mind:

But Hopkins was also a man in turmoil. […] No doubt his daily faith was a deeply layered light.

As the light around here has shifted from summer to fall, I have kept thinking about that image.

I think about it as I watch the sunset from my front balcony, the sky ablaze with vivid colors that change from minute to minute, darkened by smoky clouds or lit from behind by the sinking sun’s fire.

I think about it when I walk through Harvard Yard, watching the play of dappled light on the buildings and sidewalks, the autumn sun sifting down through the leaves.

And I think about it every time I walk down by the Charles River, whose undulating waves reflect – and refract – the sunshine, making it, indeed, a deeply layered light.

In the context of faith, “a deeply layered light” is an ambiguous image. It lacks the clear-cut simplicity that defined many of the conversations I grew up hearing, about God and belief and what a virtuous life looks like. Those conversations included images of light and dark, but they didn’t always leave room for layers, for complexity.

I am not sure, honestly, whether Oliver meant that Hopkins’ faith was enriched or diminished by its complications. (The undeniable fact, which she acknowledges, is that Hopkins wrestled mightily with faith for much of his life.)

These days, my faith is also “a deeply layered light.” It still illuminates my life, but there’s much more room for shadow and questions, complexity and doubt, than there used to be. It is no longer the simple, cheerful sunbeam of an untested childhood faith.

I have wrestled with some dark things in the last ten or so years, and I’ve watched many people I love – and the world around me – engage in similar struggles. We often come out bruised and battered. Our faith does not exempt us from asking hard questions, or having to face the darkness.

I don’t know where Hopkins ultimately landed on the question of faith, and I don’t always know what I believe, or why, on any given day. But I also know this: for me, it’s worth it to keep asking those questions, keep participating in a community of fellow believers, keep searching for the light. I believe the layers – the shadows and questions, the complexity and doubts – make my faith richer, deeper, more beautiful.

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fall books flowers mysteries

It’s definitely fall around here, and I’m noticing the shift in various ways. The mornings are crisper, the evenings shorter, the light a different shade of golden.

I’m sipping fall teas, munching apples and burning autumnal candles. But I’m also, characteristically, thinking about fall books.

Not all of my reading is tied to a season, but certain books and genres do resonate more deeply at certain times of year. I reach for Winter Solstice every December, The Long Winter in the frozen depths of February, Jane of Lantern Hill in the tentative first days of spring.

Similarly, the stack above holds a few particular books – and a couple of genres – to which I turn every fall.

Anne of Windy Poplars chronicles Anne Shirley’s three years as a high school principal in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and though they span all four seasons, the entire book feels like autumn to me. (Anne of the Island, with its collegiate setting and jolly houseful of girls, also fits this season.) I adore Anne in all times and all places, but I love picturing her curled up in her tower room at Windy Poplars during the season of mellow afternoons and crisp twilights.

Robert Frost’s poetry is perfect for autumn. I love his classics like “The Road Not Taken,” but some of my other favorites evoke the mystery and melancholy of a New England fall. Try “After Apple-Picking,” “The Freedom of the Moon,” and “Acquainted with the Night.”

I adore E.B. White’s keenly observed evocations of life on a New England farm, many of which are collected in One Man’s Meat. They, too, encompass all seasons, but I always want to curl up by a warm fire and crunch on apples while I’m reading his accounts of livestock, small-town incidents and lovable, hardheaded dachshunds.

I love a mystery all year round, but Sidney Chambers, that quietly melancholic, inquisitive priest, seems especially suited for autumn. (Maybe it’s because I discovered him last fall.) The first volume of his adventures, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, contains an evocative passage about how autumn reveals the underlying shape of things.

Dorothy Sayers’ mystery series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane contains many gems. But Gaudy Night – set in Oxford among dreaming spires and diligent students, combining academia and mystery with a love story – is my very favorite, and perfect for this time of year.

Finally, Emily of Deep Valley is on my list to reread this fall. It’s about a girl who must make her own way in the world after graduating high school, while her friends head off to college. It’s full of quiet warmth and determination (like Emily herself), and both the cover and the spirit of the book are perfectly autumnal.

What do you like to read in the fall? Any books (or genres) that speak to you especially in the autumn?

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red leaves sunshine


The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

—Emily Dickinson

apple maple leaves


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favorites bookshelf

This is the summer of all the mysteries, as I said recently. But I’ve been reading a few other things too. Here’s the latest roundup:

Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor
I picked up a copy of this lovely novel the day before Julia happened to review it at Great New Books. It’s a fictional account of Emily Dickinson’s friendship with an Irish maid, Ada, narrated in alternating chapters by Emily and Ada. The prose is gorgeous and I loved the bond between the two women.

A Fatal Winter, G.M. Malliet
In his second adventure, Father Max Tudor, former MI5 agent turned priest, is called upon to help solve a murder at the local castle. It’s packed full of greedy relatives, all of whom have a motive. A slow start, but an enjoyably twisty mystery, and I really like Max (and his inspector friend, DCI Cotton).

Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, Mary Oliver
This collection includes a handful of essays on the natural world, literary criticism on a few poets, and some poetry. Lyrical and thoughtful and full of good noticing, like all Oliver’s work. (And, despite the title, great beach reading.)

A Mourning Wedding, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher and her husband Alec are invited to her best friend’s wedding – but a double murder complicates matters. A really fun, Christie-esque country house mystery with a dizzying array of characters. Alec and his team are in fine crime-fighting form, but of course Daisy saves the day in the end.

Scents and Sensibility, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back for an eighth adventure involving a stolen cactus, an old kidnapping case and (as always) plenty of canine humor from narrator Chet. A satisfying mystery and so much fun.

I’m in the middle of half a dozen books right now – so, more to come in the end-of-month roundup!

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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billy collins books poetry

Questions About Angels

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

—Billy Collins

I love Collins’ luminous, whimsical poetry (witness my stack of his books, above). My favorite part of this poem is the image of that one lone, willowy angel, dancing alone in her stocking feet as the indigo night sky stretches overhead and the bassist checks his watch.

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been sharing poetry here on Fridays – I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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harvard yard autumn light leaves

Villanelle for an Anniversary

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the Yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Night passage of a migratory bird.
Wingflap. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.

—Seamus Heaney

I’ve loved Seamus Heaney’s work since my undergrad days, when I discovered him in an Irish literature course. My favorite poems of his include “Song” and “Postscript,” which I’ve shared here before.

I did not know, when I came to work at Harvard, that Heaney also had a strong connection to this place. But he spent considerable time here, and he composed the poem above for the university’s 350th anniversary, in 1986.

After Heaney’s death in August 2013, a colleague clipped “Postscript” for me from his copy of the Financial Times. I still have it pinned on my bulletin board at work. A few weeks later, I heard President Faust quote the villanelle above at Memorial Church, during Morning Prayers. This spring, I heard her (again at Morning Prayers) quote from Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy.” (Clearly she’s a fellow fan.)

I love Heaney’s villanelle for its quiet, spare imagery; for the sense it evokes of Harvard’s history; for its bell-like rhythm, as clear as an autumn night in Cambridge. Most of all, I love the repeated line that captures what a university should be: a place where “the books stand open and the gates unbarred.”

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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robin redbreast bird spring

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

–Emily Dickinson

I have adored Miss Emily for a long time, but I love this poem more every year.

April is National Poetry Month, and I will be sharing more poetry here on Fridays this month.

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