The most recent addition to my list of Lifesaving Poems is ‘Prayer’ by Marie Howe. I read it for the first time a couple of months ago next to an interview in the Poetry Trust’s Poetry Paper.
It knocked me sideways.
First, I love the clarity of its language. Second, I admire its tackling of complex spiritual material without sounding coy, ironic or mystical. Even though mysticism is directly referred to in the poem, the actual world of the poem remains grounded in the here and now of travel, appointments and ‘garbgage trucks’. It is the apparently unresolvable tension between these pressing realities and the call of something other on the speaker’s attention that gives the poem its energy.
I love this poem of spiritual longing. I have cut it out and attached it to the shelf above my desk. I lift my eyes from my screen and it hangs there, silently rebuking me. Yet even as I type these words I wonder if I should be checking my Twitter account for an update of the News of the World scandal.
Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention – the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here
among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?
My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.
from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Norton, 2008)