To weep unbidden, to wake
at night in order to weep, to wait
for the whisker on the face of the clock
to twitch again, moving
the dumb day forward—

is this merely practice?
Some believe in heaven,
some in rest. We’ll float,
you said. Afterward
we’ll float between two worlds—

five bronze beetles
stacked like spoons in one
peony blossom, drugged by lust:
if I came back as a bird
I’d remember that—

until everyone we love
is safe is what you said.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, from Messenger: New and Selected Poems, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


The thing with poems that you know well is that after a while it is possible to stop being surprised by what is going in them. You forget what led you to them in the first place. That shock of the new, that transcendent Oh my gosh, you too, I thought it was just me!

It is easy to forget that really great poems, the ones you go back to, never fully give up their secrets, and always have something of the aloof teenager about them (or if we are unlucky, professor), even if we think we have read them backwards and know them inside out and all the other clichés. Which is why it is good to read poets you have not encountered before, even if you have been meaning to get around to them for some time now, which is exactly the state of affairs I am in with Ellen Bryant Voigt.

For one thing, it keeps you on your toes. For another, first introductions are useful for taking a really good look at something. This moment which will never come again, as James Schuyler says somewhere. To remind yourself of why you fell in love with the poetry-thing in the first place.

And there are many things I have meaning to get around to for quite a while now and now find I have all the time in the world for. Rererererereading the aforementioned James Schuyler for instance. Or painting that back window. And isn’t the garden suddenly looking wonderful? It has never looked so wonderful. And I have taken it for granted all these years. Perhaps a poem of my own?

What is my practice?

My watch conked out yesterday. Suddenly it was half past five and actually it was five to six. So now I live watch-less.

Just as well. I have started reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (thank you Shawna Lemay for the recommendation):

Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.’ 

Well, I have been having quite a lot of conviviality and connection right by my front gate, thanks to being in the garden so much. I have had more conversation these last two weeks than I have had for months. Even with strangers.

What is that telling me?

What is my practice?

God knows, there have been losses, and lying awake at night watching the clock crawl round and God knows there will be more. So I said an enormous yes to that bit. And then that extraordinary (I don’t know how she achieved this and I don’t need to know) image of the ‘five bronze beetles/ stacked like spoons in one/ peony blossom, drugged by lust’. Drugged by lust. The admission fee, right there.

But what really gets me (and I think is going to continue getting me and surprising me for the next twenty-five or however long I have years -I reached late fifties on Friday) is the need to know that everyone I love is safe, and while some/most are, they are not all. Please be safe. Please be safe. Please be safe, over in my head, like a prayer.

What is my practice?

I pray that you are safe.


  1. REally, really appreciating your posts, for which I signed up some weeks ago. No, you don’t know me, but I’m a member of the Indian King/Camelford stanza group, and I think the recommendation came from Helen Wood, who is our ‘chief’. I am – these days – half a Quaker and half a Buddhist, so today’s post, with its question, ‘What is my practice?’ felt particularly relevant. (Part of my practice is to ‘sit’ each day, keep silence, observe my breathing and body, send out ‘metta’, then spend the rest of the day as mindfully as possible. And I do find that every experience is particularly heightened at the moment ….) I am also much sustained by the poems you choose. Thank you very much indeed.

    Kate Compston


  2. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for this great post. It really resonated with me. Although I am still working, but from home, I have slowed down and begun noticing so much more. And, like you, I am reaching the later fifities. It does make you reevaluate I think. Do you know this wonderful poem by Sam Willetts?


    Look to your life. Rest in your kindness and your unkindness now and listen: I know what makes your heart clench coldly in all weathers, I know how it feels that it always will. Bear that. Look to your life, to your one given garden.

    All the best,


    Dr Hugh Dunkerley

    Reader in Creative Writing and Contemporary Poetry

    MA in Creative Writing Programme Leader

    UCU Branch secretary | (+44) 01243 816186| University of Chichester, Bishop Otter campus, College Lane, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6PE | [cid:be38326a-9b9e-43c2-85c0-837d64030a15]



  3. Thank you for posting this poem. I love the use of the word ‘unbidden’ in the opening line. I’ve been reading Ken Smith again, and both Voigt’s poem, and your post, linked in my mind with these lines from ‘The Poet Reclining’:

    ‘The moment, once and once only,
    sufficient, taken on trust
    in the wheels of the watch.’

    Liked by 1 person

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