“Aubade” by Robert Siegel

Bellerose, Jeff_Tranquil
Jeff Bellerose (American, 1973–), Tranquil, 2018. Oil on canvas, 20 × 20 in. (50.8 × 50.8 cm).

1

Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy
      while each leaf thrusts into the universe of air
and the light green haze of April rises like smoke
      sweet in the nostril. Let the mind fill the hemisphere
of day while the sun beats a million white wings.
      Let each yellow and red bud in the dew
blaze forth with a hundred suns while night
      picks up her gauze and vanishes over the hills.
Let the rabbit’s eye shine while he drums the turf
      summoning his brethren;
the squirrels spiral down, their tails like clouds,
      to clatter among the woodsy rubble;
and the shrew shriek and hide herself under the root.

2

The cat stretches by the window and cries at the door;
      the dog yawns, then yelps at the rising sun
that will run all day till it drops in the west.
      The mattress creaks as the man rises to fix breakfast,
his back telling him he is—ah!—alive
      while the neighbor’s car snorts and gulps air
in an ascending whine.
      Children feel their way through cool porcelain bathrooms,
teenagers dream a world of shimmering electric presences
      and clothes rise from the dresser to glide across the skin,
the belt firmly encircles the waist
      and the tie mounts to prop the chin.

3

Yet, staring back from the bathroom mirror are
      the ghost of the office, the boss’s purposeful smile,
fog of the night’s dream, the nattering conscience,
      the gluttonous mortgage, the skin in love with gravity,
and the razor’s unkind cut—awareness of
      what is done and undone—the thousand engines of destruction
the cerebral cortex draws across its synapses
      toward the fragile sanctum of the present moment.
Let each ghost wither and vanish in sunlight,
      crisp to the nothing it is,
while a joyful procession dances along
      the myriad lightning pathways of the mind.

4

Tree and house are clear in this moment
      when light is given shape and each thing pauses,
itself—before the frame blurs, the attention fails
      and we fall into one or another distraction:
the horrors and banalities of the news, the half-typed letter,
      the mysteries of long division, the tumbled tower of blocks,
regret’s heavy shadow or the usual obsession.
      Lord, in the bright vehicle of this moment,
descend to us and spread your golden tent
      that we might keep sweet breakfast together, your beard dripping
honey as we ascend the dayspring of your eyes
      into an emptiness that is present, solid and real.

“Aubade” by Robert Siegel originally appeared in A Pentecost of Finches (Paraclete, 2006) and is published in the posthumous collection Within This Tree of Bones: New and Selected Poems (Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2013). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Ten Poems of Gratitude

One of the reasons I love poetry is because it brings me into more intimate contact with the world. It slows me down and asks me to give my attention to things that, in my constant, often self-inflicted busyness, I fail to notice. And it shepherds me into a deeper sense of gratitude and awe. It’s really easy for me to see the world’s ugliness—sin, suffering—and to be scared, angry, disgusted, horrified, or overwhelmed. My inclination is to see what’s wrong instead of what’s right. While poetry can perform many different functions, one of them is to attune us to the daily gifts and graces that come to us from, I believe, the hand of God.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are ten contemporary poems of gratitude that can be read online. A popular tradition for this holiday is, when gathered round the feasting table, to take turns sharing what you’re thankful for. The three most typical answers for adults are: my family, my health, my job. These are perfectly fine answers. But poets can show us what it feels like to be blessed with family, for example, and can teach us how to offer praise even when our health is declining or we’re unemployed. Moreover, poets help us expand our repertoire of thanksgivings, naming things with specificity: “the incense of butter on toast” (Siegel), “the honey-colored toes of mice” (Singleton), “two daughters and one cloud, an old oak / and a great love” (Wiman), the moon that “shakes a dress of light onto my body” (Silver) and “shuffl[es] its soft, blind slippers over the floor” (Hirshfield).

Lichtman, Susan_Orchard Bag and Bouquet
Susan Lichtman (American, 1952–), Orchard Bag and Bouquet, 2015. Oil on linen, 24 × 22 in.

(Related post: “A prayer of thanksgiving”)

I’ve listed the volume that each poem is published in—I’ve read all but the Browning one, and they’re all excellent. I hope this tiny sampling from the trove of contemporary poetry enlarges your thankfulness and inspires you to read more! Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

  1. “When the sun returns” by Sarah Browning, in Killing Summer (2017): Jesus said to consider the birds. Browning does. “it is hallelujah time, / the swallows tracing an arc / of praise just off our balcony, / the mountains snow-sparkling / in gratitude . . .”

  2. “A Song of Praises” by Robert Siegel (scroll to bottom of page), in Within This Tree of Bones (2013): In this very textural, sensory poem, a humdrum morning routine becomes a litany of more than two dozen in-the-moment gratitudes, for everything from warm washcloths to the snap of elastic to grapefruit flesh to a beautiful face at the breakfast table.

  3. “I Praise Unsalted Butter” by Sharron Singleton, in Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (2018): Another litany of thanksgivings for the mundane, like pearl buttons, babies’ fingernail parings, freckles, delphinium’s cobalt, unseen dendrites, the word “rhubarb,” and so on. In spite of great evil (the poet references the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph), there is still much to wonder at.

  4. “Fifty” by Christian Wiman, in Survival Is a Style (2020): “I never thought I’d live to the age of fifty, so my inclination these days is to praise,” says Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in 2006 during his first year of marriage. “I wasn’t able to write about joy until I got sick. It wasn’t that sickness brought joy. It’s made me much more conscious of how much joy was in my life and gave me some impetus to articulate it.”

  5. “Morning” by Yahia Lababidi, in Barely There: Short Poems (2013): This six-liner celebrates the newness and invitation of each day. (For a bonus poem by the same author, see “Breath.”)

  6. “Psalm” by Marilyn Nelson, in The Fields of Praise (1997): Reflecting on the inherently dangerous act of driving, Nelson is thankful for (God’s) ongoing protection in the car. The poem ends with a classic line from the biblical book of Psalms.

  7. “How Rarely I Have Stopped to Thank the Steady Effort” by Jane Hirshfield (scroll down to fourth poem), in The Beauty: Poems (2015): I would have never thought to be thankful for walls that stand up! But yes, the basic architecture of my little suburban home is a marvel—how it all holds together. In a pause in conversation, the speaker of this poem ponders all that’s going on in the silence: tree bark absorbing the scent of crow feathers, honey dissolving into tea, DNA replicating. The poem then turns into an expansive reflection on all the invisible phenomena of bodies and lives, of emotions and desires that ebb and flow as their building blocks get rearranged.

  8. “A Handful of Berakhot” by Anya Krugovoy Silver, in The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010): Silver [previously] is one of the consummate poets of gratitude, particularly gratitude amid illness. She was pregnant with her first and only son, Noah, when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2004. She died in 2018. Her body of work is characterized by a stubborn holding on to joy even as she wrestles honestly with God through many painful years of chemo and a mastectomy.
       Silver, a Christian, married a Jewish man, whose faith tradition inspired this poem. “In Judaism, a berakhah (pl. berakhot) is a formula of blessing or thanksgiving, recited in public or private, usually before the performance of a commandment, or the enjoyment of food or fragrance, and in praise on various occasions. The function of a berakhah is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing” [source]. Silver’s nineteen custom berakhot are for such occasions as “buckling my son’s shoes,” “slipping my prosthetic breast into my bra,” “riding the ferris wheel,” and “going to the post office.”

  9. “Gratitude” by Anna Kamieńska, in Astonishments: Selected Poems (2007): “I was full of thanks / like a Sunday alms-box,” Kamieńska writes in this rapturous poem, which bursts with love for everyone and everything.

  10. [O Thou who by Thy touch give form] by Wendell Berry, in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2013): A short prayer by one of today’s most popular writers, whose other vocation is farming.

“We Walk in Miracles” by Sister Maura Eichner, SSND

Saar, Betye_Flight
Betye Saar (American, 1926–), Flight, 1963. Screenprint, 14 9/16 × 18 1/8 in. (37 × 46 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We walk in miracles as children scruff
through daisy fields, their dresses appliquéd
with shifting tide of blossom, welkin-stuff,
the Father’s white creative laughter made.

Common as spring, as bread, as sleep, as salt,
the daisies grow. Our Father made them reel
against us like the morning stars that vault
the greater home His love will yet reveal.

The petals push against the ankles, knees,
the thigh, the hands; gold pollen sifts within
the pores to rivulets of veins, to seas
of subtle life behind unsubtle skin.

O deeper and deeper than daisy fields, we drown
in miracles, in God, our Seed, our Crown.

“We Walk in Miracles” appears in After Silence: Selected Poems of Sister Maura Eichner, SSND (Notre Dame of Maryland University, 2011), published posthumously and copyrighted by the Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Used with permission.

Truly Grateful (Artful Devotion)

McIver, Beverly_Truly Grateful
Beverly McIver (American, 1962–), Truly Grateful, 2011. Oil on canvas, 30 × 30 in. (76.2 × 76.2 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

. . . You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . .

—Psalm 86:12–13, 15

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SONG: “Gospel Medley” by Beyoncé Knowles, Kirk Franklin, and Richard Smallwood | Performed by Destiny’s Child, on Survivor (2001)

The liner notes of Survivor credit Beyoncé [previously], Kirk Franklin, and Richard Smallwood as the writers of this song, but from what I can tell, the credit goes mainly to Beyoncé, who has woven together different gospel fragments and, it seems, written the first two-thirds of the song, which fan web pages say is an interpolation of Franklin’s “Now Behold the Lamb” and “So Good” (I myself can’t hear much of a resemblance). This is followed by a gospel rendition of the Anna B. Warner hymn “Jesus Loves Me” that is much like the one Michele Lamar Richards and Whitney Houston sing in the 1992 movie The Bodyguard. The medley concludes with the “Amen” section of Smallwood’s “Total Praise.”

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About the above painting by Beverly McIver, the North Carolina Museum of Art writes,

McIver is renowned for her expression-filled, emotive canvases that commemorate her life and the lives of those closest to her—in particular, her mother, who passed away in 2004, and her sister, who is mentally disabled. Such works reveal as much about the artist as they do about the subjects portrayed therein. As McIver has noted about her paintings, “All of my portraits are self-portraits,” says the artist. “I use the faces of others who reflect my most inner being.”

In Truly Grateful, the artist moves her focus away from her family and back towards herself, and the resulting self-portrait is one of quiet, contemplative acceptance. The artist represents herself at bust length, draped in a bright blue scarf, with her head bowed and eyes closed, perhaps in midst of prayer. McIver’s signature brushwork, patchy and lively, adds a marked contrast to an otherwise peaceful scene. She does not highlight any other figures or objects in this canvas, allowing the viewer to focus solely on the artist herself and her emotional state. The yellow-orange background surrounds her figure with a warm glow, reminiscent of the traditional gold-leaf ground seen in traditional European icons. As a result, the painting exudes a calming, almost spiritual atmosphere.

It is possible to examine McIver’s personal biography to determine the significance of the title, Truly Grateful. Over the past five years, McIver has grappled with the ongoing repercussions of her mother’s death. Her mother’s passing left Renee, McIver’s sister, without a caretaker to provide her with the assistance, comfort and protection required due to her disabilities. McIver, bolstered by a promise made to her mother years prior, became Renee’s primary guardian, taking on all related responsibilities and allowing her sister to move into her home. After years of struggle, Renee recently moved into her own apartment complex for the handicapped and disabled, freeing McIver to pursue her artistic career at a more fervent pace while being reassured of Renee’s continued care and contentment.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 11, cycle A, click here.

“Breath” by Yahia Lababidi

Komarechka, Don_Jewels of Summer

Beneath the intricate network of noise
there’s a still more persistent tapestry
woven of whispers, murmurs and chants

It’s the heaving breath of the very earth
carrying along the prayer of all things:
trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains alike

All giving silent thanks and remembrance
each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead
while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries

And, yet, every secret wants to be told
every shy creature to approach and trust us
if we patiently listen, with all our senses.

“Breath” by Yahia Lababidi appears in Barely There: Short Poems (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and is used by permission of the publisher. Photograph by Don Komarechka, used with permission.

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Lately I’ve been delving into the writings of the Egyptian American poet, aphorist, and essayist Yahia Lababidi. I love his Barely There collection of poems on such topics as poetry / the poet, spiritual longing, virtue and vice, hope, surrender, the quiet beauty of nature, attention and gratitude, and pain as a gift. It’s such a wise and tender collection. His latest book, released last month, is Revolutions of the Heart: Literary, Cultural, and Spiritual.