Finding God In
Robert Siegel is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction. His books include The Waters Under the Earth, The Beasts and the Elders, Alpha Centauri, and, most recently, A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems. Siegel's fiction includes the award-winning Whalesong trilogy. Siegel received his BA from Wheaton College, his MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University, and his PhD in English literature from Harvard University. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and is now retired and living with his wife, Ann, near the coast of Maine.
poems by Robert Siegel
She didn’t notice at first the air had changed.
She didn’t, because she had no expectation
except the moment and what she was doing, absorbed
in it without the slightest reservation.
Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,
in a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs
on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
as if they were forever. When at last she saw
from the corner of her eye the gold fringe of his robe
she felt no fear, only a glad awe,
the Word already deep inside her as she replied
yes to that she’d chosen all her life.
HOW TO CATCH A POEM
It begins with one leaf rubbing against another,
a light, a rift in a cloud, the weight of a feather
spiraling down, a ripple on water—
its shape rising from the dark and fusing
with a sound, a touch, a peculiar scent. Now it begins
to show plumage, the gleam of a pelt, pausing
to stare with an ebony eye. One twitch—it’s gone,
fled into that darker wood behind the eyes. Stunned,
you trace its tracks on paper, stumble,
pick yourself up and go down each sly
cheat of a path vanishing in a thicket, lie
still, listening for its breath, a twig breaking
where you think. . . . Avoid sleep, follow all day,
at night listen for its cry under the moon. Finally you may
gather enough to show its presence. Delay
finishing what you have. Take your time. Return home
and frame the cast of its footprint: that is the poem.
WIth thanks to Dr. Siegel and Paraclete Press (http://site.paracletepress.com/samples/exc-siegel.pdf)
T. M. Moore is Principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe and Dean of The Wilberforce Forum Centurions. His book of poetry, Fault Lines, can be ordered at his website, www.MyParuchia.com (click Publications, Waxed Tablet). He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, VA. This is published with thanks, for permission, to The Trinity Forum’s Provocations (http://www.ttf.org/index/journal/detail/slow-down/).
As an unreconstructed Beatles fan I find, from time to time, that certain of their lyrics press upon me in unintended ways. The song, “Slow Down,” for example, has been echoing through my brain of late as I’ve been meditating on the potential of poetry to enrich our daily lives. “Slow down!” the refrain pleads, “Baby, now you’re movin’ way too fast.” The Fab Four were singing about a love relationship that was getting a little ahead of itself, but their message is good advice for our hectic, fast-paced generation ….
we take for granted the moments of our lives,
seeing them as little more than stepping stones
to the next big thing.
In the process of rushing through our moments to get to the times that matter, we miss the beauty and truth of much of what is happening around us. And it is precisely here that poetry can help us to slow down and learn to discover the glory of God hidden in our overlooked moments.
Jonathan Edwards wrote that time is God’s most precious gift to us. He insisted, “upon time we should set a high value, and be exceeding careful that it be not lost; and we are therefore exhorted to exercise wisdom and circumspection, in order that we may redeem it.” He urged his hearers concerning the time of their lives, “Lose it not either in sleep or in carelessness, inattention, or wandering imaginations.
It’s the inattention part that poetry can help us to redress. Busy people tend to think ahead to the next important activity, and this can cause them to be unmindful of the many ways God may be speaking a word to them through the world (Ps. 19:1–4). The Scriptures speak broadly about God’s manifesting himself through all manner of created things—wind, skies, trees, animals, flowers, water of various kinds, even people and their several activities and occupations. Jesus understood this well and drew widely on all these categories to incite the minds of his hearers to attend to the witness of God in created things (Acts 14:17).
This means there is depth—spiritual depth—to every moment of our lives, even those we are too busy to attend to because our minds are already working on whatever we perceive to be the next important thing. In the depths of the moments of our lives God has hidden wonders of beauty, goodness, and truth which, could we learn to observe them, would enhance our lives with the assurance of his presence and delight in his works.
Poetry can train us for a more fruitful use of the precious moments of our lives.
The depth of a moment
reading verse can enable us to observe, feel, appreciate,
and grow through the moments of our lives
Molly Peacock observes that “Poetry is the art that offers depth in a moment, using the depth of a moment.” What she means is that reading verse can enable us to observe, feel, appreciate, and grow through the moments of our lives. By training us to pay more attention to the “hidden glories” God has set in his creation (Prov. 25:2), poetry can enrich our experience of the presence and steadfast love of God and strengthen our steps as we daily walk with him.
Every moment holds a certain amount of spiritual depth. Because Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is upholding and sustaining all the moments of our lives (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17), we should expect the evidence of his handiwork to be visible to the eyes of faith. Think, for example, of how Jesus transfixed the moments of those who heard him comment on our duty to Caesar and to God by holding up a coin. Or the way he caused Nathaniel’s moments of meditation beneath a fig tree to rush back into his mind, suddenly filled with new meaning and wonder. Every moment is like this, and we deprive ourselves of opportunities for wonder, praise, and witness by failing to appreciate the divine whispers emanating toward us all the moments of our lives.
I want to look at three examples of poetry stopping time, as it were, to draw out the depth of moments for our enjoyment and enrichment. Each of these uses a variety of poetic devices to freeze a moment and draw us deeply into it, where we discover that there’s more to these moments than first meets the eye.
Here is Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem, “Celebration”:
Brilliant, this day—a young virtuoso of a day.
Morning shadows cut by sharpest scissors,
deft hands. And every prodigy of green—
whether it’s ferns or lichen or needles
or impatient points of bud on spindly bushes—
greener than ever before.
And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for blessing,
a festive rite, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!
A day that shines in the cold
like a first-prize brass band swinging along the street
of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
with the claims of reasonable gloom.
Levertov breathes in the first moments of a new morning, and they are filled with observations of various kinds, which she enlarges and beautifies by piling metaphor on metaphor. From the onset we are aware that she knows this moment didn’t just “happen.” It is the product of “deft hands” and offers “blessing” to encourage an otherwise gloomy soul. By layering metaphors of sound (“virtuoso”, “chant”, “brass band”) and touch (“sharpest scissors”, “spindly bushes”, “hold new cones”) on her heightened descriptions of the content of the moment (“brilliant”, “prodigy of green”, “shines in the cold”), she draws the moment out for inspection from a variety of angles. And the anthropomorphizing of the whole (“cut”, “impatient”, “hold”, “transcribes”, “swinging along the street”) has the effect of making us one with the creation that greets us through her verse. A day that confronts us out the door with a blast of cold air is thus transformed into a “festive rite” of celebration by a more careful consideration of that first moment and its contents.
Wendell Berry provides another example with even more profound spiritual depth. Here is his “Sabbath Poem III” from 1979:
To sit and look at light-filled leaves
May let us see, or seem to see,
Far backward as through clearer eyes
To what unsighted hope believes:
The blessed conviviality
That sang Creation’s seventh sunrise.
Time when the Maker’s radiant sight
Made radiant every thing He saw,
And every thing He saw was filled
With perfect joy and life and light.
His perfect pleasure was sole law;
No pleasure had become self-willed.
For all His creatures were His pleasures
And their whole pleasure was to be
What He made them; they sought no gain
Or growth beyond their proper measures,
Nor longed for change or novelty.
The only new thing could be pain.
Here is a moment familiar to us all—the light of the sun glimpsing through the leaves of a tree. We look up, see it, squint and shade our eyes, and turn away. But not Wendell Berry. The moment transports him in two directions—back to the original creation, when everything was without sin, very good, and wholly pleasing to God, and into his own day when grasping men inflict pain on the creation and one another in pursuit of novelty and greed-driven gain. The moment of seeing those light-plashed leaves evoked simultaneous emotions of faith, hope, and joy, along with sadness and regret. His poem reminds us that even the most common moments can call us to reflect on our own sinfulness and the goodness of God, and provoke us to rein in our selfish interests and serve the joy and glory of the Lord.
As a final example, Seamus Heaney shows how a single moment can change one’s entire course of life, if only we read it clearly. As a child Heaney delighted in the small creatures ready to hand — dragonflies, butterflies, and tadpoles especially. He was fascinated by the metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs, and frequently gathered handfuls of spawn, putting them into jars to observe the process over time. He must have fancied that he might become a naturalist some day. But all that changed in a moment, as he relates in the final stanza of his poem, “Death of a Naturalist.” The first stanza is full of the fun and wonder of watching small creatures and capturing tadpoles. But the mood changes in a moment when Heaney discovers himself the object of observation by “angry frogs”:
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass and the angry frogs
Invaded the flax dam; I ducked through the hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails.
Some sat Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
The sight—in a moment—of those frogs, “poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting” — was all it took for Heaney to change his vocational aspirations — and we’re glad he did. That instant colored his whole experience in the fields that day. What, we gather from the first stanza, were typically filled with wonder and delight, were now “rank with cowdung” and “thick with a bass chorus” — ominous olfactory and auditory images, which only took on that aspect against the horror of those “gross-bellied frogs,” “cocked” and ready to wreak vengeance on a child.
Preparing for the moments
Paul exhorts us, as Edwards noted, to make the most of all the time God has given us (Eph. 5:15–17). The moments we fail to attend to will be lost, along with the wonder and glory we might have discovered there. By reading poems like these I’ve cited we can learn to slow down in the moments and pay more attention to what’s going on around us. As we contemplate our surroundings, we can allow metaphors, images, and associations to invade our minds, and reflect on the teaching of Scripture to guide us in how to appreciate the depth of the moment we are engaged in and to discover the glory God has hidden for us there.
Not all poems do this, of course. But there are enough of this variety that, if we will take the moments necessary to read them slowly, they may teach us how to plumb the depth of beauty and spiritual insight whispering to us in all the moments of our lives.
1. Jonathan Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time,” in Edward Hickman, ed., The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), Vol. 2, p. 233.
2. Ibid., p. 236.
3. Molly Peacock, How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 13.
4. Denise Levertov, This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (New York: New Directions, 1999), p. 5.
5. Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir (New York: Counterpoint, 1998), p. 8.
6. Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 7.