Monday, October 17, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/17/2005: Prayer


Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn's opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough--
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset--
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

Dana Gioia 1991

Hello friends and family! I am excited to bring you the poem of the week this week, because this one is so crystalline and tender. Sometimes spending too much time with one poet or set of poems will rub me raw; I have been working on Richard Hugo poem after poem for my Lit and the Environment class, and I am starting to ache with the cold vision of nature he presents. So I wanted to choose something a little more delicate.

That is not to say that this poem is fragile; perhaps delicate was the wrong word. It might be better to say that it is intensely personal and deeply affectionate. In this way, then, it asks us to read sensitively, with delicacy. After all, the narrator is sharing both his words to God and his thoughts about Him, adn these are some of the deepest pieces of a person. The poem calls to attention the sacred eddies swirling about us every day. It is obviously a prayer, and then immediately an unconventional one. Rather than saying "Dear God," as if he were writing God some sort of letter, the narrator offers the prayer to the tiny manifestations of God. These fragments are soft snapshots: a list dealing with sound, weather, and movement. The narrator's God lives in the details, big and small. While the other deified elements are commonplace but often unnoticed, lightning seems a surprising choice for its lack of subtlety. It seems large and almost too clich├ęd to be on the list with dewdrops and the "sweep / of the wind sifting the leaves." However, Gioia refines the vision by calling it a "blade of lightning / harvesting the sky." "Blade" recalls a blade of grass, which filgrees the imagery, and the observation that an electrical storm works like a scythe "harvesting the sky" is unique and sharply insightful.

The narrator then moves from examining God's place (for we get the sense that God was in all of the first two stanzas' components) to looking at his role in our affairs. He is "keeper of the small gate," a comment that confuses me some. I feel like I am missing a mythological, biblical, or autobiographical reference here that is thwarting my understanding. That said, the gate could mean some kind of passageway, perhaps between life and death, or maybe between stages of our lives? I would move to say that the gate does not lie between life and death, for much of the rest of the poem concerns itself with this division. By implying also that God is a "coreographer / of entrances and exits, midnight / whisper travelling the wires", the narrator expresses that, to him, God is graceful, has a fair amount of control over our lives (he is apparently not all in the details), and takes silent part in communication.

Now we arrive at the meatiest, most interesting part of the poem, in my opinion. By calling God a "Seducer, healer, deity, or thief," the speaker raises social and nature-of-God issues. Two of the labels the narrator gives God are straightforward and conventional: namely "healer" and "deity." These require little if any explication. Where this line gets interesting in the narrator's appellation of God as a "seducer. This label could be a social criticism - religion itself has a notoriously potent and aggressive tendency to convert the heathen (or even the occassional atheist). However, this reading doesn't fit at all with the poem's major thrust. If we are examining the narrator's vision of God, it is only paritally helpful in that it relays that this is an unconventional occurrence. "Seducer", with its sexual connotations, could mean that God is present in a lover, or that God acts as a lover. This in itself is somewhat surprising; there is such a Christian insistance on abstinence that to see Him as even possibly sexual is surprising. However, it does challenge the assumption that this is a Christian God (I will discuss this in more detail. For now, I only intend to point out how this narrator has a unique view of God).

Then, too, it is utterly surprising to think of God as a thief. Isn't He supposed to be benevolent and giving? Isn't He supposed to love us and cherish us? What could Our Father possibly steal from us? This assesment of God as a thief could imply several things. On a fairly basic level, this God could be stealing life from us when we die. In this way, he is the ultimate crook, stealing our most spectacular and singular position. He is also the ultimate culprit; people can (and often do) assign God responsiblity for death, destruction, natural disasters, disease etc. I guess that Uncle Ben was right, and "with great power comes great responsibility."

I also find it interesting that, while the narrator so desperately wants God to protect the "him" at the end of the poem, he acknowledges and even accepts his own death. This death, too, is peaceful and misty, occuring "in the shadow of the rainfall, / in the brief violet darkening a sunset --". I have to say that "the brief violet" is one of the more beautiful images I have come across. It acts within me like a pulse or a tug - death, from this description, is just a blink of richness and then a finality. No grand illusions about continuance or choruses of angels, just a dark petal falling and then night.

The final note of importance in this poem is how fiercely the narrator wants God to protect the unnamed boy. He asks Him to "watch over him / as a mountain guards its covert ore / and the harsh falcon its flightless young." Ore is a brilliant metaphor for a person, because it implies veins of wealth streaked in raw stone. Our richness intermingles with all of the other flaws and cracks and duller elements, but that makes it no less precious. The narrator again expresses his love for the boy by wanting God to fiercely protect him.

It strikes me now that, throughout this poem, the speaker avoids sinking into cliches or a sentimental mush. Sinking is quite easy to do when discussing death, God, and a dear love (i.e. the boy), so to avoid it is quite a feat. Well, I hope that you all found the poem as beautiful as I did, and that your next week is good! Check back this week for me catching up on old PotWs. I definitely don't have the time, but I am wanting to get serious about english, and want to flesh this project out.

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