Are We A Form of Praise? The Praiseworthy New Poetry Collection, “Lent”, from the 2021 Mitchell Prize Winner, Canadian Poet Kate Cayley

Canadian poet, short-story writer and playwright, Kate Kayley. Photo Credit: from her Website.


When the branches on the bare tree ahead turn to a red mist.

When the slanted stones rising from the water at your right
are a flock of crying birds.

When the pavement on which you set your feet is black ice,
You fall. The pavement will not yield
but offers two consolations:

that you are not yet dead. That you will die.

When the Styrofoam granules of snow on the path melt
in your hand.

When some don’t. They are Styrofoam.

When you recognize the recessed bark of the winter tree
but can’t remember its name.

When the orange spangled in the thicket is not plastic but berries.

When the lake scalloped with light
is the light you saw
as a child walking in the park
when you fell on your knees

embarrassed by how inadequate you were
to what you must praise.

Kate Cayley from Lent, Book*hug Press, 2023

It is so apt to be celebrating a new book called Lent, by the Canadian writer Kate Cayley, being released officially today, April 4th, during Holy Week (leading up to Easter) in the Christian season of Lent. To see Kate’s video introduction to Lent please click here.

For those not familiar with her work, Kate is a celebrated Canadian playwright, poet and short-story writer whose books have garnered many accolades and prizes including the prestigous Trillium Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the CBC Literary prizes in fiction and poetry.

If it is apt to celebrate Lent today on it public release date,  it is also apt that both Lent, the season and Lent, the book, feature such a tension between yes and no as evidenced in the poem above. Lent, the season, contains the huge no of Christ’s death. But on Easter Sunday, the huge yes of He is risen, the resurrection. Lent, the book, as it does in many of its poems, as in the poem Walking above, interlaces yes and no but often enough, as in Walking, leaves us with praise as the last word.

I am so struck by Kate’s struggle in key poems in the collection to reconcile praise and beauty with the things in this world that seem neither beautiful nor praiseworthy. Yet in the end she seems to side with praise but praise hard won. And in the same way this collection also seems in a struggle to reconcile a yes with God, with a no for God as so concisely expressed in the poem Falling which ends:

I was still putting off God. The sky began
the ritual of evening and I walked
more quickly, refusing.

And I wonder if the tensions around praise and God are similar for the speakers in Kate’s poems. The difficulty in acknowledging either in our broken world.

The difficulty in acknowledging praise or perhaps praise and God (as seen in transcendant moments) is made so real in Walking. The tension Kate creates with her many uses of when without finishing the equation as in : when this happens, then that happens. Only once are we given a conclusion: When the pavement on which you set your feet is black ice, You fall. All the other times the answer to the when is left unstated until the poem’s end when, in an indirect way, it seems to be the answer could be one culled from a childhood memory.

When the lake scalloped with light
is the light you saw
as a child walking in the park
when you fell on your knees

embarrassed by how inadequate you were
to what you must praise.

There it is at the end: praise. But so hard for the speaker to say it earlier in answer to when. The “isness” of how hard it is to praise. And here I hear an echo of Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s celebrated poem Try To Praise The Mutilated World.

There is something that increases the impact of Walking by the way the speaker leaves it to us, the readers, to come up with the answer to all the unanswered whens in the poem. If I insert: When, then I praise; or when, then I feel close to some unsayable mystery, I make of the poem something larger, more urgent and more meaningful for me in my reading.

In a recent Sunday reflection at Poetryunbound@substack the poet, non-fiction writer and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama referred to a line of Paul Celan as having a direction for praise. And a number of the poems in Lent whether dealing with large global issues or the quotidian issues of the everyday seem to do just that, point in the direction of praise.

And this reminds me of American poet, Robert Hass, his striking epigraph to his 1979 poetry collection, Praise.

We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying, and
unpredictable. he hesitated to
answer, and then said judiciously:
“I think I shall praise it.”

This is such a challenging epigraph. And for me it echoes through Kate’s collection especially in the poem sequence Assia Wevill Considers Herself . Each of the sections include poems here of Assia and Sylvia Plath. Both women died by their own hands and both were married to the British poet Ted Hughes. How do I praise this? I then I think of Kate’s last line in her epigraph poem and think how inadequate I am to what I must praise.

And then there is the twelve-part poem at the end of the collection that gives the title to the collection: Lent. This poem won the $20,000 Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry in 2021. Its last two parts express the tension between what is awful in this world and what is beautiful and the possibility of praising it all.

from Lent


Just before Charlotte Salomon,  who was five months pregnant, was gassed at Auschwitz, a witness claims she saw the sky and cried out God my God, how beautiful it is!

There is nothing to be gleaned from this. But I do want it to stand. So I’ll write it down, and see what follows.

 And yet.

A talismanic hope that it might be possible to notice that the sky is still there?

That we are a form of praise.


God my God, how beautiful it is.

Kate Cayley from Lent, Book*hug Press, 2023

With my focus on the pointing toward praise in Kate’s marvelous new collection its seems appropriate to celebrate and notice that the collection is book-ended by mention of praise. Lent, the last poem in the collection calls out to praise in its second-to-last line and Attention, the first poem in the book ends with praise.


And if repetition could itself be
a form of attention, folding along the crease
until the crease finds itself
hollowing out the groove, as in marriage,
studying the same face, the same
permeable body, as in children, their fury, their
fraught going forward thinning out your life
like a membrane that will not break, lives
that alter in the telling, theirs outstripping yours
and stripping you of anything they find useful yet
carrying you always with them, a husk pinned to their inside
pockets, as the poet when she wrote on the back of recipe cards
attended sternly to the rising bread, attended to each
blade of grass on her Amherst lawn, then I will
believe that language rose up in us
as praise.

Kate Cayley, ibid

Again, in this poem Kate uses a withholding technique, not giving us the response to if until the last line. And when it comes after all the delay, the answer seems conclusive. That in its very nature language is given to us to praise.

I am grateful to Kate who reminds me that being given life on this planet is enough for me to give praise. In spite of…in spite of.

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