Poetry as Devotion, Prayer and Wholeness – The Poetry of Jennifer Grotz – And Quotes on Poetry by Rosemary Griebel and Juleta Seversen-Baker


Calgary poet Rosemary Griebel. Photo credit: The Calgary Public Library

Canadian poet and art and speech educator, Juleta Seversen-Baker. Photo credit: The Calgary Public Library

Poetry, in both its creation and the reading of it, insists on careful listening. Careful listening opens a space for the soul, for revelation, for wholeness. Poems are glimpses of wholeness.

—Juleta Severson-Baker, Calgary-based poet and educator who teaches at the Calgary Arts Academy and Mount Royal University.

Poetry matters because it is one of the most potent forms of prayer.

—Rosemary Griebel, a poet and former librarian at the Calary Public Library


American poet, university prof and translator, Jennifer Grotz, at the James Merrill House, 2020.Photo Credit: The Connecticut Examiner.

Over and Above

Because I didn’t want it to end
and because I was all alone again,
because in those seasons attention
was my only form of prayer,
I attended the summer rain.
When it pelted the lake like fingers
across a keyless piano, I attended
the fingertips’ perforations on the soft surface.
Inside a theater of quiet the trees made,
permeable, though, at least studded
by bird song, I attended the mosquitos
floating like eyelashes in the thick air.
And before turning back from the lake’s edge,
needing to confirm it still so,
I wrapped my hand around a cattail
and squeezed: spongy and veloured
as an espresso-soaked ladyfinger.
I grew in those seasons, said Thoreau,
like corn in the night. They were
not subtracted from my life, but so much
over and above my usual allowance.
Sometimes I imagined the rain was also
attending me, that I was its interlocutor.
It had been born, it seemed to say,
like any living thing, from certain
right conditions, it had gained force
as it grew and persisted to stay alive.
And the rain could pray harder
than me. It continued even when
I stopped listening, then started again.
That is how seconds, minutes, a whole
afternoon would spill out until there was neither
forward nor back only this other
kind of now, over and above, this thick
haze of humid heat gauzing the distant trees.

Jennifer Grotz (1971 – ) from the Yale Review, February 24th, 2021

I first met  the American poet and translator Jennifer Grotz quite by accident at a symposium on the 17th Century English poet George Herbert in Salisbury, UK in 2007. We chatted once waiting for a bus and she told me she had been a gathering of Polish poets in Poland the year before. I think it was the gathering in honour of  the Polish Nobel prize laureate, Czeslaw Milosz.  I had no idea she was an accomplished poet! And no idea the degree to which her poems feel often like prayer or invocations to God. Perhaps, considering Herbert was a famed devotional poet and Grotz was at the Herbert symposium, I shouldn’t have been surprised!

I have added the epigraphs above by my two friends, Rosemary and Juleta, who are also fine poets, as a way of focussing on how Jennifer’s poem above and indeed, many of her poems, focus on prayer, on wholeness, on paying attention and in that way can be read, by me, for sure, as prayers.

Afterall it was the French philosopher and writer Simone Weil who said: Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love… Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer! That makes Jennifer’s poem a prayer!

And the Irish American poet Eamon Grennan says: It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it, “to pay attention.” Because what do you get in return? You get a return of knowledge in the broadest sense. Somebody said that God only wants our attention. Another way of putting it is that attention is a form of prayer.

Many years after our first meeting I discovered not only was Jennifer an award winning poet, for her first book, Cusp but also an accomplished translator.  I have used not only her poems but the poems from her translations of the French poet,  Patrice de la Tour du Pin, in my Poetry-as-Prayer retreats I have lead in the U.S. and Canada.

Currently, she a professor of English, teaching creative writing and translation at the University of Rochester. And in 2017 she became the seventh director of the celebrated Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference held every summer in Vermont.

Her latest poetry collection (her third)  published by Graywolf Press in 2016 is Window Left Open. Her translation of the novel Rochester Knockings by the Tunisian writer Hubert Haddad came out in 2015 and her co-translation of Everything I Don’t Know, the selected poems of Polish writer Jerzy Ficowski was released in 2021.

I was reminded of Jennifer and her poetry when I came across her name last week as one of the participants in a remarkable six session seminar celebrating the Polish Nobel Prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2003) and his poetry. These sessions are facilitated by Milosz’s long-time friend and translator, American poet Robert Hass (1939- ). After seeing Jennifer’s name I thought I need to write a blog post featuring one or two of her poems. Then, a day or so later I came across her poem Over and Above in the Yale Review and I thought, okay, I get it, now’s the time.

Over and Above is such a representative example of Jennifer’s poetry. Its use of syntax, diction and music and its content. I was so taken right away by her syntax in the first five lines of her poem above. The expectations raised by the three repetitions of because and only at the end of the five poetic sentences and one grammatical sentence do we get the answer. I attended the summer rain. And what a striking way to link poetry, attention (or attending) and prayer. And the striking diction of I attended. I rarely have  seen the use of the verb form of attention, the way Jennifer uses it and repeats it three times  in her poem. Of course, often I read or hear: I  paid attention or pay attention but rarely the more direct and impactful: I attended. And in her poem does she ever!

Jennifer’s speaker in her poem, in their grief over being alone again (the end of a relationship?) attends to what is around them. The speaker doesn’t separate from where they are physically, and the poem becomes a poem of remarkable presence. It makes the ordinary extraordinary. This becomes a praise poem even though it begins as a poem of lament. And the raw physicality of how the speaker describes squeezing the cattail astounds me. Talk about creating the “isness” of a thing: I wrapped my hand around a cattail/ and squeezed: spongy and veloured/ as an espresso-soaked ladyfinger. How many cattails have I seen, a patch lives in a field outside my study window, and yet, I have never touched let alone squeezed them! Attending, indeed.

And the turn in the poem at line twenty-two: Sometimes I imagined the rain was also/ attending me, that I was its interlocutor. Now the rain is not just present, it is a informing presence, an active participant in a conversation. The speaker and the rain are now in relationship. Interesting. The poem begins with an ending the speaker didn’t want, and they are alone, but now the speaker isn’t.  And they are outside any self-absorption. They can see their self from the outside looking in: it had gained force/ as it grew and persisted to stay alive./ And the rain could pray harder/ than me. It continued even when/ I stopped listening, then started again.

The rain went on even when the speaker stopped listening. Then the speaker listened again. Stayed present. And the rain is a reminder, born of storm and clouds, that it persists. And the poem ends with Jennifer acknowledging a mystical experience out of time, where the speaker is elevated from grief, into a greater presence, a greater mystery: that is how seconds, minutes, a whole/ afternoon would spill out until there was neither/ forward nor back only this other/ kind of now, over and above, this thick/ haze of humid heat gauzing the distant trees.

What a gorgeously physical poem that is also a mystical experience and also a prayer for moments that likely will  grow to more moments out of grief and loss.

I don’t want to say too much about this next poem from Jennifer’s third collection.  Let it stand on its own to end this post. But again, the images create not only an “isness” of moments in a walk but add to the poem’s mystical quality. The out-of-the-ordinary she conjures, this time, on a walk in the snow. And with the poem’s last two lines we discover that the poem  brushes up against prayer. Against a sense of wonder: with eyes melting snow. The speaker in the poem once again transformed in some way by what could otherwise thought of as ordinary circumstamces. Walking in the smow.But here, by Jennifer, transformed into the extraordinary.

I am grateful for how Jennifer attends, for her poetry, her prayers, the way they show her unmixed attention to our world.

Now, her poem:


Yesterday they were denticulate as dandelion greens, they
locked together in spokes and fell so weightlessly

I thought of best friends holding hands.
And then of mating hawks that soar into the air to link their claws

and somersault down, separating just before they touch the ground.
Sometimes the snowflakes glitter, it’s more like tinkling

than snow, it never strikes, and I want to be struck, that is
I want to know what to do. I begin enthusiastically,

I go in a hurry, I fall pell-mell down a hill, like a ball of yarn’s
unraveling trajectory—down and away but also in surprising ricochets

that only after seem foretold. Yesterday I took a walk because
I wanted to be struck, and what happened was

an accident: a downy clump floated precisely in my eye.
The lashes clutched it close, melting it against the eye’s hot surface.

And like the woman talking to herself in an empty church
eventually realizes she is praying, I walked home with eyes that melted snow.

Jennifer Grotz from Window Left Open, Graywolf Press, 2016

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *