Poetry As Spiritual Practice – Rosenthal Course – Still I Pray

Peggy Rosental inspired my first explorations into Poetry As Prayer. When I saw she was offering an on-course on Poetry As Spirtual Practice through Image, the wonderful Arts journal out of Seattle, I signed up! And I am so glad I did. I highly recommend the course. Sadly, I have just one assignment to go out of six. But happily, Peggy has given her permission for me to post my responses to her marvellous meditations/assignment. Here below is my response to her assignment 1 – poems of longing and searching:

Still I Pray

A woman, exquisitely dressed, spins lightly on her feet, then stops, her back to a man directly behind her. The man pulls her tight and calmly drives a knife through her heart.

And so dies Wen Jian, consort to an emperor and so-called most beautiful woman of the age. This scene is from Under Heaven, written by Canadian Guy Kay. Although the novel is set in an imagined empire it’s closely modeled on 9th Century Tang China.

This scene is made more poignant when a witness, the book’s main protagonist, asks “Should there be birdsong?” His friend, a poet based on noted Tang poet Li Bai (Li Po) answers: “ No, and yes. We do what we do, and the world continues. Somewhere a child is being born and the parents are tasting a joy they never imagined.”  And later the poet says: “We will pick our way through the shards of broken objects folly leaves behind. And some of what breaks will be very beautiful.”

This “No, and yes,” and the beauty in what breaks,  plays out again and again in Kay’s novel; this constant tension between opposites – beauty and horror, life and death, suffering and joy. And to reconcile these opposites Kay uses poetry to hold them in creative tension. A beautiful woman is executed, childless, and a poet imagines a newborn held with utter joy.

Oh, how this “newborn” took me back to Kate Daniels’s searing poem – Inscrutable from her book Four Testimonies published by LSU Press in 1998. How it made me appreciate her joy kept in balance by the “bloody hole,” the suffering of child birth that makes possible the joy of new life. How Daniel’s poem soaks me in its paradox, blood of joy born of blood of pain.


The face seen
for the first time
screwed up and wetted
with the juices of my body,
the hair swirled down
into flattened, greasy
curls, the mathematical
perfection of the four
extremities, the primitive
muscles of the mouth and jaw
already shaped around sucking,
and just the goddamn mystery
of it all—why there is
anything, anything at all
rather than nothing emerging
from the bloody hole
in my opened body, why
anything like this face, this
body that slithers from mine,
this call to claim it
undimmed after eons, irresistible
and thrilling as sexual
longing, why God leaning over
the paradise He made, why
splitting Himself to become
the first creature,
why in love with the world
for the rest of eternity,
alone no longer, inviolate
no more. Why God? Why love? Why
this infant sucking me and why
me—desperate and hemorrhaging
on the surgical table—why
weeping with gratitude
to be this way,
exactly this way, instead of some other?

This tension of opposites, the relationship of suffering and beauty, haunts me and creates a shadow in my spiritual life. That’s why I seek poetry that doesn’t offer easy consolations; a poetry that celebrates life’s beauty in the context of a broken and, as the poet Adam Zagajewski, says so famously, “mutilated world.” And this shadow I carry darkens and thickens into choking blackness when I place God, at the centre of this tension; when  I acknowledge an “ Almighty” who seems to stands as thwarted as I am in the centre of it. I struggle with this God.

Perhaps my struggle with God is why I so relate to Daniels’ poem. It captures all the tensions and contradictions evident in Under Heaven  It places me firmly in Kay’s “no, and yes” world; a world that Daniels’ importantly identifies as God’s and a world I recognize: one our singers and poets have recounted and tried to reconcile with a belief in an all-powerful God, from the dawn of humanity. And it is their combined words, the poet, Gregory Orr, calls “the Book.”

And so now both the words of Kay from Under Heaven and the words of Daniels in her poem talk and echo back to each other in the “greater” Book. Kay gives us birdsong and death. Daniels wonders about “the goddamn mystery/ of it all – why there is/anything, anything at all” in the midst of giving us a gritty glimpse of a messy birth from “the bloody hole” that leaves her narrator, “desperate and hemorrhaging on the surgical table,” yet still “weeping with gratitude.”

And I add to this conversation in “the Book” with my poems Arrested written last year and Still, I Pray written just a few weeks ago.


I think of beauty. How it can step like a young boy from a shower,
the knee cap holding steady to motion, elbows asleep as arms dream,
hang down at his side. Each foot has eyes where a blink wonders
if a step can focus on time and drop sure-footed onto a slippery floor.
Hairless, the boy’s sex, already knows how to pay attention. For now
listens, a hand cocked at the ear; appears lifeless, something strung
from a beam to season and ripen in a dark room. This holds a beauty
but beauty too can set a world ablaze, then darken it: the fireworks
in London in 1940 and Bagdad in 1991; beauty can change in a boy
who turns into a certain kind of man, one hidden, watching a woman,
her good looks obvious, her mind elsewhere, oblivious to the shapes
and shadows the street lamps leave on the sidewalk and the sound
her feet make on the crumpled leaves. I watch, thoughts of beauty
taking me back to forty years ago. I see bare trees, black screams
that cut stars out of the sky. I see houses, dark owls hunched over.
I see my friend and the man sprawled on top, her books scattered,
pale pages open like square moons, mute, her face turned up, the cut
forehead, her clothes like ripped skin, hanging. But it’s her eyes
that draw me in. The way they look, on fire. I tasted water once
from an ice field that burned that clear in the mouth. Her eyes
focus on something past violence and talk to the man and his eyes,
dark pools where she might imagine a shape of something beautiful
just out of reach, and how in that speech, arrested, he talks back
and touches, gingerly, the blood under her eye, lifts his weight off,
kneels, then from his kneecaps, straightens, stands and bends over,
reaches down to pull her up, hold her, as she stumbles, and they talk,
walk slowly to safety. Look, from a distance, like a couple on a date.

As a boy I couldn’t imagine how beauty, the beauty of a wonderful sun-filled day could co-exist with man-made disasters and suffering. And as poems do in a mysterious way, my struggle became unexpectedly framed in the intimate and disturbing particulars of a rape of a friend at university many years ago. And somehow my poem forced me to face the horror then find beauty in it. How? How?

And again, in Still, I Pray I wrestle with a world filled with both love and loss.

Still, I Pray

Finally I found her, my daughter, on her knees,
before an altar, penitent, pilgrim –  palms pressed together.
I had lost her in the sanctuary. Later, discovered her
in a side chapel. Without thought
I dropped down beside her, my palms, a mirror to hers.
I didn’t say anything out loud. In my silence was the prayer.
To whom was she praying? To whom could I pray?  Is it
ever the same? The stone columns around us made us small.
I don’t remember the altar or anything behind it.
None of that mattered. Just my six year old on her knees,
already learning how to bend, already old enough to question
who invented meanness. Perhaps too much knowing makes us older.
I didn’t think of that then. Just how my heart beat outside of itself
when I saw her, and then how my knees gave way
with practiced discipline and I fell
into place beside her.

“Who invented meanness?” A haunting question my daughter asked at age five. A question in light of my faith that haunts me as much as ever. Yet, still, I pray. How? How?

When I began to practice Lectio Divina with Daniels’s poem I was caught up in her violent description of giving birth, its bloody imperfection, its suffering. And it comes at us in a staccato rush of one sentence that lasts for thirty short poetic lines out of thirty seven.  Then she switches dramatically to shorter sentences, two percussive questions and one last question in 6 lines. Her “Why God? Why love?” face-slaps me. And then the beauty of her last frantic question. “- why/weeping with gratitude/ to be this way,/ exactly this way, instead of some other?”

Daniels acceptance of this “mutilated” world, one where God seems to suffer along with us reminds me of my own impossible acceptance and gratitude. Acceptance of losses, all of them, including, finally, my own death; and a choice to be thankful for all beauty even the terrible beauty I have witnessed including my own wife’s broken body on the gurney after our son was born.

But my anger still comes to the fore with my own shouted “whys” that echo Daniels. But I can go further spurred by her imagery in ways she may never have imagined. They take me to the bloodied country of DRC Congo one I have visited three times.

Why the “bloody hole” of obstetric fistula ? Why the bloody hole of rape-caused fistula? Why the “bloody hole” that produces babies who become men who rape, mutilate and sometimes even murder, by proxy, their mothers, their sisters? And where’s God in all this?

Yet, I have also heard first-hand, women praise and thank God who have become pregnant and given birth after being raped, their vagina’s ripped with bayonets or sticks.

Oh God! Still the birds sing. “No, and yes.” Oh inscrutable God. And still, I pray.