Repetition as a Form of Attention – Guest Poetry Blog # 16 – Part One of Two – Introducing the Latest Contributor, Canadian Poet Kate Cayley


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


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, from Lent, Book*hug Press, 2023


I first discovered Kate Cayley through her winning twelve-part poem for the $20,000 2021 Mitchell prize. Its memorable last line in part eleven: That we are a  form of praise. Then I found her new poetry collection with that prize-winning poem at the book table of her publisher Book*hug Press at the huge American Writers’ Program convention in Seattle earlier this year. After reading it I was so taken by it I featured Kate and Lent in a blog post you can find here.

In that post I gave a bit of the rundown of her successful writing career:

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.

And just a few days ago Kate was announced as the 2023/24 Writer-In-Residence for Sheridan College in Ontario. With all these achievements it is a true pleasure and privilege to feature Kate in the Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series. The post below, Part One of Two, will be followed by Part Two which will feature a poem each by contemporary American writer Wendell Berry and and U.K. poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985).


I wrote Attention, featured above and the first poem in my collection Lent, in response to two stray thoughts that came my way. Poems usually start like this, for me and I imagine for most poets: not a clear intention or problem but a thought or image that pushes up unexpectedly and sometimes inconveniently, which then (sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly) becomes a poem.

Emily Dickinson baking bread daily and (famously) writing drafts of her poems on the backs of recipe cards. And the theory that language might have evolved in us as song first, that our earliest ancestors sang before we spoke. Song feels like a form of praise: an overflow of consciousness into the world. These two things became bound up with thinking about both the necessity of praise and the necessity of repetition.

I have a partner and three children. Much of actual life, not the life in my head, is the repetition of small domestic tasks. Sometimes I rebel against this. But sometimes it feels like a truth about the world. That moral life (love, forgiveness) and domestic life (marriage, children) meet up with art (the act of making it) in repetition. Things done over and over until they wear us down but also until they become a source of illumination. And then the poem came through this repetition. It is built on repetition.

This next poem I want to feature, Semi-Lockdown, which is near the end of Lent, grew out of the pandemic and the final throes of government mandates and restrictions.


Because poetry makes nothing happen, we sat by the river we had been told
to shelter in place, except for those who had no shelter.

Silent, we sat by the river, which ran on. We were all in this
together but some more so than others.

There’ll be stars in your crown. A saying frequently invoked by the woman
who married my grandfather, and placed great stock in obedience.

She used to make a rubbing motion with her left fingers. She did not know
this—she was viscously unselfconscious in most things.

When she died I inherited the gesture. That interested me as I did not like
here and we were not blood relations.

I am not related to my children by blood. This shows blood’s comparative
unimportance to love, though I am not related by blood to strangers,

many of whom have no shelter, but this does not trouble my blood
as much as I hoped it would when, younger,

I thought of myself. This is not a new problem,
the blood problem.

Two of my children sleep late. One wakes early, dresses quietly,
bikes out into the morning light.

A poet reminds me I am not hungry. I eat rapaciously, and well
into the evening. The river ran on.

Sometimes my son does not get home until dark. The sky opens, beautiful
as a bruise. I look out the skylight at the houses.

My son returns, impatient with me. This is in some way an impatience
with interpretation. He senses I wish to interpret him.

When I hear him go I practice. This is what I tell myself, that I am
practising. I am practising letting him go.

Kate Cayley, ibid

While our children suffered, they were luckier than many, and for my middle son it was a time of new freedom. He was just old enough to start exploring the neighbourhood by himself. Some mornings he’d leave quite early, find friends and be gone for hours. Sometimes I struggled with this, with the entirely new experience of not being sure where he was. I had to find faith that he would come back, that he would be sensible, that he’d navigate on his own.

This thinking of course led to the entirely predictable thought that this is what it means to have children at all: that you must come to a point of trusting them, and more than that, of knowing you must let them go out into the world, even if they might come to harm, even if this means giving over all your desire to protect them.

I thought about this a lot during the pandemic, frankly—how our desire for protection, for safety, could lead us to some foolish or even malignant errors of judgment. I won’t go into this here, but I watched my children and the children of my friends and wondered what we were keeping them safe for, if we were trading their autonomy for their safety and if the trade was worth it. This then got tangled up in other thoughts about who we do or do not love and why. What it means to think about inheritance and family and who is within our circles. These were loose, unspooling thoughts, which is why the poem itself is unspooling, with long lines and some leaps in association. Following these thoughts and where they met.

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