Three Poetic Riffs on Courage – Part One – Jane Mead

American poet Jane Mead

World of Made and Unmade
from Section III

* * * 

How will you spend your courage,
her life asks my life

No courage spent of

How will you spend
your courage, how

will you spend your life.

Bloodshot, gunshot, taproot, eye—
and the mind
on its slow push through the world—

* * *
World of Made and Unmade
from Section IV

* * *

How will you spend your courage,
her life asks my life.

No courage spent of
bloodshot/gunshot/taproot/eyeHow will you make your way?

Then, respond to the day
some other way than blind—

Jane Mead from WORLD of MADE and UNMADE – a poem, Alice James Books, 2016

My only exposure to the poetry of American poet Jane Mead before her 2016 book-length poem World of Made and Unmade was through her 1989 poem Concerning the Prayer I Cannot Make, a poem I feature in my poetry-as-prayer retreats. Mead, an experienced poetry teacher, now has five poetry collections under her belt and manages her family ranch in Northern California.

I am thrilled to have rediscovered Mead through her new book which was nominated for a National Book Award, one of the the holy grails of Literary book awards. the book is note worthy both for its production quality and the liberal use of white space but also because it is a gorgeous meditation/reflection on her mother and her mother’s dying.

For me the highlight of Mead’s new book is the enigmatic poems that introduce this blog post. Two variations. Like musical variations. Riffs on the extraordinary question Mead attributes to her mother, Nancy Morgan Whitaker. And the utterly musical incantations inside both poems. Incantations that take me back to the witches in MacBeth. That same eerie quality: bloodshot/gunshot/taproot/eye. What do I make of this chant-like fragment? What do you make of it? How do the four words connect? What is it about them and courage?

As I read the incantory fragments I wonder if these are qualities she is highlighting as prevalent in life. And is a response to these, courage? Am I right. Not sure. But the response to the stress in bloodshot eyes, gunshots, taproot (family dynamics?) and eye, (how we see this disturbing and beautiful world) is that real courage?  Is that more a blind response to the obvious? Is that what she’s getting at?

Such a huge question, how will you spend your courage? And what will be the currency? She says no bloodshot/gunshot/taproot/eye and then links those four words to our minds making their slow way through the world. How else to do it.

And what do I make of her answer/injunction, Then, respond to the day some other way than blind— in the second poem after she asks her last question: How will you make your way in the world? Is there blind courage, instinctive, involuntary? And is there a seeing courage. More considered, thoughtful, practiced? And was she, by chance, thinking of Jack Gilbert’s great poetic essay of a poem, The Abnormal Is Not courage? I will have more to say about Gilbert’s poem in Part Two of this series on courage.

I am left with this. How will I spend my courage? Not will I spend it. But how will I spend it.  On what and with what? One response: I will spend it on reaching out to friends with kindness. And strangers, no matter my mood. A gentle courage. And not blind eyes but my unusual eyes as John O’Donohue says. The ones that truly see.

Coming up, part two of this series, Jack Gilbert and part three Jan Zwicky, all on courage!




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