Archive for August, 2008

twenty-eight: Luci Shaw, Polishing the Petoskey Stone

Apologies for the lateness; most of August has been spent either on holiday, at a festival, or shuttling between these two blessed states of being. I’ve read all the poetry, but I find myself with four overdue posts, and the last festival of the summer looming… here’s the first; I’ll write the others next week when I get back.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone is another gift from the bountiful Thea (now Mrs Thea Reimer – congratulations!). I hadn’t heard of Luci Shaw before, so I’m grateful for the introduction. The book is an anthology of her work, so I read just the first collection, itself called ‘Polishing the Petoskey Stone’ (1986-1990).

Shaw is unashamedly what I suppose you would call a sacramental poet, in that although her poems do not all deal explicitly with Christian themes, they all start with the assumption that God sustains all things; so doing business with the world, with life, means doing business with God. As she says in her introduction,

All my life I have been requesting the same thing – a baptized imagination that has a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary. Without discarding reason, or analysis, I seek from my Muse, the Holy Spirit, images that will open up reality and pull me in to its center.

This starting point makes all of life, all of nature, a spiritual enterprise; and so we have, in ‘Conch’, these lines:

Know the whole world
a shell, and you the grit
caught in it, being pearled over.

At first glance these lines might seem just a pretty image, a bit whimsical; but I think they also manage to speak about the toughness of life – ‘grit’, the feeling of being ‘caught’, emphasised by the terse assonance of grit/caught/it – as well as the miraculous state of ‘being pearled over’, which brings to my mind a sense of grace that bowls you over.

Lots of dealing with the natural world, then, and lots of the sea; so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved this collection, a lot. Some of it made me cry (on the tube, commuting to work, no less). Favourites were ‘Seasleeping: Cape Cod’; ‘Polishing the Petoskey Stone’, ‘Travelling Montana’, ‘Subliminal messages’, ‘Winter chestnut: Five haiku’, ‘Flower head’, ‘Parabolas’, which is a reworking of some of Jesus’ best-known parables. Here is ‘Questions: 1985’ –

Beside me, under the sheet, his shape
is blurred, his breath irregular, racing
or slowing to the stress/release
of dreams. One lung – a wing of air –
has been already clipped. The scans
show the dark shadows on his bones.

His house of cells – blue-printed
by heredity, assembled season
by season, (the grayed wood
shrinking a little at the joins
under the wash of time and storm)
– will it collapse like a barn
settling into its field?
His spirit – iridescent as a pigeon
– will it escape before mine
through a break in the roof,
homing, homing through the sky?

Polishing the Petoskey Stone, Luci Shaw (Regent College Publishing, 2003)


I’ve already cracked on with the first of August’s collections, but here they are:

Luci Shaw, Polishing the Petoskey Stone (Regent College Publishing, 2003)
Alice Major, The Office Tower Tales (University of Alberta Press, 2008)
Tomas Tranströmer, The Deleted World (Enitharmon Press, 2006)
Jamie McKendrick, Crocodiles and Obelisks (Faber and Faber, 2007)

And as I’m behind on my projected fifty-two poets, what with one thing and another, I’ve added in a bonus collection in case I have time to read one more while on holiday:
Harry Smart, Fool’s Pardon (Faber and Faber, 1995)

twenty-seven: Kathleen Jamie, The Tree House

Apologies for another late post; I’ll make it a short one, otherwise with being away with most of this month, I won’t get the chance to write anything.

Last week’s collection was Kathleen Jamie‘s The Tree House, which I picked partly because I remember poetry Andrew recommending it, and partly because of its beautiful title. Jamie won the Forward Prize for Poetry for it in 2004.

It’s a slim collection with, as you might expect from the title, the theme of human interaction with nature running strongly through it. Perhaps that was part of the reason I warmed to it instantly: I loved the dialogue with birds, trees, puddles, flowers; and I loved the shimmering clarity and conciseness with which she writes. Another one of those poets who I read and think, ah, this is what poetry is for me. I’ll have to dig out her first collection, Jizzen, which I have to confess makes me snigger.

There was quite a lot that I wanted to find out about: where is the specific wishing tree of the first poem? What are the traditions of Water Day? Who was Hölderlin, and should I read him? I plan to look some of these up, but the only frustrating thing was my lack of Scots dialect, which rendered a few poems incomprehensible.

Favourites – and I’ll list them all, although they seemed to be every other page – were ‘The Wishing Tree’, ‘Alder’, ‘Water Day’, ‘Before the Wind’, ‘The Swallows’ Nest’, ‘The Whale-watcher’, ‘The Buddleia’, ‘Daisies’, ‘Reliquary’, ‘The Brooch’, ‘The Puddle’ and this achingly beautiful, fragile sonnet, ‘Swallows’:

I wish my whole battened
heart were a property
like this, with swallows
in every room – so at ease

they twitter and preen
from the picture frames
like an audience in the gods
before an opera

and in the mornings
wheel above my bed
in a mockery of pity
before winging it

up the stairwell
to stream out into light

The Tree House, Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2004)