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)

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