On Nightly Repose: 3 Poems

The doctor told me I don't have enough poetry in my system.

My mind is weak, he said. I don't think carefully enough about words, which just fumble around in my head in a really embarrassing way, clogged in my memory, rushing by in flotsam of noise. Words and names and titles to movies escape me and I feel like a dumb old man reaching his hands into a jar of alzheimers when it's not yet his turn.

So I've added a new component to my bed-time routine. As a way to supplement my diet and to reinforce my natural energies, I have decided to take poetry before I go to bed. I need only a little bit of poetry, certainly not a whole dose of four quartets, just one or two in order to slow me down. I need it to teach me again how a bon mot can mean more than I could savor in one sitting.

I need poetry, to be perfectly honest, to save me. I need saving from the benevolent dictatorship of the internet to whom I have given my fealty morning, noon and night, a willing fealty, not forced, for the sake of finding what exactly, I'm never quite sure. The world wide web keeps me clung to my monitor screen so that I can rummange around for things that I don't think I need when I should be under my covers, mouth shut, prayed up.

To my own ruin I love all the internet treats of news and sports and the latest break-ups in Hollywood and the religious views of presidential candidates and the stock prices of my current investments and that story about the astronaut driving across country with a diaper on so she can make like gangbusters to take down a romantic rival, and of course Daniel Radcliffe's naked turn in the play EQUUS.

I've added a pile of poetry pills to my bedside table. Here are three that have followed me around long after I put them down and turned off my light, hoping to think of nothing, hoping that all the racing words in my head would get lost in the dark and give up finally and lie themselves to sleep under the covers of my cerebrum.

The three poems are by Billy Collins (poet laureate, 2001-03), William Cowper (1731-1800, English poet and hymnodist), and Wendell Berry (the Kentucky poet, essayist, and agrarian story-teller).

Billy Collins, "Questions About Angels"

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

William Cowper, "The Contrite Heart"

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow:
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
Insensible as steel;
If ought is felt, 'tis only pain,
To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love thee, if I could;
But often feel another mind,
Averse to all that's good.

My best desires are faint and few,
I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, My strength renew,
Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted I know,
And love thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.

O make this heart rejoice, or ache;
Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break,
And heal it, if it be.

Wendell Berry, "The Want of Peace"

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.


Tim Stewart said…
It's often the case when I can't sleep at night it's because I have a poem in me wanting to be written. I worry that if I were to read poetry, I would be even more stimulated and even less desirous of sleep. :-)

Great poems, David. Thanks for pouring some verse into our day!

I have trouble reading poetry....I want to listen to it. And in a perfect world, I want poet, Scott Cairnes to read it to me.
s. e. wedelich said…
ooh ooh... i like jorge luis borges! english AND spanish versions... borders sells his "selected poems"
Laura Jenkins said…
Thanks, David. Please continue to share your favorites with us, will you?
hey! we're wendell berry fans up here at Union Center Christian church in upstate NY! Check out my friend's book on the man... get on amazon and check out The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry by Janet Goodrich
Andrew Philip said…
If you want some more great contemporary Christian poetry, check out Michael Symmons Roberts, especially his marvellous collection Corpus.

Still, what's wrong with Eliot? I mean, beat this from "East Coker"(from The Four Quartets):

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
Rosie Perera said…
Thanks for this, David! I can totally relate to this paragraph: "I need poetry, to be perfectly honest, to save me. I need saving, especially from the benevolent dictatorship of the internet to whom I have given my fealty morning, noon and night, a willing fealty, for the record, not forced, for the sake of finding what exactly I'm never quite sure. The world wide web, like a spider's web, keeps me clung to my monitor screen so that I can rummange around for things I don't think I need when I should be under my covers, mouth shut, prayed up."

Thanks to you, I've gotten back to taking my nightly dose of poetry. I'm going through R.S. Thomas (Collected Later Poems 1988-2000) at the moment, one of my favorites.

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