Sometimes, I am Startled Out of Myself by Barbara Crooker


like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

Sometimes, I am Startled Out of Myself

I am often drawn to the work of this poet, something about her quiet way of speaking about the ordinary world, bringing it to my attention. Even the title captures that sudden sense of being called out of myself to something else, like the wild geese, flapping their rusty hinges. This, she says, makes her think about her life, the places / of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief / has strung me out to dry. We all have these places and unexpected moments that bring them to mind.

The way the geese take turns as the leader tires gives her a sense of hope borne on wings. And the trees, how they turn gold in the autumn then lose it all in November, then stand through the bitter cold of winter until spring when they put out shy green leaves. She finds hope in these noisy creatures, representing that optimistic expectation that the world will continue, even when things don’t go exactly as planned. Seasons change and the geese glide over the cornfields, returning each year as they do.

You do not have to be wise, she reminds us, just pay attention. Be aware, the way even a goose knows how to find / shelter, to find late winter corn for nourishment. All we do is pass through here, much the way the geese pass overhead, briefly here then gone. They stitch up the sky, such a magical image, until it is whole again. When we are startled out of ourselves, we can remember that we are just passing through, the best way we can, a simple wisdom.

Poem Bathing by Gail Onion

Poem bathing.

An hour spent reading

favorite poetry.

Sometimes there is ecstasy,

a respite from care,

sometimes reassurance

that the world has meaning

there is wonder and awe

and how to find peace in the mystery.

Sometimes there is rejoicing 

Sometimes there is lamenting

Sometimes, the words are a beautiful music

or a necessary silence

as the poem ends in a soft hush, ineffable beauty

as in the forest.

Sometimes the poem is like a letter

that begins, my dearest, I am so sorry

or I love you.

Even on days when I do not have an hour

for a full poetry bath

a sponge bath made of Haiku

or one precious line or two,

murmured over and over,

restores the deep breath that calms,

recalls what is of value,

melts the knots of doubt,

the mute voice in me is liberated,

the poem has left me its wings and wisdom,

the windows of perception are cleansed,

I sing myself awake again.

Poem Bathing

This poem delights me, starting with the title, Poem Bathing, which made me think of forest bathing, a Japanese exercise called shinrin-yoku meant to encourage people to spend more time in nature for its benefits to mind and body. As someone who loves to bathe in poetry, I was intrigued. Time spent reading poems can offer ecstasy, respite, sometimes reassurance / that the world has meaning, so many possibilities for wonder and awe.

She gives us many options, for music, for silence, for a poem ending in a soft hush, ineffable beauty / as in the forest. She tells us a poem can be like a letter written just for you, the reader – poem-letters of love and sorrow and every human experience. As a fan of Haiku, I love the idea of a Haiku sponge bath on days when you don’t have enough time for a more full, luxurious bath. She highlights the value of one precious line or two, your own personal mantra that restores the deep breath that calms. This I have experienced many times, reminding me what is of value when I forget or doubt.

A final striking metaphor is in the line, the poem has left me its wings and wisdom. Have you ever experienced that sense of lightness and insight that can be found in a poem that seems written just for you, how the windows of perception are cleansed? And the opportunity to sing myself awake again, perhaps even to find peace in the mystery.

Why Are Your Poems So Dark? by Linda Pastan

Isn’t the moon dark too,
most of the time?

And doesn’t the white page
seem unfinished

without the dark stain
of alphabets?

When God demanded light,
he didn’t banish darkness.

Instead he invented
ebony and crows

and that small mole
on your left cheekbone.

Or did you mean to ask
“Why are you sad so often?”

Ask the moon.
Ask what it has witnessed.

Why Are Your Poems So Dark?

This poem called to me, with its question I could well imagine asking or being asked by others. Dark, of course, in our culture is considered the end of the spectrum we wish to avoid despite its reality in our lives. And as Pastan says, the moon is dark much of the time as it waxes and wanes, though as I write this, the moon has reached its fullness, a blood moon, full of light.

She asks if the white page we read would seem unfinished without the dark stain / of alphabets, all that lovely white space around poems. She points out that it is said that God created light, separate from the darkness, day and night, but he didn’t banish darkness. At this time of year, many people resist the darkness, but I believe it is part of the season’s gift. She gives examples of ebony and crows, that small mole / on your left cheekbone, so many objects of dark beauty if you think about it.

And then she rephrases the question, Why are you sad so often? This opens a new possibility, that her poems are not so much dark as simply sad. And then her simple response: Ask the moon, the moon which looks down on us from the night sky at every phase. Ask what it has witnessed. And as I reflect on the daily news, the answer is so clear – there is definitely sadness, darkness in between the moments of joy and light. Is this not how we notice the difference between the two?

Poetry as Medicine by Janice Falls

I’m choosing to step outside my regular posting of a poem this week, as well as my own comfort zone, to share with you this personal essay which recently appeared in Braided Way, a journal featuring writing in support of differing spiritual practices and perspectives.

I have learned how poetry can be medicine for the events in our lives – a balm to soothe, a challenge to pay attention, whatever is needed in the moment, from my teacher Kim Rosen whose rich book Saved by a Poem I would recommend to everyone with even the faintest interest in poetry. For the past decade, poetry has been a central focus in my life, and so, I thought I would share this with you.

A deep bow of thanks to all the readers of this site and for your inspiring comments. May these poems continue to serve.

Self Care by James Crews

Some days it feels like a foreign language

I’m asked to practice, with new words

for happiness, work, and love. I’m still learning

how to say: a cup of tea for no reason,

what to call the extra honey I drizzle in,

how to label the relentless urge to do more

and more as useless. And how to translate

the heart’s pounding message when it comes:

enough, enough. This morning, I search for words

to capture the glimmering sun as it lifts

above mountains, clouds already closing in

as fat droplets of rain darken the deck.

I’m learning to call this stillness self-care too,

just standing here, as goldfinches scatter up 

from around the feeder like broken pieces

of bright yellow stained-glass, reassembling

in the sheltering arms of a maple.

Self Care

Self care is a phrase I’ve no doubt you’ve heard often enough, whether you have practiced it often or not. This is a lovely, uncomplicated reminder from James Crews about its importance for all of us. It can feel like a foreign language / I’m asked to practice, learning new words for happiness, work and love. It really is a practice, something to consciously choose.

He speaks of the relentless urge to do more / and more and the need to label it ‘useless’, how to say enough, enough. It reminds me of a quote from Thomas Merton I read recently that speaks of the rush and pressure of modern life, the overwork, as violence that we do to ourselves. That shocked me into pause – why would I invite violence into my life?

So he makes his cup of tea for no reason, with an extra drizzle of honey, and stands in stillness as the rain begins. He watches as the goldfinches, those tiny magnificent birds, scatter around the feeder like broken pieces / of bright yellow stained-glass, then fly up into the arms of the maple to reassemble. This is how we can care for ourselves, honouring the moments that present themselves to us, gathering ourselves together again.

Let Rain Be Rain by Danusha Laméris

Let rain be rain.

           Let wind be wind.

Let the small stone

           be the small stone.

May the bird

            rest on its branch,

the beetle in its burrow.

May the pine tree

             lay down its needles.

The rockrose, its petals.

It’s early. Or it’s late.

            The answers

to our questions

             lie hidden

in acorn, oyster, the seagull’s

             speckled egg.

We’ve come this far, already.

             Why not let breath

be breath. Salt be salt.

How faithful the tide

              that has carried us—

that carries us now—

               out to sea

        and back.

Let Rain Be Rain

Be it rain or wind or a small stone, Laméris implores us to allow each element to be what it is, to see it for what it is, real and true. The bird has its place on a branch, the beetle its burrow. May the pine tree / lay down its needles, as the rock rose lays down its petals. This is how it is, she tells us, just be present to the beauty of each of these things.

She seems to be saying that the answers to our questions can be found in the perfect simplicity of acorn, oyster, the seagull’s / speckled egg. In other words, pay attention to the world around you, look no farther than what is before you in the natural world. After all, We’ve come this far, already.

After all, why not allow our breath to be that which give us life, salt to be that basic element our bodies need – there is nothing to be changed. How faithful the tide / that has carried us, the tide of our days, our lives, a tide that takes us out to sea and brings us back again, and again. There is a rhythm to living if we do not resist, do not insist that it be otherwise.

Dawn Callers by Alberto Rios

The dawn callers and morning bringers,
I hear them as they intend themselves to be heard,

Quick sonic sparks in the morning dark,
Hard at the first work of building the great fire.

The soloist rooster in the distance,
The cheeping wrens, the stirring, gargling pigeons

Getting ready for the work of a difficult lifetime,
The first screet of the peahen in the far field,

All of it a great tag-of-sounds game engaging even the owls,
The owls with their turned heads and everything else that is animal.

Then, too, the distant thunder of the garbage truck,
That lumbering urban whale.

Through it all, the mourning doves say
There, there—which is to say, everything is all right.

I believe them. They have said this to me ever since childhood.
I hear them. I hear them and I get up.

Dawn Callers

Are you a morning person? If you are, this poem may be for you, and if not, it may offer you a different perspective. Rios introduces us to dawn callers and morning bringers – enticing names for what invites us to arise each day. These creatures, quick sonic sparks, are busy with the first work of building the great fire – the energy of sound waves bringing up the sun.

He names some of the birds he hears, getting ready for the work of a difficult lifetime. Each morning, these cheeping, gargling musical notes help us prepare for whatever the day holds. All of it a great tag-of-sounds game creating a music that even includes the thunder-grumble of a garbage truck, that lumbering urban whale. I won’t hear them in quite the same way this week.

And then there are the mourning doves cooing ‘there, there’, a sound which the poet hears as everything is all right. He believes them, having heard this comforting message since childhood. As we each might do, he responds: I hear them and I get up. May you wake to this music, this thought, called into each morning of your days.

It’s the Season I Often Mistake by Ada Limon

Birds for leaves, and leaves for birds.

The tawny yellow mulberry leaves

are always goldfinches tumbling

across the lawn like extreme elation.

The last of the maroon crabapple

ovates are song sparrows that tremble

all at once. And today, just when I 

could not stand myself any longer,

a group of field sparrows, that were

actually field sparrows, flew up into

the bare branches of the hackberry

and I almost collapsed: leaves

reattaching themselves to the tree

like a strong spell for reversal. What

else did I expect? What good

is accuracy amidst the perpetual

scattering that unspools the world.

It’s the Season I Often Mistake

I love the crossovers Limón makes between leaves and birds, how what look like yellow mulberry leaves turn out to be goldfinches tumbling / across the lawn like extreme elation. I get caught on that phrase ‘extreme elation’, the exuberant joy she finds in this flock of golden birds. The elliptical crabapple leaves become song sparrows that tremble / all at once, quivering wings.

Then she tells us that the group of field sparrows were actually just that. How they flew up into the bare branches as if reattaching themselves to the tree / like a strong spell for reversal. Again my mind trips with delight over the image of leaves moving backwards onto their branches like an old film run in reverse.

What else did I expect? she asks. She questions the value of accuracy – are these leaves or birds? – amidst the perpetual scattering that unspools the world. There is colour and movement, change happening with the unwinding of the season. Easy to understand how we might mistake one for the other, especially with the fanciful mind of a poet.

For When People Ask by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

I want a word that means
okay and not okay,
more than that: a word that means
devastated and stunned with joy.
I want the word that says
I feel it all all at once.
The heart is not like a songbird
singing only one note at a time,
more like a Tuvan throat singer
able to sing both a drone
and simultaneously
two or three harmonics high above it—
a sound, the Tuvans say,
that gives the impression
of wind swirling among rocks.
The heart understands swirl,
how the churning of opposite feelings
weaves through us like an insistent breeze
leads us wordlessly deeper into ourselves,
blesses us with paradox
so we might walk more openly
into this world so rife with devastation,
this world so ripe with joy.

For When People Ask

Have you not ever wished for such a word, one that means okay and not okay, when you are not quite either. A word that means devastated and stunned with joy – the complexity of living one’s life with the paradox of grieflove. She is seeking a word that says I feel it all all at once. I missed that second ‘all’ on first reading – all of it, all at once.

Tuvan throat singing, as I’ve learned, is a technique which originated in central Asia for singing two or more pitches at the same time, one deep, one high. What a perfect metaphor for the contrast between sorrow and joy, those intermingled emotions we all must encounter some time. The wind swirling as the heart swirls, the churning of opposite feelings.

Many poets from Blake in the 18th century, to the current Mark Nepo have written to express this commingling of apparently opposite feelings. Here Rosemerry gives us this uniquely aural image of throat singing, a way to live with this paradox, to be in this world so rife with devastation, / this world so ripe with joy. I am touched by her words, by the universality of this experience.

Night thinks it’s crying again by Kelli Russell Agodon

and I keep listening to a song about autumn 

where an apple tastes like longing and every leaf 

in the maple tree tries to explain loss

through a series of colors—hectic orange,

indifferent red, a kind of gold that speaks

directly to God or moonbeams and in the dark

as I drive down wet roadways watching for deer

the only things I can see clearly

are the yellow leaves christening

my windshield and I think how we are taught

not to love too many, too much, the night,

the darkness, and I believe I am crying but it is

only rain.

Night thinks it’s crying again

It’s raining here where I am tonight and the idea of night thinking it is crying intrigues me, makes me want to know more. There is a song about autumn where an apple tastes like longing. There’s that word again, longing, that yearning we may not be able to articulate that sometimes comes with this season.

Where other poets might speak of the brilliant hues of autumn, Agodon tells us that every leaf / in the maple tree tries to explain loss through their changing colours. We’ve all recognized the hectic orange, but a gold that speaks directly to God or moonbeams – that stopped me in my tracks and threw all my commonplace descriptions out the window.

She says we are taught / not to love too many, too much. What does this mean? Is she speaking of the loss that these falling leaves embody? I believe I am crying but it is / only rain. Perhaps she wants us to know that this is a loss that is seasonal, not a time to grieve for this natural ending – no tears; it is only rain.