—All Saints Episcopal Church, Virginia Beach, April 1996
Having accepted from one palsied priest the cool, the lucent wafer, having dipped it duly in the cup, I pressed that sweet enormity fast against my tongue, where on its sudden dissolution, I received a taste of whose I was. I rose again and found my place.
As I knelt and tried to pray, I heard a little differently the words the priest intoned as he continued offering what passed for bread among high Protestants. His words: the body of Christ, repeated as he set that emblem into each pair of outstretched hands. My eyes were shut,
so each communicant returning down the aisle became something of a shadow illustration of the words. In that fraught moment, they became as well absorbed into the vast array of witnesses, whose cloud invisibly attended our sacramental blurring of the edge that keeps us separate.
Jane Hirshfield has made her home in northern California for almost 30 years--plenty of time for a redwood tree to reach for her open window. I like this short poem for the very calmness attributed to the tree itself--and for the wisdom within that calm. The poem has the quality of parable, yet it oddly inverts and recombines familiar parables that we know.
This simple happening dazzles me, like most of this former marine lieutenant's poems. "Laying On of Hands" is about a random encounter with a stranger caring enough to touch "a plain woman" who was "weeping/on a bus bench." I wondered at first, Is that...could that be an angel? Enough clues are here--"the stranger," "flight," "unfolding wings," even the title, but I can't prove it.
Only with dogs and children and sometimes a woman weeping on a bus station bench, hands folded across her face like a veil.
The stranger passing can only bring himself to stand beside her, allow his hand to settle on her shoulder, fingertips touching, then lifting, then lighting poised, muscles taut for flight at the first ripple.
Only in a public place: soldiers too sober to notice a plain woman on a bench. Widows on pensions, touring America, passes clutched deep in pants’ pockets. College kids lost in travel diaries.
Only the janitor, himself invisible as khaki, sees as he kneels beside the bench to save his back retrieving the paper coffee cup—its handles the halves of a valentine, unfolding wings,
a woman rising in a man’s overcoat, wiping her eyes with a wadded hankie and laughing at nothing . . . nothing at all.
It stands in the water stilted head cocked like a hammer; faster than the eye it hooks a flash of gray and then a glimpse of silver quickly swallowed. I wish the canoe to silence, hold breath with the day a ruffle of air and feathers an explosion into grace and it’s gone a hundred yards away. I begin the painstaking task of easing oar and self across the surface towards this totem an avatar granting pure life, motion, a reason to be. It wings forth again in perfect silence and falls perched on the stillness that stretches its hand out over the water down deep into the mud the fish that are blind to the roots into me where even now I am winging