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.
—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.
The air in my barrio bulges with ash, the remains of dead poets, dried-out painters, and sick-sounding musicians. Skeletons of talento that never found breath.
I sit, estancada, in this hole, condemnation filling me. My dying ideas crinkle and shuffle but no one, not even the flea on a cat’s hairy back, wants them.
Dreams peak in my mind as dusty dirges, polvo floating down Figueroa to settle, abandoned. In a one-room apartment the homeless grow and light fires for the warmth of words I will never write and they will never hear.
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.
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.
Study war no more
Mar 18, 2011
Michael Izbicki grew up in a nondenominational church in California. A National Merit Scholarship finalist, he chose to go to the U.S. Naval Academy out of a sense of duty to his country during a time of war. At the naval academy he began to doubt whether the career to which he had committed himself could be squared with the tenets of just war doctrine. He got in trouble when he responded no to this exam question: "If given the order, would you launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead?" After a four-year legal battle, the navy discharged him as a conscientious objector. Izbicki may have to reimburse the service for part or all of his education (New York Times, February 22).