Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Winter Prayers

We’re moving toward the Winter Solstice (11 days away) and I recently thought of the poem, Winter Prayers, which first appeared as a broadside from Lilliput Review (in the nineties).

I wrote it twenty-five or twenty-six years ago. It’s one of the few early poems I wrote that still worked well enough for me to include in the book All the Beautiful Dead (along the side of the road). 

I believe at the time I wrote this piece I was doing some reading on illuminated manuscripts of the European middle ages (as you do). 
Many of the facsimiles I had a chance to look at were Book of Hours, books of Christian devotional prayers that were meant to be said at certain times throughout the day.

I was attracted to the illustrations, but soon began to appreciate the Christian monastic division of the day by chanted/sung prayers.

At the time, I was working in a kitchen in a university dining hall in Des Moines, Iowa, feeling lost and depressed much of the time. I began to use these canonical hours as a way to be attentive during the workday and into the night. My own prayers were more like mindfulness exercises that eventually found their expression in poetry.

The reference to the person stranded outside Chicago in the third section is a reference to a time I was hitchhiking across the US when I was twenty and got caught in a snow storm south of Chicago and huddled for a while in a phone booth until it was too cold. Then a waitress in a Howard Johnson’s (remember Howard Johnson’s diners?) just down the street allowed me to nurse one cup of tea all night long until the snow stopped...

The canonical hours are usually eight in number: Matins (nighttime); Lauds (early morning); Prime (first hour of daylight); Terce (third hour); Sext (noon); Nones (ninth hour); Vespers (sunset, evening); and Compline (end of day).

I took some liberties with the times, added an old office (nocturns), and left out two. And so it goes...

Winter Prayers

I.   Prime: Walking to Work

Icicles that trapped the crow's voice for weeks
                                       have melted to nothing.

Two crows exchange oaks, scan the horizon.
            Their eyes promise a night without stars.

II.   Sext: Cleaning the Grill

My god is a half-filled cup of cold coffee.
              If I call home, will I answer the phone?

My god is a buzzing fluorescent light.
                                 If I answer, what will I say?

My god is a rag of meat grease.
         Will I tell myself anything that might help?

My god is the sound of a refrigerator, humming.
                                I hang up before it's too late.

III.   Terce: Running the Cash Register

All the students are happy, talking,
                               heading home for Christmas.

Some won't make it back, will find themselves
                           years from now on a freeway ramp
south of Chicago, watching snow fall, nothing
                                          but snow in their pockets.

      Crows will follow them wherever they go.

IV.   None: Heading to the Bank

An old man steps carefully down the ice-sidewalk.
            His skinny, brittle legs know
           that everything in his briefcase doesn’t matter.

How do I know he won’t make it through the winter?

V.   Vespers: Walking Home

Another year ends
                           and what have I accomplished?

A solitary crow follows me home
                                 with his stone-breaking call.

Old bread and bottles wash up from melting snow.
                                The bitter last meal of those
                   who believe you can always start over.

If you can, you're an endless beginner.
                        If you can't, you're an endless fool.

VI.   Nocturns: Four AM

Orange light through fog.

Streets quiet as blood
                              through the veins.

Pieter Breugel/Hunters in the Snow, 1565 ("Little Ice Age")

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