I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry lately. Whether you’re writing it or reading it, poetry forces contemplation. It takes a lot of thought to convey the right meaning, to create lasting images. And I think readers have to be both open and inquisitive when they study a poem. A poem isn’t just a little ditty that someone whipped out to entertain. It’s an honest and often raw expression of emotion. And the really great poetry stays with you. The ideas return as you live your life, the images and emotions remain fresh.
Spirit Hovering, by Nancy Arbuthnot, is a wonderful collection of introspective poetry, the kind that stays with you. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to correspond with the author and learn more about the meanings of her lines and how she was inspired to write them. I’ve read her collection several times and have truly enjoyed the feelings she’s brought out in me.
The collection includes over forty poems. Some are about ordinary moments, others are about important turning points. Some describe painful thoughts and events and others celebrate the human connection. And each invites broader spiritual consideration, with a reference to specific Biblical passages.
With the author’s permission, I’ve chosen two poems to publish here. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. At the bottom of each, I’ve included the Biblical passages she references.
Boy on the Playground
When the teacher yanked
back his arm, told him
to throw down his stick–
What kind of boy are you–
he stooped down and wrote on the ground
and with the toe of her shoe
the teacher scuffed out
the words, grabbed
the stick, broke it in two
and with the other boy
who had in fact hit
the boy with the stick
stomped to the blacktop
where we waited in shadow, watching
the lone figure
on the playground
aflame with the sun’s last rays
From John 8:6-7:
“6They were using this question as a trap, in
order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write
on the ground with his finger. 7When they
kept on questioning him, he straightened
up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you
who is without sin be the first to throw
a stone at her.’”
I really like this poem because I’ve always been interested in situations that play out one way, but are misinterpreted by the people observing. I’m the mother of four boys, so I’ve seen plenty of scuffles and been wrong about them at least half the time! In this case, the teacher hasn’t seen that the other boy is the one who hit the boy with the stick. I especially like the images of the teacher yanking the boy’s arm, breaking the stick and stomping back to the blacktop with the other boy because it shows her at her worst: she’s gotten the situation totally wrong and she’s being childish herself by showing her contempt for the wrong boy. The best part is that the children watching know what really happened, so the boy with the stick is elevated in their eyes.
Arbuthnot tells me she was inspired to write this because of her own playground experience, in which she was wrongly accused of lying. She told me that she wanted to show that the child was innocent, “as Jesus was innocent of the charges that the scribes were trying to bring against him.” She later commented, “In the poem, fortunately the other children, who wait on the blacktop, not actively taking sides, do recognize the spiritual rightness of the boy and see him as a kind of leader, aflame with the sun’s last rays.”
a scurrying rat
pauses to sip water pooled
in hum-vee tire tracks
haiku she later finds
crunched in pants pockets
dashed on scattered scraps
the young lieutenant
missing his bride, watches girls
giggling in Basra
From Luke: 14:28:
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower,
does not first sit down and count the
cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”
I really like this poem because I like the imagery in the soldier’s poetry and the image of him writing it. I picture his wife finding the haiku and feeling a deep pain about a man who was in a grim situation and found a way to say how much he missed her. I asked Arbuthnot about the origins of this poem and her answer was very interesting. She notes, “It’s based on a real situation, of a colleague of mine who used to help lead haiku exercises in poetry workshops I held at the Naval Academy. Apparently he wrote haiku all the time, about everything! Going through his things after he was killed, his wife found haiku written on scraps of paper left in his desk drawers, in books, in clothes pockets.” Using the Biblical reference, Arbuthnot suggests “not that the war was futile, but that the cost for going to war was not truly considered…because sometimes the young can be so eager and quick to follow those in authority.”
Nancy Arbuthnot is Professor Emerita at the United States Naval Academy. She’s an active volunteer at Calvary Women’s Services in Washington, DC and she conducts writing workshops at spiritual retreats, homeless shelters, and senior citizen centers. She’s also a certified Journal to the Self instructor and Associate Editor of Telling Our Stories Press. In addition to Spirit Hovering, she is the author of Deep Blue, a chapbook of poems about growing up in a Navy family.
Spirit Hovering, Copyright ©2014 by Nancy Arbuthnot. All rights reserved. Published by Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC.
What do you think these poems mean? What do you like about them? Do they remind you of your own feelings or experiences? Do these images stay with you, the way they have for me? Leave a comment and tell me what you think! And if you have a question for Nancy Arbuthnot, include it with your comments. I will be interviewing her next week and she would love to hear from you!
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