This is the first of our Pushcart nominations for 2011. Sometimes, as an editor, the drudgery of reading submissions can make one want to put one’s eyes out. If I read for an hour, I’m usually angry by the end of it. I want writing to be sublime, I want it to rivet me, to bore holes through my body. Reading general submissions does not often produce this result, and so I get angry. Angry at the writers who aren’t sending me their best work, or writers who are sending me their best work, but that doesn’t scream in my face, or change the way I think about anything except self-immolation. I want so much from writing. I want too much from writing. I want the words that created the world. And I rarely get them.
So in the midst of reading a staggering number of poems about small, unremarkable birds and their metaphorical values vis-a-vis Christian imagery, I sometimes glaze over. My eyes become little dark spirals, like Kylie, the opossum in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In those moments, I am prone to think about other things. Turkey tetrazzini. Miyazaki films. My place in the universe. What kinds of garlic I should plant.
And then something draws me back, something on the screen, which reminds me, “Hey, numbskull, you’re reading submissions here. And check this out.” A typical Christian poem title, “Annunciation.” Easily classified, this poem will fall into the category of recasting a Biblical story for the modern reader, but will fall short of even Biblical lyricism. It’s even from Mary’s point of view. Little dark spirals.
Then, “…the stranger singing beauty / that becomes fire?”
Hold the phone, turkey tetrazzini. Mary doesn’t talk like that. Read that again. Start at the beginning.
and I am heavy
that looks like dawn
who do I answer to?
the stranger singing beauty
that becomes fire?
or my loneliness
my narrow bed
my hands already thick
This is a Mary in crisis, a Mary who knows doubt, as well as her duty. It is not beatific. It is complicated, and gorgeous. I am awake, and alive, and tingling.
I read it again. And again. And I know that no matter what my other editors think, this poem will be in the journal. It does what writing must. It rivets. It acknowledges the mess of our lives and says, “Yes. This mess. Thus was it ever.”
These are the moments an editor lives for. The unexpected grace. The little dark spirals turn to pupils wide in awe. God’s language made manifest in all its glory. Few poems can live up to that standard, but when they come along, they are easily recognized. Even now, over a year since reading the poem for the first time, it energizes me. “My hands already thick / with duty.” Thank you, Kelley White.