Review: Luci Shaw

Every once in awhile, I find a new author (of prose or poetry, whichever) and decide to get as many of his or her books as possible, then read them in a great flurry to form a very clear concept of that writer’s style.  

It usually backfires, because I put off even the activities I enjoy, and fail to read them until they’re all due back at the library.  My tsundoku works against me and I end up reading, like, 2 books of a potential dozen.  

But that fate has been averted, more or less, with Luci Shaw.  I discovered her in trying to find poems about Petoskey stones (which, as you may recall, I adore hunting on the Lake Michigan shoreline).

shaw-petoskeystoneTurning up Polishing the Petoskey Stone: what a boon!  There’s only one poem about Petoskeys in it, but the book’s introduction explains why that title was chosen.  Shaw’s friend showed her how the fossils could be buffed on anything – one’s blue jeans, the arm of a chair, the fabric of a car door interior.  After a road trip’s-worth of rubbing at a stone, the resulting sheen made Luci consider God, polishing each one of us individually; our particular sorrows, joys, dull moments, energetic evenings, manic Mondays are all part of the process of making us shine forth.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone astonished me with its wisdom and imagery.  Every other poem, if not every single one, provided illumination of God’s work through a wealth of natural pictures: frogs, shells, the view from an airplane window, circles, blood.  So much of it provided new and weighty illustrations about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

I eventually recognized that the sub-headings within were not simply section titles but the titles of earlier collections.  Polishing the Petoskey Stone contains poems originally published in Listen to the Green, The Secret Trees, The Sighting, and Postcard from the Shore.  Not all of them, but about two-thirds.  

Likewise, a handful from The Secret Trees turn up in The Green Earth and Water Lines; accompanied-by-angelswhole sections of Water Lines in Water My Soul; various selections from this and that book in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.  Where there is any overlap of theme, there will be an overlap of poems. 

And yet, the introductions to each book, the occasional endnotes, the different structure, and the fact that good poetry is worth re-reading and rumination all add up to a complete lack of regret for getting them all out.  

I tried to read in order, more or less, but the strictures of time and the MelCat system mean that I read certain later books earlier on.  Harvesting the Fog is a later book – published in 2010, not the 70’s or the early aughts.  I didn’t care for it half as much, as it seemed more concerned with simple description than with embodying the intangible.  

I still have six books of hers to read, and 4 more to track down and read thereafter, but I doubt they’ll change my judgment of Shaw: carefully observant, fresh and evocative, somewhat familiar in subject and tone to those fond of CS Lewis (while different in form).  I commend her to you all as a poet who will refresh your soul.


My beloved Mark Forsyth noted last January that he has two tsundoku (“a pile of books you’ve bought and haven’t got round to reading yet”).

I have something like that.

First, I have The Pile of Books I’ve Read, But Want to Review Before Returning to the Library:


Then, the Pile of Shavian Poetry (thankfully Luci’s, not George Bernard’s):


Then, the Pile of Apple Books – i.e., the books I took one bite of, and then put down to take a bite of something else.  If I’m not careful I shall have to make a bucket of applesauce.  So to speak.


All that said, since I took these pictures, I’ve managed to remove a couple books from each pile.  Hurrah!

What’s in your tsundoku?

Kenning the Body

“If you treated anyone else as you have treated yourself during the past six hours, you would be guilty of assault.  This will cease.  From this moment on, you will show your body the respect it deserves as God’s creation.  You will allow your arms to heal and then you will embark on a sensible and moderate course of physical therapy.  You will eat regularly.  You will rest properly.  You will care for your own body as you would for that of a friend to whom you are indebted.  …During these months and for all time, you will cease to arrogate to yourself responsibility that lies elsewhere.  Is that clear?”

– Vincenzo Giuliani in The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell


Your fleshhouse and bones-chamber
is the hall of your soul.

Vessel of clay it may be,
but by God
its contents are precious:
your sinew and skeleton garment
is your spirit’s place.

Do not destroy the potter’s work.

Stop fretting on all those slender jars
and their busy shining use;
be emptied, be filled,
emptied, filled,
to glorious ends.

Fill your heart’s coffer
and mindhoard
as filling the home
for your friend
and your lord.

In Natales et Pascha concurrentes

It is, for a little while yet, the 25th of March: the day the Church celebrates the Annunciation, whereby the Word was made Flesh.

It is also Friday, and we call this Friday good: for it is the day our Lord Jesus Christ climbed the shameful gallows-tree, transforming its shame to glory, trampling down death by death, bearing all sin in His sinless body to save us from our sin.

That these two great days occur together is apt, and rare; it will not occur again for 141 years.  On that account, John Donne wrote a poem (both here, and in the 2 prior links).  George Herbert also wrote a poem on the subject (item 67), this one in Latin, and that is the one I wanted to share:

Cum tu, Christe, cadis, nascor; mentémque ligavit
Una meam membris horula, téque cruci.
O me disparibus natum cum numine fatis!
Cur mihi das vitam, quam tibi, Christe, negas?
Quin moriar tecum: vitam, quam negligis ipse,
Accipe; ni talem des, tibi qualis erat.
Hoc mihi legatum tristi si funere præstes,
Christe, duplex fiet mors tua vita mihi:
Atque ibi per te sanctificer natalibus ipsis,
In vitam, et nervos Pascha coæva fluet.

Translated the best I can (after years without Latin practice, but with the benefit of some dictionaries):

When you, O Christ, fall, I rise;* it bound both my mind
And one of my members a little while, with you on the cross.
O how unlike, to me, that birth from the divine will now spoken!
Why do you give me life, when for yourself, Christ, you reject it?
I would even die with you: life, which itself you disregard,
Receive: unless you give such, as was given to you.
This would be a sad legacy for me if you would bestow death,
Christ, your death will doubly be made my life:
And yet, when I would be sanctified through your birth itself,
In life, and strength, your Passion coeval will flow.

*Alternately: When you, O Christ, die, I am born…

A friend has offered this (far superior) rendering:

As you die, o Christ, I am born: and my mind is bound
a little while with your limbs, to the Cross.
O what different destinies – of the man born, and the god.
Why do you give me life, which you, O Christ, renounce?
That I might die with you; take from me the life that you misprize [disregard],
unless you give to me a suffering similar to yours [??]
And if you grant to me – miserable creature – such a death,
o Christ, then your death would doubly be made my life.
And thus might my birth be sanctified to you
in life, and strength will flow from your sacrifice.

The Ships – A Prose Poem by CP Cavafy

From Imagination to the Blank Page.  A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous.  At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.

Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.

And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.

Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.

Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.

Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

Devonian Corals

petoskey collection

A friend recommended the poetry of Robert Hass to me, which is why I spent half of a weekend this summer in the library reading his Time and Materials cover to cover. This might not be the best method for poetic appreciation – rather like a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole for later digestion – but it proves more effective than returning the book unread.

One poem in particular, “State of the Planet,” arrested me mid-read. Composed for a conference of the same name, it meditates on Earth’s history and considers man’s place within it.  The principle focus is certain environmental problems: polluted, overfished, carrying on nonetheless. Hass imagines a Californian schoolgirl, both as an allusion to future generations of stewards, and to ruminate on how one learns about the world. There are friendly textbooks and voices of authority instructing her about the cosmos, as well as the informative delights of experience: raindrops pelting her crimson backpack, copper-colored Japanese plums, leaning into the face of the wind, the possibility of Petoskeys.

That last was what made me pause, the fifth section in:

If she lived in Michigan or the Ukraine,
She’d find, washed up on the beach in a storm like this
Limestone fossils of Devonian coral. She could study
The faint white markings: she might have to lick the stone
To see them if the wind was drying the pale surface
Even as she held it, to bring back the picture of what life
Looked like forty millions years ago: a honeycomb with mouths.

It grabbed me, but oddly: no one ever bothers calling a Petoskey stone a fossil of Devonian coral. Possibly it was his way of including Charlevoix stones, or whatever folks in the Ukraine call their particular coral fossils; theirs wouldn’t be named for Chief Petosogay like ours are.

More than the mention of Michigan, I was caught by she might lick the stone, which squares up so neatly with reality.

Dry petoskeys Wet Petoskeys

However lovely it is to walk a Michigan beach – or swim, or read, or watch a sunset – the rocks are my greatest lure. Peering at them, poring over them, eyes peeled for that particular array of hexagons, those faint lines made distinct by the wash of a wave.

As Hass notes, it’s more difficult when the stones are dry. Licking the stone is the quickest test if you’ve stepped away from the shore.

I love this about them: that they hide, even as you look at them, especially when you take them further from the water. That mute honeycomb cries out, long after the coral has died, to be returned to the sea.

Petoskey stones

Yogh and Ash and Thorn

Last week Back in May, I shared Peter Bellamy’s setting of Rudyard Kipling, noting that I’d stumbled over it thanks to the glory and munificence of the internet.

More specifically, I was contemplating Anglo-Saxon words that start with an ash or a thorn, and came across this parody by Catherine Faber:

Yogh and Ash and Thorn

Some time between the year fourteen-ought-five and -fifty-one
There was a strange and radical change in spoken English done.
These letters all but past recall should not be held in scorn;
The rose in May must go the way of yogh and ash and thorn.

Yogh and ash and thorn good sirs, mouldering vellum adorn;
Here do we see mortality in yogh and ash and thorn.

Yogh to me resembles a three a little bit flattened above
And sound denotes so low in the throat as only the Dutch could love
Yet now is found both letter and sound discarded and forlorn;
Remember you are mortal too, like yogh and ash and thorn.

A “b” with a tail, thorn didn’t prevail, but though it lost the race
It takes a pair of letters to wear the shoes to take its place,
And a and e an ash will be when back to back they are bourne;
Into dark the passing mark of yogh and ash and thorn.

“Vowel shift” said somebody miffed, “It’s more like a hey or a bransle
“Letter and sound keep swapping around and ‘hands about go all!'”
Some were stored and some ignored and some were mangled and torn,
Caught up in the rout as vowels fell out with yogh and ash and thorn.

Time must be an enemy that ever ending brings–
Even word-fame cannot be heard when words are mortal things.
Some clever cuss in studying us some distant future morn
Will find us surely strange to her as yogh and ash and thorn.

Rich and strangely words will change in warpage under use
But why in past it happened so fast Gude Godde only knoos.**
We work the sum of what we become from where and how we are born.
And hold these three in memory: yogh and ash and thorn!