These two poems by Deborah Cummins are from her new book, Until They Catch Fire. Although the poems were written before our current lockdown, they address questions of how we face difficult situations and continue to live in gratitude and hope. In “A Prayer” Cummins does not shy away from the devastations of the world, but includes as well the small gifts and miracles that allow us to continue walking “not toward death, but into the radiant life.” In her poem “Moth” she gives us a beautifully precise description of the creature she observes, and allows us to imagine the metaphorical possibilities.
Deborah Cummins is the author of two poetry collections and a collection of personal essays. She served as the first board chair of the Poetry Foundation, and is currently serving as board president of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance (MWPA). She lives with her husband in Portland and Deer Isle. Her new book, Until They Catch Fire, is due out from Deerbrook Editions.
Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry Editor
Not just to whomever we kneel to,
raise our arms or chant to,
but to the silent constellations poking through
the night sky’s fabric light-years away,
the trees bowing down to a wind
they’ll never see.
A prayer for limbless children in Aleppo,
the earth’s poles turning to slush,
another mass grave in Sarajevo,
black teen-agers gunned down on city streets.
A plea for the girl heading to the stream
through an old minefield waiting to sprout
at her next step, for the boy who pauses,
reconsiders strapping on his suicide vest.
Pray that the woman on the bridge isn’t a jumper
and the man pressing a gun
against the roof of his mouth will think twice.
Let’s bow to the river not needing us
to make its music, and to a new mother’s
breasts flush with milk. And sure, why not
to the hornet wasps? Supplicate before the ones
not yet building their nest in the eaves.
Pray, too, for the cat about to streak
across a busy four-lane highway,
and tree frogs emptying their throats
about things we’ll never know.
Deliver us not another Syrian toddler
drowned, bobbing in the current, washed ashore
like flotsam on the sand, his little shoes
still strapped on for the journey
his mother vowed that morning
would take them to a safer place.
Ask forgiveness for our anger
at all who wronged him. Wrong him still.
Recognize the miracles of peacefully turning over
in our sleep, soaping up in a steamy shower.
Rejoice in clean water spilling from our taps,
the rain at last falling on a parched river bed,
phones that readily connect us to ailing parents,
the snow to be shoveled, the leaves to rake,
the oncoming driver who stays in his lane.
Go ahead, transform into a rising choir
each revolution of tires made by a husband’s car,
the children’s bikes, carrying them safely home.
Bow down to the rubber-capped vials of blood
free of markers, blasts, any errant cells,
to the unbroken bones, the retina unscorched,
the rescuers who break down the door
in a fiery building to haul out strangers.
Be grateful that from somewhere deep,
whales, unwitnessed by human eyes, breach.
Be grateful tectonic plates don’t heave
beneath another major city, that a son
isn’t sentenced to jail and a daughter stops
carving into the flesh of her inner arm.
Pray that each step to the mailbox, the refrigerator,
the ATM is just one of many in our long
one-way journey, our little dance
against a backdrop of eternity.
Pray for learning how to better love
the fullness of our days.
Maybe it is a miracle we don’t stumble every day,
stagger beneath the terror of what we all know.
Our families, friends, the panhandler telling
the same story on the same corner every afternoon,
the student not old enough to know
what he’ll never accomplish – all of us
are going to die. Even the infant
born in a manger was heading to the cross.
And yet, poured into our fragile vessels
that for a time hold and propel us, we march
not toward death but into radiant life.
Drawn by a candle’s stammering,
some promise of glimmer now guttered,
a moth on the screen this morning
held fast through the night, its intricate patterns
flocked arrangements in dust.
In this world of forms, how amazing
to have in a lifetime several.
Caterpillar. Chrysalis. Or is it cocoon?
Does molt apply? Or, given such changes,
a rending? Whatever the casing,
did it hold her shape after,
the way, say, of a plaster cast
sawed from a healed arm or clavicle?
Imagine waking to the wonderment
of wings, their slow unfolding,
instinctive flight from twiggy branch or trunk,
from some place visible, solid.
Soon, with enough morning sun, she’ll resume
her brief, perilous dance, her motor
silently cranking, no mind clicking.
Of course she didn’t have to know
that to rise into such light, her vision
no longer blocked, she first had to surrender
to a small unhasped vault.
Image at top: Nora Tryon, We Are All Witnesses, monoprint, 16 x 20 in.