By Wintery Light

Maybe it’s this long winter intersecting with Lent.  Maybe it’s just the personal season I’m in.  Or maybe it’s the combination of bitter cold and lingering illness that has kept me inside so much these last months–but winter, which always feels pensive to me, seems especially so this year.

In the midst of an extremely busy semester, our college has undertaken a campus-wide study of sabbath, a challenge to consider the richness promised when we come into the right balance.  So it feels critical this week to intentionally gentle the pace and reflect.

As an English professor that means turning to text.  To help us with a seasonal lectio divina, if you will, I offer two poems to help you find ways to slow down today: Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” and Tess Gallagher’s “Choices.” I don’t want to over-determine your reading here by interpreting too much about the poems, but I am struck by the possibilities–for contemplation and for celebration–that each alerts us to in the distinct lighting and landscapes of this chilly season.

Emily Dickinson, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” #320

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –

 

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

 

Tess Gallagher, “Choices”

I go to the mountain side

of the house to cut saplings,

and clear a view to snow

on the mountain. But when I look up,

saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in

the uppermost branches.

I don’t cut that one.

I don’t cut the others either.

Suddenly, in every tree,

an unseen nest

where a mountain

would be.

 

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

2 Comments

  • Dawn Boelkins says:

    Thank you for the “Choices” poem. I was unfamiliar with it, but it’s just right for this bitterly cold and beautiful day.

  • Right after reading your post, Jennifer, I walked to the Morgan Museum and Library and saw a wonderful installation titled “A Certain Slant of Light.” Lovely and serendipitous.

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