Poetry We Admire: Light
By Kim Harvey
For our December Poetry We Admire, we’ve curated some of the best recently published poems out there around the theme of “Light.”
This is the time of year when the days keep getting shorter and darker until the solstice finally arrives and the light begins ever so slowly its return. Light, and the return of it, is symbolic in myriad religious and cultural celebrations during the season. In addition to the winter solstice, there is the star that guided the shepherds by night in Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ and brightly colored Christmas lights on houses and in trees. There is the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and fireworks and diyas during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
This month we feature light-bringing poems from Salamander, Ice Floe Press, Black Bough Poetry, Raw Art Review, The Shore, and Rattle.
Drink in some winter moonlight. Let it shine.
For a long time I wanted
to drink a cup of winter,
to become tipsy on early
dark & longer starshine.
The thinning light
my favorite ether.
from “Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds”
by Kelly Cressio-Moeller in Salamander
I love how this poem captures the full scope of the season’s moods, starting with its romanticism and wonder, moving through loss, then surrender to the darkness and uncertainty, and finally the hope of new light. The whole poem and especially the line “I’m only a woman who con- / tinues to bury her dead” with the surprising line break in the middle of the word “continues” viscerally and rather brilliantly illustrates the particular surreal dissonance of grief when a loved one dies but the world and your life must continue, however broken. The speaker went to bed “feeling hope- / less & profoundly lonely” (another line break mid-word), but in the “morning’s early darkness” she woke to the soothing and “bewitching light” of the “fullest moon” poured into the “small bowls” of the room, and she “drank & drank.”
my stomach is full with the
excesses of leaving & staying.
does it matter what we call a thing— the safety of shadows & how the ocean is a
safe place to begin. home is a ripe avocado on my tongue: sometimes darkness
offers you light.
i can’t afford to think like the moon—
from “Autumn Leaves”
by Ojo Taiye in IceFloe Press
Taiye is a young Nigerian poet and he’s definitely someone to watch. (Of note, his Twitter tag is “wild light.”) You will see why when you read his four wonderful poems in IceFloe Press. In his poem “Autumn Leaves,” Taiye gives us this memorable line: “forgive me i can’t repair my beginning— a body agonized by light in a bevel world /without a plot.” As he says, sometimes the darkness, the vast ocean, and the “safety of shadows” is its own kind of light.
Oh, and I should mention that Taiye won the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize for his chapbook All of Us Are Birds and Some of Us Have Broken Wings– available now!
blooms in the dawn-dusk sky
from “The Star in the East”
by Iris Anne Lewis in Black Bough Poetry
The Winter/Christmas issue of Black Bough Poetry is a goldmine of poems about light. I admire this sturdy micropoem with its creative use of hyphenation/compounding to describe the winter sky and how the East Star looms, a bright light always present but hidden beyond the horizon. The way Lewis ends the poem by describing the star as shining “ox-blood-bright” simultaneously brings to mind pagan ritual and the ox and lambs beside the Christ child in the crèche. This poem is so lovely and compact, yet somehow all-encompassing.
you sliced up oranges, baked them hard
until the house was scented with orange oil
and they shone like stained glass
among the fairy lights
by Lucy Whitehead in Black Bough Poetry
In her poem, “Ornaments,” Whitehead recalls a winter when “we’d been evicted and you were let go.” With no ornaments for the Christmas tree, the poem’s “you” sliced oranges and baked them into baubles to decorate the tree, along with “a gingerbread family with icing smiles.” I love how the narrator describes the way the gingerbread bodies were “strapped to the branches with satin ribbons” and looked like “people who’d lost their parachutes.” Perfect and profound.
doused with dense, lacquered black paint
splash of blood red
field aflame with white-yellow branches
wall of hair on fire
To heap; to weld; to twist; to scorch
from “Shroud with Lead Wing”
by Heather Quinn in Raw Art Review
Quinn’s poem is a beautiful collage of metaphor and memory, an expression of trans-generational grief, and a powerful meditation on darkness and light. After the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre which occurred in the speaker’s hometown, she “walked one thousand steps / to the local temple / for a yahrzeit candle” and prepared to make her Grandma Irene’s beef stock from “cow knuckles, oxtail, marrow bones.” Then she visited the art gallery where she “received /Anselm Keifer’s paintings / like prayers,” paintings fashioned “on coarse linen / each work a shroud for the dead.” The poem shows how the speaker chose to respond to tragedy and its “impossible weight.” She made her grandmother’s bone broth, created and received art, and lit candles in remembrance of the dead. And as she and her beloved dip their “pinky fingers in the melting wax,” outside the “stars shimmer like ghosts.”
And what of your window?—where
the light fails me entirely, where
you read these lines
despite this failing. Friend:
let us tie each frayed photon
into a new, far-reaching braid.
Light needs such quiet, gentle work.
from “An Invitation to Light”
by Benjamin Cutler in The Shore
Another poet to watch is Benjamin Cutler, who has multiple Pushcart Prize nominations this year. His first full-length poetry collection, THE GEESE WHO MIGHT BE GODS, is available now from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. In his poem, “An Invitation to Light,” Cutler asks, “What is distance but a failure of light?” He describes “the third and fourth folds /
of mountain: how they pale / like lips bruised blue with need / of breath.” The poem is replete with gorgeous imagery. The narrator intimately addresses the reader as “friend” and invites us to share in creating a stronger braid of light so that we might together extend its reach.
You should know that the circus is holographic now—
whips are muted beams of light, the elephants,
like holy ghosts
from “Letter to My Mother, One Year After Her Death”
by Megan Merchant in Rattle
This poem is a moving and eloquent, imagery-laden exploration of how grief can sharpen you, how after a great loss the show must go on, but it will be different than before. The extended metaphor of the holographic circus is brilliantly handled and richly layered with images of light, grief, memory, loss, and longing. Merchant writes, “I’ve looked for you as leftover moon, on burnt toast, /in the wilting of leaves that hold a keyhole of light, / but mostly I pause for ravens that sling like a lasso / between the trees, anything that makes me feel alive.”
We dread the dark here, though
there’s light from some lampposts
and maple leaves reminiscing
how brilliant they were before
they dried and thickened in our gutters.
I miss what is lit from within.
from “Advent on South Hill”
by Abby E. Murray in Rattle
Sunday’s Poets Respond selection from Rattle has the speaker “walking the loop” of her neighborhood during Advent when she “can’t tell if the sun / is technically up or gone.” It’s the time of year where we are all waiting for the light, when even the “finches ditch what dazzles us / in favor of feathers grown solely / to keep them alive, a coat / the color of waiting, of slush,/
of sleeping and waking and pacing.” In her accompanying artist’s statement, I love how Murray says, “Light, like poetry, is something we can carry and wear like armor.”
As we wait for the light to return, let’s all try to remember “what is lit from within.”