Loretto (a poem)

I’ve spent a lot of time in my senior seminar course in the early part of this semester talking about writing, and specifically about the limits and foibles of academic social science writing. I encouraged the students to read widely and write write write, including reading and writing things that challenge their normal interests and conventions, and many of them said they already do this. I do it less than I would like, so I took a turn at something completely outside my wheelhouse with the poem below. I was inspired to do so (via example rather than direct suggestion, just so no one but me has to take the blame) by friends and colleagues here in Windsor who write gloriously and emphatically, and do so with utmost attention to the way poetry forces you to consider parallels, symmetry, meter, and metaphor in your expression. This was really difficult, and maybe I’ll never write anything like this again, but in the meantime, I am happy with this and hope you find something in it. Special thanks to colleague and comrade Stephen Pender for his comments, and for directing me, many months ago, to consider the position of the Virgin Mary’s hands.

My granny lived in a house with a tin roof
shaded by an enormous old oak tree
The Virgin stood in an overturned washtub,
palms up in her blue cloak, distributing grace
to the passing drunks from the Cozy Corner
I spent my time at her wide kitchen table
reading the farmer’s almanac, listening
as she’d tell us to count the fogs in August,
and to watch how high the squirrels build their nests,
and to mark black and brown on the woolly worms
and I leafed through the two calendars she kept
one from the local bank and one from the church
listing astral signs and lunar phases and
the feast days of the saints, and I remember
wondering how anyone could keep it straight
all these wide overlapping circles of time

There were no washtub Virgins in the suburbs
while an August fog only meant you got damp
waiting for the school bus, and in science class
we learned abstraction, equation, reduction
But we never learned to take winter’s measure
by divining summer’s yield and autumn’s mast
or to feel scarcity in that primal way
which demands a practical working knowledge
of the lives of trees and herbs and animals,
of how to hull a walnut and dress a deer,
of how to can and cure, and how each wood burns
What did we lose when granny died in her sleep
just short of ninety-one, and we never found
her recipe for liver hash, or her list
of all our cousins’ birthdays, and we had to
distribute what grace remained among ourselves