“Attentive to the Grace of the Ordinary”
A Review of
Harvesting Fog: Poems
by Luci Shaw.
Reviewed by Jennifer Merri Parker.
Harvesting Fog: Poems.
Paperback: Pinyon Publishing, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
At a recent literary festival I had the privilege of hearing Luci Shaw read from her lately published collection of poems, Harvesting Fog. Shortly afterward, standing near a table where she was signing copies of her books, I overheard an admirer’s brief exchange with the warm and personable poet, who had just thanked her for attending the reading. “Thank you,” the young woman replied, her voice full of emotion, “for helping us to see.” It was an appropriate expression of gratitude, I thought, towards a writer whose singular giftedness involves prodigious attention to the minute, mundane, and easily overlooked details, and the ability to discover unexpected meaning, even deep spiritual significance, in them all. The effect is awe-inspiring to those of us unused to straddling that fault line where the mundane and the mysterious bump and jostle one another and occasionally overlap.
However, as Shaw herself would probably insist, the poet lives on that line or—at least—goes there habitually. A poet’s work, as she describes it, is to keep “a foot in both the concrete, visible world and the ephemeral, invisible world, translating the experience of a spiritual realm into word pictures in order to bring a whiff of heaven to earth” (3). What Shaw sees from this vantage is what she shares with her readers, the everyday revelations of glory and grace in even the most ordinary moments of human experience. In Harvesting Fog, she offers a collection of such moments, rendered in beautifully resonant language, articulating the sacredness and significance of life in a world at once beautiful and broken.
I have always welcomed the perennials
but today I celebrate weeds. The arrival of
horse-tails, their primitive vigor thrusting up
under the fence as if the Third Day of Creation
were just yesterday. In penance, as redemption,
I will begin to touch the earth more lightly,
remembering to walk barefoot in the soft
forest so that I make no bruit or break…
(40, “Gardener’s Remorse”)
The book’s fifty-nine poems are divided into two sections , “Harvest” and “Fog,” each of which exemplifies the richness and variety of Shaw’s thought life as she moves from sensory or physical impressions to spiritual reflections. Before taking the reader on that journey, however, she offers an informative travel guide in the form of “a fore word.” It begins with an anecdotal explanation of her chosen title, a story perhaps every bit as intriguing as the poems that follow. Shaw tells of a National Geographic article she’d been reading some months earlier, in which she stumbled across what almost certainly would have been, to most readers, no more than an interesting bit of climatological trivia; processed by her poetic imagination, however, it became a rich metaphor as well.
The National Geographic piece described Lima, Peru, a coastal city where rainfall is scarce, yet high humidity results in a “persistent clammy fog” on which the residents depend for their water supply. Shaw says she was “transfixed” to discover the way locals in Lima have adapted, hanging rags and nets on their clotheslines and over balcony rails until these moisture catchers are saturated from the mist. The residents wring out the water they’ve collect again and again throughout the year, as a means of survival they call “harvesting fog” (1).
This activity, practical and mundane as it may be for the Peruvians, is not unlike writing poems, Shaw asserts. “Something’s in the air, a word, an impression, a rhythmic phrase, a sound, a small connection. You grab it and then you catch more drops and pool them altogether, and wring some fresh meaning out of them, and as if by miracle this mystery … becomes a new entity that satisfies a thirsty imagination.” She goes on to describe the relationship of the writer to this process, the careful crafter of poetry or fiction who watches, listens, and feels her way through the world, gathering specific details and impressions, distilling them through the filter of wonder into words that in turn “tell you where they want to go, as if they too were thirsty to find their meaning in a universe full of possibilities” (Ibid.). This is the work of harvesting, which Shaw sees as vital and sacramental, and which happens where the writer’s mind remains open to possibility, attentive to the grace of the ordinary, and poised to partake of life’s mystery.
Several ideas emerge as subtly recurring motifs or themes for further development throughout the collection. In the first section, “Harvest,” Shaw is especially concerned with the wonders of nature and physical, sensory experiences as well as with artistic creation. For instance, what begins as the poet’s playful observation, in “Prism,” of the movement of a bit of reflected light—a rainbow beetle—across a page of text eventually takes on the tone of an artist’s heartfelt invocation of the muse: “I welcome you, small envoy of colored light,/ as you begin to write your own story on my skin” (9). Shaw continues in the next poem, “I Say Light, Thinking”(10), to draw poetic connections between visible light, the act of writing, and divine inspiration.
And when light
comes from nowhere I can see,
When my soul is clothed in
golden bandages, ribbons of grace,
how can I tell you? Or even tell myself
so I can write it down? No words
are bright enough to catch
those fingerprints of radiance
that flicker on my wall.
In another poem, “Reconstruction” (12), Shaw uses the tenuous, nature-based and always temporary creations of artist Andy Goldsworthy as a metaphor for God’s constant repair and restoration of his fragile human handiwork. Meanwhile, “Obedience,” is a fairly direct reflection on the writing life and divine inspiration, where the artist’s fingers hover over her keyboard until, led to “a better word,” she feels the influence of the Creator “caring for details,” and “filling cracks” for her (13).
Birth and death, nativity and mortality, are also important topics of exploration in Harvesting Fog, along with the comforts and discomforts of incarnation. Some of the poems, particularly in the “Fog” section, are piercing in their poignancy on the topic of aging, loss, and the approach of death. Still, while “Leaf, Fallen” and “To the Edge” evoke the sorrow of inevitable endings, they also acknowledge the freedom of releasing those to whom we cling, and the fortitude to be found in belief in the eternal. And Shaw’s “Weight Loss,” even encourages a sense of humor about it all, an agreement with and embrace of “life’s/ Gentle finality—/Its gradual knife” (16).
Yet some of Shaw’s most beautiful meditations on humanity here focus on the adopted humanity of Christ, his incarnation, and his followers’ need to reconnect, bodily, with the “ancient story” of his advent. In “Then and Now”(19) she writes:
… I need to live my lack, to feel
three or more dimensions, shivers
of color, of cold—thick dark, with a whiff
of straw, and maybe a winter star
through a doorway.
All at once
I’m there, lifting the new one
in my arms, this small sack of God
slung safe in my elbow’s crook,
comfort warm as blood seeping
through the swaddle.
Where Shaw leaves off meditating on the divine and timeless, she quickly returns to exploration of the human and fleeting. The poems in Harvesting Fog point to all kinds of brief, sacramental encounters with people, objects, and places. In Shaw’s hands, such encounters are illuminated as sacred moments in a temporal existence, marked by eternal significance. The almost-meeting of two tourists on a bus is hailed as “a fragment in history, a swift /receding. That flash-point when/ the future brushes against the past…” (78). In other moments, other encounters, the ministrations of a masseuse are perceived as a spiritual cleansing and anointing; herbs are addressed with antiphonal reverence; symbols of Christ are seen everywhere, from a floral tattoo to the image of Dante floating in the Arno River, arms flung wide. These and other images build upon one another in Shaw’s work, reinforcing her ideas with powerful symbolism. The result is an emerging sense of the beauty and poignancy of this world, its mystery and meaningfulness, with perhaps just a hint of the sweet savor of the world to come … a whiff of heaven.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com