Jacqueline Osherow, “Autumn Psalm” [Poetry for Ordinary Time]

I’ve enjoyed posting poetry series themed around the Christian year in the past couple of years (see “Poetry for Lent” and “Poetry for Easter“). I will continue that with a series called “Poetry for Ordinary Time.” Ordinary time includes two sections of the church year between Christmastide and Lent and Easter and Advent. The word “ordinary” here derives from the word ordinal by which the weeks are counted. Still, ordinary time does serve an opportunity to embrace the ordinary spaces and places of our lives, and the themes of the poems will express this.

Here is Jacqueline Osherow’s poem “Autumn Psalm” from The Hoopoe’s Crown: Poems. Jacqueline Osherow is a contemporary Jewish American poet whose poetry is both conversational and learned, concerned with the intricacies of faith and the weight of history.

A full year passed (the seasons keep me honest)
since I last noticed this same commotion.
Who knew God was an abstract expressionist?

I’m asking myself—the very question
I asked last year, staring out at this array
of racing colors, then set in motion

by the chance invasion of a Steller’s jay.
Is this what people mean by speed of light?
My usually levelheaded mulberry tree

hurling arrows everywhere in sight—
its bow: the out-of-control Virginia creeper
my friends say I should do something about,

whose vermilion went at least a full shade deeper
at the provocation of the upstart blue,
the leaves (half green, half gold) suddenly hyper

in savage competition with that red and blue—
tohubohu returned, in living color.
Kandinsky: where were you when I needed you?

My attempted poem would lie fallow a year;
I was so busy focusing on the desert’s
stinginess with everything but rumor.

No place even for the spectrum’s introverts—
rose, olive, gray—no pigment at all—
and certainly no room for shameless braggarts

like the ones that barge in here every fall
and make me feel like an unredeemed failure
even more emphatically than usual.

And here they are again, their fleet allure
still more urgent this time—the desert’s gone;
I’m through with it, want something fuller—

why shouldn’t a person have a little fun,
some utterly unnecessary extravagance?
Which was—at least I think it was—God’s plan

when He set up (such things are never left to chance)
that one split-second assignation
with genuine, no-kidding-around omnipotence

what, for lack of better words, I’m calling vision.
You breathe in, and, for once, there’s something there.
Just when you thought you’d learned some resignation,

there’s real resistance in the nearby air
until the entire universe is swayed.
Even that desert of yours isn’t quite so bare

and God’s not nonexistent; He’s just been waylaid
by a host of what no one could’ve foreseen.
He’s got plans for you: this red-gold-green parade

is actually a fairly detailed outline.
David never needed one, but he’s long dead
and God could use a little recognition.

He promises. It won’t go to His head
and if you praise Him properly (an autumn psalm!
Why didn’t I think of that?) you’ll have it made.

But while it’s true that my Virginia creeper praises Him,
its palms and fingers crimson with applause,
that the local breeze is weaving Him a diadem,

inspecting my tree’s uncut gold for flaws,
I came to talk about the way that violet-blue
sprang the greens and reds and yellows

into action: actual motion. I swear it’s true
though I’m not sure I ever took it in.
Now I’d be prepared, if some magician flew

into my field of vision, to realign
that dazzle out my window yet again.
It’s not likely, but I’m keeping my eyes open

though I still wouldn’t be able to explain
precisely what happened to these vines, these trees.
It isn’t available in my tradition.

For this, I would have to be Chinese,
Wang Wei, to be precise, on a mountain,
autumn rain converging on the trees,

a cassia flower nearby, a cloud, a pine,
washerwomen heading home for the day,
my senses and the mountain so entirely in tune

that when my stroke of blue arrives, I’m ready.
Though there is no rain here: the air’s shot through
with gold on golden leaves. Wang Wei’s so giddy

he’s calling back the dead: Li Bai! Du Fu!
Guys! You’ve got to see this—autumn sun!
They’re suddenly hell-bent on learning Hebrew

in order to get inside the celebration,
which explains how they wound up where they are
in my university library’s squashed domain.

Poor guys, it was Hebrew they were looking for,
but they ended up across the aisle from Yiddish—
some Library of Congress cataloger’s sense of humor:

the world’s calmest characters and its most skittish
squinting at each other, head to head,
all silently intoning some version of kaddish

for their nonexistent readers, one side’s dead
(the twentieth century’s lasting contribution)
and the other’s insufficiently learned

to understand a fraction of what they mean.
The writings in the world’s most spoken language
across from one that can barely get a minyan.

Sick of lanzmen, the yidden are trying to engage
the guys across the aisle in some conversation:
How, for example, do you squeeze an image
into so few words, respectfully asks Glatstein.
Wang Wei, at first, doesn’t understand the problem
but then he shrugs his shoulders, mumbles Zen
… but, please, I, myself, overheard a poem,
in the autumn rain, once, on a mountain.
How do you do it? I believe it’s called a psalm?

Glatstein’s cronies all crack up in unison.
Okay, groise macher, give him an answer.
But Glatstein dons his yarmulke (who knew he had one?)

and starts the introduction to the morning prayer,
Pisukei di zimrah, psalm by psalm.
Wang Wei is spellbound, the stacks’ stale air

suddenly a veritable balm
and I’m so touched by these amazing goings-on
that I’ve forgotten all about the autumn

staring straight at me: still alive, still golden.
What’s gold, anyway, compared to poetry?
a trick of chlorophyll, a trick of sun.

True. It was something, my changing tree
with its perfect complement: a crimson vine,
both thrown into panic by a Steller’s jay,

but it’s hard to shake the habit of digression.
Wandering has always been my people’s way
whether we’re in a desert or narration.

It’s too late to emulate Wang Wei
and his solitary years on that one mountain
though I’d love to say what I set out to say

just once. Next autumn, maybe. What’s the occasion?
Glatstein will shout over to me from the bookcase
(that is, if he’s paying any attention)

and, finally, I’ll look him in the face.
Quick. Out the window, Yankev. It’s here again.

Previous poems in this series:

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