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:

St. John of the Cross, “Living Flame of Love” [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 St. John of the Cross’ poem “Living Flame of Love” taken from The Poems of St. John of the Cross edited and translated by Marjorie Flower, OCD. St. John of the Cross was a 16th century priest and Carmelite monk greatly influenced by St. Teresa of Avila. He is best known for his spiritual poetry and writings such as Dark Night of the Soul.


Flame, alive, compelling,
yet tender past all telling,
reaching the secret center of my soul!
Since now evasion’s over,
finish your work, my Lover,
break the last thread,
wound me and make me whole!

Burn that is for my healing!
Wound of delight past feeling!
Ah, gentle hand whose touch is a caress,
foretaste of heaven conveying
and every debt repaying:
slaying, you give me life for death’s distress.

O lamps of fire bright-burning
with splendid brilliance, turning
deep caverns of my soul to pools of light!
Once shadowed, dim, unknowing,
now their strange new-found glowing
gives warmth and radiance for my Love’s delight.

Ah, gentle and so loving
you wake within me, proving
that you are there in secret, all alone;
your fragrant breathing stills me
your grace, your glory fills me
so tenderly your love becomes my own.


Previous poems in this series:

Rainer Maria Rilke, “It’s Possible” [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 Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “It’s Possible” taken from his Das Stundenbuch or A Book for the Hours of Prayer. This rendering of the poem was translated by Robert Bly. Rilke was a 19th and 20th century German poet whose lyrical style often explored themes of the inner life.


It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief—
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.


Previous poems in this series:

John Milton, “On His Blindness” [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 John Milton’s poem “When I consider how my light is spent” from The Complete Poems. John Milton was a 17th century poet and essayist, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers in the English language. This poem traces his slow decline into physical blindness that also leads the poet to engage with suffering and divine providence.


When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”


Previous poems in this series:

Tu Fu, “Clear After Rain” [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 Tu Fu’s poem “Clear After Rain” translated by Kenneth Rexroth from Collected Shorter Poems. Tu Fu is an 8th century Chinese poet, widely considered to be the greatest poet of the Tang Dynasty.

Autumn, cloud blades on the horizon.
The west wind blows from ten thousand miles.
Dawn, in the clear morning air,
Farmers busy after long rain.
The desert trees shed their few green leaves.
The mountain pears are tiny but ripe.
A Tartar flute plays by the city gate.
A single wild goose climbs into the void.


Previous poems in this series: