Each Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.
I like a poem to surprise me, and Marjorie Stelmach’s “Canticle of Want” (Image issue 86) is full of the unexpected. Recently I’ve been praying St. Francis’s famous “Canticle”: “All praise be yours, My Lord, through all that you have made.” But Stelmach’s initial address to the Lord is far from praise; it lists images of a nature that’s worn down, stunted, in ruin. Then later there’s this shock: “No one doubts who owns the heavens: // American drones…” The overall longing of the poem—its “want”—is for a Lord whose “good intentions” we can believe in, a Lord we can feel in tune with. But the closing lines suggest that our mortality separates us permanently from the “Lord, whose name is Everlasting.” There’s more, too, in the poem that keeps pulling me into it: the base iambic pentameter beat over which alliteration intones, while the “want” (as both verb and noun) pulses its yearning.
Lord of worn stone cliffs and the guileless trill
of the canyon wren; Lord of stunted hemlocks,
imperiled mussels, seeds that fall on shallow soil;
Lord of boreal forests, of the fragile
nitrogen cycle, of vanishing aquifers, spreading
deserts; Lord of neglect and carelessness,
of greed and depletion, of the doleful cry
of the violin, of the loon; Lord of ruin
and desperate rescue, of remnant, ragtag,
making do, you too must want as fiercely
as we do, your world being almost nothing
Here, twilight breezes traverse the furrows
to bury all manner of wanton seeds among
our crops; a red-shouldered hawk wheels and
watches; its shadow wheels and is watched;
a harvest moon, drastically magnified, rises—
a deception no science has yet explained,
so much here remains beyond us. For ages,
our kind has studied this earth; we have yet
to discern your purpose. How badly we want
to believe in your good intentions.
For centuries, monks copied scripture in inks
concocted from hawthorn, salts, and wine.
They lived in vigilance, hidden away, recording
your hints and evasions; they died
of their times and a heritable briefness. Today,
no one doubts who owns the heavens:
American drones cross invisibly over
invisible borders; refugees trudge toward
rumors of air drops. Wide-eyed in the dark hours,
we children of plenty labor over our lives,
documenting our days in a light we have found
no way to erase. We want so much not to be
lost sight of. Want, equally, to escape all notice.
Soon every moonrise will be our last. Lord,
whose name is Everlasting, how can you begin
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Marjorie Stelmach
Marjorie Stelmach’s fourth volume of poems is Without Angels (Mayapple). Previous volumes include A History of Disappearance and Bent upon Light (both from Tampa). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, and Prairie Schooner. She lives in Saint Louis.