My husband and I are in a flurry of dealing with the “stuff” in our lives. Had to replace the old stove, then the broken couch. Then discovered that the old table lamps next to the old couch were too low for the higher replacement couch…so off we went to shop for new lamps. And along the way traded in the old car for its newer model.
Next my husband told me that the garage roof is crumbling and needs replacing.
“It’s stewardship,” he said, trying to dignify the unwelcome news.
But I was drained from this frenzy of stewardship, dizzy from all the decisions about stuff I don’t ultimately care about. Yes, I’m grateful to have the cash to buy these things; grateful to the recent inheritance that has paid for them.
But suddenly I said to myself “I need poetry.”
What I meant was that my whole being was starved for reflection. Instead of the constant trivial decision-making of shopping, my mind and spirit craved the deepening reflectiveness that good poetry brings.
As if on cue, the new issue of Image (#69) came in the mail. And the poem that caught my eye was Michael White’s “Woman Holding a Balance”—because balance was what I was sorely in need of holding. And as I read the poem and saw that it was indeed about balancing our material “stuff” in the light of what really matters, I gradually felt all my consumer-frenzy dissolve.
White’s poem takes its title from the Vermeer painting which the poem describes. No, “describes” is too weak a word for what this poem does.
Better: White’s imagination enters the painting, lets the painting’s extraordinary details play in his mind and spirit, and finds words—and spacings—not only for what the painting looks like but also for how it creates a spiritual presence.
If the painting-within-the-painting, hanging on the wall
behind the standing woman—
with its sinners wailing at Christ’s feet on Judgment Day—
if that might be one way
of looking at it, then the woman herself, who half
obscures the painting, is
So White’s poem beings. And it stays then for a while with the woman. Her aspect of utterly attentive tranquility draws from the poet words like “beneficent” and “blessing.”
And then he moves to what I’m aching for a new perspective on: the stuff in front of her:
Objects here are neither more
nor less than what they seem
to be: the table, for instance, offering itself—
the ornate carvings of
its vase-shaped legs—to the benediction of her touch….
For she is famously holding in one hand a small scale, in perfect balance, with nothing at all on it. Nothing, the poet writes, “except sun-glint.” So all the material stuff of our lives is as nothing—especially when seen in sunlight against the dark backdrop of the Judgment Day in the painting behind the woman.
White details some of that painting’s horror (“the Bosch-like spirits writhe in faceless terror”) before drawing us back to focus on the woman whose silent, unmoving “certitude / suspended in the air” shows us how to live in the light of ultimate matters.
So this is a post about a poem about a painting and its painting-within-the-painting (sounds a bit like the house that Jack built).
How, it makes me wonder, can we live without art (I mean all the arts, verbal and visual and performative)?
Without the shaping and distilling and re-envisioning of experience that art gives us—whether that experience is of life’s major moments or just the stuff of every day. About ten years ago, I wrote for Image an essay called “Why We Need the Arts in Time of War.”
Now I’m thinking: we need the arts at all times.
At least I do.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.