“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This beatitude has always puzzled me: what, I’ve wondered, does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? So I was drawn to Fleda Brown’s poem “Poverty of Spirit,” hoping it would elucidate the concept. What I found was a fascinating narrative: of the speaker letting a wagonload of gypsies take everything—everything—that was stashed in her garage. For the speaker, this is an act of purging of sorts, a purgation that reminds her of her mortality. As she ponders whether this is true “poverty of spirit,” she uneasily recalls that among the items she passed on to the gypsies were old cans of paint “with dangerous, leachable / lead.” To whom might this lead do harm? The speaker’s poverty of spirit doesn’t feel so pure to her now. I admire the poem for ending with this quandary, with an emptiness, a poverty, that feels more a nothingness than a spiritual good.
Tina and her gypsy women roll in
with their wagon, storm the garage in their boots, shorts,
and bleached hair. I let them take everything, cheaply
—illegally—I know it when she says
don’t worry about the paint cans, she has this pit
behind her house, and the other things
she can burn. It’s the fires of hell, dying birds,
poisoned wells. I also regret the wood, one perfectly clear
eighty-year-old four-by-six, some original
cedar siding, and other straight pieces, but they’re laughing and
smoking and things are flying
out of the garage, and Tina’s in the wagon like God Almighty, retying
her red bandana, arranging the past
into a party,
and then the wind blows through
the emptiness, the scent of dryness,
July and its bad habits, and I am surer than usual that I will die,
that my soul is exactly the same room it was before
it collected the skin and bones, that it will be back
to that eventually. I get up off the bank, wipe my hands
on my jeans, kind of a prayer for forgiveness, trying for a poverty
of spirit, the right kind you choose
item by item, not letting it get out of hand
like nuclear fission.
______Old paint with dangerous, leachable
lead, now I’ve said it, that’s the critique
of me I was looking for. And then I pick mint and chew a few
leaves, rough and sharp, a taste that’s more
than half smell, and then I sweep out dry leaves and swing the doors
shut, spin the combination lock, which is 12-0-45, not
that it matters, unless I need to check
later, to see how much nothing there is
in there, to work with.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Fleda Brown
Fleda Brown’s eighth collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy, was published in 2013 by BOA Editions, LTD. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press. She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007.
The above image is by Scott Meyers and is used with permission under a Creative Commons license.