There was a time, early in my process of conversion to Christianity, when I took Simone Weil as my spiritual guide. And a tough one she was—exactly in the ways that Betsy Sholl elaborates in this poem. The epigraph that Sholl chooses is one of Weil’s many expressions of how the self gets in our way if we want to get to God: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” The void, for Weil, is the human person totally emptied of self. Sholl brilliantly goes deep inside this core concept of Weil’s and fleshes is out by dramatizing it as a lively beach scene of boys blowing up balloons. So Sholl can at once be playful (“the boys…blowing off gravity” as they let the balloons go skyward) and also as serious as Weil herself (“I read / you’d like to be blown away, see a landscape / as it is when I am not there—as if the self // blocks God the way bodies block light.” Sholl’s title, by the way, is the title of the first compilation of Weil’s essays published after her death.
Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter
where there is a void to receive it…
Simone Weil, it’s hard to concentrate on you
with those three boys on the next bench
blowing up balloons and letting them go,
all squirt and grunt, fizzling into—
the void, I think you’d say. And leaving
a void too—if spent breath becomes exhaust,
if everything we do ends up empty.
So prayer, you’d add, becomes a little death
as we pour our desires into words
that fill to bursting, then leave our lips
to corkscrew and sputter into thin air,
selfless, anonymous enough to rise.
Now the boys race up the slide, all high-fives
and laughter, blowing off gravity, while I read
you’d like to be blown away, see a landscape
as it is when I am not there—as if the self
blocks God the way bodies block light.
Thus your executor was to destroy
all record of your mind—those notebooks filled
with stark meditations as Hitler railed,
as death camps filled and ghettos burned. Love is
not consolation, you wrote, it is light,
meaning that fierce headlamp of attention
which leaves the self in shadow and trains
its high beam on that void where prisoners
huddle under gravity’s dark weight,
and grace, if it comes, comes in secret,
to those struck dumb, trembling in the glare.
This poem was selected for Best American Poetry 2009.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Betsy Sholl
Betsy Sholl is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Late Psalm (Wisconsin). She has received the AWP Prize for Poetry, the Felix Pollak Prize, and grants from the NEA and Maine Arts Commission. She teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the Vermont College MFA program.