“Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine. / Yet our children played in the path between our houses.”

No, by Joy Harjo

Like a testimony meeting that starts sweet but grows tiresome, a poetry compilation can begin as a pleasure and end as an ordeal. In both cases they feel enjoyable at the outset but run too long, or they become stuck in the rut of one mood or theme.

Such was the case as I made my way through American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. Compiled by Tracy K. Smith during her recent term as United States Poet Laureate, the collection’s title succinctly describes what you’ll find inside. I deliberately worked my way through slowly, reading each poem at least twice before moving to the next. In my notes, I remarked about how much sadness I was finding. The quality was high, yet the reading of it grew tiresome.

Take it from 50 poets acting as witnesses, we Americans are hurting. We have good days. We all seem to find causes and people worth fighting for (or against). Still, we carry a lot of sadness. And social networks, which beam out how painfully far apart we are on big issues, simultaneously keep us crammed together and irritable. That must be why the above lines caught hold of me.

“We wake as if surprised the other is still there, / each petting the sheet to be sure. … O, how we entertain the angels / with our brief animation.”

Object Permanence by Nicole Sealey

As part of my volunteering at an animal shelter, I often read to dogs. It’s an enrichment activity intended to calm them. I get in the kennel and begin reading aloud, but I refrain from talking to or petting the dog. Moreover, I avoid making eye contact. This passive encounter is meant to be the opposite of their often over-stimulating encounters with humans at the shelter. If all goes well, after about 20 minutes of calm and steady reading, even a stressed dog will relax.

One of my favorite sessions was with a timid older pit bull. She started out sitting at attention on the farthest corner of her cot. After about 15 minutes, she finally ceased sitting upright and curled up on her blanket. I read on another 10 minutes, feeling pride for having soothed a pit bull to sleep. Then I glanced over at her. She was curled up, but also wide awake and staring intently at me. So much for avoiding eye contact. Oh well, I’m still counting it as a success story.

On another note, I love how the above swatch of intimate poetry suddenly invokes angels. I do love invoking angels. After all, I’m a Mormon.

“I feel you / Fading and find you falling for that feeling, you staring farther / Into one of the farthest vanishing points in the universe. … Who are we to believe what we say?”

Scorch Marks, by Dara Wier

In the above lines there is intimacy, there is a sense of something acute and inevitable, and there is the grandeur of the universe—a universe which curls around us like the cosmic mural encircling a Christus statue. Finally, there is the keen and humbling question we may do well to ask ourselves: “Who are we to believe what we say?”

For another blending of secular and sacred America, try The Owl and the Judas. Thank you for reading. Comments are welcome.

Image credit: JUrban on Pixabay