Setting the Inner Compass: June Column


Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. The time that has passed since the May poetry column has been a season of overwhelming sadness, anger, and a call to action. The systemic racism in this country and our church has never been more apparent. The Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”, has echoed in my heart the past few weeks. It begins with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” It continues, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run?” The poem concludes, “Or does it explode?”  Yes, it explodes. We have work to do. Inner work and joining with others for social change. 

Wendell Berry begins his “Peace of Wild Things” with the line: “When despair for the world grows in me.” These lines resonate with the first half of 2020. There is much that causes us to feel despair. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and forget the light and the grace of God that surrounds us all. The three poems I selected for this column are about ways we fall back and remember. The first two are about places that feed, renew, and help us center ourselves. For Wendell Berry, it is the natural world. In my poem, it is the city. “Touch Me” by Stanley Kunitz is about the way human touch and relationship reminds us of who we are when we feel lost. I find ‘Touch Me’ particularly poignant in this season of social isolation when many long for a touch they cannot yet have. 



( Note: Due to the need to get rights and permissions the poems for this column are selected three weeks before publication.)

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.

The Peace of City Things  (with a nod to Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things”)
by Dave Brown

When despair for the world grows in me
and I feel like I am carrying great weight 
I go to the city and allow its life and light 
to wash over me. 

I feel peace in the presence
of so many human lives and stories 
rushing through 
crowded streets.

The weight of the world grows lighter 
as I walk through canyons 
made by great buildings and
look up to see a sliver of blue sky. 

I rest back in the joy of simple human things: 
seeing lovers kissing while sitting on a bench,
eating a hot dog from a street vendor, 
hearing a saxophone played under a bridge in the park.

My heart is lifted by the rumble of the subway,
a little boy tenderly holding fathers’ hand 
while crossing the streets and
squirrels scurrying up a tree.

I take in the buildings, parks, subway, museums, delis, 
pretzel vendors, newsstands, honking horns, 
bright lights flashing in the night 
and am nourished.

My face finds a smile 
as a brown sparrow
jumps from curb to table 
snatching crumbs.

When the world feels heavy 
I go to the heart of human life 
and try to be present to see
the holiness of people simply being people. 

I allow the grace of the city 
to surround me
and I feel alive, free 
and maybe even hope.

by Stanly Kunitz

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.

Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.

One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.


Excerpts from Langston Hughes, “Harlem” are from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes

“Peace of Wild Things” is Copyright © 2012 by Wendell Berry, from New Collected Poems. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.  

“Peace of City Things” ©by Dave Brown is used by permission and formerly published by Echoes of Panhala on their website. 

“Touch Me” by Stanley Kunitz is from Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected by Stanley Kunitz. Copyright © 1995, 1997 by Stanley Kunitz. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.”

Thank you to W.W. Norton & Company and Counterpoint Press for permission to reproduce these poems. 

Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He also serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. Dave will be talking about poetry and spiritual companionship on a Spiritual Directors International podcast in late June.

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