Two Experiences of Words

Twice a week this summer I go to our nearby community center to read to three children as part of their summer enrichment program. All are from Hispanic families. Their English is good enough that I can’t tell how they navigate the two linguistic worlds in their daily lives.

My five-year-old boy is very shy and quiet, so I have to learn how to coax him into the alphabet and its world of stories and information. My six-year-old girl is eager to act out every bird, horse, and airplane we encounter. Something of a coquette, she insists I promised to bring her lollipops every day.

My nine-year-old boy exudes a confidence and worldliness that shows he has already carved out a place for himself in the little society around him. He wants to know how bees turn nectar into honey and whether Monarch butterflies die in Mexico or return here again in the spring. 

I can’t answer all their questions (“I’ll Google that…) and I can’t figure out just which book is best for them. (I can’t even make my way into the arcane filing system of the children’s books section of the library!) Our only purpose as summer volunteers is to keep the language and its  words singing in their minds as they get ready for the school year and life to come.

My first day there I was introduced to a young goat who serves as the school mascot. He has been crippled since birth, so the kids carry him around from class to class, along with his blanket, from which he serenely peers out, the object of all their care.

A small dog wanders the hall, evidently an understudy to the goat. The Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center (everyone calls it the Pigeon Center) is a broad wash of Hispanic, African-American, and Anglo kids living into a world that most of their parents could never have imagined.

But this is also the timeless world of childhood, with projects for the hands, rhyming songs to root their memory, and pointed fingers for their naming. Furrowed brows proclaim their searchings for the way that they will find their recognition and in a mysterious and amazing world.

Seemingly at the other end of the spectrum, for four evenings this month I am participating in a workshop on devotional poetry with Luke Hankins, a young poet in Asheville whose collection of poetry caught my eye last fall and led me to Wipf & Stock, my publisher for Turnings.

Luke also published with them a fine volume of twentieth-century devotional poetry, Poems of Devotion (from Eliot to Maurice Manning, Hankins’ teacher). Most of us are church folks (priest, retired chaplain, active members), but some, I guess are “spiritual but not religious.” He is leading us through the characteristics of this kind of poetry while at the same time getting us to write poems “on demand” as well as present something of our work for comment.

Some of this devotional poetry is more dogmatic, rooted in a conviction, such as John Donne’s famous line “Death be not proud…” Much of it is exploratory and searching, calling out to a Mystery that escapes any of our category or thought – the Deus absconditus of the dark night of the soul.

The poetic, in which we skirt the outer edge of language, honors this kind of quest, sometimes illuminating it, sometimes simply expressing its inarticulate abyss. How it goes about this task, how we write it as well as receive it, is the rewarding investigation of this enterprise. As you can guess, I am enjoying it immensely.

Sometimes I think these two experiences are at the opposite ends of life. Today, however, I am sensing how conjoined they are – the amazed and squealing discoveries of the child and the awe-inspiring immense mystery we feel as adults who claim to know so much and to have so much under our control.

The inquiry of the child who is learning how to shape the letters of a word are not much different from the efforts of adults to go beyond these words, and yet still use words to touch what is inherently beyond us.

So I am listening in two languages. And listening, I increasingly believe, is where all poetry begins. I would love for you to meet my kids and walk with them and meet their goat. You can, however, read Luke’s book and his collection. I recommend them both highly.

And, of course, find a little child to read to, preferably one you wouldn’t otherwise get to know. Maybe pause a little more to hear what’s inside and beyond you.