The wonder and surprise of poetry

We gather around the table, young and old, Muslim and Christian, a wealth of experience and story waiting to be unearthed between us. There are eight of us, eager to share poetry and stories, words and meaning, which move our hearts, transport us to different places and times, and which challenge our way of thinking, our way of seeing and hearing.

Andy Hamilton SJ, an accomplished poet and writer in his own right, though he’d be the last to say such, welcomes us. “This is a real boost to my spirit to be here on this poetry day,” he says. “Today we share poetry on the theme, ‘Wonder and surprise’.  And I think wonder is the most important attitude in life; wonder takes you to thanks, which leads you to, ‘how do I respond?’”

We glance at each other, wondering in excitement and expectation as to who will kick us off? It’s Ursula Gilbert RSM, the woman we have to thank for these regular gatherings, with a playful poem by Margaret Harvey called Kitty O’Hara. The poem transports us back to those occasions of visiting an aunt’s house full of “a hundred things to delight a child”. We take a moment to digest the words, to recollect, and then to share what has moved us. 

This is followed by others sharing poems written by E.E. Cummings: ‘i am so glad and very’ and ‘i thank You God for most this amazing’, the latter read aloud by Najma. This is Najma’s first time to the poetry afternoon. She is a beautiful, young, Muslim woman from Somalia who arrived on Tasmania’s shore with her family, aged 3. There is a mutual love and support between Ursula and Najma; a lovely ease and sense of gratitude that each share for the other. In sharing Cummings’ poem, Najma says: “This poetry thing, I get it now. People go in search of poetry that touches them. It was a real wonder and surprise that I could feel so much from poetry.

“Before, poetry had always been an afterthought. This poem spoke to a part in me that was dormant. I’m Muslim. This appreciation for God; I know this but in a different language.”

Ursula’s response to Najma’s sharing speaks to something in my own heart: “Art gives us entry into the mystery of the artist,” she says, quoting a writer, Sr Wendy. I must get Sr Wendy’s details! I think to myself. Ursula continues: “The art of music, of poetry, of any art, can just make you aware of the mystery and wonder of others. I’m grateful that you can experience it.” Following her gaze upon Najma, she looks at each of us around the table. 

There is poetry by Judith Wright (The Killer and The Visitor), Robert Frost (The Telephone), Jennifer Powers (The Mercy of God), and the one I shared: The Guest House by Jalaluddin Rumi. It opens with the following words: 

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

This resonates with me – being human is an invitation to wonder and surprise; that each day, indeed, each moment can present something different, and unexpected. As Rumi suggests: A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

And we are invited by Rumi to ‘welcome and entertain them all … Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.’

My favourite poem, however, is an original written by Andy Hamilton SJ called Humility. “This comes out of the time I pray in the morning as I walk around the park at 6 o’clock,” he says. “Just looking at the trees, reflecting, losing myself in nature.” I’ve written it in full here (with permission) as you won’t find it on the internet or in a book.

is to walk in the cool of early morning
and to notice
tree trunks redden,
shrubs sport twenty shades of green;
grass bubbling up dew-touched.
each blade reaching for the sun; 
a thousand dandelions
flashing their teeth at bees and butterflies;
mynahs and magpies calling,
jostling to mark out their territories;
sunlight catching a white dog rolling in the grass,
and over the rise the city towers
made lovely, almost human, as they throw back light; 
and, within all of this,
so much growing, hunting, dying, changing, reaching, falling.
Humility is wonder,
riding gratitude like a wave,
that, briefly in this tiny space,
I am given some small part
and words with which to bless it.

 “Amen”, responds Ursula upon its conclusion. “Wonder. That’s a new word for humility but I think that’s so real. It’s awareness of the greatness beyond,” she says.

I’ve always thought of humility as ‘humus’, as connected to the earth,” says Judy. ‘To me humility is always being earthed, being in reality, being in the real, our feet on the ground.” 

“There’s a bit of a challenge in the last line,” adds Therese. “The whole world is a gift. Do I use words to bless it?”

I let these words sink in: Do I use words to bless it? To bless the gifts that inundate my world. My being? I am so blessed. I have so much to be thankful for.

I am now home and have enjoyed sitting in the silence, allowing the words of the poems to ruminate in my mind and heart. An afternoon, so rich, so moving, so soul-quenching. I have come home, full, satisfied, content, so much richer. I’ve discovered new poets and poems. I devour and savour their words again. Slowly. There’s no rush. And now I write that which fills my heart.

This is such a rich and meaningful gathering, not just for the poetry, but for the personal sharing and unearthing. The deepened sense of sharing and togetherness, though we are so different and varied. My heart has been so moved, and for this I am grateful. 

There’s no time like the present. Why don’t you consider: What moves your heart? What speaks to your soul? What stimulates your mind? What broadens your horizon, what surprises you, and leaves you wondering?

I wrote this reflection in February 2020 following one of our regular poetry gatherings, which takes place in my local neighbourhood. I miss them. I miss the people and the poetry. Thank goodness the beauty and richness of these gatherings lives on in my heart, as does my own reading and writing of poetry. I look forward to when we can gather again, my friends.

The photos below show Sr Ursula, Najma, the cottage and precinct where we gather and, myself with Andy H.

.Older woman standing next to young Muslim woman in doorway

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