a blessing

Apr 30, 2020 poetry appreciation

I’ve heard and read in many places these last few weeks a lot of stuff about how “we’re all in a heightened emotional state at the moment”: operating at a higher pitch; a bit more thin-skinned than usual. It’s not surprising. So I don’t know if it’s what’s going on in the macrocosm or in my own microcosm which makes me so susceptible to this poem, ‘A Blessing‘ by James Wright (have it read to you here). But susceptible I am. It moves me greatly. See what you think.

The opening lines establish that the action takes places somewhere not obviously special or numinous—it’s ‘Just off the highway’. Neither are these particularly majestic or impressive horses (Merriam-Webster defines Indian pony as ‘an unimproved typically small hardy vigorous not especially graceful horse of western North America descended from stock introduced by Spaniards and redomesticated by American Indians… valuable as a utility range horse and for crossbreeding’). (Phew.) Yet from the start the poem has a reverential quality, a sense of capturing a moment, a sacred point, an encounter which gives access to eternity. The word blessing itself has so many definitions but what comes to mind for me in relation to this poem is the sense of receiving something benevolent, helpful, reassuring, transformative—and un-earned. You can’t make a blessing happen: it’s an unexpected gift, something beyond the everyday yet (in this instance anyway) mediated through it.

The image of ‘Twilight ‘bound[ing] softly forth on the grass’ is so gentle and tender, echoing the movement of the horses but with its own sense of quiet softness, and mirrored in the way that the ponies’ eyes ‘darken with kindness’. The speaker seems to have a sense of privilege at being so ‘gladly… / welcome[d]’; senses, too, the ponies’ appreciation of their presence. The encounter is beautiful in its mutuality. The repetitions—’They have come… they have been grazing… they ripple… they can hardly contain… they bow… they love… they begin munching’—are piercing in their simplicity. They’re very plain observations, somehow—part of the profound quality of presence evident throughout the poem and manifest in the noting of detail. This culminates in the description of how ‘the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear/ That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist’. It’s so well-observed, so visually evocative, so tender. And it functions to remind us that the quality of attention we bring to our experiencing has an effect on what our experience offers us. For what comes in the closing lines is so mystical, so blissful—so much in contrast with the earlier plainness—that it enacts what the poem is describing. The speaker’s experience can only be expressed in a magical-realist image of himself ‘break[ing]/ Into blossom’. Ecstasy, transcendence, spring, blossoming: not just feeling all those things, but becoming them. That’s how total the experience is.

So I hear this poem as a hymn of praise for ‘The Blessing’ it describes, but also as a reminder to show up to my life, as much as I can, as often as I can; and to look out even in the most apparently-mundane situations for that which is wondrous. And this is surely one of the blessings that times of heightened emotion can give us?—a quality of being open, or opened; a capacity to appreciate; an understanding of “what really matters”.

That being said, though, I do reserve the right to respond to the current situation by eating a “Family” size bag of Maltesers sometimes. It happens.

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