You’ve been living for this for weeks
without knowing it:
the moment the house empties like a city in August
it forgets you exist.
Light withdraws slowly
is almost gone before you notice.
In the stillness, everything becomes itself:
the circle of white plates on the kitchen table
the serious chairs that attend them
even the roses on the papered walls
seem to open a little wider.
It looks simple: the glass vase holding
whatever is offered –
cut flowers, or the thought of them –
simple, though not easy
this waiting without hunger in the near dark
for what you may be about to receive.
Esther Morgan, from Grace, Bloodaxe Books, 2011
I first heard Esther Morgan’s luminous poetry a couple of years ago when I attended the T.S. Eliot Prize readings at London’s Southbank Centre. Her poems glow with the intensity of a Vermeer painting and share many of the same preoccupations: the quality of light, texture, domestic scenes infused with meaning, moments captured and unfolded, petal by tender petal.
‘Grace’ is the title poem from the collection shortlisted for the prize. Although the poem, like the scene it describes, ‘looks simple’ it achieves a harmony of form and meaning that is far from easy to achieve. Morgan engages the reader from the outset by addressing us directly, arousing our curiosity and creating a sense of heightened anticipation. What is it that we’ve been living for without knowing it?
She expertly draws us into her world, recreating a sense of stillness and hush through use of long vowels and varying sentence length. The details attended to – plates, table, chairs, wallpaper, vase – are, like a still life, both concrete and representational. We are invited to slow down, to pay attention to the simplicity and beauty of the things that surround us, to ‘open a little wider’ to what the world has to offer.
The objects described are functional, waiting to be used, to be occupied. They are all around us, an everyday reminder of what it is to wait ‘without hunger’. In a world where hunger for more is as familiar as the air we breathe – more time, more money, more goods, more status, more peace – such a reminder opens up new possibilities.
What happens when we allow our mental and emotional hunger to subside for a moment, empty ourselves of busyness, become a container for whatever is offered? The answer, Morgan suggests, is that ‘In the stillness, everything becomes itself’.
How do we get there? It may be ‘simple, though not easy’. I know one of the answers, for me, is to spend time regularly in the company of poems like these.