Poem of the Week | April 21, 2011

This week we’re proud to feature “To Account for Such Grace” by George Looney, winner of the Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize in poetry.  The poem is published in our current issue, TMR 34:1. George Looney’s most recent book isOpen Between Us (Turning Point, 2010). His A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness is due from Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2011. His work has been recognized with an individual artist’s fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, two grants from the Ohio Arts Council, and one from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and has won awards from literary journals such as the Missouri Review (in 2003 and 2011), Zone 3New Letters and the Literary Review. Among other duties, he serves as Chair of the BFA in Creative Writing program he created at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, where he is editor-in-chief of the international literary journal Lake Effect.

Author’s note:

Walt Whitman, influenced by Elias Hick’s doctrine of the Inner Light, believed the profane world was the only aspect of the sacred world that was knowable: our only hope for understanding the sacred was in the full experience of this world we know with our inadequate senses. “You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life,” he tells us in “Song of Myself.”

These four poems [of which “To Account for Such Grace” is one] are part of a manuscript written after the loss of my second parent. A little more than a year ago my father, after a rapid decline into dementia, died, and I found myself filled with thoughts of that other realm Whitman believed we could only know through fully knowing this world.

The poems attempt to get at the nature of the spiritual realm, to allow for a momentary experience of it that might imbue this world with solace for the grief that accompanies us here.


To Account for Such Grace

Some nights, light’s particle nature is italicized

by the downward emphasis of a steady rain.


History is the distance between what happened

and what we say happened. A woman without


an umbrella is a frail shadow hunched over

a small flame flickering between her palms


in a shallow alcove, the only light the flame

cupped in her hands and a sixty-watt bulb


somewhere behind her in the niche she’s found

that almost keeps her out of the frenzied rain.


If this were being painted in sixteenth-century Florence,

the woman would be a statue of the only woman


the church could love, the mother of God

the son, and cupped in her delicate, trembling hands


would be the burning heart of God become man,

having flown out of his dying chest with a last wheeze


from the cross. Rain, in the painting, would be

an occasion for the artist to show off his brilliance


with reflective surfaces, nothing more. History

might ask us to ignore the woman’s hands, the calluses,


how they tremble and seem too delicate to hold up

under her grief. No matter is as delicate


as light. Or as alluring as the face of this woman,

having a smoke, waiting out the rain. Entire histories


have been imagined to account for such grace.

Music has transformed the human voice


to make possible even a vague hint of the delicacy

of this woman’s fragrant hands, moist with mist,


reflecting light in ways a Renaissance master

would have bowed down to, envious, rapt.