I want to start on a gray December Sunday, on a highway in Michigan. Most of the trees are leafless, and those that remain on the branches are crusty brown and look as though they forgot to let go when the green drained from them. The corn fields have been plowed and all that’s left are knobby, manila-cracked stalks that the cows stomp on — their heads hang low considering what there is to do with what’s left of this year’s harvest.
Everything seems to be some sort of gray — the sky, the road, the tree trunks. I’m surprised by how many strands of gray there are. I’m surprised to I find what I see beautiful and hopeful, and since I don’t know what else to do, I share it with Jesse, who is driving us home.
“This is beautiful,” I tell him.
“The song?” he asks. The first strums of guitar and slides of a cello play from Iron and Wine’s “Belated Promise Ring.” I’ve insisted we all partake in Pandora’s Sufjan Steven’s Holiday station. The songs are a mix of traditional Christmas and holiday medleys, but several, like this one, make no mention of Christmas or snow or winter, and Jesse and I are amused that they sneaked into the rotation. Sometimes we’ll skip the songs, annoyed at their nerve to crash the party. Other times we’ll discuss a scenario in wintertime when the song would fit. We haven’t discussed the relevance of “Belated Promise Ring” to wintertime, but neither of us has declared its irrelevance either.
“Well, yes, the song is beautiful,” I confirm and turn the volume up. “I’m talking about outside.”
Jesse doesn’t agree, nor does he challenge my naming a gray day beautiful, but I watch as he scans the scene outside our car, and I’m satisfied because he is looking to find what I see.
“Sunday morning, my Rebecca sleeping in with me again
There’s a kid outside the church kicking a can
when the cedar branches twist she turns her collar to the wind
The weather can close the world within its hand.”
This is how Iron and Wine’s song begins, though Samuel Ervin Beam’s words are not what drew me in. It was the melody, a swooping, friendly set of notes that made me feel like I was sitting on a rickety but strong porch swing. There is a settling to the melody, as though Beam is inviting us to sit awhile. What he’ll share will be complicated. And like the gray Sunday afternoon driving on a midwestern highway, I’ll have to think about why this beauty is the sort I’d like to stay in for a while.
I believe this is the work — and play — of poetry. It is that gray Sunday afternoon we cannot stop looking at and wondering about. It is that melancholy song that whispers peace and faint joy into our hearts as we cry for the pain in the world. It does not ask us to understand; it invites us in.
We drive on, Jesse and I, holding hands, looking out into the world and listening to Beam’s song. I’d like to know more about the promise ring. I’d like to know more about Rebecca and that tree with the cedar branches. I’d like to sit with the sound of a kid kicking a can outside a church, and I feel there will be many days this December, January, and February when weather’s hand will close the world.
This month, as the daylight is snuffed out by the growing night, what poems keep you company? What phrases and stanzas invite you in? Which words help you see beauty in the gray? Share a poem that you love, or one that you wrote in the comments below.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s one from Kimberly Knowle-Zeller that we enjoyed.
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