Luci Shaw at 90: The Steady Regard of Love

LUCI SHAW’S LATEST poetry collection, Eye of the Beholder, was recently published—on the eve of her ninetieth birthday. You’d think this might be some of a capstone volume, some sort of culminating statement, but no: apparently there is a memoir and who knows what still coming down the pipeline. So let’s agree that it’s a tad premature to engage in a career retrospective and focus instead on the volume at hand.

In traditional Christian theology it is said that human beings have been given two books to study in order to understand reality: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Anyone familiar with Shaw’s poetry knows that she, too, takes the book of nature as a primary source.

The other book she looks to is not scripture per se—though biblical language infuses nearly every line of her writing—but the “book” of language itself. Her consistent focus over the decades has been creation: the order and beauty of the natural world and the way that language both mirrors and offers glimpses into the meaning of nature. She is as fascinated by words and turns of phrase as she is with a peony or the dewdrops on her lawn.

Eye of the Beholder extends and refines these parallel interests. The poet’s task, for Shaw, is to live in the space between these two languages, to probe into the mysterious ways in which they “read” each other. In short, she’s looking for signs of authorial intent, human and divine. This is done through acts of attention, the gaze that approaches stillness and contemplation, beyond the superficial glances of restlessness and distraction.

Along with the mystics, Shaw has sensed that the longer and more lovingly you look at something, the more you are likely to sense that it is looking back at you. This can be unsettling but it can also be profoundly comforting. Here we are in the territory that T.S. Eliot explored in Four Quartets:

And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

In the title poem—the poem that opens the collection—Shaw writes of this two-way vision:

And now, born of the seriousness of
intent: the mutual gaze between
earth and heaven, our hearts and God’s,
a dialogue of glances grows with
the steady regard of love.

Here at the outset of the book we have the statement of the ideal, so one might ask: why should I read further? The answer, of course, is that most of our lives are spent struggling to reach that ideal, beset as we are by obstacles, whether self-imposed or placed in our path. Many of the poems in this collection relate those struggles. In fact, over the years Shaw has increasingly allowed herself to show the weeds growing up alongside those luscious peonies. One example would be the reality of aging and mortality, a theme that naturally runs through this collection. At the time of life when one has gained a modicum of wisdom and insight, those very precious, hard-won things begin to fail.

In “Reversals,” Shaw speaks of failing memory as akin to looking through the wrong end of a telescope or being in an echo chamber where the echoes have long since vanished.

Like reading Genesis backward,
I lose the reverse thread to
innocence before agency.

Just as Shaw has slowly but steadily allowed her readers to encounter the weeds alongside the blossoms, so has she resisted the temptation—more frequently found in her earlier work—to always find some sort of closure to every poem. As every writer knows, endings can be as difficult to get right as beginnings. The danger is always that an ending that too neatly sums up or answers the poem’s instigating question will come across as the moral of the story, shutting down our own musing and exploration.

Many of the poems in Eye of the Beholder are content to convey a mood or experience in a few simple brushstrokes, like the pen and ink sketches her husband makes or the classic Japanese art known as Ukiyo-e—literally, “pictures of the floating world.” In “Clear/Transparent,” Shaw even sets forth the essence of this method:

Shape for readers
a space within which
to develop their own

This poetics of restraint and simplicity makes those moments when Shaw amps up her rhetoric all the more striking. From “Whelm”:

He who has become and is
forever coming—
site and map and motive,
arena, whelm and wind, apse and
undercroft, silence and song,
rinse and wring, thumb of flame
in a darkened sky.

Shaw also leaves space in these poems for emotion. There is no falling upon the thorns of life and bleeding onto the page here. Rather, we sense the quieter emotions that are often—and paradoxically—so much deeper and more poignant: regret, wistfulness, helplessness, gratitude, yearning.

Having given the reader this emotional space, the final poems in this collection gain their force in a slow, subtle crescendo where Shaw grapples with the ultimate meaning of her mortality, the one that we all must face. In the end, will we merely wait until our lives are taken from us or will we yield them up in gratitude and willing sacrifice? In “Yield” she rings the changes on the word:

Yield is when, besieged by a poem, you
are taken hostage by a fresh image.
Yield is the sun being swallowed by the mountain
like a peach, and then—stars.

To yield may seem like a defeat, but it can also be an act of humility and courage, just as one might say of “surrender.”

To what end this first and final life?
When I surrender I pray the world will
reach out, take me in, grow me like a poem,
something new.

As I indicated at the outset, we’ll be hearing more from Luci Shaw, God willing. But in Eye of the Beholder the fruit of the mutual gaze the poet has experienced is ready to drop into our hands. In the end, ripeness is all.