The poetry of Pattiann Rogers pauses me in mid-thought, turns me reflective, appreciative, and full of wonder. What follows are a few words from Pattiann Rogers for the spring of 2021. You’ll also enjoy my interview with Rogers.
It rained all night last night, a slow rain. Its sound—thrumming on the roof, multiple tickings on each separate leaf of the poplar and maple near our bedroom—was very like a caress, gentle, steady. Before sleep, I watched it move in crowds of silver down the glass of the window. And later the rain entered my sleep. It was a cadenced voice delivering an important message in a foreign language I couldn’t quite translate.
But once in my dreaming, I thought the voice was god’s.
Rain is such a seemingly simply thing, so ordinary and commonplace. We all must have discovered it very early in our lives, earlier than we can remember. But how shocked we must have been at that first encounter. What an incredible phenomenon—water falling in pieces from the dark kneading and enfolding clouds of the heavens! How extraordinarily strange to move through air filled with water plummeting all around, the sun suddenly dimmed and even shadowed itself. As a friend once told me—watching his infant daughter encounting for the first time the details of our earth—with each new discovery her expression seemed to say, And this too?!
The world and everything in it becomes different in aspect in the rain. Rain elucidates and distinguishes with more precision than either sun or wind. It misses nothing, outlining the smallest crevices of iris, honesuckle, sinking down into the funnels of trumpet vine and crawdad burrow, tracing each furrow in the bark of the oak, dripping off the lashes of green midge and moth, the feather barbs of mallard and coot. It follows the lines of every leaf and spear of marsh rushes, every pinpoint of the pine, calling attention to each spike of the burr, each gravel of the path. Nothing is overlooked, nothing too small for notice.
Rain even reveals new aspects of the self. Issa, an 18th-century Japanese poet, highlights this in one of his haikus:
A sudden shower falls—
and naked I am riding
on a naked horse!
Drenched by the shower, wet as they both are, skin to skin, the man and the horse are altered, the sense of their bodies transformed by the rain.
And rain releases otherwise hidden fragrances—the sudden scent of wet cedar, of water-heavy seeded bluestem in an autumn field, puddle-filled oak leaves piled in ditches, the open earth damp and receptive. A hot cement sidewalk steaming with summer rain smells comforting, a fragrance of human neighborhood to me. The ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan explains the seemingly contradictory title of his book, The Desert Smells Like Rain, this way: “Once I asked a Papago youngster what the desert smelled like to him. He answered with little hesitation: ‘The desert smells like rain.’ The question had triggered a scent—creosote bushes after a storm, their aromatic oils released by the rains. The boy’s nose remembered being out in the desert, over taken: the desert smells like rain.”
Rain not only unlocks the fragrances, it also enhances them. So says the poet Kyoshi:
Clearing after showers,
and for a little while the scent
of hawthorn flowers…
And rain possesses fragrances solely its own, fresh sky-water in the wind, the cool, clean, sheet-snap fragrance of rain-coming, the trembling and rumbling slow-rising fragrance of rain-passing.
I lived for a time once in an apartment on the 23rd floor of a high-rise building. To my dismay, I found that I had no way of knowing for certain when it was raining unless I walked to the one window I had and looked down on the street. The rain passed invisibly and silently by my recessed window and me. I heard no sound of raindrops—the roof of the building was seven floors above me, the earth 23 floors below. There was little fragrance of rain falling through these city skies; it touched nothing as it flew by. I felt deprived, neglected, as if I’d been left out and ignored, not invited to the party.
Watching rain raining on a lake or pond is mesmerizing. Few can turn quickly from the sight of raindrops striking in chaotic randomness every part of the surface of the water, then immediately losing themselves as they merge into the whole and disappear as separate entities. The resulting radiating rings cross and recross one another, circling, widening, each ring struck again and again by more rain, new rings constantly appearing and overlapping older ones. This vision is the vision we might see if we could see the pattern made by the pealing of many cathedral bells sounding over themselves and over the countryside. Nothing ever really ends or reconciles there. I think we recognize something mythic in that pattern, a basic truth of motion and structure and time, of becoming and dying, something about ourselves, about existence. Thus we are rapt, linked and bound to the watching.
Clean rain falling into the open mouth tastes like the essence of paradise. Rain tastes like life when kissed off the face of someone loved. I pity the stone heart of the moon for its lack of rain.
The last stanza of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Singing” suggests another transforming aspect of rain:
The children sing in far Japan.
The children sing in Spain.
The organ with the organ man
Is singing in the rain.
To sing in the rain is a different kind of singing, rather an act of effrontery, maybe even of defiance, a most exuberant singing. Witness the famous song and dance of Gene Kelly in the movie Singing in the Rain. And to laugh with someone else in the rain is a laughter of freedom and abandon unlike any other. Some of us, like Samuel Beckett, feel we can even mourn a richer mourning in the rain:
I would like my love to die
and the rain to be falling on the graveyard
and on me walking the streets
mourning her who thought she loved me.
Rain is drama itself and the setting for drama. Hard rain in a thunderstorm is a true terror with its blue-white lightning rudely, angrily, ripping the vista in half and the explosions of its thunder shaking the earth with long lingering rolls and growls. The thunderstorm in Shakespeare’s King Lear is the perfect mirror for the inner torment and raging of the king.
In such a storm, all living things in the land seem to draw in, stop, motionless, attentive and wide-eyed, waiting, every cell alert, contemplative as Buddhas.
Thunderstorms demand our attention. And afterward, says Shiki,
The thunderstorm goes by;
on one tree evening sunlight—
a cicada cry.
…we understand the meaning of peace.
Rain is generally considered a blessing and a beauty, a generosity. God “sendeth His rain on the just and on the unjust,” says Matthew (5:45). When rain comes, it is a gift given indiscriminately—to the tumble bug and the beak of the June beetle, to the hairs of needlegrass and least weasel, the bristle of walrus and peccary, to the mouth of the rattlesnake, the mouth of the deer mouse, the pocket mouse, the thirsty elf owl, the skin of toad, the spines of the tarbush, alike to murderer, alike to saint.
Sings the psalmist,
Praise unto our God who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains. (Psalm 147: 8)
Rain is most often a gift nourishing the growing life of the earth. But I’m grateful too for all of its other facets and intricacies, its frights and its serenities, the foreign secrets and whisperings of its motion and coming, the person of its presence. It speaks, it gestures, it indicates, and I sense the universe, I sense myself, anew.
Five Divinities of Rain During Sleep All Night
Turninng once during sleep, I was certain
the rain was present. I might have perceived
just a glinting measure of it then, like glimpsing
the merest slant of a grey wing, an arc lost immediately
in all the other flying lines of the forest, never
comprehending the weights and graces
and measures of the total body itself.
And once after midnight, asleep,
I know I assumed the resonance
of rain particled among the poplars.
I took in that guiet percussion
under my quilt, under my gown,
into my breastbone, into the smallest,
bone-sliver of audibility I possessed.
It rang there, many-sided, hanging
with the same faltering cadence
found at the edges of star clusters
where neither rain nor tree nor
breastbone are ever found.
I turned my face upward toward the sky.
This is the way rain is sometimes
during sleep: a shroud the body knows
is descending, shredded and surfeiting
and slow, so slow in settling, never
quite arriving to cover and stop
the mouth and nose and eyes completely
with a pressure the body comes to wish for,
a smothering motion that sleep,
even without a will, longs to imitate.
4. All night I became the rain, multiple,
rolling over and over easily
off the roof-edge, burning silver
and crooked on the glass outside,
wavering down through thunder,
through a theory of sky, down from the black
clouds, a rain having possessed, before falling,
the moon in its shearing clarity high
above the other side of the same clouds.
I almost remember having the rain
in my arms in bed last night, knowing
its real name finally, calling its real name
with its own tongue, pulling it down
and down saying god once, sinking
with it piece by piece into the earth,
just the way we both always wanted.
from Lies and Devotions, a chapbook of 160 copies published by Tangram, 1994
(Published with the permission of Pattiann Rogers)
“I Hear and Behold God in Every Object, Yet Understand God Not in the Least”
“For God so loved the order of things that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish…” So Jesus said, according to John. God so loved the world, loved the order of things, loved the earth, loved the order of the earth, loved us as creatures born of the order of things, born of the stars and the order of the stars, born of the earth born of the stars, made of the stars, made of the earth. I fall into the beauty of that song and momentarily I am saved. I do not perish. I agree with Walt Whitman: I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.
Maybe the creative order of the universe—those massive stars, the super novae, those super stars smelting in their nuclear furnaces all the elements from which every body in the universe is composed, the planets gathering those elements to become themselves, the earth slowly forming, core and mantle, mountains rising, tectonic plates shifting, the great oceans of the earth churning for billions of years until the first flickering grip of life begins, those first, daring, determined, primordial creatures coming and coming—maybe the processes of this order resulted ultimately in the birth of a certain child who came to be called the Christ. Perhaps the universe brought forth in love this child who uttered those words. Maybe this was the way it happened—the order of things, the universe, the love embodied in creation bringing forth this fruit.
I don’t know how it happened. But here it is, our earth and the heavens, those words, the story of that life, that resounding message. And isn’t it true that love enhances, gives health and energy, causes the capacity for good to expand, is kin to joy, a cousin to reverence, while hate hinders, withers its host, promotes destruction, brings anger and misery, nurtures the well-being of nothing? Love is a creative force in the physical world. We are agents of love and its witnesses.
Jesus Christ could not have lived without love, the Christ story could never have been conceived by anyone without love, the words themselves would never have existed without love, and without the words and a speaker of words this story could not have been told. God is love. He is said to have said. Maybe love was what was there before the beginning, before the Big Bang. Maybe love is the creative power within the order of things. Maybe love is the way of the universe. I could take the beauty of that into my heart.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Those words of beauty were placed in their order by a poet in love with the earth. “Not one sparrow falls to the ground that God is not aware.” Those words of honor were composed by a poet in love with the life of the earth. “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Who better to receive with love the order of the earth? Maybe a child born of love who then loves wholly, purely, perfectly, with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind can walk on water, can give sight to the blind, can rise again from the dead, can be this attuned with the creative love within the order of things. That child, the gift of the universe, would be love in human form. Maybe this is how love conceived itself.
I am in love with the life of the earth, the hundred budding eyes seeking light in a water-buried nest of tadpoles, a tomato on the vine basking from blossom to ripe red, in love with our enormous, frightening sun and all creatures basking in the light of its being, a green anole invisible on a green leaf, a yellow-striped garter snake curled on a smooth stone, in love with the fragrance of a river when a summer evening begins to cool and the cicadas and crickets strike up their buzz and jingle in the poplars and shore grasses. I’m in love with the cosmic heaven, its terrible, haunting glory, its racing explosions and dangerous maelstroms of burning rocks and dusts and great arcs of glowing gases, in love with the silence of that same sky above midnight snow, the white land and its barren shadows drenched in the pale blue stillness of the moon; in love with the order of things, crystals adhering piece by icy piece, a single, widening furl of campfire smoke, electrons and atoms, ocean currents and the rhythmic currents of blood through the bodies of living creatures and the rhythmic currents and waves of a veering flock of ricebirds over the fields, the sweep of porpoises veering through the swell of ocean waves; and our own creations, the written language of musical scores, bells and drums, wax whistles and pianos, hot air balloons, bicycles, roller blades, calculus, arboretums, Voyager I and Voyager II, and all voyagers traveling to the constant night of the ocean floors or to the airless glacier peaks of mountains or into the realms of the nano world, actors, artists, acrobats, archivists, a quilt spread on the grass, supper on a quilt spread on the grass, in love with our words alone in an otherwise wordless universe (as far as we know), in love with “as far as we know,” in love with amen.
All of us want to be loved unconditionally. We crave that love. We are born craving to be loved unconditionally. Some of us become warped and crippled from the lack of that love, some of us become stunted, some of us sicken, some of us die from the lack of that love. Maybe the health and vibrancy of the universe too depends on a love like that. Maybe the creation is not finished. Maybe the creation, in its ongoing shifting and changing, altering and evolving, requires a robust strength that love alone can provide, a love given freely and unconditionally throughout the coming and going of stars and mountains and suns and planets, in the coming and going of life. We know we are a source of love. We know we have the ability to receive and to give love, to sustain by giving love. We can love the order of the world, receive and acknowledge with love its gifts of life and beauty and one another. We can express love to a universe that requires it, give love despite fear, despite horror and grief, despite suffering, despite our ignorance, love unconditionally despite death. Each of us can give that gift as we are able. I want this gift to be received. I want to participate in the creation in this way now, wherever now might be, in place, in time, among the countless and the far beyond.
From The Grand Array, Writings on Nature, Science, and Spirit, published by Trinity University Press, 2010
Also appearing in The Best Spiritual Writing, 2010, published by Penguin Books
Title is from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
Imagine the master, minstrel, engineer,
who appears dwarfed, hardly visible
actually, seated on his velvet-covered
stool before the great machine, his feet
reaching and pressing, toeing
the pedals, keeping steady the bass
of the warming earth deepening,
expanding, as he introduces
simultaneously on the upper keyboard
a treble as delicate as the first
pencil-line of blue appearing
on a blade of crocus, the vibrato
of a painted-lady pupa quivering
in its silks.
From the keys beneath is right hand
comes the echo of a hundred male
midge flies circing and dancing
in the air, from the movement of his left,
the steady timbre of brook trout
sweeping their gravel nests. Counting
under his breath, he continues
in order–first the whine of tulip reeds
squeezing from their bulbs, then the warm
sperm of prairie roosters igniting
their ova with many sharp staccatos,
then, exactly according to measure,
a single surprise smattering
of high-chiming, early-morning frost.
The whole edifice rumbles, swells,
extols, reverberates off the high vacant
ceilings surrounding. It moans, hums,
placates, shudders, creaks and threatens.
(In the fury of his concentration,
pushing and pulling the proper stops,
he hardly has a moment to pause!)
It frets, relents, embellishes,
sinks once, wheezes, readjusts itself
to the sucking straw of moonlight,
focuses as mathematically as Bach
again at dawn, strains, sounds, gathers
its themes, lifts as one, rises, carries
the maestro (He’s almost lost control!)
amid the swirling runs of opening
magnolia, the climbing scales of scurfy pea,
the rooting crescendos of charlock,
carries him forward as he directs
the entire performance (Perfect timing!)
right into May.
from Lies and Devotions
a chapbook published by Tangram,
A Short Biography (2018)
Pattiann Rogers was born, raised and educated from elementary school through high school in Joplin, Missouri. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Missouri, Columbia, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and a minor in Zoology. She holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Houston.
Pattiann Rogers has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently Quickening Fields, (Penguin, 2017) and Holy Heathen Rhapsody (Penguin, 2013). She has published two books of prose The Dream of the Marsh Wren, and The Grand Array, Writings on Nature, Science, and Spirit.
Rogers’ book of selected poems, Firekeeper (Milkweed Editions), was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Award from the Academy of American Poets and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1994. Her collected poems, Song of the World Becoming, New and Collected Poems, 1981-2001 (Milkweed Editions, 2001), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
In 2018, Rogers received a special John Burroughs Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Nature Poetry. She has also received two NEA Grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fellowship and a Literary Award in Poetry from the Lannan Foundation. Among other awards, her poems have received five Pushcart Prizes, two appearances in Best American Poetry, five appearances in Best Spiritual Writing, the Tietjens Prize and the Hokin Prize from Poetry, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, and two Strousse Awards from Prairie Schooner.
She has taught as a visiting writer at several universities, including Montana, and Texas, Washington University, and Pacific University, and was Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas from 1993-97. In May, 2000, Rogers was in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Her papers are archived in the Sowell Family Collection at Texas Tech University.
Rogers is the mother of two sons and has three grandsons. She lives with her husband, a retired geophysicist, in Colorado. To contact Rogers, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
List of Published Books
The Expectations of Light (Princeton University Press, 1981)
The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan University Press, 1986)
Legendary Performance (Ion Books, 1987)
Splitting and Binding (Wesleyan University Press, 1989)
Geoentric (Gibbs Smith Publisher, A Peregrine Smith Book, 1993)
Firekeeper: New and Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions, 1994)
Eating Bread and Honey (Milkweed Editions, 1997)
A Covenant of Seasons (in collaboration with Joellyn Duesberry, Hudson Hills Press, 1998)
Song of the World Becoming: New and Collected Poems, 1981 – 2001 (Milkweed Editions, 2001)
Generations (The Penguin Group, 2004)
Wayfare (The Penguin Group, 2008)
Firekeeper, Selected Poems, Revised and Expanded Edition (Milkweed Editions, 2010)
Holy Heathen Rhapsody (The Penguin Group, 2013)
Quickening Fields (Penguin/Random House, 2017)
Poetry, Limited Editions
Lies and Devotions, 160 copies (Tangram Press, 1994)
Animals and People, The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself, 100 copies, etchings by Margot Voorhies Thompson (Knight Library Press, University of Oregon, 1997)
Summer’s Company, 151 copies, (Brooding Heron Press, 2009)
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