Twenty people from Canada, England, Greece, ME, PA, MI, NY, WA, and RI chatted in their geography and, with their presence, showed an interest in puzzling together possible meanings in Lucille Clifton’s ”blessing the boats.” This poem, written entirely in small cap and sans punctuation, furnished a gentle feeling for many participants, who heard “a prayer for these times,” “an Irish prayer with ‘the wind at your back,”’ a blessing, a sendoff to another place, perhaps even to a time and place beyond death. We selected this poem mindful of the transition of going into September, into the fall, and – for many – into the school year. In the shadow of the poem, each of us identified a transition in our own lives, envisioning ourselves collectively “in our boats”. As someone observed: “we are now beyond our initial understanding of what COVID is all about”, getting “glimpses or brightness” and yet still navigating the unknown. The word “may” (appearing four times in the body of poem) suggests uncertainty, possibility, permission and, in that way, allows readers a freedom to sail the poem at their own pace and understand as they will. For some, the poem exuded “gentle simplicity”. One person offered that water in literature suggests baptism and beginnings.
Many highlighted the physicality embedded in the text. The word “lip” (the lip of our understanding), was a stumbling block, a “halting” for some and, for others, an evocation of an edge, a cusp, a beginning. The “back” makes us think of a “concrete body”. One person mentioned that she had expected to read the reciprocal “love you back” but remembered to read closely (narrative’s MO) and read that the “you” (addressed in the poem) could turn from the wind and expect the wind to “love your back.” Oh, the many discoveries we make when we close read! Another participant expressed their experience of physical sensuousness that included feeling hands laid on the back of passenger(s) embarking from a place as nebulous as “this” to an unnamed “that.” The word “innocence” called to many, who paired the word with ideas of trust, energy, and the protection of not knowing.
One participant remembered spending time, as an aspirant to medical practice, at St. Mary’s, the geography pointed to by the poet Lucille Clifton, steering a craft on the “lip” of waves in Chesapeake Bay. Like others he brought into the discussion the trust needed to turn one’s back on the wind and allow/expect the wind to love your back.
The prompt “Write about turning from the face of fear” brought creative writing that described snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean; feeling fear (“cold, pressing “) by night and day and respite from this fear that prayer brings; choice/options depicted by Door 1 and Door 2; and references to current events and the promulgation of a fear-based culture. Together, we reflected on how fear takes on different forms, including based on the stories we tell ourselves and others. As we adjourned (knowing we will have a holiday hiatus on September 7 and be together again on September 14), participants chatted words and phrases expressing what they were taking with them this evening: beauty, bravery, gentle transition, hope, letting my back be loved, stillness, surfing gently, and trust. Thank you for sailing with us, and see you soon!
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Please join us for our next session Wednesday, September 2nd at 12pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.
blessing the boats BY LUCILLE CLIFTON (at St. Mary's) may the tide that is entering even now the lip of our understanding carry you out beyond the face of fear may you kiss the wind then turn from it certain that it will love your back may you open your eyes to water water waving forever and may you in your innocence sail through this to that Lucille Clifton, "blessing the boats" from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000. Copyright © 2000 by Lucille Clifton.