praise song for november
ever since the jersey sojourner landed safely back home here along the shores of our great lake, this old house has been awash in crumpled-up wads of packing paper, and boxes, and bubblewrap. i’ve been up to my hipbones wading through it all, trying to find tucked-away places for treasures now in our keep, relics salvaged from a faraway house now awaiting its death blows.
and that’s when, while sipping a time-out tea, i scrolled through the mail and stumbled upon a praise poem, a praise poem so lovely it made time expand, a few short minutes turned into what felt like a goodly chunk of time, and i carried the praise poem with me while i worked.
here’s the poem worthy of praising:
Praise the light of late November,~ Barbara Crooker ~
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.
(Abalone Moon, Summer 2004)
next time i took a break from all the stripping away of papers and the swiping away of cobwebs in the places i’d found for storing, i decided to dig into a bit of knowledge about this literary genre that pulses with pure and unfiltered heart, one praise practically tripping over another.
here are but a few bare bones, mostly dug up from my friends at britannica (the encyclopedia, that is): praise poetry first stirred in medieval literature, especially during the renaissance, when it poured forth worship of or admiration for heroes, kings, or deities.
it seems the praise poem––also called mlenmlen, oriki, or praise name––is one of the most widely used poetic forms in africa, a series of laudatory epithets––descriptive word-pictures or word-paintings––applied to gods, men, animals, plants, towns, you name it. the point is to capture the essence of whoever or whatever is being praised, and to lavish praise.
think not that just anyone is inclined to get up and start praising, at least not in the african homeland. professional bards––akin to a court poet––are the ones ordained to chant praise songs, with the reciter taking position in an open space, visible to all assembled. the reciting begins in high voice, rhythmic backbeat sometimes provided by spear stomped against ground, a punctuational note that would get my attention. metaphor is a key device, so too poetic license for coining new words. (i’m in with anyone who’s making up words.)
it’s an oral form that, not surprisingly, found its way to worship in the american black tradition, and, now rooted there, fills the sanctuary of many a black church. you might remember elizabeth alexander’s glorious “praise song for the day” written for and recited at president obama’s first inauguration, on that cold yet hopeful january day in 2009. (so far in the distance now, it almost seems like another america.)
inspired by this notion of rolling praise, especially in this season of gathering gratitudes, i decided to try my own, mindful that praise is another name for anointing through blessing. the beannacht is the celtic version thereof, the bracha is how jews unfurl their blessings. all the earth and its inhabitants, certainly the ones humble enough to know we’re not here of our own making, seem hardwired to nod, bend knee, and bow. i beg permission to attempt the tradition, and hereby begin:
Praise the homecomings of late November, the footsteps you know by heart, the ones that tell you someone you love is just one floor above, and any minute now his bear-like hungers will awake, will startle, and he’ll come foraging into the woods of your well-fruited refrigerator.
Praise the mottled gray November skies, the herringbone of heaven and cloud, infinite afghan we draw round our shoulders, as November signals its call to begin the turning in, the deepening quiet of winter coming.
Praise the molasses light of waning November, pooling across floorboards, magnifying the smudge and the splatters of each and every unwashed windowpane.
Praise the gathering table you’ll set for the first time in a too-long time. Praise the remembering that comes as you haul out the once-a-year dishes, as your riffle through the recipe tin, bring to the feast heirlooms––and long-gone stirrers of pots––of kitchens past.
Praise the voices soon to rise from the room where the forks and the knives will scrape against plates, where stories will unspool, and laughter—praise be—will punctuate the convening, weave the disparate souls of the room into one.
Praise the stripped-bare essence of autumn’s end, the disrobing almost over now. Limb and bough and trunk, exposed against the palette of sky. Praise the way we see more now, as less is there to get in the way. Let that be our guiding vision.
Praise the wisdom that comes with November’s close, these days ripe for inner harvest. When the orchard’s gone sleeping, the fields have gone fallow, sift through the loam that’s rich in your soul. Root around, take in wisdom, turn the page, listen to the forest, or the grasses that rustle to the song of winter’s-coming. Let it sink in, sink deep, all through the slumbering months.
here’s a variation on praise, a heavenly one, albeit written in deepening shades of darkness, from one of my very favorite poets, w.s. merwin. it’s titled simply, “thanks.”
W. S. Merwin – 1927-2019
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around usFrom Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin.
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
both the crooker praise poem and possibly the merwin (should you care to make a point, to stir a somber note into your table’s conversation) might be welcome at your gratitude table. or you might be inclined to pen your own. either way, from my old maple table to your table in whatever its form, blessings, blessings, and praise be to the chairs.
do you have a praise poem you love? what praise would you pen should you be so inspired?