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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 July 2019

Motes of dust offer moments of insight to Malcolm Guite

THERE is always a special frisson, a little tremor of magic, when the invisible is made visible, when the hidden, the taken-for-granted, is suddenly revealed and resplendent.

And yet it is also an everyday occurrence, at least if one’s eyes are open. Take, for example, the dust in my cluttered room. It’s always there, suspended in the air, but it remains, for the most part, invisible and unremarked, floating, moving, secretly marking the subtle currents of the air.

But, when a cloud uncovers the sun, and a single shaft of light shines through on to my desk to make a bright splash on the pages of an open book, then, suddenly, I perceive that the air through which it falls is full of dance and movement: the little motes of dust, moving in and out of its beam, shine out as tiny stars which lift and fall in whorls and swirls, like the star-forming nebulae so beautifully revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope; the unseen suddenly appears, like the thoughts and lines that rise into the light of one’s mind from the unknown and the unconscious.

When I first saw these swirls of suddenly illumined dust, as a child, I imagined them as stars and galaxies, and thrilled to the change in scale. So, I was glad to discover that I was not the only one to have thought this, when I came across Micheal O’Siadhail’s beautiful poem “Cosmos”, which compares God’s creation of our subtly unfolding cosmos to the unfolding of themes and variations by a jazz maestro. Set in a jazz club in New Orleans, the poem opens with a vivid image of

An opulence of sound, clash and flow
as a spotlight tunnels dust in its beam.
glints the trumpet’s bell. . .
 

When the Trumpeter warms to his solo, the poet reimagines the original act of creation itself:
 

. . . But he’s off again
I watch swarms of dust in the spotlight,
swirls of galaxies, and imagine he’s blowing
a huge balloon of space that’s opening
our world of order. In a waft of creation
his being becomes a music’s happening.
 

A while back, when I was working on the last pieces for my next poetry collection, After Prayer, there was a moment when one of those sudden shafts of spring sunlight brought its illumination, and I tried to express something of what it made me feel in a little poem for that collection, “Motes”, recalling O’Siadhail, on the one hand, and George Herbert, on the other (with a little nod to Donne).

Because After Prayer is, in part, a response to Herbert, I thought I would try using some of the beautiful forms and verse patterns he invented. This little poem follows the metrical pattern and rhyme-scheme of Herbert’s poem “The Pulley”; but, whereas Herbert’s poem is about being pulled back up to heaven by our own weariness, mine is about how, in moments of quiet and completion, the breath of heaven seems to stir, and its light to illumine even the dust of this world.

Motes 

In stillness after prayer
A shaft of sunlight finds my quiet room,
Where motes of dust are dancing in the air.
Pinpoints of insight, lightening the gloom,
Appear and disappear
 

Like little galaxies;
Dark matter offered fleetingly to sight.
And all my thoughts are little more than these,
I bless the breath that lifts them to the light,
These moving mysteries.
 

And each breath after prayer
Is somehow shared, is somehow more than mine,
Making my little room an everywhere,
Its ordinary clutter seems to shine
Like starlight after prayer.

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