AS WE all take our first, possibly faltering, steps into the new year, I have found myself not only taking, but also constructing, some new steps. My Christmas present from Maggie was a lovely set of wooden folding library steps — essential, as the bookshelves in my smaller retirement study now go up to the ceiling.
But there was one small catch: my present came in the form of a flatpack, and was not so much a set of folding steps as an assortment of bits of wood, screws, bolts, Allen keys, and, on a single sheet, a densely printed, and scarcely comprehensible, set of “instructions”. In fact, they were not instructions: just a parts list, and two inscrutable diagrams.
As I spread the pieces out on the living-room carpet, I was reminded of the anecdote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the author is asked to assemble a Japanese rotisserie and finds that the first “step” in the poorly translated assembly instructions reads: “Before Assembling Rotisserie, First Attain Peace of Mind.”
This phrase has become a mantra in our household, recited before we undertake anything daunting. I had not the time, before assembling the steps, to undergo Zazen training, or to listen earnestly for the sound of one hand clapping; but I did have my daughter at hand to help me with our 3D jigsaw puzzle, to help me guess how dowel A might be offered up to slat J, and generally to keep me calm.
Between us, we somehow succeeded in transforming the scattered bits and pieces into a beautiful, serviceable little piece of furniture in dark grained wood, which looks far better in my study, and is far safer, than the various wobbly chairs and boxes of unfiled papers on which I had once been precariously balancing when I reached for the higher shelves. Now, I can mount serenely and explore those upper shelves with ease.
Most of the assembly was done while kneeling on the floor. I had, as it were, to diminish myself and lower my gaze in order, finally, to straighten up, to rise, to be lifted to a new perspective on my study and my books. Surveying my shelves and study from the top of the new steps, I feel as though I have enacted a parable, or actualised a ritual pattern; for that lowering of the gaze before it is raised, that assiduous and concentrated effort with little bits and pieces, which itself somehow enables a new way to rise and a new perspective, is just as true of poetry and of prayer as it was of my step-assembly.
As Seamus Heaney testified in Crediting Poetry, there had to be years “bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding” before he could finally and happily “straighten up” and “make space in [his] reckoning and imagination for the marvellous”.
Years of practice at bringing the parts of a poem together was, it turns out, good preparation for my furniture assembly; for my hope is that my poems, too, once assembled, might offer little steps: a platform raised, however slightly, to give the reader new access and new perspective. And, as for prayer, that kneeling to be raised, that closing of the eyes to see — well, it turns out that my completed library steps also form their own kind of kneeler: a poet’s prie-dieu.