*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 January 2022

At the start of a new year, Malcolm Guite grapples with flat-pack furniture

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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

 

Church Times/RSCM: 

Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE

 

Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available

 

Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available

 

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Church Times/Canterbury Press:

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

Early bird tickets available

 

 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)