I Come to the Garden

I can name so few flowers. This is why
I’m not a better poet. Shakespeare knew
oxlip and gillyvor and eglantine,
while I, beyond camellia, violet, rose,
and lily, am reduced to saying, “There,
those crinkly yellow things!” Out on a walk
with mad John Clare, I’d learn a dozen names
for plants, and bless the wonders underfoot.
“More servants wait on man,” George Herbert said,
“than he’ll take notice of.” I know it’s true,
although I’ve never had observant eyes.
Would I care more if my heart’s soil were deep
enough for herbs and loves to take firm root?
Mine is a gravel garden, where the rake
does all the cultivation I can take.

“I Come to the Garden” by Gail White

Published in First Things, April 2012

Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase by Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1650-1683


The Testing Tree

“The Testing Tree” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006


On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
split on my magic Keds
from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
with my flying skin
as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
over that stretch of road,
with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
that on the given course
I was the world’s fastest human.


Around the bend
that tried to loop me home
dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
riddled with rabbit-life
where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
and a stringy old lilac
more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
remembered a door in the
long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
brushing the stickseed off,
wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
spotting the print of the deer
and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key
to an umbrageous trail
thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
gave me right of passage
as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
soundlessly heel-and-toe
practicing my Indian walk.


Past the abandoned quarry
where the pale sun bobbed
in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
where the ferns gave foothold,
I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
with the stones in my pocket
changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
to the slightest leaf-stir.
I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
at fifty measured paces,
of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
Jehovah of acorns,
watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
in its annulated core
under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
I have only three throws
bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,
I played my game for keeps–
for love, for poetry,
and for eternal life–
after the trials of summer.


In the recurring dream
my mother stands
in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
she is wearing an owl’s face
and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
I pass through the cardboard doorway
askew in the field
and peer down a well
where an albino walrus huffs.
He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
staining the water yellow,
why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
That single Model A
sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
where the tanks maneuver,
revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!


I do not crave you

I do not hope and wait and seek you

I do not haunt your hours and stalk your times of solitude

I do not covet your looks and longings, the heady rush of crush and scent

I do not seek your passionate soul that does not know what way it bends

I do not yearn for a quest for me

And yet

Yet I crave the quiet fellowship

Yet I hope and wait and give the gentle words of cheer and challenge

Yet I hold and freely join the laughter of late nights and the joyful and fierce voices of life lived among others

Yet I covet and carefully bestow the hug of greeting, the look of anticipation, the touch that speaks what we cannot, the hand that holds what we do not always understand

Yet I seek the steady pace of life together

Yet I yearn for the grip of faith, the abundant joy of life as one

Yet I crave the love of another, the call to die and be undone, the astonishment of one accord, the profundity of fellowship that seeks not itself

Yet I crave us

And yet

I crave You

With The Bath Water

When data started to accumulate,
we didn’t think the end would be so tragic.
Facts were such fun, we could eliminate
non-facts. And so we threw away the magic,
the charms, the spells, the powers that removed
all obstacles, the sacred images
that won our wars, brought lover to beloved.
Then we threw out the demigods, the muse,
the spirits in the fountains, planets, trees,
followed by symbols, sacraments—what use
did modern myth-free mortals have for these?
Our reason set no limit to our pride.
Did we kill God, or was it suicide?

“With the Bath Water” by Gail White

Published in First Things, February 2015

The FatesMichaelangelo

Domestic Incident

I hear my neighbor smashing his guitar
against the wall. He’s done it once before
when in a rage. This time he can’t afford
to get another. They’re expensive things.
And yet he loved that wooden box with strings
more than his wife. (Their daughters sit afraid
and wordless under his bizarre tirade.)
Should I call 911, report a case
of spouse abuse? He hasn’t touched her face
or body, simply bellows that she keeps him
from his writing, hovers while he sleeps . . .
She wouldn’t thank me. She remains unmoved,
shelters her little girls and simply waits
while he destroys the only thing he loved
rather than strike the woman that he hates.

“Domestic Incident” by Gail White

Published in First Things, November 2015

Narcissus” by Caravaggio, 1597

Rest, Truly


Dear refuge of my weary soul,

Bastion for this tired heart

Outstretched arms that wait for me

Is this true? Are You not?


Come home, all ye heavy laden,

Wandering feet, stumbling tread

Painted on these signs and songs

Yet unsure of this path and end


Dear saints, I will give thee rest

But truly rest, from this, from You?

Is this burden from your arms

Or these sleepless hours gifts undue?


Jesus, I am resting, resting

Restless in the hands of rest

Hands that give and take and reach

How can these thorns be Your best?


Nearer O my God to Thee

Against these that would woo my soul

Out from under, up from below

Wondering, waiting, yet unwhole


And yet, How Long, O Lord?

For weary souls to wander home

And will they, Lord? Will they surely?

Will we find Your rest alone?


Be Still, my Soul, truly still,

Still in arms of wrathful love

Quiet in a spacious place

Waiting for He who does


Before the Throne of God above,

Though we did not ask to come

Footsore, forlorn,

Learning of the love of One


O Love that will not let me go,

Incarnate Lover, Severe Mercy,

Wrath of God, Son of Man

Joined to us, the too-long weary


It is well with my soul

Well and good and healing yet

Knit with Spirit, flesh and blood

Marked as His toward final rest


When the shadow lands are done

When the saints come truly home

When my faith shall be my sight

When my flesh shall seek the light

When this pain shall have no grip

When these feet shall never slip

When these hands shall be remade

When this crown at His feet laid

When all is right and all is new

When this soul knows this as true


To You, O Father, let us come

Joined to Jesus, heirs with Him

Marked by Spirit, paid by blood


This is rest; life within

This is rest; love undimmed

This is rest; truly Him


“Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;
World losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities.
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.