Poetry to Tap Into Women’s Spiritual Sides

Dear Match Book,

I have the privilege of leading a spirituality group for homeless women at a day shelter. As a matter of policy, we do not discuss religion — both so that nonbelievers feel welcome, and also since many believers become upset when others don’t share their particular views.

To start things off each time we meet we often read a poem together. Over the years we have read Kabir, Hafiz and reams and reams of Mary Oliver. We’ve also covered Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 and “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou. Our selections are often nature-focused, but sometimes they address human emotions and concerns, often explicitly or implicitly about spirituality. Some are about the sacredness of silence, and all are short and beautiful.

Finding appropriate poems is really tough. Can you help us out?

JOAN MAXWELL
WASHINGTON, D.C.

Dear Joan,

“Every poem is rooted in imaginative awe,” W. H. Auden said. No matter your congregants’ spiritual inclinations, the distillation of language and thought can open a path to reverence, and a few moments of peace. For some, literature is the religion. Beginning each gathering with verse offers a gesture of comfort and hope.

Old Souls

You’ve read work by poets from 14th-century Iran (Hafiz) and 15th-century India (Kabir); have you tried the work of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet Rumi? “The Essential Rumi,” translated by Coleman Barks, includes three poems in particular (among many!) — “Two Kinds of Intelligence,” “Say I Am You” and “The Seed Market” — in which the metaphysical and the terrestrial mingle. Then, for more ancient beauty and even more brevity, try the 17th-century haikus of Matsuo Basho collected in “On Love and Barley,” translated by Lucien Stryk. The Japanese Zen Buddhist’s lines — full of cherry blossoms and “plum scent” and a cricket’s song — offer a transcendent connection to nature that spans centuries.

Inside Out

Two contemporary poets who map external landscapes while navigating internal terrain may provide just what you need to spark discussion and reflection among the women in your group: “I used to pretend to believe in God. Mainly, I liked so much to talk to someone in the dark.” The first two lines of Ada Limón’s “Miracle Fish” give you a sense of the whole of her searching, vital collection, “Bright Dead Things.” There are horses and trees and birds throughout — try “Drift,” “Lies About Sea Creatures” and the startling and powerful “How to Triumph Like a Girl” — as well as plenty of space for believers and agnostics to meet.

Faith surfaces frequently in “Otherwise,” the new and selected work by Jane Kenyon published in 1996, the year after she died. Many of Kenyon’s poems are attuned to seasons, in both nature and life. And most are grave and still, though in certain entries — notably “Evening Sun,” “Things” and “Let Evening Come” — movement and light flash from line to line.

Double Takes

In much of Joy Harjo’s work belief takes shape as an origin story. Both “Once the World
Was Perfect,” from her 2015 book, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” and “Remember,” from 1983’s “She Had Some Horses,” reveal the ties between selfhood and the wider, wild universe.

Finally, “Black Nature,” an anthology of nature poems by black writers edited by Camille T. Dungy, is an invaluable resource that you’ll want to keep close at hand. A sprinkling of Richard Wright’s haikus appear throughout the book’s 10 thematically organized sections, creating witty respites amid the longer verse. The book’s second poem, Lucille Clifton’s “the earth is a living thing,” evokes rich, mythic images of blackness — a bear, a hawk — to convey an encompassing vision of the world. The lens narrows in Robert Hayden’s chilly, holy whisper, “Ice Storm.” Bracing clarity also reigns in Marilyn Nelson’s “Last Talk With Jim Hardwick,” which includes the line, “Nothing is wasted / or permanently lost / in Nature,” and stretches down the page in an elegant strip, as deep and direct as a homily.

Yours truly,
Match Book

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Nicole Lamy is a writer and book critic, and the former books editor of The Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleALamy.

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