By Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner
Some of the sounds here are familiar:
Vivaldi plays the same in this language,
keys rattle in locks,
the engines of buses sigh as they turn street corners.
But something is different,
an odd solitude.
It digs itself under my watch into the small bones
of my wrist. Here in this place are no extras.
I play the leading role, but I am
as anonymous as my skeleton.
I have no drawers of envelopes and paper here,
no cupboards of glasses turned neatly upside down,
no simmering stews, no one whose knees fit
perfectly behind mine as I sleep.
Nothing of myself is here except myself.
What I have extends over vast landscapes
and it requires me to do nothing.
I sit in a park and watch what passes:
short Basque men whose tobacco lingers long after they
have gone, dogs whose interest is each other,
workmen with a ladder, the dignified bus
driver before the return trip, hands crossed behind.
And then suddenly it is twilight.
Sometimes one watches for no reason other than the eyes.
Is this grace, this waiting, a simple existing inside of it?
Is it always as ominous as these first few
hours of unfamiliarity?
Poet’s Commentary: I was alone in Spain on a Fulbright teaching fellowship, but the students went on strike. There was nothing I could do in the work I was so accustomed to doing, work which was so central to my identity. This was somewhat terrifying, this concept that my teaching could not keep me going or earn me anything. And yet, I realized in those surroundings, it was grace freely poured upon me—a breakthrough in my theological understanding and a central theological principle for Martin Luther.
Jill Peláez Baumgaertner is Professor of English and Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies at Wheaton College. Of her five poetry collections, the most recent is What Cannot Be Fixed. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poems have won other honors. She has worked with composer Carl Schalk on libretti for choral music. Past president of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, Jill now serves as Poetry Editor of The Christian Century. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Spain.
*This poem first appeared in the journal First Things. Used by permission.