Poem project selections

By Mark Jarman


Almost grasped what Grandmother Grace knew
Last Sunday sitting in church, almost knew
What Alexander Campbell grasped when, confronted
With the desolate orphan, he told her, “You
Are a child of God. Go claim your inheritance.”
Almost got it. There it was in the sunlight,
Squared in the clear glass windows, on the durable leaves
Of the magnolia outside. Almost grasped the weather
That turns clear and crystallized in Hans Küng’s brain.
Almost held it in the ellipses and measure
Of my almost understanding. I see the moment
There in my notebook, then the next day’s anxiety
Spilling like something wet across the ink.
I almost put in my hand a vast acceptance
And almost blessed myself, then it slipped away.
All that colossal animal vivacity—smoke
Of the distant horizon, most of it, haze.
But to have known in any place or time
What they knew is worth a record, a few notes.
Almost knew what they knew. Almost got it.

Poet’s Commentary: So what did my Grandmother Grace, Alexander Campbell, and Hans Küng all know that I sensed but which seemed just out of reach?  Grandmother Grace, my father’s mother, was a woman of great spiritual depth, so I have been told, and the religious anchor of her family. Alexander Campbell was, along with Barton W. Stone, a founder of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) during America’s Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century. This is the denomination I grew up in. The story I attribute to Campbell has been attributed to others, but I heard it first from my father, a Disciples minister. And Hans Küng, the Swiss Catholic priest, is the author, among many other books, of On Being a Christian, which is in part a reminder to contemporary Christians of the way early followers of Christ lived their faith. 

So, as I suggest in my poems, these three Christians seemed to have been in touch with something real and of value to me. My poem describes my sense of their spiritual enlightenment. It also suggests that I may be working a little too hard to grasp what they knew. But writing poetry is hard work. My poem “Almost” is meant to represent an earnest pursuit that falls short possibly because of the limits of language and my own imagination. Still, the poem also affirms that the enlightenment exists, is present, and is worthy to be praised and pursued. Incidentally, the church I refer to sitting in “last Sunday” is here in Nashville and notable for its clear glass windows that allow worshippers to look outside during the service.

Mark Jarman’s most recent collection of poetry is The Heronry.  He has also published two books of essays about poetry, The Secret of Poetry and Body and Soul:  Essays on Poetry.  His honors include the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Poets’ Prize, the Balcones Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry.  He is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University where he has taught since 1983. 


This poem first appeared in Rattle #25 (Summer 2006). Used by permission of the author.