Marjorie Stelmach


Marjorie Stelmach’s most recent book of poems is Without Angels (Mayapple, 2014). Earlier volumes include Bent upon Light and A History of Disappearance (University of Tampa Press) and Night Drawings (Helicon Nine). Individual poems have recently appeared in Arts & Letters, The Cincinnati Review, Image, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review online, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Tampa Review, and others, as well as twice on Poetry Daily.


The Stylite Prays for Visions

My sandals are deeply stained
with blood from the steep slopes and peaks
of my penitential stones, and still, not once
in my years of observance have I been granted
a vision.
Worse, in my repeating dreams,
birds flock to feast on my sins, crying: spite,
scrupulosity, pride pride pride
. In defeat, in defiance,
I take my stance atop this pillar, spread my arms
to the heavens. Stay.

Thus begin the decades of my lessening,
seasons of abiding Heaven’s scorch and storm,
unwinding in my wake a pilgrimage as long
as the turning of earth.
Below, my brothers, too, revolve
with the cities and graves of the plains, enduring
the circling demands of sowing and harvest,
canticle and psalm.
Each evening, one of my order hoists bread
and goat’s milk to my platform. At dawn, another
hauls down the emptied bowl. I see I am a burden
and pray to grow smaller.

In time, it becomes the way of things: a man
on a platform in the sky. No one gapes, no one cranes
in awe: unremarked, I wane in their eyes toward
When, day after day, my meals are lowered
from the platform untouched, they understand:
I have learned to live on air.

Now, with my flesh broken back
to its elements, my damaged soles returned to earth
after all these years, I rise into the grain, and again
into the loaves.
Because they have shared for generations
in the bounty of my bread, the birds assume
a formal demeanor winging off with my eyes.
Who can say what holy visions they see
as they go?

Who would even conceive of the idea: to stand on a raised platform fasting, praying, preaching for 37 years, as Simeon Stylites reputedly did?! I wrote ‘The Stylite Prays for Visions’ to try to understand what form such a conception might take within a community of brothers. After struggling for nearly two years with the poem in third person, I moved it into first person and my own vision began to clear.


You’d hear it edging a conversation—a lengthened vowel
or the slight vibration of a consonant. Then the briefest

of pauses, the veer, and the squaring of a jaw. Even the idlest talk
seemed mined with the broken bits of something someone

wished they’d said years back when it might have mattered.
So little margin for error. What with the merciless winters,

the mines closing down, the pinch of hard times, you learned
to parcel your words, scrimp, take precautions. Economies

everywhere: firewood leaning on tumble-down sheds, side-yards
littered with salvaged machine parts, faded shirts and graying tees

strung on the wash lines. Food stamps in checkout lanes.
Boarded-up stores. For Sale signs that have stood for years.

Everything here says go, nothing allows the going.

Just watching, you learn it—how strength can decay over time
to a sour endurance that fuels its own furtherance.

The way a place may seem, at first, severe but not unfair:
you are equal to it. Then comes a winter so brutal you burn

the last of the woodpile and turn to the furniture. You never
speak of it. Next season, you make such ample provision

the surplus stays stacked in abundance through a score of springs.
Faced with such bounty in such a world, what else can you do?

You stay.

The details of ‘Thrift’ are drawn from decades of summer visits to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I learned as a child to look beneath the habitual reserve of the residents to find a reliable kindness and an elemental fortitude—virtues required by their hard economy and harder winters. As with so many of my poems, this one began with a question I asked myself year after year: Why would anyone remain in so harsh an environment?


Marjorie Stelmach


Marjorie Stelmach’s most recent volume of poems is Bent upon Light (University of Tampa Press). Individual poems have recently appeared in Arts & Letters, The Cincinnati Review, Image, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review online, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Tampa Review, and others, as well as twice on Poetry Daily.


The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.

- James Wright

The pond is feathered, grey-backed, moving north.
Nothing can hold it.
The fat little saint in the garden prays only
for a paint-job.
Flickers and downies contend at the feeder.
Is this a world in good order?

A red-winged blackbird grates on the world’s nerves—
another of the saints of repetition.
This is not a day
to ask after the gardener.

If Earth is perfected,
it is in its cycles, its seasons, its relentless
as Time is perfected in the saint’s plaster leprosy,
the scabbed mud of the shoreline,
the pile of lobbed limbs
in the hollow.

As for the geese, they’ve turned to alchemy,
depositing green tubes underfoot, vials
the winds will powder and carry
down to the water.

Drink, and be whole again.

As light sinks, the waters,
resistant to the world’s thirst, stiffen
beneath a glinting shield.
Still, the deer bend to whatever is on offer.
The saints, too, are making do
with gold.
Hard on a throat, gold.
Who would dare to ask after
the gardener?

The pond is flying north against
all natural law,
dragging the dead,
and whatever is un-rooted, uprooted,
See how the waters have broken
into scales, red in the last light, silver
where the moon

touches, troughs, touches.

With sunrise and the washing
of heaven’s flesh in risen mist, ask:
Is this a world in good order?

Ask again. Tomorrow
is the only answer, every sacred
dying cell of it.

Arriving in a damp, chilly, early spring for a stay at a retreat center I have always loved, I asked after the woman who had welcomed me on previous visits and learned that she had been diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. The poem came from my contemplation of the sad disarray of her garden and the untended beauty of the adjacent wetland wilderness. Angered by the apparent intentions—so opposed to my own wishes—of the disease, of the seasons, of the Gardener, I struggled to understand anew the term “perfected” (from Latin: completion), and to accept the world as complete, able to contain all things including disorder and even death and, by the alchemy of time and change, to remain in some sense “perfected.” I can’t say I succeeded in convincing myself, but the poem represents my own attempt, as Frost put it, to “drink and be whole again / beyond confusion.”