“This quality of beholding”: Guest post

The following arrived as a response to the previous post in which I mused about adding more words to the “tsunami” of words already out there. It came from my friend and fellow writer Leona Dueck Penner, whose rich life has included working with Mennonite Central Committee in Africa, being a correspondent for Canadian Mennonite, and engaging in ongoing writing of various kinds including poems (one example here) and short stories. Those of you who follow comments here will know that when she responds to something she adds wonderful reflections of her own. This time I asked if she’d let me carry them as a guest post. I’m pleased that she agreed, and here they are, under a title from the quote on Rilke below.

“This quality of beholding” (Leona Dueck Penner)

Thanks so much Dora, for sharing your learnings through your blog, especially that quote by Nadine Gordimer and the link to the interview which I really enjoyed and was challenged by. I put her Telling Time book of essays on hold at the library right away!

Gordimer is a favourite writer whose books taught me so much about what it meant to be human in South Africa during the years that we worked/lived in the region prior to and just as apartheid ended in that beloved country. And her interview taught me some more about what it means to live there now. For example, I like her suggestion, nay demand, that the rest of the world cut SA a bit slack. After all, it’s only 16 years ago since their first democratic elections, while North America and Britain have had “hundreds of years of working towards democracy and are still not perfect; you’ve still got poor people; you’ve still got xenophobia.”

But back to your post. I also appreciate the quote by Gordimer re discovering our humanity through the process of writing, and how this can send a writer “falling, falling through the surface” of his/her own social context. That reminded me of the forward to a book (discovered at McNally’s of course!) which P. and I are reading together in the mornings just now:  A Year with Rilke: Daily readings from the best of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated & edited by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows) which states that:

… perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Rilke’s poetry resides in his fearless confrontation with the fact of suffering. His capacity to embrace the dark and to acknowledge loss brings comfort to the reader because nothing of life is left out. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. No degree of hopelessness, such as that of prisoners, beggars, abandoned animals, or inmates in asylums, is outside the scope of the poet’s respectful attention. He allows us to see that the bestowal of such pure attention is in itself a triumph of the spirit.

This quality of beholding–taking into oneself what one beholds –is to Rilke the central task of our being. From the outset, our engagement with the world around us is presented as reciprocal: ‘All becoming has needed me. /My looking ripens things /and they come toward me, to meet and be met.’

So … if a writer remains true to this high calling to the best of her/his ability, perhaps it’s no wonder that they are often feared, ridiculed and silenced by the structures that govern society, whether in apartheid South Africa, or in right or left-wing “dictatorships,” where power and/or money may be put at risk if writers advocate for the poor (including our environment) too strongly.

4 thoughts on ““This quality of beholding”: Guest post

  1. Wow. And wow again. That’s it. This has helped me identify what I love so much in Mary Oliver’s poems and any great writing for that matter and it is indeed the “bestowal of pure attention” they bring to our world. This is what a great writer/poet/artist does for us – helps us to see with fresh eyes. Thank you for this.

    • Thanks Colleen (with a bow to Leona). — Interesting you mentioned Mary Oliver; I’m currently reading one of her books and becoming acquainted with her work, and for sure, I know what you mean.

  2. Colleen, thanks so much for your warm response to my guest blog related to Rilke’s poetry. Interestingly, your enthusiasm for writers/artists who help us see the world with fresh eyes due to their gift of “the bestowal of pure attention,” brought to mind a comment Dora made in a previous post, “What she left,” related to the small body of poetry/art left behind by Christine Wiebe, who died young after years of illness, wondering what she would leave behind.
    In that blog you concluded, Dora, that, “[Christine] left us more than she knew perhaps … these gathered words … frank and lovely, almost heartbreaking, I want to answer her: you left us all this: a gift of what you saw and strove for and accepted.”
    That description of Christine’s work seems accurate and pretty close to the “bestowal of pure attention” which Rilke’s poetry is all about. And that seems very fitting to me, given that Christine (whom I got to know when our MCC paths crossed briefly in the days of her youth when she worked at Marymound in the late 1970s), had an inner stillness/centeredness and/or “quality of beholding” even at that young age, reminiscent perhaps of an earlier (sort of Austin-nesque?) time period especially since she wore a sunhat over her strawberry blonde hair quite a lot (we didn’t know about her illness at the time) and spent most of her spare time writing in her journal and/or creating poems, etc. All around, she was a very fine young woman who remained in my memory even though we didn’t keep in touch personally. So it was a special gift to reconnect with this “angel” via your blog and to have the opportunity to read her lovely poetry written in her thoughtful/attentive creative voice all these years later.
    Thanks too, Colleen, for that reference to Mary Oliver whose writing I’ll check out at the library soon.

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