with critique by Jendi Reiter
The sun appeared
a shadow of itself today
I could see
dark thunderous clouds
circling as a pack of vultures
as if vying for the right
who would be the first
to snuff out
its bright light
in the open fields
There is no haven in sight
and I am afraid now
of heaven's tear drops
on my own dimming light
like a fresh sprig of water
at a candle's open flame
that I should be put out
a soaked useless wick
as it begins to rain
Copyright 2003 by Sherry Eubank
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Sherry Eubank's poem "Guiding Light" addresses humankind's most basic fears: What if the light of this world, the world that is all I know, should go out? What if I disappear utterly when I die, as if I had never existed? Since human history began, our arts and religions have made the connection between our mortality and the disappearance of the sun.
On the surface, the poem describes an event so ordinary as hardly to be worth recording. Storm clouds begin to obscure the sun, while the speaker is caught in an open field without shelter from the rain. But the extended metaphor of the vultures quickly creates a powerful feeling of menace, showing that much more is at stake than the weather: namely, the speaker's (and perhaps the world's) vulnerability and mortality. The speaker's "own dimming light" is like that of the sun, emerging tentatively like an invalid from his sickroom, "a shadow of itself". Because both the "I" of the poem and the source of her fear are left undeveloped, the effect is more universal and more terrifying.
I perceive the weather in this poem as more than just a metaphor for the speaker's psychological state. There is a spiritual drama going on overhead, a shadowy, elemental struggle between the forces of light and darkness. And these cosmic forces have intentionality; they are not just a scientist's impersonal principles.
I read the poem this way because the speaker's biggest fear seems to be, not that mortal life is meaningless, but that a higher power has weighed her in the balance and found her wanting. How quickly we move from the tender, perhaps too sentimental image of "heaven's tear drops" to the unseen finger that casually flicks water at her life's little candle flame, extinguishing it—a gesture reminiscent of the fearsome, alien God of Puritan sermons.
This spare, conceptually focused poem made an impact on me despite some unevenness in its technical quality. Though I liked the vulture image, I wasn't hooked by the first stanza, which took too long to build momentum. In poetry, every line has to count. When the author ends the line before saying something interesting, the line can fall flat. "The sun appeared" isn't a strong enough opening. It's like saying "The sky was blue". It's not news. Once I read the poem to the end, I no longer took the sun's appearance for granted, but the opener initially led me to expect a more banal series of observations.
I had the same reaction to the line "I could see". There's no rhythmic reason for a break there, and the phrase "I could see" (in this context) isn't strong enough on its own to warrant being set apart that way. A line break calls attention to the phrase, so it had better be able to handle the spotlight. [For a thought-provoking discussion of line breaks, see poet Ron Silliman's weblog. Silliman shows how Brenda Iijima's poem "Georgic" takes on radically different flavors, and perhaps different meanings, if one rearranges the line breaks.]
The pace picks up, and my interest with it, in the second stanza of "Guiding Light". Why does this stanza feel so much more alive than the one before it? Much credit is due to the tighter rhythm and the use of rhymes (right/bright/light) and similar sounds (vying/deciding) to ratchet up the intensity. "As if vying for the right" sets up a strong beat that each subsequent line hammers home. The stanza elaborates on the vulture image, involving us more in the drama.
The third stanza is an example of using line breaks for maximum effectiveness. "Alone" stands alone. After setting the scene ("in the open fields") each line introduces a new aspect of her predicament, allowing the impact of one thought ("There is no haven in sight") to sink in before moving on to the next ("And I am afraid").
As I mentioned above, the phrase "heaven's tear drops" didn't ring true for me, though I liked the assonance of "heaven/haven". It's too familiar and sentimental an image.
The last stanza is very powerful, with a strong rhythm and a chilling final image that dispels any saccharine thoughts of heaven. The line "flicked" is purposely short, as if the unseen deity could only spare an instant of time to think about the poor flame. The rhymes "flicked/wick" and "flame/rain" and the proliferation of edgy consonants ("a sprig of water flicked" at the "soaked useless wick") create a lot of intensity in a small space.
I liked the poet's unusual word choice—a "sprig" of water, rather than the more predictable "drop" or "spray". The sound matches the action, and the unexpected word prevents us from passing over the image too quickly.
Where could this poem be submitted? Before sending it out, the author should probably revise the first stanza so that it has the same tautness and passion as the ending. Because of its accessibility and universal message, "Guiding Light" might be a good fit for some of the contests sponsored by state poetry societies. Check these websites for deadlines and themes:
Pennsylvania Poetry Society
Postmark Deadline: January 15
Poetry Society of Virginia
Postmark Deadline: January 19
National Federation of State Poetry Societies
Postmark Deadline: March 15
These other contests may also be appropriate:
FCCJ Writers' Festival Poetry Contests
Postmark Deadline: February 2
Utmost Christian Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
Tom Howard Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: September 30
FirstWriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 1
A spiritually themed but not preachy poem such as "Guiding Light" could also be submitted to magazines such as U.S. Catholic and The Christian Century.
This poem and critique appeared in the December 2003 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.