Four Poems on Liminal Space

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adjective: liminal

1.     1.
relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2.     2.
occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.


If prose is a map that leads you from A to B, poetry would be the landmarks in between. Prose seeks a destination, a linear narrative as a guide and lots of provisions for the journey. With poetry, you bring your own tent and sleeping bag.

The satisfaction of a poem is often its lack of resolution, its depth rather than the breadth of landscape it covers, the spareness of words acting as leaven in bread; collecting invisible spores from the collective consciousness and rising slowly in the warmth and darkness of the individual heart.

The lack of explanation, resolution and clear direction in a poem can open a space where possibilities collide in free association to form radical, new perspectives. It’s a kind of chemistry. Mixing sounds, ideas, words, meanings and symbols to describe thoughts, experiences and feelings that are beyond the scope of literal expression creating their own ecosystems where thought, feeling and experience can be explored in new ways. This is a liminal space, a space between departure and destination where we can pause, sit, admire the view, absorb the images, let them stir within us, allow them to weave and spin, recreating patterns of understanding, redrawing the field guides and maps for our individual and collective journeying.

The poems below directly address and describe the liminal spaces between one realm and another in a variety of different ways.

Mary Oliver’s Maybe, speaks of a spiritual threshold  which demands a complete reconsideration of life. In this way it evokes Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo.

A Herd of Does by Hugh MacDiarmid makes tangible the brief glimpse of the ephemeral, ethereal “other-world” of spirit or illumination in the form of a herd of Does that glimmer in and out of sight.

Mark Doty’s Migration draws the reader into a dimension suspended between the ordinary and the extraordinary by contrasting the everyday, mundane excursion of going to the local grocery store with the innate, knowing navigation of migrating geese that fly like some transcendent thought above the often aimless nature of human endeavor.

A Meeting Missed by Rabindranath Tagore is a cry of one in exile, suspended between this world and the next. The poet speaks as one who has experienced the divine and fears forgetting or forsaking that experience in his everyday life. Each, post it note to self like stanza becomes a knotted rope thrown out from the brink of an illuminated horizon into the gritted streets of the world like a life raft.

Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry,
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.

A Herd of Does
Hugh MacDiarmid


There is no doe in all the herd
Whose heart is not her heart,
O Earth, with all their glimmering eyes
She see thee as thou art

Like them in shapes of fleeting fire
She mingles with the light
Till whoso saw her sees her not
And doubts his former sight.

They come and go and none can say
Who sees them subtly run
If they indeed are forms of life
Or figments of the sun

So is she one with Heaven here,
Confounding mortal eyes,
As do the holy dead who move
Innumerous in the skies.

But now and then a wandering man
May glimpse as on her goes
A golden movement of her dreams
As ‘ twere a herd of does.

Mark Doty

Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
seventeen wild geese arrowed the ashen blue
over the Wal-mart and the Blockbuster Video,

and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion – not in the parking lot,
the tallowy circles just appearing,

the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil. Their eyes
held me there, the unfailing gaze

of those who know how to fly in formation,
wing-tip to wing-tip, safe, fearless.
And the convex glamour of their eyes carried

the parking lot, the wet field
troubled with muffler shops
and stoplights, the arc of highway

and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
with its failing barn…The wind
a few hundred feet above the grass

erases the mechanical noises, everything;
nothing but their breathing
and the perfect rowing of the pinions,

and then, out of that long, percussive pour
toward what they are most certain of,
comes their – question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria – as delivered
by something too compelled in its passage
to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length
of me until I am involved in their flight,
the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
needing nothing…Only animals
make me believe in God now

– so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
But I wasn’t with them,

as they headed toward Acushnet
and New Bedford, of course I wasn’t,
though I was not exactly in the parking lot

either, with the cars nudged in and out
of their slots, each taking the place another
had abandoned, so that no space, no desire

would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing
– is that what that sound is for? –

I seemed to be nowhere at all.

A Meeting Missed
Rabindranath Tagore

If I am not to meet you again in this life then I want to feel that I have missed the meeting, don’t let me forget, let me feel the pain of it in my dreams and while awake.

As the time passes in the black dust of the body, and I get fat with money, I want to feel that I have gotten nothing out of it all — don’t let me forget, I want to feel the slivers of pain in my dreams and while awake.

When I walk up the steps, exhausted and tense after a long trip, or when I climb into some lonely bed, I want to feel that the long trip is still ahead of me — don’t let me forget, I want to feel the pain in my legs both while asleep and while awake.

When my house is all cleaned, and drinks are set here and there, and I hear people laughing, I want to feel that I haven’t invited you to my house — don’t let me forget, I want to feel the pain of that grief both while asleep and while awake.

3 thoughts on “Four Poems on Liminal Space

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