First impressions: it is a short poem, demotic, warm, unassuming. The poem fits in the palm of my hand, and so I carry it around for two weeks. I read it in the sun of my lunch break in Garden Place, I turn it on its side and sketch the shape of it with a blue pen at my desk, I take it on a walk down to the Waikato river on the weekend. I ask it to teach me to how to read it. I let it call me to pay attention. Here is what I noticed:
The repetition of ‘once’ in the opening line activates two of the major concerns. This is a poem which is concerned with living ‘once’ with close attention, and intention. With noticing things the first time around. The speaker reflects on the experience of communion, with the natural world of the small town, the details of ‘trees and flowers and sparkling / fountains’ listed with awed and stacking ‘ands’. When the speaker is mysteriously called by an off-stage, or off-page caller, their movement is again registered in the context of the material world. The speaker draws us again into close contact, into the small space of the village, the room, the two chairs–the small space of waiting.
Another ‘onceness’ echoes here too. The poem largely lingers in the past tense: the city that holds the ghost of a smaller city, the river that once flowed in the other direction. This detail is striking, almost surreal, a tantalizing clue to a possible real-life location. The winding left margin of the poem pulses with its current. But indeed, the river is, for the reader, a setting—an image, not necessarily a spot on a map—or at least not one we are invited to pin down.
Afterall, memory is another river that flows backwards—the poem a form that can swim. Meaning pools in the final lines, which leave us in the present tense of the poet now writing.
lt is a stranger we are waiting on, a mysterious someone else from an unknown and as-yet-unknowable someplace else. We are warned that deliverance comes in disguise, an angel as a stranger with stories to share, a poem with biblical wisdom and a clear instruction in its close:
'Always be kind to a stranger, she may be an angel in disguise'.
This is a poem which calls me to pay attention, to notice layers of time unfolding, to wait in wonder.