Angela O'Donnell

Living in the Crevice of Time: The Catholic Art of Josephine Jacobsen

It is a fearful thing to love What Death can touch. --Anonymous

In her final lecture as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in May of 1973, Josephine Jacobsen cites the epigraph quoted above as the keynote of her talk. She gives a brief history of the discovery of these words, which appeared as an epitaph upon a tombstone in a cemetery she and her husband once visited in the northern mountains of New Hampshire:

It was cold in the wind, and we started back to our car. Just before, we got to the gate, which was rusted and rather lopsided. I saw a pair of clasped hands, on a leaning stone, and stooped down to look at the inscription. There was a woman's name but no relationship, and under the name and the date were carved the two lines of poetry. ("The Instant of Knowing," 45-46).
The lines stung Jacobsen and her husband both, not only because of the bold truth of them, and not only because of the beautiful balance of the lines, the turn from love to Death, the funereal march of those final four monosyllables. Both were convinced they had heard the lines before:
Her poems are radically incarnational in their attention to the sacredness of the human and of the world we inhabit.
"They hung in my mind as though every hour they were going to place themselves" (46). But they never did.Returning from the trip, Jacobsen quoted them to friends whom she thought might be able to identify their source; the response was always the same, the sense of recognition but the inability to place them. These simple lines by the anonymous graveyard poet represent in miniature for Jacobsen the power of poetry to evoke in writer and reader alike what she calls (borrowing a phrase from Richard Eberhard) "the instant of knowing:"
A knowledge of what we already knew become for an instant so devastatingly fresh that it could be contained no more than a flash of lightning. The arrangement of the oldest human fact into certain special sounds in a certain sequence. It is the thing that cannot be argued with . . . It is, literally, an instant of knowing-of something simultaneously strange and familiar; something already known but now discovered. (That wonderful word: dis-covered.) (47, 45)

The mystery of that moment lies at the heart of Jacobsen's poems, as does the central truth expressed by the graveyard poet. Her poems are about love, its intensity, its grounding in the flesh, love that is full of the desire for the eternal and full of the certainty of mortality. Her poems are radically incarnational in their attention to the sacredness of the human and of the world we inhabit, a fleeting and transitory world that bodies forth, albeit in glimpses, promises of perfection and eternity. This regard for the sacramental quality of everyday life is but one of a number of characteristics that mark Jacobsen's poetry as the work of a Catholic writer. More than any poet I know, Jacobsen adheres to Flannery O'Connor's insistence that Catholics, and Catholic writers in particular, must "cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it" ("Letter to A," 90). Her poems celebrate the world and the human condition even as they acknowledge its, and our, fallen nature. No sentimentalist, Jacobsen's eye is unerring in perceiving and identifying the limits of our bodies, minds, and spirits. The poems remind us again and again of the risks of love when it is balanced against the inevitability of death, bringing us to the central question of our being: How do we live with this mystery?

In "Poems for My Cousin," for example, Jacobsen attempts to depict this complex way of being in the world. In the first of the three poems, the speaker takes her cousin on an outing and describes the landscape they see:

I took my cousin to Prettyboy Dam.
A boxer was swimming for sticks, the ripples
Blew from the left, and beer cans glittered
Under the poison ivy.
From the beginning, each object in the poem is depicted with detailed precision so that even ordinarily unlovely things, such as beer cans and poison ivy, are redeemed as they "glitter" in the light of the day. Like the poems of fellow Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jacobsen's poem is full of inscape in that it focuses the reader's attention on the quiddity of things. Their very presence in the world makes them worthy of note, and it is the poet's role, in the words of yet another Catholic poet, Czeslaw Milosz, "to glorify things just because they are" ("The Blacksmith," 503). In addition, her inclusion of the name of the place, Prettyboy Dam, suggests beauty as well as a deep, local affection for the imperfect landscape they survey.

In keeping with this focus on the ordinary, their conversation centers on small, seemingly unimportant details:

We talked of pelota; and of how the tendrils of vines
Curl opposite ways in the opposite hemispheres.
My cousin was dying. By this I mean
The rate of his disengagement was rapid.
This second stanza, despite or, perhaps, because of its matter-of-fact tone, takes the reader's breath away. We become aware of mortality's dark presence on this beautiful day at the Dam, the age-old motif of Death in the Garden. Further, Jacobsen introduces into the poem her characteristic double vision: her cousin is dying, his death imminent and clear, yet Jacobsen also tacitly acknowledges that all of us are dying, the speaker included, though our disengagement may seem to be less rapid. Thus, the seemingly straightforward comment on the movement of vines in opposite hemispheres becomes a metaphor for the different ways in which the living and the dying perceive the world:
Everything he saw differently, and more clearly than I.
The joined dragon-flies, the solid foam of the fall;
The thin haste of the ant at my foot,
And me, as I looked at him.
Death's proximity permits her cousin to see the world intensely, or so the speaker surmises, in all of its minute particularity and beauty, and to cherish it, to use O'Connor's phrase, as he knows he must leave it soon. Yet, even as she declares the difference in their ways of seeing, that clarity of vision becomes the poet's as she imagines his perception and experiences it vicariously. In the final line of the stanza, wherein their gazes lock, she sees even herself through his eyes. Death, then, along with her love for her cousin, becomes for her, too, a means of access to the world's beauty and to a sense of her own mortality, all of which is conveyed, in turn, to the reader through the agency of the poem. It brings us all together-cousin, poet, and reader-to contemplate this mystery of our being.

Finally, however, this moment is short lived, as the poem concludes by reminding us, once more, of the distance between us, the living and the dying: "But we saw different things, since one could not say / 'Wait . . .' / Nor the other, 'Come . . . .'" We cannot cross from the one hemisphere into the other by an act of will, at least not permanently. Each must remain in his and her separate world. Equally imprisoned by time, neither she nor her cousin can alter the course of their lives nor the time of their deaths: neither can "wait" nor "come." Similarly, even as the poem brings us to the instant of knowing, it returns us to the world of ordinary perception that the living inhabit. We are left in a state of paradox, having tasted the joy of communion and the terror of solitude, consolation and desolation, hope and despair.

It is in her preoccupation with this paradox and with such moments of recognition wherein Josephine Jacobsen reveals herself to be a Catholic poet. Jacobsen never used this term to describe herself, and may even have felt uncomfortable being identified in such a way, particularly in an era wherein the term is sometimes misunderstood in the popular imagination as one of limitation rather than one that would suggest a grounding of one's art in universal truth.

Like the poems of fellow Catholic poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Jacobsen's poem is full of inscape.
Few of her poems are overtly religious in the way that the poems of more obviously Catholic poets, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton, and William Everson, are. These writers made their religion and their personal spiritual struggles the central subjects of their poetry. In addition, they wrote poems of praise and thanksgiving, openly declaring their faith and asserting, implicitly, religion as fit subject for poetry even in an age dominated by secular art. By contrast, Jacobsen regards her Catholicism as a personal matter. In an interview with poet A.V. Christie, she asserts "My religion, like my work, is very private" (Christie 55). Thus, her approach to religion in her poems is usually oblique, stealthy, and suggestive, more a steady undercurrent than a wave that breaks over the reader. Nonetheless, her Catholicism is foundational to her artistic vision and to the poems she writes, and it manifests itself in a number of distinctive ways.

A few of her poems do, in fact, directly address religion; however, in them Jacobsen assumes a characteristically detached and sometimes critical view. For example, in "Non Sum Dignus," whose title is taken from the moment in the Mass just before Communion when the communicants pray in unison "I am not worthy to receive thee," the speaker observes the congregation, a body of believers who sincerely seek God yet fail to find Him again and again. She describes them as quiet and respectful, but barely attentive and easily distracted by the paraphernalia of church-going (rosary beads and gloves), the stained glass, and the bright day beyond them. Towards the end of the poem, she describes them leaving the church:

The ancient usual retreat
Takes down the steps the scattering horde;
Adam again has met defeat,
Has missed connection with the Lord.
The tone here is wry, reinforced by the use of form characteristic of Jacobsen's earlier verse (in this case, regular iambic tetrameter lines and insistent ABAB rhymes). The speaker sounds almost smug in her superior vantage point on the skirmish that has just taken place. The comically inflated language and the implicit metaphor comparing the experience of Mass to a battle owe a debt to mock-epic conventions and, thus, strike us as humorous but also poignant. Once again, God has won the weekly battle and routed humankind. This often-repeated failure is inevitable, yet it is precisely the recognition of that failure and the refusal to be daunted by it that makes a faithful Catholic. The final stanza concludes the poem with a final image of hope:
But where the altar-candles die
Waits God, and in a corner prays
The last of heroes who will try
The gate again in seven days.
God is, indeed, present and is attentive to humankind's feeble assaults upon heaven, and He sees us as comically heroic in our tenacity. This witty, ironic approach is typical of Jacobsen's poems that directly address Catholic themes and persists throughout her long career. The treatments of the theme of sainthood in "Ballad of the Four Saints," an early poem, and of the subject of liturgical prayer in "We Pray Most Earnestly," a later poem, are similar. In both poems, the emphasis is upon human failure, how far below the mark our efforts fall precisely because we set our sights so high. In such poems, she does not set Catholics or Catholicism on a pedestal, yet she expresses a deep, generous affection for all people and things connected with the Church.

Most often, though, Jacobsen's Catholicism takes more subtle forms in her poetry. Jacobsen's mother, a devout practitioner of her faith, converted from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism when Josephine was a young girl; thus, from her early childhood, the poet's view of the world, of the human, and of God were informed by the Church. The rhythm of the liturgical year; the visible signs of the Invisible she encountered in the sacraments; the varieties of language made available to her in the Mass, though scripture, and through prayer; the belief in the communion of saints--these truths pulse beneath the surface of her verse. For all her devotion to her faith-she was a daily communicant much of her life--Jacobsen does not evangelize in her poems nor does she publicly wrestle with God. Instead, her faith is a deep, indwelling aspect of her being and forms part of the bedrock knowledge and intuition upon which her art is built. Jacobsen's Catholicism manifests itself not in devotional verse but in poetry that embodies her faith in its attitude and orientation toward the secular world. Thus, her poems contain what might be termed a sort of quiet Catholicism which works upon the reader invisibly, silently, and dangerously.

It may seem odd to associate danger with faith and with poetry, but Jacobsen herself insists upon this connection in both her poetry and her prose. In her essay, "Lion Under Maples," which takes as its title her poem by that name, Jacobsen describes the powerful imaginative impulse that leads to the creation of a poem: "The experience, wherever found, is the experience of being take out of oneself, simultaneous with an inner penetration to unity. In that respect the aesthetic experience is similar to the religious experience, and vice versa" (10). From her earliest childhood, Jacobsen recalls epiphanic moments, encounters with the instant of knowing, that needed to be spoken, to be given a shape and a form, but these "were experiences for which my everyday speech would not serve. It would be years before William Carlos Williams' words told me, 'You have no other language for it than the poem.' But I already knew" (12). The sense of being taken up and taken over by some force larger than oneself that is the essence of aesthetic and religious experience occurs again and again in Jacobsen's poems, and it is often portrayed paradoxically, as a moment of simultaneous terror and joy. The poem "Lion Under Maples" embodies precisely this encounter:

The lion, awake, is out there.
What is a lion doing under the maples?
The sun catches him. She knows
The calm ferocious face set

In its monstrance of
chrysanthemum shag. The eye
is golden, but too far to see.
Now there is no glimpse at all.

But she has met him before
this. And with fortune
she will. In a clearing,
in the heat, in a wink.

Then she will be left
without fear, with great power:
everything will be still,
the great head lift.
Jacobsen reports writing this poem at the MacDowell artist's colony, and was mystified as to how so wild a creature as a lion would appear in the tame New Hampshire landscape. Yet it is precisely this juxtaposition of the exotic with the familiar that is the genius of the poem. The question of where the lion has come from is quickly forgotten as the poet (described from a distant, and safe, vantage point as "she") becomes rapt in his beauty and power. The paradox of "the calm ferocious face" set in the highly condensed metaphor of "its monstrance of chrysanthemum shag" deftly suggests the sacral beauty of the natural world and its creatures and implies the presence of Christ in the encounter. Jacobsen echoes here the long association of the lion in art and literature with the figure of Christ. He is also present, by implication, in his sacrificial form as the Blessed Sacrament contained in the monstrance. Thus, to engage the instant of knowing is to meet God-again and again, if the poet is lucky-to be left without fear and given, instead, "great power." The magnificent moment, frozen in the last line and described as an eternal and ongoing action with its final "in-finite" verb ("lift" instead of "will lift") freezes us, too. We stand alongside the poet, left in silence, caught singly in God's gaze, while He waits to hear what we have to say.

What emerges from the instant of knowing is poetry, and poetry, in turn, like the words of the graveyard poet, provokes in us the instant of knowing. At the heart of Jacobsen's faith and art is the Logos. In her poem, "Instances of Communication," the speaker utters a line that Jacobsen often refers to in her writings and interviews: "Almost nothing concerns me except communication." Even in her most understated poems, she is trying to communicate to the reader inaccessible knowledge, yet she is simultaneously aware of the limits of the language to embody such revelation. In fact, this paradox is at the center of her poem, "The Monosyllable."

One day
she fell
in love with its
heft and speed.
Tough, lean

fast as light
as a cloud.
It took care
of rain, short

noon, long dark.
It had rough kin;
did not stall.
With it, she said,
I may,

if I can,
sleep; since I must,
Some say,
The tiny monosyllable, capable of little and capable of all, is the object of her steady gaze: first its beauty, its litheness and its speed-then its slow grace, the great weight it carries, made more lovely by contrast against its humble origins, the family it belongs to--and then, at last, its power, "With it . . . I may . . . if I can." The little word names our fall and our rising, expresses our fear and our faith, our moments of doubt and our certainty. It bears all the weight the imagination can load it with and tells the story of the Christian's paradoxical relationship with the world: the knowledge of the apparent futility of human endeavor balanced against the conviction that all things are possible with God. Jacobsen achieves all of this in a poem of 53 words (all of them monosyllables), a poem that is rendered more powerful for its humility and qualifies as a triumph of formal wit.

Each of Jacobsen's poems is an act of faith and, thus, shares an affinity with prayer and with participation in the sacraments. The title poem of the volume, "In the Crevice of Time," approaches this theme of the sacramental nature of art from an unusual vantage point. (As Jacobsen once stated, "The essence of poetry is the unique view-the unguessed relationship, suddenly manifest" ("Instant," 52).) The ancient hunter-priest of the poem experiences the instant of knowing in the death of one of his fellows:

The news no animal need bear was out:
The knowledge of death, and time the wicked thief,
and the prompt monster of foreseeable grief.
The human response to such knowledge is art, primitive though it may be, created in attempt to embody and communicate this newfound truth:
in the abyss of time how he is close,
his art an act of faith, his grave
an act of art: for all,
for all, a celebration and a burial.
The grave he makes, the paintings on the cave wall, are gestures made here, in the crevice of time, attempts to express the timeless and the eternal in forms that cannot last. However, these are all we have. The repetition of "for all" brings us inexorably into the poem, into the strange light of that ancient cave, insists that we lay claim to the paradoxical existence we share with all other human beings. Such immortal longings have long been housed in mortal bodies, the poem reminds us, and these are a cause for sorrow, for wonder, and for joy.

This joy is another element of Jacobsen's poetry that marks her and her work with the sign of faith. Her poems frequently depict the pleasure we take in this mortal world: the magnificence of its animals, the delight of dance and music, the excitement of travel to unfamiliar places. They celebrate food, sleep, wakefulness, and every sort of love. But most of all, they celebrate the pleasure of art. Poetry, both Jacobsen's and that of other poets, heightens our awareness of the moment, exquisite or painful as it may be, and makes us feel more alive even in the face of our mortal limits. One of her many poems about the pleasure of poetry is "Gentle Reader." Late at night, while others are asleep, she lies awake reading "A poet, dangerous and steep." The effect of this encounter is nothing short of ecstasy:

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;
This poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow
until I exist in its jester's sorrow,
until my juices feed a savage sight
that runs along the lines, bright
as beasts' eyes. The rubble splays to dust:
city, book, bed, leaving my ear's lust
saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.
The speaker lies in bed, the place of sensuality and excess, of love and sleep and dreaming-the perfect place to read poetry. The poet she reads is a true artist, "dangerous and steep." The danger lies in the instant of knowing (the "beasts' eyes," the lift of the lion's head) and in the giving over of the self to it, body and soul-if one is to read poetry, one must obey this strict requirement. And then, the pleasures it renders are as intense as any that human beings know, voracious and fearful in their intensity. Images of appetite, of devouring and of being devoured, reminding us of our nature and our end, resolve themselves into a final image of sexual consummation and climax: Molly Bloom's celebrated affirmation of life and love and lust, the body's pure pleasure in its being, "yes, yes, yes O yes." And all of this begins with an address to God, both mocking and sincere, as the gentle reader prepares herself for this encounter with the eternal.

This affirmation is an essential element of Jacobsen's art and further identifies her as a Catholic artist. The belief in the goodness of creation, the sense of the indwelling presence of God in all things, and the implicit faith in our human intuition, a knowing in our bones, that there is a life that lies beyond this one, infuse Jacobsen's poetry with hope. These beliefs also help to account for the fact that Jacobsen is a poet who focuses on the here-and-now as the means through which one encounters the eternal. Indeed, few of her poems attempt to describe heaven, or hell for that matter, for such states of being lie beyond any human way of knowing. The closest we can get to such experiences of ultimate joy or ultimate despair are accessed through the experiences of delight and sorrow that we have become familiar with in the course of our life as embodied creatures. Even in her few poems that do attempt to portray the transcendent life, Jacobsen resorts to language and images of the world we know. For example, in "The Arrivals," the speaker imagines meeting the people she loves who have died:

My dead are shining like washed gold.
Like gold from what-you--will freed:
cobwebs, mold, rust, the anonymous mud--
and plunged in the icy waver of water
to flash at the hot sun.
These lines describing those who have been "translated" are remarkable in several ways. First, they are "my dead," people the poet lays personal claim to. They do not belong to themselves, to others who may have known them, nor to some disembodied God--they belong to her and to her alone. From the very beginning, the poet calls attention to the limited nature of this vision of the dead. She further emphasizes this through her use of simile rather than metaphor: she must compare them, in as elementary a way as possible, to what she knows--in this case, washed gold. As if for lack of adequate words or images, she then repeats the simile in line two and extends it further: they are like gold that is freed from all the baser substances that can tarnish or obscure its beauty. Here, she describes not what the shining dead are so much as what they are not: cobwebs, mold, rust, and mud. Then, finally, they are linked to water and to light, pure substances that we know from bodily experience and that we commonly associate with the divine. What Jacobsen presents us with here is an image of the resurrected body, freed from the tyranny of time, "the clock's confusion that held them / distant, aghast," from the taints of sin, corruption, death, and decay, and baptized into new life. Indeed, by the end of the poem, "they shine / in ordinary glory," for it is in the ordinary and the temporal that we receive glimpses of the supernatural and the eternal.

Such glimpses are present even in her darkest poems, many of which deal with the difficult subjects of death, loss, loneliness, and fear. Like her Southern counterpart Flannery O'Connor, Jacobsen finds grace in unexpected places. Poet Marilyn Hacker, in her review of Jacobsen's The Sisters, observes that "the disabled, the retarded, the mentally and the terminally ill are frequent characters in Jacobsen's poems" (645). They are often set in hospitals and asylums, in the cave, in the deserted church, and in other such dark places. This has led some readers and critics to the conclusion that Jacobsen's vision is tragic; however, this is not the case. Again, like O'Connor, Jacobsen is unafraid to look at the darkness because she is convinced of the light. The poet described herself as "a short-range pessimist and a long-range optimist" (Kelly 1A). The tension between the apparent tragedy of human life, what we suffer here, now, living in the crevice of time, and the promised comedy of Christian eschatology is the generative source of power in her art. Her poems ground this mystery of our being in words, in flesh, and in the ordinary world; they achieve what she so admired in the best poets, "dangerous and steep," and in the words of the anonymous gravestone carver, as they bring us to the brink of the instant of knowing.

Works Cited
A.V. Christie. "A Conversation with Josephine Jacobsen." Image: A Journal of The Arts and Religion. 23 (1999): 45-61.

Marilyn Hacker. "Mortal Moralities." The Nation 28 November 1987: 644-46.

Josephine Jacobsen. In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

---. "The Instant of Knowing," The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose, ed. Elizabeth Spires. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997, 39-49.

---. "Lion Under Maples," The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose, ed. Elizabeth Spires. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997, 10-21.

Jacques Kelly, "Poet Josephine Jacobsen Dies at 94." The Baltimore Sun 11 July 2003: 1A, 8A.

Czeslaw Milosz. "Blacksmith Shop." New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. 503.

Flannery O'Connor. "Letter to A." The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979, 90.


Angela O'Donnell teaches English, Creative Writing, and American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York City. Her chapbook, Mine, was released in August of 2007 by Finishing Line Press and a full-length collection of poems, Moving House, will be published by Word Press in 2009. Another chapbook of poems, Waiting for Ecstasy, is forthcoming from Franciscan University. Her poems have appeared individually in a number of journals, including America, The Christian Century, Christianity and Literature, The Comstock Review, First Things, Hawaii Pacific Review,Potomac Review, RUNES, Xavier Review, The Cresset, The Pedestal Magazine.com, Die-Cast Garden.com, New Texas, Studio, and Windhover. She has been a finalist for the Foley Poetry Award and the Mulberry Poets' and Writers' Association Award. In addition to poetry, O'Donnell also writes reviews and critical essays on the intersection of faith and art in contemporary poetry, including a recent essay on William Everson.


Angela O'Donnell
Terri Witek

Meredith Bergmann: My work has always seemed cut out for me. I give myself assignments or I take commissions to find challenges to make heroic work in which the themes must be expressed with beauty and with irony. Light touches on dark subjects help me break away what's monolithic or opaque. No thing, for me, embodies mystery, gives life to clay, or conveys narrative enduringly as can the human form. Loving to sculpt and to manipulate ideas, I'm happiest when I can give new meaning to old urges, or can warm a concept into art that's worth its weight.
32 Poems
The Academy of American Poets
The Atlantic
The Christian Science Monitor
The Cortland Review
Favorite Poem Project
The Frost Place
The Iowa Review
Light Quarterly
Modern American Poetry
The Poem Tree
Poetry Daily
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Raintown Review
String Poet
Valparaiso Poetry Review
Verse Daily
Women's Poetry Listserv
The Yale Review

Bread Loaf
Poetry by the Sea


Barefoot Muse Press
David Robert Books
David R. Godine Press
Graywolf Press
Headmistress Press
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Louisiana State University Press
Northwestern Univ Press
Ohio Univ Press
Persea Books
Red Hen Press
Texas Tech Univ Press
Tupelo Press
Univ of Akron Press
Univ of Arkansas Press
Univ of Illinois Press
Univ of Iowa Press
Waywiser Press
White Violet Press

City Lights
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Prairie Lights
Tattered Cover Bookstore

92nd Street Y
Literary Mothers
Poets & Writers