In ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’, Seamus Heaney describes St. Kevin kneeling in prayer and a blackbird nesting in his outstretched arms. The act of protecting the nest and the hatchlings becomes Kevin’s prayer. As I read through Nathan Lipps’ poems, I was reminded of the question that Heaney raises: what is the true nature of prayer?

Lipps seems to present to us prayer marked by ritual, rather than worship. A secular sacred. The acts of ‘building a garden wall’, or setting ‘the coffee pot before bed’, and even turning the knobs to ensure the doors are unlocked become acts of greater significance where ‘the mechanics of the small thing/ moving the larger’ is revealed.

There is also a sense, in these poems, that the human is eventually displaced by the natural. The birds, in ‘The End of Self-Help’ wait patiently to ‘examine where I’ve moved/ the earth’ for worms. It is not only the earth that has moved, as the line-break seems to indicate. The movement affects the self as well. And it becomes impossible to read Lipps without being moved.

— Aswin Vijayan
The Bombay Literary Magazine

The End of Self-Help

I am building a garden wall
to fill up that emptiness
within me that was mentioned.

Carefully caught my fingers
between the slamming
of a few stones, as suggested.

The birds watch. And the dog
moves from the sun to the shade
and back again. The day goes.

I may fade before it’s all finished—
birds free to examine where I’ve moved
the earth, the possibility of a worm

which will be good enough.
Check on the dog. Plant those tomatoes.
Talk with someone of their taste.

Even an Autumn in Binghamton, NY

She no longer sets
the coffee pot before bed
because the thought of pleasure
in the morning keeps her from sleep.

By this time of year
the green tomatoes
will never make it to red
and still the vine says wait.

A person can walk on water
if it’s cold enough
which is a gift
we eat with fear.

It’s not a sadness
holding these smaller movements of joy
as triumph. The coffee, for a moment
too wonderfully hot to drink.

Natural Occurrence

It just so happens
the vine is faster
than the tree.

The day’s end and I
have yet to speak
a word out loud.

But inward
my spirit is climbing
the body.

I know in time this scaffolding
will wither, that a forest falls
into itself eventually.

Even love crawls upward
from the desolation
of the individual

the vine and its hope
strangling the hope
of another.


He is in the church moving
among the pews, slow
with his abundance of time.
It is early, before the dew
is burnt off and the day presses
into its subtle chaos.

He checks to make sure
the doors are unlocked.
Turns their knobs many times
as though he were figuring them out
the mechanics of a small thing
moving the larger, a wall
diminishing into thought.

His shoes are tied, his hair
nearly dry. Today the belt
with the buckle he likes.
Eventually people will arrive
and he is waiting
but not for them.


Image credits: Luis Meléndez: Still Life with Tomatoes, a Bowl of Aubergines and Onions (c. 1771-1774). When Meléndez started his painting in 1771, the humble tomato had just acquired its college-educated name lycopersicum, which apparently means “wolf peach”. While we do not get the connection with wolves or peaches, Nathan’s first poem reminded us of Brian Driscoll’s helpful tip: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”


Nathan Lipps

Nathan Lipps is the author of the chapbook the body as passage (Open Palm Print). Born and raised in western Michigan, he currently lives in Ohio and works as an Assistant Professor at Central State University. His work has been published in numerous journals including Adroit, Best New Poets, Cleaver, Colorado Review, North American Review, Third Coast, and TYPO.

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