POETRY: Tickets For A Prayer Wheel by Annie Dillard

Tickets For A Prayer Wheel by Annie Dillard

A son, a scholar, speaks:

Our family is looking
for someone who knows how to pray.
Ora pro nobis, pray for us now
and now.
We sent
all our strong cousins out as runners. . . .

One of the cousins
brought back a doll
which he had purchased at great price.
The doll is dressed in feathers
and beads of mistletoe.
His head, according to our cousin,
is stuffed with millet seed;
on each seed is written,
in a tongue foreign to us,
“PRAY.” We are uncertain
whether to shake the doll
like a rattle, or worship him.
We took turns wearing him
around our necks;
we may yet stew him
in a soup of herbed broths
and pass him round
and drink him up.

Whose prayers are good?
Whose prayers are good?

My book says,
“it is a characteristic practice
to write prayers on small leaves
which are then chewed
and fastened on the faces of the idols.”

We have lot a taste for other foods.
I cannot cross a room without falling down.

My mother is piecing a cover
for Christ, if he should come.
She feeds all strangers; she saves
skins; her fingers pray over
wound wool on skeins.

Saint Irenaeus said
collective prayer
accompanied by fasting
could raise the dead.
Christ was unable to work
miracles, according to Luke,
in Nazareth,
where no one had faith.
Saint Irenaeus!
And the dead? And the dying?
I met him down the ruining stair,
wearing a necklace of macaws
threaded through the eyes;
I met him on the flat space
in the brain—
thin bones strewn
in a box, like lace.

Pray without ceasing.
Hoc licet orare,
quod licet desiderare.
Saint Thomas: we may pray
for all those things we are not
forbidden to want.
But Christ says needs:
your Father knows what you need
before you ask him;
your heavenly Father knows
that you need them all.

My sister,
who works well in small,
has made a device
to strap on her wrist.
A sensitive lever
that touches her pulse
flips open a door
to a circular well
in which is inscribed the word “GOD.”
We hear her walking the halls
or shut in her windy rooms
clicking minutely her prayer.
And sometimes, look
how her heart beats hard:. . . .

The Dominican,
Gregorio Lopez,
prayed continuously for three years,
“Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.”
If we all stop at once
will the arches collapse?
How were those three years?

There’s someone else in the house;
I saw the edge
of his topcoat round the stair.
Mother went out to the kitchen for milk
and found a kettle of bones
boiling on the fire.
We smell
wind in our beds;
we sweep dead bees
and a deer leg from the fire.
Our astronomers have found and named
the two moons of Mars;
Phobos and Deimos,
dread and teror,
winding over the house.
What rood or aspergillum
banishes this brood?

We baited our hooks
with burnt pigeons,
with papers of prayer on a string
and pieces of fire that hissed in the river.
That night was clear; stars floated on water.
We baited our hooks
and cast them into the sky.

At dawn my father
drew in the line
and threw the doves to the dogs.
The papers of prayer were ruined,
the fires put out.
Reflections confuse our astronomers;
many doubt the accuracy of the casts.
Our gifts are rejected.
Our own people despise us.
Who will teach us to pray,
who will pray for us now?
“Every religion
which does not affirm that God is hidden
is not true.”


The third horseman, and a voice:
“A quart of wheat for a denarius,
and three quarts of barley for a denarius;
but do not harm oil and wine!”
Fast days.

We feather our nests
with froth; the rivers roll,
the screens of mercy part. . . .
Needs, he says; knock; seek;
and still they die,
who do not wish to leave.
We must not need life. “Not
as the world gives do I give to you.”

My sister sleeps.
My father went away.
My mother serves a soup of smoke and snow.
How long has it been?
My diagrams
cancel each other out.
There is one prayer left:
“Teach us to pray.”
Teach us to pray.


My mother lay
in a windless room
under blankets, on the floor.
The walls were cold,
the cloth hangings without color,
We live among the dead….
By her bed
a wooden desk appeared,
stray, austere,
and on it four white cups—
earth, air, water, fire.

Many things are becoming
possible for us.
We are recalling
forgotten lore;
we are exploring
our own house and garden
like hard men charting
the Ultima Thule.

Martin Luther prayed for rain.
Under the hearth we dug down,
found rain water, salt,
and an old coin
printed with a gold cloud.
With ropes we drew up rocks
hung damp in sea thong,
living mussel.
Under the water grew eglantine,
standing either for Poetry
or the saying
“I wound to heal.”

My father is back.
The house is a plain
the old man crazes through.
He has carved on his belly
and chest the Nicene Creed.
He rubs grit in
to raise the scars….
poƃ ʎɹǝʌ ɟo poƃ ʎɹǝʌ
ʇɥƃıl ɟo ʇɥƃıl
poƃ ɟo poƃ (*)

He wants to break his will
like a stick across the knee.
But God meets always
the prayer for faith.
Woe, my father cries one day,
and Mercy the next.
Once he snared a nun
and bid her beat him,
but she beat soft.
Rape? Imitation?
We kept her round the house
till she flew off.

Something is already here.
The prayer for faith
routs it out the air; or,
only faith can cry for itself
up the short, inspirited night
or down the drear day.

In Luke eleven
and again in Luke eighteen,
Christ demands
importunate prayer,
prayer that does not faint.
Fatigare deos,
wearing God out.
Is Christ as good as his word?

If God does not tire, still
we may tire of longing.
Pray this prayer:
receive our prayer.
Teach us to pray, teach us to pray, to pray, pray.

The river Chebar
flows to the sea;
the river Hiddekel
flows to the sea.
Maranatha, amen.
My sister stands like Archimedes,
drawing spirals in the sand.
When the wind comes
it washes her with spindrift;
water fills the spirals
where the sea grapes hatch.

Our cousin came
and called, “Hello, hello…”
“Ho!” we cried,
“If you are thirsty,
come down to the water;
ho, if you are hungry,
come and sit and eat.”
At last we understood
he could not see
or hear us. We walked
in the sky; we were crossing
a wooden bridge across the sea.


You go down the hall
and open the door,
down the hall
and open the small door,
down the dark hall
and open the smaller door,
down the hall,
small as a wire,
bare, and the final door—
flies from the wall.


God in the house
teaching us to pray:
and the family crazed
and full of breath.

We nailed a picture
by the door, on the whitewashed wall.
My father leaned close
to examine the picture,
the universe—At once,
the universe rang its call
and clapped him in to itself,
to its ebon, unthinkable thrall.
God held him close
and lighted for him
the distant, dizzying stairs;
God looped him
in a sloping loop of stars.

He came back and asked
for a cup of cold water only.
He planted beans on the bookshelf;
they grew, and fed us
for a year. He said,
“I cannot bind the chains of the Pleiades,
nor loose the cords of Orion.
The one and holy God of heaven can, alone,
whose hand is his face.
We pray at his command
a prayer of praise.”

The presence of God:
he picked me up
and swung me like a bell.
I saw the trees
on fire, I rang
a hundred prayers of praise.
I no longer believe
in divine playfulness.

I saw all the time of this planet
pulled like a scarf
through the sky.
Time, that lorn and furling

Did God dilute
even his merest thought
and take a place in the scarf,
shrink and cross
to an olive continent
and eat our food at little tables for a time?
All those things
which were thought to be questions
are no longer important.
I breathe
an air like light;
I slough off questions
like a hundred suits of motley;
I wear a bright mandorla
like a gown.

We keep our paper money shut
in a box, for fear of fire.
Once, we opened the box
and Christ the lamb stepped out
and left his track of flame across the floor.

Why are we shown these things?
God teaches us to pray.

My sister
dreamed of a sculpture
Showing the form of God.
He has no edges,
and the holes in him spin.
He alone is real,
and all things lie in him
as fossil shells
curl in solid shale.
My sister dreamed of God
who moves around
the spanding, spattered holes
of solar systems hollowed in his side.

I think that the dying
pray at the last
not “please”
but “thank you”
as a guest thanks his host at the door.
Falling from mountains
the people are crying
thank you,
thank you,
all down the air;
and the cold carriages
draw up for them on the rocks.

Fare away, fare away!

The Dominican
Gregorio Lopez
prayed on God’s command.
A hand
raised my mother up,
and round her poured
a light like petalled water.
For thou only art holy,
thou only art the lord…
and we are drowned.

(*): these three lines should be in all capital letters, but I could not find a way to turn capital letters upside down.


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