Meditations on 'Morning'
Updated: Aug 19
Morning by Sarah Mnatzaganian
I had a Gretel moment back there, thinking I’d lost my way,
until I spotted yellow poplar leaves spattering the path
and knew I’d seen them before,
surprised by their bright circles against the mud
on my way through Shropshire rain,
early this late-August morning.
Nearly home, I join a congregation of trees
at the head of the valley. They have no book.
They’re here to breathe, drink light and listen.
From time to time, a motherly dove or dark rook speaks.
Wind sends quiet applause through the leaves of oak and ash
and the sun bowls light straight down the valley.
I would give this morning to those I don’t even love,
whom I’ve never met,
who are not yet born.
If you’ve seen my home page you’ll know I’m a fan of brightly coloured leaves, and I’m very happy to be sharing this beauty from Sarah Mnatzaganian, published in her Saboteur Award-winning pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter. As seems fitting for a poem about a journey, I’m going to start at the start and feel my way through this one.
The poem begins on a note of relief – the “Gretel moment” has passed, we’re back on track. Though perhaps light-hearted, the allusion to the fairytale brings a certain feeling of vulnerability, a sense perhaps that our childhoods – their fears, their stories – are never all that far away. Out here, almost lost, in the mud and the rain, the speaker finds direction from a sense of surprise, the sight of the yellow poplar leaves (a nod, perhaps, to leaves of paper – the surprise of writing?). I love the image of those “bright circles against the mud”, how it illuminates the path for us, draws us along. That small, sudden realisation that autumn is on the way.
In the first half of the poem we’re very much looking down: the leaves, the path, the mud. I can almost see my welly boots nosing into the picture. As we near familiar territory though, attention drifts upwards to the leaves in the trees, the wind, the birds. Time seems to slow down as we join the poet in attentive presence, in “quiet applause”. And then this lift at the end, as we’re swept into a more expansive kind of consciousness that reaches out and beyond. It’s a beautiful, transcendent finish. Big-hearted, and at the same time emotionally complex, embracing human connectedness and limits. Spiritual, we might call it.
Indeed there is religious imagery here – the congregation, the dove. Incidentally, I love how the speaker doesn’t just perceive but “joins” the trees. There is a deep appreciation for the natural world in this poem. Or maybe that’s the wrong way of putting it, implying a kind of separateness. We’re not looking on here, but from within. At the centre of the poem is this line, “they have no book”, and I find myself thinking that the spirituality here is one that’s available to all of us, regardless of faith: to “breathe, drink light and listen”.
Maybe I shouldn’t be bringing in my own books into this landscape but there’s so much here that chimes with the therapeutic approach of mindfulness, which has its roots, of course, in Buddhist practices and philosophy (though is often divorced from this spiritual framework in a UK therapy context). There’s a whole history of wisdom and insight here that I can’t speak to but, distilled to its essence (and as practiced in therapy), mindfulness is basically about conscious, present-moment awareness. So often our attention is shunted this way and that way by the demands and distractions of the day, the worries and wanderings of our anxious brains. Mindfulness is about stepping out of auto-pilot and, very simply, observing.
In structured mindfulness programmes this might involve guided exercises or meditations, but I’m also a big believer in the benefits of out-and-about mindfulness – as in this poem. Not as any kind of quick fix or panacea, but as a way of interrupting those automatic mental playlists, just noticing what our minds are up to, and also what they might be missing. One of the ways mindfulness can be valuable is in helping us get in touch with our physical and sensory selves; rekindling a sense of receptiveness to aspects of experience that can perhaps become blurred through familiarity or lost in the whirring of our jittery minds. In Morning, Mnatzaganian enacts a kind of mindful presence which, in turn, seems to transform and enliven these ordinary observations.
In my therapy practice, I use mindfulness as part of compassion-focused therapy. Underpinning this approach is an evolutionary model of the human brain which recognises three distinct motivational and emotion-regulation systems (Gilbert, 2009): the drive system (propelling us towards things we want and need), the threat system (looking out for and protecting us from harm) and the soothing system (fostering feelings of safety and calm; this system is intimately linked with our capacity and need for caring relationships). For me, Morning speaks directly to the soothing system. Thank you, it says to the restless, go-getting mind, the anxious-monitoring mind, but right now you can rest easy. Right now we’re safe, we can be, and be with.
I love the poem’s delicate handling of time, the way it holds us in a kind of heightened present, charting the moment-by-moment unfolding of experience. But the moment is also very much grounded in time: we know the time of year, the time of day, and the now is bookended by what has just passed (the almost getting lost) and what is anticipated (returning home). The falling leaves and the seasonal context of a fading summer add to the backdrop and imbue the moment – and the poem – with poignancy, setting us up for this rush of temporal awareness at the end.
Along with a consciousness of time, there are also, I think, references to death woven through the poem: the falling leaves, the title – a homonym of “mourning”. This is the last poem in Mnatzaganian’s pamphlet, a body of work which very much reaches through time, exploring themes of family and cultural heritage. Loss runs through the book but so, too, does continuity and a deep appreciation for what is passed on. Going back to the spirituality of the poem, it’s this sense of shared humanity that feels, to me, at the poem’s heart. Along with mindfulness and self-kindness, a sense of common humanity is also a core element of self-compassion as defined by Dr Kristin Neff (if you're interested, check out Dr Neff's website for some excellent resources and compassion-focused guided meditations).
I’m thinking, as I write, about the connections we make in therapy. To accompany someone briefly on their own journey, to be alongside them at a time when perhaps they’ve “lost their way”, a time of searching and reappraisal, is a tremendous privilege. “I would give this morning to those I don’t even love” – there’s something about this sentiment that resonates with the therapeutic gesture: how feelings of care and compassion sit within a boundaried professional relationship. The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom uses the term “rippling” to refer to how “each of us creates – often without our conscious intent or knowledge – concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations” (Yalom, 2008). Mnatzaganian’s work invites us to cherish and honour rippling, just as it creates its own wide and lasting ripples.
Thanks for reading, and warm thanks to Sarah Mnatzaganian and Against the Grain Press for permission to share Morning here.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable & Robinson.