Poetry, Emptiness and Mindfulness: the Cover of The High Shelf

Nadia Colburn // September 18, 2019 // 0 Comments

The cover of my poetry book, The High Shelf, is an image of a painted sky with a few birds soaring in it.

In the poem from which the book takes its title, I imagine a high shelf suspended in the sky without supports:

Explanation of the World

It was a shelf––

a high shelf––

and the boxes, spaced: just so

each one apart from the other.

Where was the wall?

Above: firmaments

firmaments: below

Where were the supports?

The shelf decorated with little shells

and trees and an orange circle

and from far, from far off,

the sound of the sea.

I wrote the poem, like many of the poems in this book, before I had a mindfulness practice, but it asks some of the basic questions of mindful meditation:

How do we situate ourselves with emptiness? How do we interact with the objects of this world? How do we find supports?

When I was writing most of these poems, my children were very young. My body had been their first home. Many of the poems in the book explore pregnancy itself.

But how could I provide real supports to them in a world that had no real certainty or enduring safety?

Even the natural world, which throughout human history has been our home, is, because of human actions, rapidly changing and in danger of no longer supporting human life.

And yet, I also believed in love, safety, comfort, and wanted to be able to offer those qualities to my children. Whatever might happen in the future, we still have this moment to love and care for and support one another.

Of course, I was also searching for myself: how could I find supports for myself in an uncertain world, a world in which the supports I’d been given as a child had been, as they are for so many, very imperfect?

I went to poetry in part to construct a new world for myself. This is what we do in art: we re-imagine, we re-construct.

And many of the poems are about trying to build safety, about trying to build homes, nests, boxes.

I was particularly inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell. I’d gone to a retrospective of Cornell’s work at the Metropolitan Museum and was completely enchanted. Then there was another wonderful show at the Peabody Essex museum, and then I took a trip to Chicago. I bought as many books about him and his work as I could find.

I was particularly inspired by his boxes with birds in them:

Joseph Cornell poetry
Many of the poems in the collection are inspired by Cornell, and this one is an explicit homage:

The Physical World (after Joseph Cornell)

There was the opposite house, not lit by sun, and the trees all dead-like cut by the frame. And we were lying there trying to keep ourselves. Trying to keep the other. And the other trying to keep the other that was just the same, with some little variation. And the brown shingle. And the brown shingle next to it.

Place here, then. (What no one says.) Turn here, then, to me as to an invention.

(What no one thinks). Simply be.

And all that going. With the world in-latched. Of-itself born. And the boxes. The little boxes. Each one just the same, with some modulation. And in the boxes little partitions. And in the partitions, littler partitions. And there, in one, a bird.

The poem is about uniformity and limitation. It’s also about creation and possibility -that bird that appears at the end is always able to fly and can’t be kept small.

I think of that bird as the bird in Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem about poetry, in which they “shut [her] up in Prose” just as they put her in the closet as a little girl because they liked her “still.” And yet, they can’t contain her anymore than they can lock a bird up for treason. It will simply fly away.

Poetry for me, as for Dickinson and countless poets, is a form of freedom, of creating new constructions, new possibilities.

Cornell’s boxes, though they are small and constrained, also seem to explore freedom: the freedom to make, imagine, and re-imagine.

While Cornell went about the city collecting antiques for his artistic creations, his brother was at home, wheelchair-bound, because he had cerebral palsy. Cornell was his brother’s companion and friend throughout his life, and never moved from home so that he could be his brother’s caretaker.

His boxes seem to express both the limitation that his brother experienced and the unexpected potential of the human spirit and experience and its ability to find real beauty and meaning even in unexpected places.

At first, I thought I would choose a Cornell image for the cover. But I couldn’t figure the images with birds plus the text looked too busy for minimalist poems.

Then I found a Cornell box called Toward the Blue Peninsula, titled after a line in a poem by Dickinson: how perfect!,

Emily Dickinson poetry

It’s a beautiful image, and the simplicity of the box corresponds with the imagery of many of my poems. And of course, there is that beautiful blue of the sky out the window.

But the more I looked at the image, the more I wanted to exit the box with the bird that had already flown from the cage and enter the sky.

And when I looked again at the poem from which Cornell took the title, it was too negative for what I wanted in my book, wonderful as the lines are:

It might be easier
To fail — with Land in Sight —
Than gain — My Blue Peninsula —
To perish — of Delight —

I wanted my poems to risk gaining that blue peninsula of delight!

And so I followed the eye out the window into the sky. What if I chose an image of birds in the sky instead?

I found a painted image of the sky in a huge Dutch painting by Hobbema that is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The High Shelf cover


The sky is large, and you can only barely make out the birds, suspended, in a group flying up together.

The sky is only part of the painting—the rest of the painting is a contemporary every-day scene. I liked this: The expanse of the open sky, the freedom of the soaring birds, happens all around us, amidst our daily lives, wherever we are.

I decided to keep some of the trees in the cover image because it suggests that even the openness of sky is relational, in a context of other living, rooted, beings.

It may be hard for us to soar, to find our way in the openness of the human experience, the lack of solid, concrete answers. We might feel like we’re falling, directionless, through emptiness.

But, this openness, this uncertainty, this largeness, after all, is what human life is about. There’s no getting around it.

My poems also came to teach me about supported emptiness—they brought me to the wisdom of Eastern meditation practices even before I had a formal practice. They helped me feel my own inner supports, and to come into greater integration.

To do that I needed to face my own traumas and the traumas of the world around us. Look at where we are right now: scientists have ever-more urgent reports about our ever-worsening climate emergency. Ever-more corruption and divisiveness are coming from the White House. Inequality is growing.

And yet, the world remains our only and magical home; there are good and inspiring people all around us; and there are numerous, inspiring, visionary movements for change.

And within us, we are connected to something greater. As Pema Chodron says, we “are the sky; everything else is just weather.”

I’ve found that when I focus on the things that make me scared, that restrict me, I contract, I get smaller. But when I can find my way to the things that inspire me, to that big openness, I relax and get larger. This book is partly about my journey, even in this moment of environmental destruction and danger, to discover being able also to soar and sing.

Part of the journey of these poems was not only writing them, but also the long (and difficult) journey that this book itself took towards publication—

I wrote most of the poems in this book many years ago; most of the individual poems in the book were published, many in quite prestigious literary journals, and I thought the book itself would be relatively quickly picked up for publication. But though it was a finalist for more than 18 poetry prizes (the easiest way to get a first book published is usually to submit to prizes), it was never chosen. And individual publishers I sent the book to sent me maddening rejection letters; ”my colleagues and I found you to be a stunningly skilled poet with a true passion for language, and your collection was a delight to read” one editor wrote, but the book never fit with the presses’ direction.

I felt as if I were stuck in the box with my manuscript, unable to fly. There we were in the drawer.

Most uncomfortable, the rejections made me feel unseen, and I can now see how being unseen around my poetry brought up unprocessed early childhood experiences of being unseen and unheard, though at the time, I didn’t quite understand why rejection hit me so hard.

After a while, I put the manuscript away. I turned to writing prose. I moved on. But the manuscript was always there, and over the years, I came to see that the poems had wisdom in them and knew things about myself and the world before I even knew them consciously.

Last year, though, I took the manuscript out of the drawer and sent it to just one press, The Word Works, a small and dedicated poetry press, which had published two of my friend’s books and I thought might be able to understand the aesthetics and the book’s project. And they accepted it!

Perhaps the zeitgeist has shifted a bit. I don’t know. I didn’t revise the book before sending it out again, but once it was accepted, I was so glad to go back to them, as to an old friend, who knew things about me that I hadn’t even known. I went back in and revised the manuscript slightly, wrote a few new poems, added an afterword. But I tried to keep true to the original intention for and meaning of the book, which is, after all, best expressed in the poems themselves as I wrote them.

Now I can say that not being seen the way I wanted to by others, not having this book published when I first wanted it to be, led me to look more honestly at myself and learn better how to see and witness myself: I could show up for myself even if others couldn’t. I could come out of shame and rejection and just be—myself, as I am, like the birds in the sky.

In writing these poems and in sending them out for publication, I learned better how to sit with unknowing. I learned how to keep going. I learned how listen to myself—whatever others around me said or did. This is both what the poems themselves are about, and also what the frustrating publication process taught me.

I didn’t stop writing. I learned, in the words of the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s, herself quoting Samuel Becket, to fail and fail again and fail better.

And I learned that sometimes, it’s in the failing itself, that long journey, that we get to our blue peninsula of delight.

So many of us live with frustration, with feeling smaller than we would like, with feeling that there are not enough opportunities or that we are not fully heard or seen. When we feel like this, we feel like the world doesn’t fully support us, that we’re either boxed in or left floating helplessly in the emptiness, alone.

My poems were a way of posing and turning over a question: can there be true safety and love in our world, despite it all? I think that the very fact that we ask that question is a form of answer: our search itself is part of the proof of what is there, around us all the time, like the sky.

Our search is a sign of what is in our own hearts and of our own potential. And our poems can help us see and build that potential—

I’m so excited to share the whole book with you. It will be ready to be ordered in early October!

As always, if you like this, please comment and/or reach out to me. And please share with friends.

For more posts about poetry and the magic of creating see:


My Writing

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