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Poetry Moment: George Looney and 'Figures We're Meant to Believe In'

George Looney

This is Poetry Moment on WPSU, a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. I’m Shara McCallum, this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “Figures We’re Meant to Believe In” by George Looney.

George Looney is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including his newest book of poems, Ode to the Earth in Translation. “Figures We’re Meant to Believe In” comes from an earlier book, The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels. Looney is the founder of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Penn State Erie.

“Figures We’re Meant to Believe In” is set in two landscapes Looney treats intimately: western Pennsylvania and the heart of a marriage. In this poem, Looney offers a tragic tale of a miner and his wife, whose story echoes the history of coal country. The only ‘clarity’ the poem offers are the couple themselves, these ‘figures’ who endure in the imagination. The poem is a parable about love and faith.

Here's—

Figures We’re Meant to Believe In

Coal runs veins under what was
never clarity. Just missing,
a miner might have said of his wife,
come home to a crevice
and vague dust. His wife had been
asleep in the house. Now,
every corpse carried out of the earth
has her face. Or she’s behind him wanting
to hear what he can’t say,
his heart collapsing in his chest.
This miner is invention, but the crevice
and a roof pleated by pressure
are real. And hearts can be
exhausted and years later collapse,
like the vein that swallowed
the miner’s house, his wife, trapped
inside, becoming, with time,
a sad replica of a saint or demon
carved from stone and bolted down
in a cathedral to balance the remarkable
light passing through figures
we’re meant to believe in. It is stone
we put our faith in and build on.
Miners, like monks, must listen to hearts
echoing dust and not doubt
the stability of the world. Love,
they say, follows a vein in the heart
until it’s tapped out, every beat
a collapse, dust, falling
through the body, a reminder
faith needs air. Nothing connects us
to the earth more than lungs.
This, both miners and monks
say, is no abstraction.

That poem was “Figures We’re Meant to Believe In” by George Looney.

And with Poetry Moment on WPSU, I’m Shara McCallum. Thanks for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.

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