Jolts of Awareness: Poetry and Social Action

by Meg Hanna House

Poetry for social action can be thought of as provocation, but poetry can also be “the awareness of an encounter in our lives that we have to face,” said poet Kathleen O’Toole in her Poetry and Social Action class at NYAPC last Saturday. And preserving that experience in a poem not only recognizes the encounter but also challenges us to act.

O’Toole began the class by sharing her poem “Mindful,” written during a retreat in the Sierras of California. (The poem is reprinted below.) The class discussed the striking juxtapositions in the poem, and how difficult it can be for our minds to hold both the beauty of God’s creation and the tragedies of the world.

There are little things that cross your path in life that are like getting a splinter in your finger, that jolt you.

– Kathleen O’Toole

She described her work as “poems of poignant awareness:” Instead of trying to provoke, she hopes to strike a chord.

Another poem, “The Gleaners,” describes school children, some of them immigrants who may have known hunger, responding to a painting by the same name in the Musée d’Orsay. In the poem, “social awareness enters into a scene that’s otherwise childlike innocence,” said O’Toole.

O’Toole has had a career in community organizing, from on-the-ground local efforts to broader work with organizations like Bread for the World and VOICE, the Virginia affiliate of the Washington Interfaith Network. For her, community organizing is a discipline, focused on actionable ways to use power to make a difference. O’Toole has also done community organizing training at NYAPC in the past.

As for poetry’s power? “There are little things that cross your path in life that are like getting a splinter in your finger, that jolt you,” she said. And “sometimes those small things can be woven into something, [into] lament … or praise.”

She closed with a poem she is still working on about the Covid era, which juxtaposes counting blooming irises with counting victims of the pandemic. “Watching what’s blooming was a ritual that became a source of comfort, like a memorial ritual,” she said. “For me, noticing the little things can be a real balm in these times.”

You can find out more about Kathleen O’Toole on her website:


The moment, fleeting as a nuthatch
that alighted on the flowerbox at breakfast,
the lichen-green hummingbird grazing
the impatiens at noon. I toss them
blueberry pits, bread crumbs. This

moment, before a car bomb is planted
beside a schoolyard in Basra,
a swarm of locusts about to alight
on precious maize in Niger. Nuthatch
and nutcracker engineer whole piñón

forests, one seed cache at a time.
The hummingbird’s tongue is longer
than its head and beak, longer
than it needs to extract the dusky
pollen at the petunia’s throat.

Samsara’s in every in-breath, each
shutter click of attention: first warning
signs of famine, children lining up
for the soldiers’ candy, wolf lichen
in a gash on the ponderosa’s downed limb.

From the collection This Far, reprinted with permission from Kathleen O’Toole

Slow Healing

by Tom Dunlap

A Reflection on Exodus 15:22-27; Psalm 102; Hebrews 3:1-6 from the 2021 Lenten Devotional Booklet

Dashing into the desert, the Hebrew tribes have just escaped plague-infested Egypt and are suddenly thirsty, so they start “grumbling against Moses.” In distress he cries out to the Lord and drinkable water is provided for the demanding people.

Then and there, the Lord speaks directly to them, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and … if you pay attention to His commands, I will not bring on you any of the diseases (10 plagues) I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you! (Ex 15:22-26).”

Things do get a bit better, but the impatient tribes must learn humility and how to wait on the Lord, as they heal.

And if we also listen carefully, Psalm 102 shares a second lesson in how to heal. Now, centuries later, Jerusalem is abandoned and the Temple destroyed; the majority of its residents and workers exiled. The city is a shadow of its former self. Shops boarded up. Streets empty. All around, the hills are quiet and dark at night. During this Babylonian Exile, Psalm 102 was written to lament this great loss and the isolation felt by the exiles.

Speaking for all the captives, the psalmist cries out:

My days vanish like smoke…
My heart is sick and withered like grass… I lie awake; I have become
Like a bird alone on a roof…
My days are like the evening shadows;
I wither away like dry grass…

Yet out of this isolation, this drought of the spirit, she has a vision of the Lord:

The Lord looked down from His Sanctuary on high, To hear the groans of the prisoners
And to release those condemned to death.

This vision makes the speaker aware in the midst of her pain and isolation, that the Lord of all Creation abides. Spiritually aware, she can declare:

So the Name of the Lord will be declared in Zion And His praise in Jerusalem,
When the faithful peoples and the kin-dom Assemble to worship the Lord! (Ps 102: 3-22)

So, all that has been taken away or lost, will return. Jerusalem may be in ashes and the people scattered, but the glory of the Lord endures. And when she praises this all-giving, all-loving Lord, her hope renews and returns. The ephemeral meets the Eternal. Her praise lifts her out of exile and into a spiritual awareness of the glory of the Lord. In a mysterious way the Lord lives in the praises of faithful believers.

O Lord, give us the strength and spiritual awareness to wait for our safe return to our cities and communities. For You are the Lord of healing and grace. Amen.

See the full Lenten Devotional Booklet for 2021 here.