Why the Smartphone Envies the Mug and the Staple: A Poem and a Conversation


Editor’s note: My old college friend Erin Buckley is a fantastic essayist, and she recently told me she writes poetry, too. (She was also a very helpful tutor in a difficult philosophy class we took a couple decades ago…Erin can do it all!) She sent me a few poems, including this one — “Desk.” I asked her some questions about it and her creative process. –Mike Jordan Laskey


Mug made to be held.
Pens thin for grasp.
Computer charger, happy conductor,
knows it is neither beginning nor end. 

Lamp produces heat as byproduct
of light, as words are byproduct 
of body language,  
clarifying meaning.

But phone. Least satisfied
because least certain of its purpose.  
If asked, it would willingly forgo functions
in exchange for clarity. 

As is, it is prodded 
by restless fingertips
which start, stop
with shifting intent. 

Envies the mug’s curve.
Envies the staples which hover beside the paper,
even in darkness, with 
arms open.

Mike from the Jesuit Media Lab: What sparked the idea for this poem?

Erin: I usually write either at my desk or in my bed. I think I must have written this poem at my desk. I am usually inspired by things or happenings immediately around me. I can relate to a sentiment by the poet Ted Kooser: “For me, meaning arrives almost unbidden from an accumulation of specific details.” I’m definitely not a big picture thinker; I’m more of a noticing-little-details-kind-of person. I think reflecting on my environment or everyday situations in which I find myself comes out in my writing.

Mike: Why does the phone want clarity? A phone to me seems more to swagger: “I can do anything, y’all are obsolete. I’m the peak of beautiful industrial design, what your own inventors could never have dreamed of.”

Erin: Haha. I guess I’ve always been an admirer of the Amish. So I am looking at the items on my desk — seeing their design as revelatory as to their purpose. In this poem I am playing with giving things emotions — supposing the phone, with its many features, is jealous of the simple functions of its neighbors. Why are anxiety and depression higher these days? We are more restless, more purposeless, more distracted, more fragmented. Some desk items have one purpose, maybe two — a pencil can write and erase. Looking at the phone, it’s not easy to identify what it does. It can do a million things! Do we come away from it more satisfied than we would using scissors to cut a piece of paper in half? I don’t think so.

Mike: What inspired the lamp/heat body language/words analogy? Isn’t the heat of the lamp an incidental feature as opposed to purpose?

Erin: I guess I was thinking about whether most items on my desk have one purpose or more than one. After the lamp has been on for a while, its heat always surprises and intrigues me when my hand brushes it. You’re right; its overheating is an incidental feature of its providing light — really it has one purpose. Most of our communication is nonverbal, too, so I think I was grasping for a metaphor — words (poetry’s substance) are only the best we can do when we’re not physically with each other to communicate our meaning.

Mike: Your focus on these everyday objects on your desk reminds me of this Mary Oliver quote: “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.” Does that quote resonate with your approach to crafting poetry?

Erin: I do like Mary Oliver’s focus on attention. In another poem, “The Summer Day,” she says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.” When we are fumbling for prayer, I think a good starting point is slowing down and quieting ourselves enough to notice the world around us. The version of the Ignatian Examen I pray with has as its first step: “Recall you are in the presence of God…You are a creature in the midst of Creation.” So, yes, I think this act of paying attention is important in my poetry writing, and hopefully my life.

Contributed by:

Erin Buckley lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an occupational therapist. She was introduced to Ignatian spirituality during a year spent as a Jesuit Volunteer in Portland, Maine.