By Susanna Childress

Low·ly: A Definition

Baby (Nativity of Tahitian Christ) by Paul Gaugin, 1896

Low·ly /LOW-lee/ˈloʊli/ adv. 1. In a low position or posture, along the ground: the careful way a big, battered woman kneels — one knee down, one wrist, slowly, a second knee — then lowly bows her face to the soil, a Black woman, Josephine, on her hands and knees in the dirt, a woman who’s been chained by the neck, at muzzle’s end, smuggled to a Georgia Sea Island in the shadowy hull of a ship as late as 1858; 2. In a low manner, humbly, modestly, reverently, as in, Here goes Sister Josephine lowlily to the center of the ring-song — yes, Sister Josie’s turn at the prayer house shout; 3. In a low condition, in an inferior manner, poorly, meanly, see notes from American explorer E.K. Kane speaking in 1855 of the Inuit: “They had about them that apathetic fatalism which belongs to all lowly-cultivated races”; see also — though this borrows from the pl. n. — smug subtitlefrom a bestseller at the same time Josephine is stolen from Zaire and brought unlawfully to our wide, white coast: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly; 4. With a low voice or sound: not the volume of a circle of women at the prayer house shout, but afterward, the chant having wound itself somewhere still, somewhere inside, as in a woman’s murmur, her hum, her weary body rocking, as in a Thomas Woolner verse Josephine never read in 1863 because Josephine reading was a crime: What, the poet wrote, art thou whispering lowly to thy babe, O wan girl-mother? And what other girl-mother but the lowly handmaid of our Lord, who, it should be noted, did not turn from his maidservant in her lowly position, but that — that’s an adj., the same one Mary’s son used to describe himself: “Take my yoke upon you...for I am gentle and lowly in heart....” — the same used to describe him, his origins (you know it was rated a one-star stable, right?), his lowly condition, a Nazarene more interested in forgiving prostitutes than practicing his curtsy, and now, now the word’s run away with us, firecrackering into a verb, an action in two forms: the trans., to lay someone low, to humble her — to enslave, to unload your gun in Ferguson, MO, and lowly a man; OR the refl., to lower oneself, to humble oneself, to condescend — all your majesty, your sovereign mercy, your infinity into the body of a baby (as in even the Divine had diaper rash) — as in John Calvin’s sermon, “Wee see howe God lowlieth himselfe and stoopeth to our rudenesse”; see also Josephine, who voluntarily lowlies herself to the ground in a ring of singing women; they’ll pass round her, they’ll reach out their hands and they’ll press her face into the mud, shouting the way their mothers taught them back along the banks of the Kongo, cannon-loud, Sister Josie, you must come down to the mire/ O you must come down to the mire/ Jesus been down to the mire/ Jesus been down to the mire/ Honor Jesus to the mire/ You must bow low to the mire.

About the Author

Susanna Childress has published two award-winning collections of poetry, Entering the House of Awe (2011), selected for the Society of Midland Authors award, and Jagged with Love (2005), selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins for the Brittingham Prize. She lives, works, gardens, parents, founders, and glows in Holland, Michigan.

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