A Backyard Walk

One of Carl Sandburg’s shorter poems, called “Window,” goes like this: “Night from a railroad car window/ Is a great, dark, soft thing/ Broken across with slashes of light.”  Another one, I have to set out as written in two stanzas, for full effect.  It’s called “Fog”: 

The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.

I began to read that one to my shiftless cat, to try it out in the air, but she is no more, having left on silent haunches, a vapor leaving no trace.

Before reading those little poems, I filled the bird feeders in our backyard, while three sparrows twittered nearby, waiting.  The feeders showed the marks of squirrels who had gnawed at the rings below them, their metal tops, even peeled paint from their sides, to no avail.  Finishing, I walked the fence at our property line, noting the place where the remains of our pets are buried, the piled pine straw and leaves springing to my steps.  

Once, I turned back to look at our home, dirt to sky, for a moment trying to see it as someone who did not live there, but I couldn’t.  We’ve been here too long, so it’s an extension of us, rooted and real, an appendage.  At one corner of the house, a breeze whistles by, a soft thing, silent, which then moves on, blowing by my face, cool.  I turn to see a black cat, lean and lanky, gallop through our gate, startled. It turns to look at me, then moves on. As do I.

She calls to me from the door. My traditionally-built cat, sister of the vapor, is worried about the strange man walking in the back yard, a slash of light to her cat-eyes, as she sits alert on little cat feet. I call to her, to reassure, thrice, and go in, before night settles, dark and soft, with fog on city feet.

The Weight of a Poem: The Almost Forgotten Poetry of Myra Scovel

WordsMost people have never heard of medical missionary, author, and poet Myra Scovel. Chalk that up to books long since out of print and the presentism that has hold of culture. I’d like you to know her.

My used copy of Scovel’s 1970 collection of poetry, The Weight of a Leaf, bears her autograph and the words “For Helen, in memory of David, all God’s best for her, as He has given David. Purdue, 1970.” Nothing like place and time and signature to root a book of poems in reality, 44 years ago. So long. I was twelve when she etched those words.

Myra Scovel and her husband, medical doctor Frederick Scovel, met when he was a medical student at Cornell and she a nurse, marrying after his graduation in 1929. The next year they and their newborn son sailed for China as missionaries. After language training in then Peking (Beijing), they were assigned to a hospital in the Shantung province. Pre-war, pre-communist takeover, they were treating opium addicts and every kind of illness until internment for six months by the invading Japanese in 1943. Deported by the Japanese, Myra had her sixth child within hours after their ship docked in he United States. In 1946, after the war, they and their six children returned to China, remaining there until 1951 when, like many other missionaries, they were forced out by the Chinese Communists. After six years service in India, they returned to the United States for good in 1959.

That story you can read in The Chinese Ginger Jars, Scovel’s memoir published in 1962. The narrative moves at a quick clip, like a nurse on duty, and yet her descriptive powers are on display, as in this line about Peking: “The whole city seemed steeped in the culture of its people, mellow as the smooth cream ivory of its curio shops, wise with a wisdom drawn from the deep pools of its clearest jade, relaxed as the curve of a temple roof against the sky.” Oh, how the world has changed. But all of this, interesting as it is, is just the soil for the flowering of Scovel’s poetry which, though faith-rich, is rarely sentimental, preachy, or limited to religious themes. That sets it apart from much other “Christian” poetry of that time, and that’s what makes it so human and readable. That and its economy.

The Weight of a Leaf leads off with a poetic dedication “To Li Po, Poet,” with Scovel dwelling on the timelessness of Li Po’s words 1200 years prior:

Yellow the willow by your mountain pool,
one golden leaf following your skiff
as you painted brush strokes for these words
twelve hundred years ago.
    “Shall goodwill ever be secure?
    I watch the long road
    of the River of Stars.”

As she finds herself in Li Po’s poem, on the eve of yet another world war, so we can find ourselves in Scovel’s careful words.

In the title poem Scovel writes of the bending inward of wills in human love: “We have bent to love/ as a twig bends/ to the weight of a leaf.” In some poems there is naked honesty before God, as in “For You, Lying There,” when she gives voice to her anger at the humiliations of old age, when, being told that “God must have his reasons” she blurts out “Do not speak of such a God to me./ Unless spring comes for you, what blasphemy!/ If seed-break-sod for you has no relation,/ death is but one vast humiliation.” Or there is the fear of a life being laid bare, as in “Why Am I So Afraid”:

Why am I so afraid
to let God speak?
He will want to throw out
the rubbish of my life,
all the dear, accumulated rubbish.

He will clean me out,
down to the bare essentials of my being.
I am afraid,
afraid of that nakedness.

And yet it’s not all so heavy. One of my favorite poems to read out loud is “How Did the World Get So Clean, Mother?” She answers the child-question with

God washed the day
and hung it out to dry,
dripping with dew.

Sun shone,
wind blew.

When evening came,
the cherubs,
pink from play,
folded it with lavender
to put away.

She doesn’t wholly escape sentiment, particularly when writing of family, but neither does the award-winning Mary Oliver when writing of her beloved dogs (in her Dog-Poems). Even a fine poet can lose the universal that makes a poem timeless, that makes it matter to readers she does not know, when writing about those things they hold dearest.  We can forgive.

Myra Scovel’s poems are light. Spare. Full of space. And yet, even a frail and hardly noticed leaf of a poem has weight. In a world of brash narratives and self-important posts, a little poem can shine, quietly whispering Truth.

Find the poetry of Myra Scovel. Whether in the dust and ink of the used bookstore or the low-ranking pages of Amazon, dig it out, take up, and read.



The Solace of the Quotidian

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall---
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

("I Go Down to the Shore," by Mary Oliver, in A Thousand Mornings)

The economy of a poem is its virtue.  Every word of a well-crafted one must count so much that the acres of blank space on the page pour out meaning as well, rich in its absence of words.  At least it does with Mary Oliver's poems, poems which are deceptively simple yet profound.

So she goes down to the shore.  So do we all.  This is not a going just to walk, to gaze on beauty, to enjoy the sea air. She is going to the edge and staring out into Creation with questions: Why? What now?

And so I have been down to the shore, the edge of the city, to a forest in the early morning, alone.  Last year, in April, I went to a nearby state park alone on several mornings in the space of several months.  These were not nature walks, in the sense that I was there to observe the forest, the river, the bird life and fauna.  I was there to be alone and hear and see the regularity, the mundanity of a rock and stream and forest that pre-existed me and will live on after me, that will keep on. My mother was dying.  I walked a long sentence, stretching out the length of the path, a sentence saying what shall --- what should I do?  And the ancient river and stones and trees said, as they always say, Excuse me, I have work to do.

In her essay, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris reminds us that the "divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life," that "it is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is 'renewed in the morning'" (Ps. 90:5).  And so I walk.  I do the mundane work of putting one foot in front of another even when that is all I can do.  I dig a path with my question.  Some questions have to be taken out and walked, given space in which to percolate.  The rhythm of footsteps, like the beat of my heart, answers my restlessness.  What should I do?

Some have said that poetic meter --- even the common iambic pentameter of so many poems and songs --- originates in the bodily rhythm of arms and legs in motion.  Even more, in the beat of our own hearts.  So when we walk, we hear music, we make music, reconnect with the song at the heart of Creation.  We consider the barely perceptible rhythms of a natural world whose work is excruciatingly slow: trees inch upward; maples and sweet gums shed their leaves reluctantly, oaks resist; rocks are sculpted ever so gently by wind and water and their ceaseless caress.  Excuse me, I have work to do, they say.

In the end, when I go down to the shore, when I step out on the earth and walk, I am reminded of the God who made me, of Christ who holds all things together, of the Spirit who works unceasingly, who stirs my heart to worship.  Walking becomes liturgy, a regular path to praise.  My breath, my heart, my stride, my motion --- they all remind me of my creatureliness, and that of my Creator whose image I bear.  And then, like today, something enters that rhythm, that mundanity of my existence --- a dog, smiling, approaches; a gargantuan leaf flutters down and catches in my wife's unsuspecting hand, as if God placed it there; a lone white birch tree sways slightly against a sharp blue sky (look up, it says); the gnarled roots of a what seems a prehistoric tree clutch the river bank; leaves crunch underfoot, announcing our coming.  Skipping rocks in the riverbed, I accidently plunge my foot, boot and all, under water.  I laugh.  What shall --- what should I do?

It is God who answers: Excuse me, I have work to do.

As do I.




Doing the Work of Love: An Afternoon with Jane Kenyon

260px-Jane_KenyonWhile I did not know of the poetry of the late Jane Kenyon until after her death in 1995, I am glad I found her when I did.  A kindred spirit to Mary Oliver, who is one of my favorite poets, her poetry also has a rich simplicity --- is accessible, delicate, and yet profound.  Images of home and nature abound, and a subtle faith and hope permeates the air of her poems, even if they often allude to her lifelong struggle with depression.

Take this one, for example, entitled "Afternoon in the House:"

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I know that sprawl, those favored places, that quiet that settles on the house, that hyper-consciousness bred of aloneness that makes you sense that the very walls are listening, leaning in, waiting to hear.  It's all so ordinary, and yet under her economic pen, buffered by considerable white space, it becomes extraordinary, each word so carefully chosen.

She goes on:

I turn on the radio.  Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

And that makes me look up The Meadow Mouse since, after all, no poem about a cat can be bad, can it?  And yet I realize, in the reading, that the cats enjoyed it like we might anticipate a scrumptious meal, licking their chops.  Reading "Do I imagine he no longer trembles/ When I come close to him?/ He seems no longer to tremble," I fear it's not empathy they feel for the poor mouse but something more elemental, and base, and so my instinct about cats is confirmed: they are out for themselves, won't ever be accused of saving children from burning houses or lying down on their master's (if that word is ever accurate) graves.  And so I wonder if Kenyon granted the request.  I doubt it.  Rather, it demonstrates her sense perhaps that not only cats but her own species might not be generous.  And that, for Kenyon, might have fed her depression.

I was surprised to read the first line of the final stanza, where she says

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze 

because, inexplicably, I just wrote a line nearly like that in a blog post just a couple days ago when, awake in the middle of the night, I said that the listening you do at that wee hour is "like you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired."  You know it's bad when you take to quoting yourself, and yet why did I channel a phrase uttered by Jane Kenyon when I had not read her poem in perhaps six years?

The ending of that stanza, and of the poem, is key to understanding her mental anguish in the midst of this idyllic setting of the familiar.  Cats dozing.  Plants leaning.  A settled home. She says

I know you are with me, plants,
and cats --- and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

Are they with her?  For Kenyon even a good day held within it the seed of a bad one, a sense that the shoe had to fall at some point and the world would come crashing down.  Who knows what else frightened her, when even the cats are full of malevolent possibility?  I don't mean to be hard on cats.  They figure prominently in Kenyon's poems, often dozing, sometimes providing humor, and yet for her nothing could be taken at face value, the sinister lurking beyond the benign.

One phrase, repeated in her poem, "Otherwise," the title to a collection of her work, tells me of her commitment to live even when she felt otherwise: "All morning I did the work of love."  More than fear or sadness, her poems tell of hope and faith and love, and that trilogy is worth hearing about over and over and over.

Want to read Jane Kenyon?  Start with "Otherwise."  You'll find much to love in her descriptions of the ordinary.  You might even make your own poem.

[The photo of Kenyon at her typewriter is publicly available via her publisher's website.  Does anyone type anymore?  Yes.  It's good to see.]

At Connemara, Slashes of Light

IMG_0606 Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

("Windows," by Carl Sandburg, in Carl Sandburg: Collected Poems, Paul Berman, ed.) 

Tiger is the name of the barn cat that lives at Connemara, the home of Carl and Lillian Sandburg for the last 22 years of the poet and writer's life.  A hospitable cat, welcoming guests easily from the red barn she scouts, she makes us feel at home, as if we have come to visit the Sandburgs, see Lillian's prize goats with their soft and docile faces, peruse the 14,000 volumes of books in the Sandburg home, or sit on the front porch and think and talk and think some more, enjoying the view of the lake and the mountains beyond.  And we do feel at home.

My first experience with the American journalist, poet, folk singer, and hobo Cal Sandburg was as a child.  His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln contained in my mother's library of mostly devotional books (many of which I read at some point) intrigued me but proved too fulsome a history for a tween to crack.  But I remember its heft, the feel of it in my hands, and the weightiness of its many words.  I wondered at a man who could write so many words about one single man.  I looked at his picture, his shock of white hair, and thought him a word-god, transcendent.

He wasn't, of course.  Walking through his house, left much as it was the day he died, I sense his ordinariness, his humility, his modesty.  I can imagine sitting in his front room visiting, the furnishings plain and simple, the man unpretentious.  He might read me a new poem or even sing me a song.  The only thing unusual about his home was his sharing of it with 14,000 books.  Everywhere you bump into words, rub up against history.  There he sits, I imagine, in a cluttered study, banging out the words to a new poem, typewriter on an upended orange crate, because "if such was good enough for General Grant it's good enough for me."  Pulitzers are relegated to a hidden cabinet, no "how great thou art" wall of commendations and awards to be found.  No car in the garage either, as he said that a car would keep him from walking, and in walking you get to meet people.  And people were his stock and trade, the very voices of his poems.

On a granite outcropping beside his home, there is a single bench chair, and I imagine him sitting there, paper and pen in hand, thinking over his life and the life of others he knew.  He said once that "[i]t is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'"  There, at the bottom of Little Glassy Mountain, I might ask myself that too and, turning back to the house, ask myself what I will leave behind.

I would like to have known the man.  I doubt our politics would align (as he was a socialist of sorts), and yet he championed the rights of the ordinary folk and seemed to live his life with some modesty and humility, a voice for the common man.  He also held to no organized religion and, though it was not a major theme of his work, did at times rail against those he thought misappropriated Jesus, as in his vituperative lambasting of the evangelist Billy Sunday in his poem of the same name, saying "I won't take my religion from a man who never works/except with his mouth and never cherishes a/ memory except the face of the woman on the/ American silver dollar."  Surely, had he read the poem to me on the porch of Connemara, I may have nodded in agreement to parts of it, because much has been said and done in God's name with which He may not be pleased.

Nature had a way of smoothing over his rare venom.  Even in many of his poems not geared toward children, a gentleness is evident, as in "The fog comes/ on little cat feet./ It sits looking/ over harbor and city/ on silent haunches/ and then moves on."  I imagine him playing with grandchildren, watching Edward R. Murrow on television (the only thing he ever watched), sitting at a modest table having breakfast with Lillian and his girls, watching birds out the window, and retiring to his office upstairs, cluttered and discomfiting to me, anyway.

Here, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I wonder if he knew the One who came for him, for every man, the one of whom he wrote

I've been out to this suburb of Jerusalem they call
          Golgotha, where they nailed him, and I know if
          the story is straight it was real blood ran from his
          hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
          spurted out where the spear of the Roman soldier
          rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of

Was he a friend of this man?  Did he know the One who haunted all the lives of the people he met, the places he saw, the words he wrote?  At Connemara, I can hope that he knew more than the dark, dark night from a rail car window, with only slashes of light.  I can hope he knew the God-Man who came to save. 

The (Almost) Perfect Poet: A Review of "Swan," by Mary Oliver

Awan In his inimical way, G.K. Chesterton once said that "the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."  Perhaps what he was saying was that there aren't many topics that poets haven't spoken to except for cheese, yet who knows what he meant?  I don't care.  It's fun to hear even if I don't understand it.  That's true of poetry too.  Even when you don't understand it on the first or second reading, or at all, it should still be fun to read, to hear the music of the words, to see in your mind's eye the images it provokes.  And yet sometimes a poetry comes along that is both accessible (if still a little mysterious) and fun to read and listen to.  That would be Mary Oliver.

In her latest book of poetry, Swan, Oliver, now in her mid-seventies, does not disappoint.  This book of 47 poems and much white space simply blesses the reader.  She doesn't stray from the familiar places and themes she has explored in other books --- nature (that of the marshes and beaches of her home at Cape Cod), faith (albeit non-specific), aging (with grace), and her faithful companion dog, Percy.  Reading these short poems I find welling up in me a deep thankfulness for all that God has made, for life itself, and a wonder at a Creation that continues to supply a poet's inspiration, even in her 75th year.  That alone is reason enough to purchase the book.

Oliver simply has not lost her wonder.  Take this first poem, "What Can I Say," which gently nudges the reader to listen, to be still, to wait (on God?):

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
     and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
     chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
     were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

Reading this, how can you ever look at a stone or a leaf or a river in the same way? Oliver has the ability to look at Creation and see humanity, like "On the beach, at dawn:/ four small stones clearly/ hugging each other."  Or in the short, almost not there, "Today":

Today is a day of
dark clouds and slow rain.
The little blades of corn
are so happy.

The rest of the page is blank, white.  I think to myself how absurd it is to spend good money on mostly blank pages, and yet if you think like that you won't read poetry much less buy it.  In this world where information stretches from edge to edge of monitors and videos beckon and text splashes, flashes, and scrolls across the screen, poetry reminds us of how thin and shallow all that information can be, and yet how four short lines can be ridden to deep wonder.  If you stop, that is, before you press on.

I mentioned faith, and it is true, there is a kind of faith here, though more mystic than Christian. Oliver is forever provoking us to consider the sacredness of life, as in this poem, "In Your Hands":

The dog, the donkey, surely they know
           they are alive.
Who would argue otherwise?

But now, after years of consideration,
          I am getting beyond that.
What about the sunflowers? What about
          the tulips, and the pines?

Listen, all you have to do is start and
          there'll be no stopping.
What about mountains? What about water
          slipping over the rocks?

And, speaking of stones, what about
          the little ones you can
hold in your hands, their heartbeats
          so secret, so hidden it may take years

before, finally, you hear them?

Reading these poems, I find it appropriate that the poet quotes Emerson in her epigram at the beginning of the book: "'Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live."

In one poem, there is this wonderful line --- "Joy is not a crumb" --- and I think, how could it be?  To look deeply at Creation, to see the world God made in all its richness, how could one be anything but awestruck, almost wordless, and Oliver is, like the good poets, economical in words but liberal in heart and spirit.  She writes on and on about swans, foxes, pines, squirrels, turtles, woodchucks, the sun and moon, a lark, the herons, beans green and yellow, the pepper tree, morning and night --- a lexicon of praise, almost --- almost, that is, if she could but plainly acknowledge the Maker of all this life. (In all this particularity, one poetic misstep: the word "Obama," jarringly out of place!) Still, she is more profitable to read than many so-called Christian poets in that her poems are rooted in the particular, in a natural revelation, not in religious abstractions.  They incite praise, intended or not.

In the end, Mary Oliver, who in the first poem of the book wondered what she had left to say, reacts to the real or imagined prodding of an editor who told her to fill up more pages with this: "So, this is all I can give you,/ not being the maker of what I do,/ but only the one that holds the pencil."  So that's it: a gospel superintended, and Mary Oliver a faithful apostle of that truth.  That's enough for me.  If as Robert Browning said, "God is the perfect poet," then Mary Oliver is "the almost perfect poet."

If you want your money's worth of words, don't buy this book.  But for those of you who treasure an apt word and can take a mostly empty page as a room in which to wander and wonder, buy this book. Read every poem at least three times.  Read some aloud. And then wander and wonder around outside and make your own.

The Beat Goes On

"Try listening to a lecture or sermon as if you had never heard English before.  Listen for the flow of syllables --- some strong, some weak.  What do we mean by an accented syllable?  Is it louder?  Does it take longer to pronounce than its neighboring syllable does?"

(Suzanne U. Clark, in The Roar on the Other Side)

If, as I do, you sometimes have a difficult time staying awake during the sermon on Sunday morning, try something different.  Forget about the content for the time being and assume that the three points will in some way prick you nonetheless and provide inspiration and provocation later, when you've shaken off the slippery slope of Sunday sleep. (Say that ten times quickly, will you?)

Pretend the pastor is not speaking English, a not far stretch of the imagination with some pastors, I know. Listen not to what they say but how they say it.  Why stress what they stress?  Why pause where they pause?  What accent the syllable they accent?

Speech is poetry, really, with a musical quality about it.  Poet Suzanne Clark reminds us "that the most prominent sound pattern in English is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.  When used as a deliberate pattern in a poem, it is called an iamb. . . . Of course in speech the pattern is random and inconsistent."  In poetry, she says, order is brought to the randomness: "The iambic meter --- presenting the pattern at regular intervals --- has historically been the prevailing one."

Even when random and inconsistent, the intriguing thing about the iamb's prevalence in speech is that it always surfaces.  Just listen to the sermon.  You'll hear it, the rising and falling of stress, the rising and falling of voice.  What it is, I believe, is our unconscious imitation of the "THUMP-thump" of our own heartbeat, the music we effortlessly make, our own internal rhythm.  And that, I suspect, is a rhythm built into Creation itself --- "there was evening, and there was morning --- an iamb placed in Creation by a God who some believed even put in Creation a "music of the spheres."  Hmmm.

And then, perhaps all this is a lot of rubbish.  Nevertheless, listen to the sound of the sermon anyway. You may just wake up to more than its iambs.  "Beautiful words have interesting sounds with value quite apart from sense," says Clark (once again, a good thing in respect to some pastors).  So listen.  And then when you bow for prayer, put your hand to your heart and realize that there is a reason you sound like you do. And let a small word of praise escape your mouth that that beat goes on, and on.

Not I Alone: A Poem

Not I Alone

"A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all."

(Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life)

What is it that I alone love at all?

Maybe the fact that here is here and
     there is there, even the vast difference between
     life inside and life outside, the separation by only a pane of glass.

Perhaps the obscure corner, the very cornerness of corners,
     the vantage point they offer on life, the
     fact that they have our back.

The shape of a word, its sound in my mouth, not
     only its height and width but it depth, its
     roundness, its shapeliness, the way its sound hangs in the air.

Maybe the particular slant of sunlight through the window,
     the universe of dust revealed in its glare, the 
     thought of what worlds I am breathing in.

Perhaps the hope that memories of yesterday,
     redeemed and shorn of all that is hurtful, will
     live on in heightened color, sound, and smell in eternity.

The sound of the library, the aroma of its bindings,
    the hope of new discoveries, the smile of 7-year old Betsy Pendergraph,
    the sound of God walking among the words, His words, His world.

But then, maybe you love this too.  Maybe it's not mine alone.


Beautiful Words: The Poetry of Mary Oliver & Jeanne Murray Walker

Evidence If you pick up a collection of modern poetry, you would probably not use the word "beautiful" to describe what you would find there.  The language can be coarse, the images jarring, the implicit and elitist assumption being that most people just won't "get it," so why bother.  At the risk of engaging in gross generalization (which it is), most modern poetry is dark and inaccessible and, even if you try to read it (which most people won't), the task is daunting and darkening.  However, there are exceptions, even wonderful exceptions, so if you do not read poetry and are willing to start, I recommend you begin with Mary Oliver or Jeanne Murray Walker.  Neither are prone to sentimentalism and both employ earthy imagery and craft words that scatter light from every page.

Oliver, now 74, imbues her poetry with images of the natural world informed by walks from her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Walking is, in her view, a part of the poetic process.  Her latest book, Evidence, is no exception to this pattern, as it is filled with images of yellow finches bathing, swans, creaking wings of buzzards, snowy egrets, rain, clouds, and trees, just to name a few, with Oliver maintaining an inner monologue reminiscent of Emily Dickenson, though with more accessibility.  In every poem there is a subtle meaning, a reflection, powerful in its slightness.  Often, she addresses the "Lord," or God, and yet her religion is likely not orthodox but more the mysticism of Emerson, Thoreau or Whitman.  Here is one pleasing example of her craft:

The Trees

Do you think of them as decoration?

Think again.

Here are maples, flashing.
And here are the oaks, holding on all winter
   to their dry leaves.
And here are the pines, that will never fail,
   until death, the instruction to be green.
And here are the willows, the first
   to pronounce a new year.

May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?
Oh, Lord, how we are all for invention and
But I think
   it would do us good if we would think about
these brothers and sisters, quietly and deeply.

The trees, the trees, just holding on
   to the old, holy ways.

Simple yet profound, accessible yet not pedestrian, Oliver's poems are rich with ponderings on the meaning of natural things and well worth spending time meditating on.  To truly enjoy them, read them aloud.  Poems become three-dimensional when you not only see but hear them.

New tracks While nearly all of Oliver's poems are rooted in nature, Jeanne Murray Walker's somewhat more complicated verse dips into relationships, emotions, normal everyday affairs like putting children on a school bus, as well as nature.  Reading through her latest offering, New Tracks, Night Falling,the first thing you notice is that the poems are often longer than those of Oliver, both in line length and total length.  This makes you slow down.  The other thing you observe is that the references to Christianity are more direct, though certainly religion is not the topic of most of the poems.

Staying on the topic of trees, you'll see some similarities and differences between Oliver and Walker:

What the Trees Say

At breakfast, the heart of the egg looks like pure
gold.  Sunlight lifts the morning like a lever,
and even before I step outside, I see a river
of sparrows rise and scatter through the dawn.

That's when I tell myself, Look here,
you don't have to hurry.  Don't have to arrive
anywhere on time.  Don't have to decide how far
to walk across the lawn or whether to carry on
into the woods. 
I pull on my jacket.  Breezes scatter
the yellow leaves.  The trees are whispering,

It's fall.  Got to strip down.  Got to let the sky in here,
make a place for birds.  Got to reach further
down in the earth.  Got to hunker, children,
got to hold still enough to feel the wings flutter.

"Reading a poem is like following tracks to an interior realm," says Walker in the preface, a realm of deep questions like "why I am so prone to do what I don't want to do," or "how is it possible to overcome the deep loneliness of being a seaprate, conscious human being," or "why does grace sometimes visit us out of the blue?"  She describes poetry as a "wistful groping toward the truth" and poets as "organizers of the hunt."  She's right.  If you sit long enough with good poems, they raise questions that lead to the mysteries that only God has the key to, that only He can reveal or absolve by His presence with us.  In fact, the main tool I would pack for the hunt is a mind filled with God's words, a flashlight for the journey.  Not only that, I want God along, because I know that though I may not find all or many of the answers, I will have Him, and in Him I have all I need.

Read poems.  Start with Mary Oliver and Jeanne Murray Walker.  Read God's words as well.  Sift the poets' words with the words of the One who made us.  It may take time, but it's worth it.

In My Room, Again

Studio I guess some poems have a second life, and that's just what has happened to me for the first time. A few years ago (try eight years!) I entered a poem called "In My Room" into the annual poetry contest sponsored by a local rag, The Independent. I was runner-up in their contest and was invited to read my poem to an audience assembled at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC. I don't usually traffic in literary circles, much less read poems or attend poetry readings, so that was a unique experience.

But unlike many things I write, I have continued to like the poem beyond my initial infatuation with it, and so I entered it in a contest sponsored by Studio, an Australian journal of poetry and short fiction. I didn't win, but the poem has been published in their Winter 2009 Issue as a "Commended" poem, so I'm pleased with that. Studio is a great little journal, subtitled "A Journal of Christians Writing," and it avoids heavy-handed religious poems in favor of faith-infused literature.

If you read this blog much, you'll know I have a great admiration for Brian Wilson, the often troubled and yet amazingly gifted genius behind the Beach Boys (and much good independent, solo work). When I wrote this poem, I had never met him or heard him in concert, and he had long been in a troubled time. Having met him on more than one occasion now, it brings new meaning to it. And, I'm glad to say that he's doing much better. Well, it's about Brian Wilson, of course. . . and me. I imagined then that I had known him back then. . .

In My Room

Those days when I watched the
black vinyl turn, there
in my room, with the curtains sealed,
The voices playing sad & sweet,
I found myself

Standing outside your house on West 119th
listening for your father's ranting, his
maudlin songs, from the cookie-cutter
house with the foolish, self-infected man,
until, screen door flapping,

You caught my arm and we ran,
laughing, from that dark energy,
until we lay down on a field there
in Hawthorne. Even then, it was the
sound of your dreams that brought me

Back to the black vinyl turn, the
crackling energy screams of the
girls on the beach, there, miles from
salt & sun, in my room.
I had my dreams too, & you knew, as we

Spent hour upon hour there in
Lishon's Record Store & Melody Music.
Ricky Nelson, the Four Freshmen, the
Four Preps, the Everly Brothers --- yes,
we had our dreams, yet we had our
harmony & counter-harmony, even then.

Behind four walls I could hide,
shut down & lost inside myself,
steeling myself for lonely, hurt, & pain
sheltered beneath your wall of sound.
Like you, my peace was in the
music & the dream, where I
could go, where you were there

Riding in your 57 Ford, pink & gray,
all whitewalled & waxed & chrome. From
the Wick Stand on Slausen to the A&W on
Hawthorne, we'd cruise with the windows down &
heat up high talking "honeys on the lot,"
drinking beer & watching movies, there,
on Sepulveda, chasing empty from our gut.
Then one night

On Redondo Beach, we watched the
surf & laughed & sang until darkness
blue & heavy pounded sand,
pounded you, & crying I pulled you
from the water. Maybe it was the crazy
in your cold blue eyes, but since then

We've gone our ways, you & I, but
sometimes, alone in my room, I still
think of you there on that field in
Hawthorne until the darkness came &
current carried you away.

We don't talk much now.
You don't get out much now.
But sometimes, when I close my eyes,
I can hold you even now, in my prayer.

Goodnight, Brian Wilson.


God's Parallelism

best One of the distinctive features of the Hebrew Psalms is a literary device known as parallelism.  While less rich a device in the translated English, it nonetheless remains a feature of most of the Psalms, a curious or perhaps sometimes irritating tendency to always be telling us the same thing twice, as if we didn't get it the first time.  The Psalmist tends to repeat himself, as if we need to hear a second time so we understand.  See what I mean?  It can be irritating to be told the same thing twice.

And yet it's not so in the context of poetry because phrases are not being repeated so much as to teach, to emphasize a point, as they are to produce beauty in their cadence, in their appearance as words on a page, in their sound.  C.S Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms, declined to ascribe the Psalter a purely didactic function, noting that it seemed "appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination [Who]. . . had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry.  For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible."

When I hear the parallelism of the Psalms I don't hear the nagging voice of a mother saying "Clean your room.  Clean your room.  Clean your room. . . NOW," each phrasing louder and more emphatic, but I hear the chorus of a great song of which you never tire, like "I've got a ticket to ride.  I said "I've got a ticket to ride."  Better than that, you can ride the roads of your city all day, pound the pavement, scratch away at life from your cubicle, and then look out the window and smile, humming "his love endures forever."  "His love endures forever."  That song never grows old but resonates in the fabric of creation, in the breeze blowing the maple tree outside your open window, in the heat rising from the sidewalks, and in the smile on a cat's face when she greets you at the end of a long day --- that is, that song has parallels in human experience.  When we hear that assuring phrase, we instinctively say "Say it again.  Tell me again."  Just like when we see a great sunset, we still want to see another, and another, and another.  In fact, there is such abundant parallelism in Nature, in human relationships, and in our own day-to-day activities that we can see the poetic nature of life itself --- the repetition of putting children to bed at night, almost but not quite the same way every night, or the regularity of meals, sleep, day and night, and so on, all repetitive and yet each not precisely repeatable.  (I could be accused here of making a lot of nothing, but I don't think anything in life is insignificant.)

I encourage reading the Psalms aloud and appreciating them as poetry, as audible expressions of the sometimes inarticulable longings of the human heart.  The parallelism is there by providential design to heighten the beauty of the form God used to express his truth through very fallible wordsmiths.  It's only a visible expression of a godly parallelism in all of life, the repetition of the good, every day.  There's great assurance in that, a good rhythm of life, so enjoy the parallelisms of life.  Enjoy them.

Now, let me say all that again in a slightly different way. . . .

Glory (On Reading Psalm 8)

[Pastor Andy is doing a series of sermons this Summer on the various types of psalms.  Today, the sermon was on Psalm 8, a "psalm of creation."  It's a favorite of mine, and hearing it made me remember how several years ago I "re-imagined" (for lack of a better word), several psalms, trying to write highly truthful (but quite errant) "new" psalms that followed the train of thought in the inerrant psalm of scripture.  It's a way of making the truth your own, and this rewriting was, I felt, one of my better attempts.]

    after reading Psalm 8

Glory, glory, glory.

Rocks sing their mineral hearts
buckle & warp & cry a
raucous, rocking praise.

I listen to cicada skies
drink moon-shine
smell silhouetted trees, the
hum of homes so kind,
so kind.

I see infinity in the eyes of my
seventeen-something cat (“Someone’s
home,” I tell her with a pat),
feel the feathered nap of night,
the promise-purr of
starry light.

Your work. Great work.
Great play, in just six
somehow days. Even these
pines creak Your praise, making
darkness slide away.

Then me.
Only me.
You care

By the nape of my neck, You
stood me up, said
I had a life-lease, a
dignified but qualified
reign and rule. . .

So --- this is
my land
my grass
my trees,
my birds, buildings, bumblebees.

My cactus
ah, my cucumber
     (how I love cucumber.)

My wind, willow, wisp,
moon, music, mist ---
All mine, mine, mine!
All grace to this broken
king of man.

Glory, glory, glory.
To Giver be all glory.

When I Dreamed I Was Lost

Opening the door, an
Innuit woman, drawn &
sullen, looks me over.

Warmth, smoke, and
searching eyes meet
mine, questioning, perhaps

curious how a mainlander
is here, a place just a
smudge on rock and water

barely noticed.  I am lost.
Throwing down my bags I
drop in a chair and a woman at the bar

meets my eyes, draws me
in, begins to take down
my meager defenses.  Only I

know her, recognize the
eyes, wince at the
world-gone-wrong kept there.

Van Morrison's on the radio,
singing "I can hear her heartbeat
from a thousand miles away,"

away. Huddled here, another
lost soul,  I mouth the words to
my empty glass ---

please "make me righteous
make me whole," give me that
"crazy love."  I'm lost.

The God-Haunted Poems of Franz Wright: A Review of "God's Silence"

Honest, haunting, human --- all might describe Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Franz Wright's poetry.  Wright's latest collection, God's Silence, features just short of 100 poems, from one line on an otherwise white page to a longish poem covering four pages, exploring death, nonspecific hardship or trauma, or other loss buoyed, if you will, only by God or, more accurately, God's silence, and yet God nonetheless and with constancy.

Many of Wright's poems may confound by their obtuseness, by their lack of particularity.  Seldom do we know the context of his loss, and the cryptic nature of his lines often leaves us hanging.  Take this one, for example, called "Petition":

at the foot of the universe

I ask

wright from this body
in confusion

and pain (a condition

Which You
may recall)

Clothed now in light
clothed in abyss, at the prow
of the desert
into everywhereness ---

have mercy

Mercy on us all.

This is obviously a prayer to God, a psalm the poet cries out, and yet we know not why, know not what pain inflicts him.  It is not ineffective, as we might supply our own pain, our own particulars for the petition, and yet would it not be better to root this in particulars, making it more accessible?

When there is a specific event, his poems become immediately more accessible. For example, in "On the Death of a Cat," I find myself smiling sadly (inside at least), understanding exactly what he is talking about, sharing a moment with him:

In life, death
was nothing
to you

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occurred

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised
to an infinite
power and perfection) --- no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered
friend ---


But this is the exception.  At least half of these poems lack context and particulars, providing a feeling but no framework to hang it on, nothing to quite identify with.  Cryptic fragments, mostly.  But who am I to criticize?  The man won a Pulitzer!

In the end, Wright wants not only to communicate his humanity --- difficulties he has been through and might share with us --- but wants to offer hope.  The last poem, called "I Am Listening," holds out that hope:

I could not get out of bed
for sixteen years a day.
I could not
rouse myself to take a bath. How
resubmerge this broken
body in the waters of electrocution ---
how return, redescend
to find a book
or wash its bruised clothes
the basement stairs
to the site of its hanging, a failure
even at that?

Delivered, I'm still stung by my abandonment
of those unmeetable
ones who still live there
in Hell.

Tell me.

Could I be allowed
with them
a quiet word?

                    And what
might that word be?

There must be a way: how
assure them, remind them
they too come from the light at the beginning of time.

Proved faithless, still I wait.

Critic Denis Johnson has said, of the poems of Franz Wright, "They're like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers--miraculous gifts."  Sometimes they are jewels.  Sometimes they are just blunt.  But always they are haunting pleas to a God who is really not so silent, to a God who is there.  Silence can be deafening.

The Perspicuity of a Good Poem

eliot I confess that when it comes to poetry I am a beer-drinker and not a wine-sipper.  Not that I partake of either drink: beer makes me sick, and good wine is wasted on me because I have not been schooled in its pleasures.  But I like my poetry accessible --- artful, thoughtful, and yet written in language I can understand.  Like beer, my poetry is that of the common man.

In this regard, the fine wine of T.S. Eliot's poetry fails me or, rather, I fail it  For example, it's well nigh impossible to understand the literary allusions his The Four Quartets makes without a serious grounding in literature and language.  I haven't the background nor patience.  And yet I cannot deny the sound of his work, like the cry of meaningless that comes through The Hollow Men: "This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper."  We just fade away, he seems to be saying.

William Edgar, a Fellow of The Trinity Forum, offers a helpful analysis of Elliot's poetry in an article in TTF's online journal, Provocations, entitled "Shoring Up the Fragments: Thoughts on T.S. Eliot's Poetry."  Edgar actually knows what the poet means.  I don't, and yet I love to ponder such lines, and listen to such sounds, as one may find in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: "Let us go then, you and I,/ Where the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table . . ."  I have no idea what that means (and neither did his critic, C.S. Lewis, profess to), but I love the sound of it.  I even love the sound of the title.  Who wouldn't want to meet a guy named J.Alfred Prufrock, to find out what he looks like, how he thinks?

Quite beyond the content of poetry (which is not to be ignored), I know the sound of the words speaks to the soul, resonates with something God has placed in us.  Edgar says it this way: 

Poetry is about crafting words. It is not data, but lyrical, imaginative verbal invention. Unlike other art forms, even creative prose, poetry addresses the soul at its very source, at the place where language intermingles with deepest consciousness, with God’s own image.

And again:

Poetry, like music, is a performance, not just a message. At times it resembles prayer. Poetry, as John Ciardi puts it, is “the natural language of man’s most exalted thoughts.” To accomplish that, “the essence of a poem is that one thing in it requires another . . . The poem, that is, is forever generating its own context. Like a piece of music, it exists as self-entering, self-generating, self-complicating, self resolving form.”

In fact, Edgar compares Eliot's poetry (and, by extension, all good poetry) to a symphony:

At first, his many quotations and references seem almost distracting. Then after reading and rereading the text, and reciting it out loud, we begin to hear, as it were, the work as a whole. If one takes the trouble to decode the references and translate the quotes, then the many parts begin to cohere. Like the great symphony, non-musicians can enjoy it and perhaps hum the melodies. The learned music scholar will hear all the nuances, the different instruments, the cross-references, the historic roots, and the whole will be all the more meaningful.

We might even speak of the perspicuity of poetry, its clarity in some essence for the simple-minded, the uneducated (like me), its ability to offer something to the unschooled as well as the scholar.  In fact, if a poem can't do that, it's elitist and not much good for culture as a whole.  I may not understand the multi-layered meanings of The Waste Land, but reading it over and over again, aloud, I feel its essence in my soul, dimly hear the music of a symphony though I'm more attuned to mere rock and roll.  The analogy is inferior, but it's like the perspicuity of the Gospel: clear enough to lead even the dim-witted to Christ, and yet full of unfathomable riches for the Edgars of this world; clear enough to offer me something of its meaning, to evoke feeling, and yet richly layered enough to offer much more than that to the learned reader.

It's enough to make me take to drink --- your best wine, please.

Life On the Edge (Days 36 & 37): Unveiled

skyline All this talk of glory in the devotionals form the last two days reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins' great poem, God's Grandeur, a poem that celebrates the glory of God as revealed in Creation:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Smallman reminds us that God is now unveiled to us in Jesus.  When we look at Jesus, we see the glory of God.  I'd go farther.  When we look at the world, the back streets, strip malls, wooded lots, rivers, shorelines --- all those places we walk and ride through, which we live in  --- through Jesus we now see their glory, a glory veiled to those who do not know the Father of Creation.  Sure, when Stilgoe catalogs his observations, he's looking at the same things we are, but what I notice in reading his book is that he has no context within which to place his observations, cannot see through them to their glory.  Without Christ, we cannot see the "dearest freshness deep down things," to use Hopkins' phrase.

Sure, it's a fractured glory.  We see that "all is seared with trade," that the big-box stores squat heavy on the landscape, that all "wears man's smudge," that urban decay is evident, that what once was "modern" is now simply old.  But for all this, Hopkins says "nature is never spent."  There's hope for the restoration of all things, substantially here, but in whole in a new heavens and a new earth.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]




The Bleak Midwinter

One of the reasons that I am enjoying some of Christina Rosetti's poetry is her melancholy disposition.  While the word "melancholy" can mean gloomy or depressed, it also means a sober thoughtfulness, or pensiveness, and as I understand it that is a more traditional and perhaps biblical way to approach Advent.  Rosetti seems to capture that in two of my favorite of her poems, the two set to music and sung by everyone from The Kings College Choir to Julie Andrews to Sara McLachlan.

church window In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

(Rosetti, In the Bleak Midwinter)

That "snow on snow, snow on snow" bit of repetition has a way of driving home the bitter cold and hardness of the world, not just the frozen ground but the layer upon layer hardness of life into which Christ was born.  And it is hard sometimes.  I could even now rattle off a litany of ripple effects of sin --- drought, disease, war, broken families --- abnormalities likely far worse in the 19th Century time in which Rosetti lived.  And yet she can still write

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.

(Rosetti, Love Came Down)

Christina_Rossetti_3 It's not surprising that Rosetti was "soberly thoughtful."  While she was born into a well-off London family in 1830, when she was about twelve or so, her family suffered severe financial difficulties because of her father's debilitating physical and emotional illness.  At 14 she had a nervous breakdown, and thereafter she suffered from bouts of depression.  She came to faith in the Anglican church, perhaps as a result of all her trials, and she was devoted to Christ the remainder of her life.  In fact, though she became serious about two men, she married neither, both for religious reasons.  She remained unmarried the rest of her life.  So, she lived with her mother , and after her mother died, alone.  She's not unlike some other hymnwriters or poets whose best work seems to proceed from their most difficult trials.

In the midst of all those cheery Christmas songs, I continue to gravitate to the sobering songs, the ones that acknowledge the reality of sin and the difficulty of waiting.  Advent is all about waiting, and it's not over with with the birth.  We wait for the promised death of death, for the setting right of all things --- including me.

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

(Rosetti, A Bettter Resurrection, 1879)

That's what we are: fallen leaves, faded leaves, broken bowls.  And yet He comes to make us whole, dying so we might live.

Rosetti was serious about faith.  It's said that she gave up playing chess because she thought that her wish to win the game had become too strong. She believed that this would be a chance to become a more humble believer.  When I read that, I thought it sounded crazy, but then it made me realize how inattentive to my sin I am, how little I think about the passions and motives that drive me.

I don't play chess.  But I need more sober attentiveness to my life.  I need to make a move.

The Matter of Why Space Matters

space God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it (God must love space even more.) 

(Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World)

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were hurtling through space toward the moon in Apollo 11, they had no idea what they were hurtling  through.  We still don't.  At least we don't know much. In fact, my cats may know just as much for all I know.

I think of space as emptiness, as the absence of things, or matter, and yet scientists say that's not really the case.  As I understand them, outer space is not completely empty (that is, a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dark matter and dark energy --- mostly the latter two "dark" twins, except we really don't know what they are or if they're really there (kind of like imaginary playmates).  For instance, dark matter is said to be a mysterious substance which scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe but that is invisible to current instruments.  We don't really know for sure that it's there, and yet this stuff we can't see accounts for 96% of the universe.  But you know scientists; they positively live to postulate.

But enough of that.  I think of space more in the sense of spaciousness, an openness filling the yawning gaps between good solid things like trees, stars, and people.  There's a lot of it around.  God made it, so he must love it (says Plantinga), and given how much of it there is, he must love it a lot.

God does love space --- the sparseness of it, the roominess of it, the solitude of it, the wonder of it, the silence of it, and the noise of it.  And so should we, or so do we, but for sin's curse.  Because of sin, some of us can't abide being alone in the solitude of space. Agoraphobics, those who fear open places, hide in their rooms, undone by the expanse of space and place.  And some of us, like nettling bureaucrats, rush to fill every interstice of human experience with a regulation, rule, or command --- legalists to the core who can't abide the inevitable space in our codifications of appropriate behavior.  And yet it was not to be this way.

Our distant ancestor, Job, marveled at the emptiness of space, wondering that "he spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job 26:7) and later concluding that "these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!" (26:14).  The Psalmist kicks back on the grass outside Jerusalem and wonders aloud: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:3-4).  Part of what he considers in those heavens is the juxtaposition of visible objects like stars with the vast spaciousness of space, the separation of what is from what is not.  Kant said space is relationship, a way to order our experience of reality; Newton, that it was absolute, a part of reality.  I think it's both.  Sitting in my office, I enjoy space as something real I can move around in and also the sense of space as a juxtaposition of the empty with definite objects like walls and desks and windows.

I love space.  When I open Scripture to the Creation account of Genesis 1-3, I'm thankful for the vast spaciousness of the Word that made it all.  Behind the words "God made" lies a rich and infinite domain of interpretation, of room for human exploration.  And when I hear the reassuring words of "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path," (Ps 119:105), I'm glad the Word is the lamp and not the path, that I have a sure guide but a vast landscape through which to find my way.  That's space. That's the kind of space God gives us.

Leaving the space of outer space and the vastness of the landscape of life, I'm thankful for the simple yet profound space of a poem.  No one better illustrates the fulsome nature of space with poetic verse than the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(The Red Wheelbarrow).  Writing about the poem in Understanding Poetry, poet Robery Penn Warren said that "[r]eading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation."  In other words, more is said by what is unsaid than by what is said. 

And consider the short story, the poor stepchild of the literary world.  (Evidence: The Atlantic Monthly, which published short stories by our finest writers for 150 years, abruptly stopped publishing stories in 2005.)  A story like Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium," which touches in a concrete way on racism, radiates outward into the unknown.  Who was Old Dudley?  What was his early life like?  What will happen to him?  We don't know.  We can imagine.  We can place this snapshot of life in a greater context we supply -- in space.

We may not know if space is matter, but we know it matters.  If we love it, like God does, if we wonder at it and relish its existence, life will open.  We won't be afraid, but free.

Waves can't break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can't dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can't you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named "existence"
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what's in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Bruce Cockburn, "Life Will Open," from Sunwheel Dance, 1971)

Loving the World, Again

"[W]hatever is lovely. . . think about such things" (Phil. 4:8)

When I slow down, I begin to notice the nooks and crannies
of the world, to be thankful, to fall in love again.  Seeing

the crack in the sidewalk, grass asserting itself,  I
am reminded of the impermanence of civilizations, or

the unremitting sovereignty of God, or both.  I consider the
streets, curb, gutters, water and sewer and electricity

coursing underfoot, and I am thankful for the beauty of
order, that things work.  And yet the loveliest things were here long

before --- the red headed woodpecker on the feeder, the
repertoire of the mockingbird, the scurrying about of the

chipmunk (tolerable because he is cute), the breeze on my
face, the gurgling creek water, the smell of honeysuckle.

If I am His likeness, then what can I do but love the world?
And yet sometimes I am unfaithful. I neglect the loving.

Tonight, under Orion's gaze, I listen to cicadas sing. . . . Do
you remember that song "Sing Me Home Again?"

I think that's what they're singing, a song winging upward, a
beautiful longing, Creation longing to be set free, to be all lovely, again.

God's Understatement

PineAny poet knows that understatement --- saying less in order to convey more --- is a marvelous tool in the expression of truth, particularly in expressing the inexpressible. Looking at the Grand Canyon, one might say that it's a "quite nice view," just to be silly, meaning it's actually an astounding view. You might tell someone you're a "bit under the weather" when they know you've late from the hospital. Well, you see what I mean --- it's a way of speaking that is measured, even graceful, and (in the hands of better writers than me) a powerful means of conveying truth.

I think of that Gospel writer who wrote simply "Jesus wept." We could miss it and think that he only wept for Lazarus who, as Africans so delicately say, is "late," but underneath these simple words lie the depth of God's sorrow over the brokenness of his Creation, the ravages of sin, and the curse of death --- a world gone wrong. We cannot and could not bear the inexpressible grief sin causes to God. We could have been treated to a sermon on the grief of God, with many analogies to attempt to demonstrate to us how deep and wide is this grief, but that's not what we get. Simply, Jesus wept.

Creation itself is also full of understatement. Walk through a Carolina pine forest and there is nothing breathtaking to take note of. Pines are neither the most beautiful nor graceful of trees. The colors of the forest are not striking, as there are no bright flowers here and there, just browns, greens, and the blue of sky up above the canopy. (Can you really call the scraggly tops of pines a crown, a canopy? That seems too majestic.) And yet, the subtlety of the forestscape is powerfully beautiful, the combination of colors soothing. Stop and listen, and if the wind is sufficiently stirred, and civilization blessedly far, you might hear the subtle language of the trees, their creaking, as if to say "I'm here. Take note." I used to think pines quite useless, good only for pulp mills. But I'll take a speaking pine over a mute hardwood these days. (If you've never heard a pine creak, then you've not slowed down enough to listen.) But I digress into personification! Everyone knows pines don't talk, right?

Contrast understatement with the overstated society we live in. If something can be said, it is said. There is no holding back. Whether it's talk shows, blogs, or emails, it's brash and agressive. And then in consumer culture we are constantly being marketed to. I'm sitting now in one of those chic (do people say "chic" anymore?) deli/coffeehouses, and I'm aware of muzak, a very hip jazz medley. Someone deliberated over that choice. Some suit got the big bucks to figure out how to reach me. I think it's supposed to make me feel I'm in a place where things are happening, where the noveau-hip reside. It's plain annoying, too loud and too sprightly for my melancholy. Let me enjoy my melancholic bent, please!

I'm bombarded with messages aimed at my wallet wherever I go nowadays. Perhaps it's a result of my having my own business at one time, but whenever I enter a retail store now I'm keenly aware of product placement, lifestyle messages, and consumption ambience (lighting plus music equals buy buy buy). It makes me a little crazy, and it makes me want to stay home. The internet is not much better. Amazon has tracked my buying habits, and so when I visit their web page and get the "Welcome Steve" (and I resent this as I am not their buddy and they do not know me) and a list of recommendations of things that I surely would be interested in buying given what I previously bought, I have to tune out the noise, the feedback of my own choices. Imagine that. Imagine walking in a brick and mortar store and clerks falling over themselves, calling me by my first name, and immediately pushing kiosks with recommended products where I can see them as I walk through, letting me sample this or that item. Ah, they know me. They know my tribe. They know what I need to validate me as a member of the tribe. There's no subtlety here. It's all in my face, all the time.

That's the kind of place in which we live, unfortunately. And yet, a walk outside, away from the billboards, city streets, and hawkers of comsumption is liberating. A walk in the woods reminds me that God's economy is diffrent than ours, that even small things like an ant and a leaf or a branchless, creaking pine matter. These not-so-grand, small, and common places of Creation are the real thing, like visual poetry, full of God's understatement: "I am here. Take note."

(Please Don't Stop Me, I'm) Metaphorming

Door"With similes, our delight comes from the containment of seeing only the images given us by the poet and no others. . . ; [w]ith metaphor, we range farther." (Suzanne Clark, in The Roar On the Other Side)

Scripture is full of metaphors. Jesus says he is the door, the good shepherd, the light, the cornerstone, and so on, enough to confound any literalist on Scripture! In fact, there are more metaphors than similes: the gospel is not fenced in but runs wild, uncontained. We ask how is he the good shepherd, how is he the door, and our minds run free with the associations, bounded only by other portions of Scripture as impressed on our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit.

I am a blade of grass, you a grain of sand among many, and yet we are stars that shine, a little lower than the angels -- friends of God. The same door that opens to the Kingdom of God, the one that bears such a positve image in our minds of a welcoming knock, an invitaton to come in, will one day slam tightly shut and bar the way to those who reject God. But who slams it? The ones who reject God.

Clark says that "[t]he ability to make associations, to think in metaphors and similes, is evidence of God's image in us. We think analogically, instinctively, because that is who we are. We read of God as Father, and associations with earthly fathers spring to mind. We say God is good and must immediately associate the abstraction of that word with, say, a father's love, a selfless person like Mother Teresa or Aunt Flora on your father's side once removed who never, never thinks of herself. Or maybe even the faithful, loving dog who always returns though neglected and mistreated by his master. That word "good" is unfenced, set free, encompassing everything that is the antithesis of bad.

There's another thing she notes about such imaginative language: "Imaginative language --- poetry --- trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen' (Heb. 11:1)." I never thought of it that way. Metaphorming --- the ability to make associations between things --- is essential to a growing faith, a realization of the richness and otherworldly and fulsome character of the Good News.

Suzanne again:

"When Jesus proclaims, 'I am the Bread of life,' he removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread --- nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf, too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. 'Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.' (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent."

Seeing Men As Trees Walking

Pennies"[T]he poet takes bare fact and clothes it with meaning. The poet hears the roar on the other side of silence. The poet sees the world in a grain of sand, men as trees walking, and the ocean as a whale-road." (Suzanne Clark, in The Roar On the Other Side)

After silence, after finding the wherewithal to be still and wait on God, poets and writers must learn to see and hear in a way that most other folks can glimpse only in the briefest of moments. There is a fierce velocity about the world. Drive the speed limit and you begin to realize that you are practically alone in this idiosyncrasy or experiment in puttering. Leaving work at the end of a long day, eager to be home, walk slowly to the car as the herd of commuters rush past. Notice the slant of the light at the end of the day. Consider what kind of tree grows by the bus stop sign. Walk, don't run. Begin to see.

You slow down by looking at things much, much longer, by turning the radio/MP3 player/CD player off and listening, something like this:

Choir Rehearsal

One boy is staring slantwise at the
corner of the roof, mouthing
words he only half knows, another
fumbling with his too-big shirt, pulling it
this way and that, shaking his head nervously.

Pale moon faces watch, mostly, their
voices sing-shout words that resonate, an
elasticity of motion, listening, a smile here and
there, a request "can we take it from where I SHOUT?" a
girl says, directing already, telling the boy to move over. NOW.

Even here, I can hear the boy with the deep brown
eyes, his voice strong, his red sweater neatly lying
over courderoy pants, brown shoes, dressed to the nines
for rehearsal tonight. Angelic moon faces with Jesus
words, soft harmonies, a bubbling spring of song, a

slight glimpse, through a glass dimly, of heaven-song.

That's not great poetry but merely an attempt to see and hear, to stop and slow down, to hear the roar on the other side of silence, like Suzanne says.

Annie Dillard --- now there's a seer. Listen to how she speaks of seeing in her book of seeing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

It is still the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But --- and this is the point --- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

In Annie Dillard's economy, the poor are rich and the full hungry. It sounds like the Kingdom of God.

My daugther is singing in the next room, happily at home with her voice, and me, I am rich. To listen is free. She sings for pure joy and delight. I'll stoop and pick up this copper penny.

The best things are free. You just have to listen. You just have to see. God help me learn to see, to stare hard at life until it gives up meaning.

Amateur Providences

"Over and over again, we try to be amateur providences in someone's life. We are indeed amateurs, coming in and actually preventing God's will and saying, 'This person should not have to experience this difficulty.'"

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, March 24th)

If I could, I would not hesitate
to frustrate heartsickness, your
first broken heart, or maybe
physical suffering. I'm not sure
what he means by "actually
preventling God's will,
as if I really could, but

I would not withhold good, though I
am amateur. His plans may be
higher, and mysterious, but I live
here, where life spirals down at
times, where darkness lives just
down the street, where bad things
happen to everyone.

There are no amateur providences.
Just grace. Just the deliberateness of
a cup of water for a thirsty soul, a
rescue for the lovesick, a panoply of
"secondary causes" in a world of signs
and wonders. Just amateurs who might,
providentially, do something.

Come On, Rain

Rain_2Rivulets of water shimmer
on the roof, make puddles,
with steady, incessant beats.

"Are you alright?" she sings,
a perfect song for a dreary day,
one wrapped in rain's silent noise.

Come on, rain. I have work to do,
as the birds come and go, their
chatter uninterrupted by the wash.

Sing "I'm on a lonely road, and
I'm traveling, traveling, traveling," and
I know what she means. Rain has a

lonesome feel. It makes me travel,
thinking of lying on my bed in high
school, watching the water run down

my windows, waiting for something to
happen, soon. I crack the window,
breathe in deeply, and I smell the

mountains, Spring, rododendrons,
birch and fir trees, a crackling fire.
And all this rain and memory is free,

Like grace.

In Scripture, rain is both a sign of blessing and a sign of God's judgment. For the latter, we need go no further than Noah and the great flood of judgment. For blessing, you could go anywhere. Job says "He says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth,' and to the rain shower, 'Be a mighty downpour'" (Job 37:6).

But there is a definite emotional feeling associated with rain. If you haven't had it, you welcome it. You say things like "he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings the grass from the earth'" (2 Sa. 23:4). If you've had too much of it, or you get too much of it, you think of the "driving rain that leaves no crops" (Pr. 28:3). Sometimes, when you add rain to an otherwise bad day, it just feels worse, as when Ezra calls a sinful nation before him, confronting them with their sin, and we read that "all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain" (Ez. 10:9). I have to think the rain was symbolic on that ocassion of the washing away of the peoples' sin, and yet they did not see it that way.

I have good memories of rain -- like walking through puddles with my then young children, or lying on a bed by an open window enjoying the rest afforded by a cloudy, raining day. I also have bad memories -- of a flooded basement, as a child, or the kind of flooding that wipes out whole communities. Rain truly is memory-laden.

The challenge is to accept the good and hard rain of life in the same way the writer of Lamentations spoke of his great hardship: "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23).

Meanwhile, it sure is wet out there.

Afternoon in the House

CatIt's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.
I know you are with me, plants,
and cats --- and even som I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)

Reading this today I wondered for a moment what Jane Kenyon was afraid of. Her poem paints a picture of contentment -- an afternoon at home --- much as the one I am enjoying today. But then we know, don't we? Things seem too perfect. Anything is possible, and surely something bad must happen to break the harmony of this scene. Most people, myself included, have this knowledge, the sense that when life is good then around the corner inevitably lies some struggle, trial, or evil. For most of us it is a momentary anxiety that passes, a fleeting thought (thank God) of impending . . . well, impending something, and yet we know not what. A preoccupation with anxiety leads to a neurosis where we live in constant fear of the future. Some even become psychotic, losing touch with reality as the insuuferable possibilities press in on them.

I've wondered sometimes what keeps us sane. One thing I think does is a God-sanctified memory, an ability to remember God's faithfulness to us in the past and, thus, believe his promise of faithfulness in the future. Everyone (almost) remembers, but the anxiety-ridden cannot credit those memories of normalcy but fixate on the memories of struggle and hardship. Yet when God says remember in Scripture He is always reminding us of His Ffaithfulness to us.

Another antidote to anxiety is thankfulness, a focus on the good gifts we have. When and if struck by some calamity, I'm sure I don't have it in myself not to despair, and yet I trust and hope the Holy Spirit will turn my focus to the good gifts of God.

I used to dislike that verse from Phillipians 4:6, the one that says "Do not be anxious about anything. . . ." I mean, how do you make yourself not anxious? But then I realized the answer was really in the remainder of the verse, the "with thanksgiving" portion. You can't not worry sometimes, but you can change your focus, audibly thanking God for the inumerable blessings He has provided.

So, here I am too, in the middle of "perfect possibility," well aware that DOOM may come tomorrow, and yet today I'm rehearsing my thankfulness, doing my part to remember, trusting that when calamity strikes I'll know my lines well enough that I will still be thankful.

The Indignities of Old Age

In the Nursing Home

Old_man_carShe is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.

She has stopped running wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed's dry.

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)

It goes without saying that old age brings its indiginities --- life is circumscribed, fenced in, and drawing down. And so I can identify with what Jane Kenyon is feeling, the hope that God will not tarry much longer but come and take his child home.

I have a friend whose father is nearing 100, and yet he is more the horse that considers himself still viral, bucking at the fence, running this way and that (figuratively), with all kind of machinations. Unhappy. Difficult. But really, he just does not know what to do with himself in this small corral where nothing that once seemed good, from food to air and water, tastes of life anymore.

When I watch my own mother, in the early stages of Alzheimers, I see her own narrowing pasture. One who loved to read can no longer concentrate on a book. She cannot drive. She is depressed at some level most of the time. She still enjoys food, so she eats, and I cannot blame her for that when her enjoyments are so limited.

When we reach old age and physically or mentally cannot do much of what we once did, what is God's will for us? How is the remaining time redeemed? Do we stand at the fence and wait for the Master to come? Is that all?

I know that deep inside my mother, or my friend's father, and anyone else of old age is still a person made in God's image, that deep inside the person is still there, only the body will no longer cooperate. These aged persons have a lot of time to think. They can spend it well, in thankfulness, or in regret. Visit your local nursing home and you'll see quite a disparity in how people redeem the time. Some are of sweet spirit, some hateful; it seems that little eccentricities that were always there are accentuated in the aged.

We can ask them to pray. They have a lot of time to pray. We younger folks seem to have none. Our calendars are full; there's, practically empty. If we hadn't so minimized the role of prayer during life, perhaps they would see their task now, when they could easily pray all day for the needs of others, as extremely important and view the time they have as a blessed opportunity.

Can we just ask them to pray? Maybe, just maybe, they will stop their running, forget the smallish corral, and realize they have no boundaries with prayer, that their prayers make it to the throne room of God just like everyone else's. When it comes to prayer. they can drive like anyone else, only they can enjoy the ride more.



Door_2When he left, he didn't bother to leave a note.
He left everything behind, just a few
belongings that were only amusements anyway.

Still, we look for him when we go out, on
corners, by the roadside, in all the usual haunts,
with prayers too, because, after all, God cares

for the sparrow, so why not him? I wonder what
home means to such as him, if a warm bed and
full belly are all that drew him to us, if he is

really so different than any other male.
Last time he left he sojourned for two weeks,
returning battered and weak, dragging his bruised

body home. I don't know why.
Perhaps he is with his other family, enjoying their
affection, as I have heard of that before.

He wasn't always nice, you know. He had a
temper, was unpredictable too. Yet, he will be
missed, the house somehow empty without a


More on Jane Kenyon

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Jane Kenyon

Is she talking of heaven here? I hope so. I've been swimming in a few of Jane Kenyon's melancholy poems, and I needed one on a more hopeful note. This one too is hopeful:


There's just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

Jane Kenyon

I found this quote from Kenyon where she summarizes what being a poet is to her:

"The poet’s job is to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it; to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important and yet so difficult to name. The poet’s job is to find a name for everything; to be a fearless finder of the names of things; to be an advocate for the beauty of language, the subtleties of language. I think it’s very serious stuff, art; it’s not just decoration. The other job the poet has is to console in the face of the inevitable disintegration of loss and death, all of the tough things we have to face as humans. We have the consolation of beauty, of one soul extending to another soul and saying, 'I’ve been there too.'”

There is a summary of an interview by John Timmerman with Kenyon for Mars Hill Journal here.

Kenyon's poetry is rich with images, yet very accessible. I think people struggling with depression or illness would find a empathetic soul in her, as she so often dealt with depression and then, of course, with cancer.

For me, I just love her "luminous particular:" that ability to see what transcendant truth was behind the ordinary.

Lord, When Did We See You?

AloneApple Dropping into Deep Early Snow

A jay settled on a branch, making it sway.
The one shriveled fruit that remained
gave way to the deepening drift below.
I happened to see it the moment it fell.
Dusk is eager and comes early. A car
creeps over the hill. Still in the dark I try
to tell if I am numbered with the damned,
who cry, ouraged, Lord, when did we see you?

(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)

To say that poet jane Kenyon suffered from depression is insufficient to convey the sense of her despair. Her own poems help you to feel what she must have felt, that sense of loss of hope, of spiritual barrenness. This poem uses some images from Winter, from nature, as metaphors for that loss --- the last shriveled apple lost, sunken under the weight of snow, just as last hope suffocated by the weight of sorrow. The eagerness of dusk, the sense that the world is darkening and is almost dark. The wondering if God is there or, if He is, if He has abandoned you.

These are not plesant things to read, and yet they are at times not unlike some portions of the Psalms. At this moment I'm thinking of Psalm 102, where the Psalmist says "[m]y heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. Because of my loud groaning I am reduced to skin and bones. I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof" (Ps. 102: 4-7). Like the Psalmist, Kenyon could look to God's promises, but that did not make the despair go away. She could not simply shake it off. Rather, like the Psalmist, she had to wait for God to come. And He did.

The Luminous Particular: The Poetry of Jane Kenyon

HousewithsnowThis Morning

The barn bears the weight
of the first heavy snow
without complaint.

White breath of cows
rises in the tire-up, a man
wearing a frayed winter jacket
reaches for his milking stool
in the dark.

The cows have gone into the ground,
and the man,
his wife beside him now.

A nuthatch drops
to the ground, feeding
on sunflower seed and bits of bread
I scattered on the snow.

The cats doze near the stove.
They lift their heads
as the plow goes down the road,
making the house
tremble as it passes.

(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)

I love accessible poetry, and the late Jane Kenyon's spare poems, rich in images of the particulars of everyday life and yet simple and direct, typify all that I like about poetry. Yes, all, because Kenyon ultimately connected to the Universal behind all those (as her husband Donald Hall called them) "luminous particulars" of her poetry as she came to faith in God.

Kenyon died in 1995 at the age of 48 of leukemia after many years of writing poems rooted in the particulars of life on and around her New Hampshire farm. She had two great struggles in life: the lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder which gave her over to bouts of depression, and then to cancer, which ultimately took her life. And yet she lived well. She noticed things. Her poems have the effect of drawing the reader in where you ultimately make the poem your own. For example, in "This Morning," I can feel what it must have been like there on that New Hampshire farm, and then I am transported to my childhood room, waking up and "hearing" the snow outside, just knowing that the quiet means it has fallen, listening for the sounds of my parents, for the smell of coffee and eggs, joyful at the prospect of another school cancellation and an impromptu holiday. The images are different, the setting suburbia and not a New England farm, but the poem has worked its magic on me. Kenyon has done her job. She has made me remember and feel something rich.

On of her own favorite poems was the following, called "Let Evening Come."

Let the light of late afternoon shine through the chinks in the barn
moving up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take of chaffing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn.
Let evening come.
Let dew collect in the hoe abandoned in long grass.
Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down.
Let the shed go black inside.
Let evening come.
To the bottle in a ditch,
to the scoop in the oats,
to the air in the lung,
let evening come.
Let it come as it will and don’t be afraid.
God does not leave us comfortless.
So, let evening come.

God does not leave us comfortless. I encourage you to read Jane Kenyon. You'll find the true, the good, and the beautiful among her words.

Inside a Moment

"Inside a moment," Emily Dickinson wrote, "centuries of June." But then Dickinson had a lot of time on her hands, didn't she?

Not many of us have the kind of time that Dickinson had to simply focus on the moment we are in, with the tick tick tick of the clock and the e-mails filling our inboxes and the phone ringing and the to-do list that nags at us daily. How do we stop our movement? How do we slow down?

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes sickness to force us to stop the running. I've had a taste of that before, and I had an encounter with that yesterday, as the quick onslaught of the flu caught me by surprise and put a halt to life as I usually know it. I could not even read. Nausea is very distracting. I could not even rest well, as I hurt no matter which way I turned. I could not even sleep well. I really could do nothing but lie there and think and think and think.

For a moment I thought "I have't been sick like this for years. Am I dying?" I'm serious. (Well, you know how men are.) When your body hurts, when you know the work is stacking up, when all the things you need to get done aren't getting done, it's easy to focus on you you you until you make life miserable for yourself and those around you. I've been there before. Yes, I did some of that.

But then I began to think of what I had in that moment. I looked around my room and began to be thankful for the home I had. I heard my children downstairs talking and was thankful for them. I remembered my parents, my sisters, my childhood friend, an encouraging word, my church family, my pastors, my cat, my books, and Bette Jean Ellis, the very large African-American nurse who nursed and prayed me to health when I was in the hospital once for six weeks with a life-threatening illness and gave me a book of God's Precious Promises with my name mispelled on the front and these words inside: "To Steven, I hope that you will enjoy this little book, to know that God is able to do all things, and that in all things He is in control. God has an even greater work for you. Listen for that small voice. Do his will not your own will. In Christ, Bette Jean Ellis, 10/14/93.

Well, it was just the flu, I know, from which I'm much better today, and I know you've all had it and maybe worse. But I'd have to say it was worth having if for no other reason than I remembered Bette Jean Ellis' words to me.

"Inside a moment, centuries of June." Make the most of the moment. Redeem the time.

Epiphany: The Journey of the Magi

MagiThe Journey of the Magi

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor
     and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack
     of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill
     beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away
     in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves
     over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces
     of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so
     we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding our place; it was (as you may say)

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth
     and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot (published in 1930)

English poet T.S. Eliot became a Christian in 1927 and was baptized in the Anglican church.  I've always liked this poem which, though in many ways like a complaint, demonstrates that for those who encounter  Christ life is never the same.  It is the Death of the old life and old gods and the beginning of a new life -- even if it is one that is not easy at first.  One can surmise that Eliot, like the Magi speaking in the poem, having encountered Christ, has a profound sense of alienation from the world around him.  It's a natural feeling for one who belongs to another Kingdom.

Woman In Line at the Grocery Store

Woman In Line At the Grocery Store

"I have become like a bird alone
on the roof." 
(Ps. 102:7b)

WomanShe said she was fine,
but she was not.
Her mouth was a tight
crease, her eyes painted but
vacant, her carefully combed
hair undercut by one stray
fiber, gray and lying on her

She is not fine.  On the
counter lies a frozen dinner,
bottle of wine, french bread: she
drops them carelessly, and
she waits.

She waits, but she is not fine.
Memories well in her mind as her
hands wrap and unwrap the strap
of her Vuitton purse clutched in
hand, a hand that doesn't know
where to rest, what to do, here
among the ruins, a bird alone.

No, she is not fine, but
blighted and withered like
grass, with no one to carry
her burden, in line like
everyone else but without
hope, with nothing but the finely-
manicured shell of her life. 

She is not fine, but
there is

Another Poem for Advent

Advent, Union Station


He remembered her voice, that of a woman now, saying
come, come before Christmas, before the snow.  Tom
fingered a dog-eared photograph now, a smiling reminder of
her mother, before he returned it to his vest pocket, sighing.

His hand shook.   Where it rested on his blue jeans, he was
aware of its restlessness.  Looking down at his boots, he smiled
inside; he was no cowboy, but he liked to think he had a cowboy's
soul, that he had a soul.   He reckoned he could do this, though

he wondered if she would know his weathered face, what
memories she might have.  He had wandered far from the plains of
Oklahoma.  Looking up, he noticed that the somnolent man across
from him had dropped his newspaper.  The partially visible headline read

"Come home."  He could not see who it bid.


9:02.  Rosa watched the second hand on the big clock in the
station, ticking away the seconds.  The children slept, their legs
and arms splayed over the chairs and bags.  She watched their
eyelids flutter, sometimes, and she envied their dreams.

This time Juan could not come.  He worked, even now.  But
she was glad for the work.  When he kissed her after dinner,
after he dropped her at the station, he said "Felice Navidad,
Rosa," and placed a small box in her hand as he held her.

Opening it now, she  pulled back the tissue paper to see a
cross, silver, with turquoise studs at each end, on a silver chain.
She carefully took it out and clasped it in place around her neck,
holding it in her hand.  Just then, the intercom sputtered, saying

"Train 402, Track 12, Tijuana.  Now boarding."


The clock is ticking.  The trains are leaving.  The people are
waiting.  The music is playing.


She figured she could paint her nails as she waited.  She chose red,
no, blue.  She thought what did it matter.  Who cared.  What in God's
name, pardon her French, was she doing here anyway?  He had said
to meet him here, that he would be here at 7:30, that they would be

alone, finally, together.  He was delayed, that's it.  The traffic on the
405, on Sepulveda had been terrible.  So he must be out there, stuck,
waiting.  Jenny looked around at the pitiful mass of humanity around
her, the whole wretched lot of them.  She should have flown.  But he

insisted on the train, the novelty of the experience, the romance of
an overnight rendezvous, the deserts and plains sweeping past
them, the clickety-clack of the track, wine and cheese in their private
sleeper, watching the sunrise together, finally.  She had said her

goodbyes.  It was over.  He was coming, wasn't he?


In the corner,  an old woman, back bent to hard work, mopped the
floor.  Rhythmically, she swept the mop back and forth, like a dance.
Her hair had grayed over her black skin, and she did not look up often,
though if you listened carefully, you could hear the soft singing.  Like a

living psalter the woman was filled with hymns and carols, little
snatches of them filtering under the hub-bub of the station, the cacophony
of announcements, crying babies, chattering children, and here and
there the snores of too-long-waiters, those who had given up consciousness.

Tom smiled as he walked by her, hearing the familiar but almost forgotten
sound of "Jesus is calling, come home."  Jenny too looked up, hearing "Away
in a Manger," a tear escaping her eye.  Rosa hummed her own harmony,
as the woman sang "Holy, Holy, Holy," clutching her turquoise cross, all


Waiting.  All going home.  All longing for God to come.

Union_station_1[Union Station in Los Angeles is called the last of the great train stations.  Built in 1939, it serves 26,000 people a day on Amtrak and Metroliner.  When I visited there last Summer, I was appreciative of seeing something somewhat old in Los Angeles, a city which thrives on the new.  I read that Union Station's exterior combines Moorish and Spanish architecture, though I would not have known.  Inside, marble floors and arched windows are capped by a ceiling that is over fifty feet from the floor.  It's not the biggest or most beautiful train station, but it does have a uniquely Southern California feel to it.  And it's located across from Olvera Street, the oldest part of the city.  I didn't write this the day I was there, but only today, as I thought about how people spend a great deal of time waiting in terminals around Christmas, and how each one carries a story with major and minor themes, and how we all carry stories, and we all wait for His Advent.]



Unmade.  Unformed.  Superlative mystery which
cannot be unwound.  Yet there is love, ringed by
joy, there is unity in one sound, and we are

          Moving here, outside, unbound.  Then
          there is the child, puncturing time, our
          spirit into flesh, flesh feeling time, an
          earthy reality, a new world found.

Sorrow mixed with joy.  We did in agony, yet,
to be reborn.  Architecture of mercy,
painted promise in blood red, and we are

          Moving here, outside, unbound.  Then
          there is the man, parting time, our body
          knowing passion, passion born of love, an
          earthy reality, now word-bound.

Created, then reformed.  Souls dance as they're
reborn.  Little incarnations, divinely conceived,
flung into history to humanly live, and we are

          Moving here, between two worlds,
          like the child, puncturing time,
          like the man, knowing pain, yet,
          reborn in love in a new world come.

[This poem is dated November 17, 1994.  I don't recall writing it, and it pains me a bit to read it.  There are metaphors that don't work well, or are confusing.  And yet I do like the idea of relating our incarnation to the Incarnation.  What the Council of Chalcedon affirmed in AD 451 is, as J.I. Packer says so well, that "all the qualities and powers that are in us, as well as all the qualities and powers that are in God, were, are, and ever will be really and indistinguishably present in the one person of the man from Galilee."  Packer calls the Incarnation "this mysterious miracle at the heart of historic Christianity."  It is, and the human, who we are, is no less a miracle, that we should be little incarnations, made in the image of God.  Think about that for long and my head hurts.]

The Overshadow: A Poem

The Overshadow

". . . the power of the Most High will
overshadow you. . ." --- Gospel of Luke

When we think of God, and
angels, and the Angel,
we suppose ineffable light.

So there is a surprise in the air
when we see him bring to Mary,
in her lit room, a gift of darkness.

What is happening under that
huge wing of shade?  In that mystery
what in-breaking wildness fills her?

She is astonished and afraid; even in
that secret twilight she bends her head,
hiding her face behind the curtain

of her hair; she knows that
the rest of her life will mirror
this blaze, this sudden midnight.

(Luci Shaw, from WinterSong)

In Praise of Prepositions

[This clever poem reminded me of Will Strunk's and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, a classic guide to proper grammar and syntax.  Strunk had an obvious love for language, something that poets have to have as well.  The poet here has that love -- for prepositions of all things.  Usually I dislike the self-consciousness of writers writing about writing and prefer them merely to write something and not tell me about it.  This poem is a pleasure though, not tiresome like some such poems about words.]

Praise Prepositions

After against among, around. How I admire
prepositions, small as they are,
like safety pins, their lives given to
connecting. They are the paid help,
maids in black uniforms who pass
hors d'oeuvres, and they're
the forbidden joy that leaps between us
when we get to know them. Without
connection what can survive? Because
the lawn waits for sun to wake it from
its winter nap, we say sunlight
lies on the grass. Even the simplest jar
connects—jar under moonlight, on
counter, jar in water. It was prepositions
in the Valley of Dry Bones that stitched
the femur to the heel, heel to the foot bone.
And afterwards, they got up to dance.
Between, beside, within may yet keep
the precarious chins and breasts
from tumbling off Picasso's women.
I would make prepositions the stars of grammar
like the star that traveled the navy sky
the night sweet Jesus lay in his cradle,
pulling those kings toward Bethlehem,
and us behind them, trekking
from the rim of history toward Him.

(Jeanne Murray Walker, from Books and Culture, Nov/Dec 2006)

"Omit needless words!" said Will Strunk.  Indeed.  I've said too much already.  But maybe tomorrow you'll have a better appreciation for prepositions, the great connectors of our shared language.

Yesterday's Pain

Yesterday's Pain

Some of us walk into Advent
     tethered to our unresolved yesterdaysHelp
           the pain still stabbing
           the hurt still throbbing.
It's not that we don't know better;
     it's just that we can't stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way to Bethlehem,
     will you give us a hand?

(Ann Weems, from Kneeling in Bethlehem)

At this time of year, I'm aware that some people must feel as did the Psalmist, when he wrote so achingly, "I am like a desert owl,/ like an owl among the ruins./ I lie awake; I have become/ like a bird alone on a roof" (Ps. 102: 6-7).  Single pigeons.  Blackbirds singing in the dead of night.  Like Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people.  I guess Paul McCartney knew something of what it might be to be lonely, even surrounded as he was by people.

This calls for compassion I don't always have, sensitivity that lies beneath my superficiality, awareness of others in the midst of distraction.  Cheeriness and holiday spirit for such folk are like poison.  You can't fix them.  You can be with them and extend a hand, maybe, while God chips away at their darkness.  That's Advent, for some.

On Juniper Street

On Juniper Street

Decoreindeer posed among the
brown and gray, with
snowmen too, and
twelve plastic candles powered
from an incandescent joy.
Babyjesus too
shining like some toy.  But my,
how they lit the crinkled
shadow-path of Juniper Street,
its crumbling blacktop, its holy
walks -- an other-town in my

"Those colored people sure do
have fine lights," Mama said,
as she locked the door,
"and there's that Lizzie with
eighteen boys."
We took them toys
and then the ironing,
before turning back cross-town
from this other town.

Our home are
monochrome vanilla,
soft, hushed lights, trees just
peeking out, Christmas whispered
in the night.
No gaudy lights singing angels
santa-in-the-chimney sights, just
this subdued tribute,
this lackluster light.
We sip eggnog, play carols,
reminisce this night.  But

On Juniper Street
there must be joy tonight.

They put it on the street.
They shout it from the street.

This poem is based on fact.  As a young child I remember driving cross town, to the other side of the tracks in our largely segregated town, to deliver clothes to an African-American woman, Lizzie, who also kept what seemed to be as many as 15-20 foster children, mostly boys.  I loved seeing the lights.  They used a lot of multi-color lights and had all kinds of lit decorations in the yards of these modest homes.  Their decorations were much better than ours.  They lit my imagination.  They believed in Christmas.

Ten Thanksgivings

Ten Thanksgivings

"Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Ps. 103:2)

One, for breath, that I do not have to think about the next one;
Two, for the sun that rises every morning, for an earth that turns on its axis,
     all without my help;
Three, for a place to call home, my dirt, my trees, my place;
Four, for children that call me Daddy, and love me, in spite of the fact that they had
     no choice about me;
Five, for a wife who keeps on with me and overlooks the worst of me;
Six, for the color blue;
Seven, for health -- limbs that work, eyes that see, and ears that hear;
Eight, for books, every good one a friend and mentor to me;
Nine, for truth, both special and common, God-breathed and God-made; and
Ten, that I am not an orphan but an adopted son of God, a treasure in  a broken land, a sheep in
     His hand, an heir to His estate, and on my way Home.

A Poem for Autumn, I Think

Last Days

Things are
     changing; things are starting to
          spin, snap, fly off into
               the blue sleeve of the long
                    afternoon.  Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
     of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
     into substance and hue.  As everything,
          forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
               I too love oblivion why not it is full
                    of second chances.  Now,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves.  Now!
booms the muscle of the wind.

(Mary Oliver, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1)

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part IV)

Thirst_4After reading here book of poems, entitled Thirst, and reviewing her book, I thought I was done with Mary Oliver.  But I'm not.  I really enjoy these poems and keep returning to them.  This one really shines with God's light in creation, and in us.  The trees "almost" save her, but don't, really, and I know what she means.  Their age and beauty testify to God's goodness.  She is "so distant from the hope of myself," and I feel the humility that walking among great trees, and before a great and holy God, may bring.  And God calls us to shine like stars, to hold out light, as is urged here.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
     but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

Watching and Waiting (and Sleeping)


The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me.  But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on his feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me.  And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
     blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

(Mary Oliver, from Thirst)

When Jesus said "wait with me," I take it he did not mean to simply stay as opposed to leave.  He meant stay awake, be alert, watch, be expectant -- He asked the disciples to have a Godward awareness.  And yet, they slept.

I know how they must have felt.  Close your eyes to pray and it's an invitation to sleep.  That's one reason that what praying I do I often do with eyes wide open and feet in locomotion.  And yet, the phrase portends more, much more.  It must suggest to us that we must stay close by the side of Jesus, eyes fixed on Him, watching for how He is at work in the world, reading the signs of the times, knowing his presence, seeing that "[t]he cricket has such splendid fringe on it feet," praise God, and the wind and stars how they tell of the glory of God with prescient whispers.  Even sleep tells of our humanness, so I need not chide myself too much for falling asleep in my prayers.

Maybe the non-human world can stay awake, can watch and wait, but I can't and you can't.  But that too the poet says is all a part of this Story.

But thank God He's up all night.  It's His watch, always.

With Christ in the School of Creation: A Review of Thirst

Thirst_2In the very first line of the very first poem of Mary Oliver's new collection of poetry, entitled Thirst, she says "My work is loving the world" (Messenger).  In the very last poem of this slim volume, she says "Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart" (Thirst).  These poems bookend a new affirmation of faith for Oliver: For the first time in her life, at the age of 71, she is writing from an apparent Christian framework, loving the world of marshes, ponds, beaches, bears and dogs and the Creator of all these things she has so long loved.

These are poems that celebrate the world of Creation, that praise the Creator, that walk through grief into resolute hope (Oliver lost her long time partner and agent, Molly Malone Cook, in 1995), and that point beyond nature and grief to the Giver of all.  She addresses nature much as one would an old friend, as in "When I Am Among the Trees," where she says

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

There are poems about ribbon snakes, roses, a great moth, otters, Percy (her dog), and that great conversation I mentioned ("And still I believe you will/ come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,/ the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea goose, know/ that really I am speaking to you" (Making the House Ready for the Lord).

And then there is grief.  I loved this one (Percy (Four)), so simple, so true, about doing what need be done as we wait for grief to pass and life to go on, moving faithfully yet mutely through each day:

I went to church.
I walked on the beach
and played with Percy.

I answered the phone
and paid the bills.
I did the laundry.

I spoke her name
a hundred times.

I knelt in the dark
and said some holy words.

I went downstairs,
I watered the flowers,
I fed Percy.

In the end though, after the poems of creation and poems of grief, what stand out are the affirmations of faith.  In "Coming to God: First Days," she says "Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake./ I would climb the highest tree/ to be that much closer."  In "Six Recognitions of the Lord," she celebrates "everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts,/ the hospitality of the Lord and my/ inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body/ through this water-lily world."  And, at last, in "Thirst," she writes "Another morning and I wake with thirst/ for the goodness I do not have.  I walk/ out to the pond and all the way God has/ given us such beautiful lessons."

Mary Oliver thirsts for God.  Some will disagree with her lifestyle (Molly Malone Cook was truly her life partner), but her faith seems real as does her love of the world and her experience of grief.  Those are things that must resonate with us, as we are human too.

Most helpful is the accessibility of these poems.  Many people will be able to read and enjoy them.  The language is simple yet elegant. The "space" in the poems created by their economy is an almost aural testimony to the awe with which she regards the life of the world and, now, the One who made it all.

I highly recommend this book of poetry.  It's like walking through a room of Monet paintings: there's not much not to love.  Use it to stimulate your own love of nature and of nature's God.

[For an easily printable version of this review, click here.]

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part Three)

Thirst_3Reading this poem by Mary Oliver, another from her new book entitled Thirst, I think of Psalm 24:1 and the Psalmist's proclamation that "[t]he earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. . . ."  I'm unsure of the reason for the title; a prior poem was entitled "Musical Notation: 1," and it is, like this one, a reflection on what is made and the Maker.  So perhaps it is the music of Creation?  I don't know.  But I like this simple reflection that everything is His, everything.

Musical Notation: 2

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path
     that leads to the door.
The trees that are dropping their  leaves
     the wind that is tripping them this way and that way,
the clouds that are high above them,
the stars that are sleeping now beyond the clouds

and, simply said, all the rest.

When I open the door I am so sure
     all this will be there, and it is.
I look around.
I fill my arms with firewood.
I turn and enter His house, and close His door.

When you open the door tomorrow on a world outside, you might think of this poem.  You might pause and consider that He made it all, that whatever you touch is His, that your very life is His.  You might then say, with the Psalmist, "what is man that you are mindful of Him, the son of man that you care for him? (Ps. 8:4)

And you may never look at doors or door jambs with indifference, but, rather, with the Architect's heart.

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part Two)

Thirst_1 I said earlier that I was reading and savoring one Mary Oliver poem a day, from her new book, Thirst, but I spoke to soon.  I have so enjoyed them that I am halfway through the book.  They seem to fall into two categories -- poems about grieving and poems of reflections on nature -- but, whatever the category, they are full of faith.  The language is simple, and yet not simplistic.  They have depth, and yet they are very accessible.  If you've ever asked yourself, is He really there?, and then wondered, only to have Him show up some time later, you may like this one.

The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist

Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine.

They have been blessed.
What now?
The body leans forward

to receive the gift
from the priest's hand,
then the chalice.

They are something else now
from what they were
before this began.

I want
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds

or on the shore,
just walking,
beautiful man

and clearly
someone else

On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.

Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.

What did Mary Oliver grieve?  It was the death of her friend, agent, and companion Molly Malone Cook.  Mary Oliver was a lesbian.  I'm sad to know this, sad because this lifestyle falls so short of God's design for relationships, and now, even that is gone for her.  And yet my disagreement with that lifestyle does not take away the empathy one can feel.  Her love was real, as far as it went.  So too, her grief.  And the faith she has -- and her desire to see Jesus -- may well carry her beyond such marred relationships to the One who loves her as no one else can.

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part One)

ThirstOne of the books I am very slowly reading and savoring is poet Mary Oliver's Thirst, published this month.  I don't like a lot of poetry, but there isn't much here (maybe none) that I do not like thus far!  Oliver is a Pulitzer prize winning poet who often writes poetry based on her reflections on nature, which she does here as well, but who increasingly has begun to write of Christian faith.  That's not necessarily to make Oliver an evangelical Christian (I note the book is published by Beacon Press, which is under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a non-Christian religious group), but one must evaluate any art on its own basis and not on the basis of the artist's philosophical or religious persuasion, at least in the first instance.

So, I'll be offering a few of Oliver's poems from time to time in the next few weeks, and a full review of her book a little later on.  I like this particular poem for the love of creation it reflects, its accessibility, and it's final lines inviting the Creator to "come in, come in:"

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
     still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an
     uproar of mice --- it is the season of their
many children.  What shall I do?  And under the eaves
     and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances --- but it is the season
     when they need shelter, so what shall I do?  And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
     while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do?  Beautiful is the new snow falling
     in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door.  And I still believe you will
     come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea goose, know
     that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

I suppose there is more than one way to understand the poem, but for me the whole house and animal theme is a metaphor for a life that is not shining, that is broken, and yet one that is open to people and animals and, ultimately, to the Lord -- one that says everyday, "come in, come in."

Poems That Endure; People That Endure

"There has to be some overwhelming experience of love, or of something, that the poem chronicles or records. It cannot be the subject of that love. If it's only that, if it's only language, then the poem is not going to survive. Poems that survive are the ones that come out of human beings who've had some expeience that needs to be testified to or recorded or given body. They are not just pleasing in themselves. We need to be able to master and explore and mine the nature of language itself, but it's the degree to which the poem is more than that which gives you real art. Some previous, wordless experience is being given a verbal equivalent. This is what I am looking for: poetry that lets the wordless original experience shine through the words."

(Franz Wright, in "A Conversation With Franz Wright, Image, #51)

Reading this interview with the poet Franz Wright will make you thankful, not envious of a "gift"for language which has caused him as much pain as it has caused him bliss.  Winner of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, Wright spent years as an alcoholic, a manic depressive, and in all manners of self-abusive behavior -- before becoming a Christian and being baptized in the Catholic Church.  Thank God.  He is, by his own admission, still a rough character, but he has been changed by Love.  If I had met him on the street several years ago, he would have looked like a scary, deranged homeless person.  (He said that, not me!)  I would not have known he was a brother in Christ on his way to realizing this for himself.  I suspect I would have been on my way as quickly as I could.

I thought of this today, in near isolation, in 18 degree bitter cold on the top of Roan Mountain, near the Tennesse-North Carolina line, when two men asked for a ride down the mountain with my family.  Two strangers. I let them in.  The older one said "Up here we're backpackers; in the city we're homeless people."  That was a curious thing to say.  We remembered the admonition that we are not to "forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb.13:3).

They could have been angels, they could have been like Franz Wright, or they could have been just plain backpackers. But one thing is for sure: I don't know how to heed that Scripture without some risk.

The priest who helped Franz Wright said he was scared of the guy at first.  I'll bet he was.  I was a little scared too - now that I think about it.

The Theology of Delight

Flowers_2Scott Cairns, whose poem "Yellow" I reprinted yesterday, is a poet worth reading.  This book I pulled off my shelf, now out of print, called Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry By People of Faith, which a collection of work by several  Christian poets, is odd.  I cannot say I like most of it, but some I find provocative, some challenging, and some just plain delightful.  This poem falls in that latter category.  I enjoy the title, which provokes me to thoughtfulness, as much as its content.

What after all is the "theology of delight?"  And what could a short poem say about it?  Don't you need an essay or, perhaps, a more substantial work of doctrine to plumb the depths of that phrase? Maybe.  But maybe a poem, or a painting, or a piece of music better gets at what it means to experience delight.  I like the quietness of this poem's delight -- a simple mediation on what is made by God, the delight He must have known in making a world in His image.  His delight is surely in making things and seeing them unfold, a sheep alone in a field as much as the sheep in a field that "leapt for no apparent reason." That's the key phrase, isn't it?  Delight is that sense you have when you heart leaps. . . for no apparent reason.  But, you better read the poem:

The Theology of Delight

Flowers2_1 Imagine a world, this ridiculous
tentative thing blooming
in your hand.  There in your hand, a world
opening up, stretching, after the image
of your hand.  Imagine
a field of sheep grazing, or a single sheep
grazing and wandering in the delight
of grass, of flowers
lifting themselves, after their fashion,
to be flowers.  Or a woman, lifting her hand
to touch her brow, and the intricacy
of the motion that frees her
to set the flat part of her hand
carelessly to her brow.  Once,
while walking, I came across a woman
whose walking had brought her
to a shaded spot near a field.
Enjoying that cool place together,
we sat watching sheep and the wind
moving the small flowers in the field.
As we rose to set out again, our movement
startled the flock into running; they ran
only a little way before settling again
into their blank consideration
of the grass.  But one of them continued,
its prancing taking it far into the field
where, free of the other, it leapt for
no clear reason, and set out walking
through a gathering of flowers, parting
that grip of flowers with its face.

A field, sheep, a woman with a hand to her brow, a cool breeze -- all these are good and yet point beyond themselves  to something more richer, deeper, and more delightful that lie beyond -- not an abstraction, not some impersonal force, but a loving God who has created everything out of love for us, for our delight.  As Alister McGrath says. "[T]he supreme aim of the study of nature is 'to perceive the eternal word of God reflected in every plant and insect, every bird and animal, and every man and woman.'" (Alister McGrath, Creation, citing Ninian of Whithorn).  Look around.  It's delightful what you see.

Ropes Let Down to the Lost

"Athletes take care of their bodies.  Writers must similarly take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems.  There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies -- in holiness and mirth.  It is in honest hands-on labor also; I don't mean to indicate a preference for the scholarly life.  And it is in the green world -- among people, and animals, and trees for that matter, if one genuinely cares about trees.  A mind that is alive and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.  Poetry is a life-cherishing force.  And it requires a vision -- a faith,  to use an old-fashioned term.  Yes, indeed.  For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  Yes, indeed."

Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994, p. 122)

I am, I regret, a sporadic writer of poetry.  I feel the need for inspiration, and this statement is inspiring, the image of poems being "fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost."  Do I really believe that?  Sometimes I do.  But I doubt that many people would have that opinion of poems.  Poems don't do anything, they might say.  They don't persuade, convey information, or tell a good and entertaining story.  In addition, they befuddle most folks who aren't in the habit of reading poems, as their meaning is not always apparent.  In truth, they have a point.  Many poems have no staying power, no sound or image that resonates with us.  A poet has their work cut out for them.

Here's a little poem that has no great big point to make, takes no cause, and does not attempt to persuade.  What it so subtly does, and does well, is simply observe a person with a empathetic eye, and in so doing, it helps us be more human.

Dress_1 Yellow

The town is much larger than you recall,
but you can still recognize the poor:
they vote to lose every chance they get, their faces
carry the tattoo of past embarrassments,

they are altogether too careful.  This girl,
here in the print dress, pretending to shop
for an extravagance, the too slow way
her hand lingers between the colors along

the rack, her tentative hold on the clasp --
sure signs she knows she has no business here.
Soon enough she'll go home again with nothing
especially new in her hand, but no one

needs to rush things.  The afternoon itself
is unhurried, and the lighted air outside
the store has lilacs in it.  Her hand finds
a yellow dress.  I think she should try it on.

Scott Cairns, in Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry By People of Faith)

Now that, as Oliver says, is "fire for the cold," cold human hearts that is.  Reading that, I'm a little less cold.  Yes, she should try on the yellow dress.