Poetry

Life in Snapshots

Life Behind the Tapestry
    
while watching a "random" slideshow 

There, on the screen, is
life, providentially arranged: my daughter on high
ropes, a misplaced duck, a cowgirl with horse.

Put Christmas next to a fire-branded bookcase,
bucolic view of meadow and mountain, a
framed up house with a surprised look. Thankfulness that

That is a Caribbean Island, year twenty-five,
green and blue and pink, juxtaposed with
glaciers, so far removed and yet one.  Still here.

Now that was fun.  Clowning around.  Being goofs.
Rock-bathing, crevice-curled, sunlight playing
on her face.  From childhood, my wife remembers that

Waterfall: Yonahlassee, all that's left of summer camp
memories turned to condos now.  We stayed there.  Walking
through the remains, I tried to know her, then, at 12.

Don't forget the golden wheat swaying on a Teton stage.
Or horses, gnarly pine, boat set to sail.  Blue, and bluer, in
Costa Rica.  The Colorado, canyons, just beyond my deck,

My daughter packing up to go.  Leaving.
And where will she go? And when?

Yes, life behind the tapestry, and
yet still beautiful, mysterious, and gold. 

[Sometimes, my wife and I are mesmerized by the hypnotic images playing across the computer screen, images of our life over at least 15 years.  You never know what will pop up or creep in on the ever shifting palette of this screensaver, scenes of life lived out over the years, facially random, and yet, I suspect not.  Writing them down, quickly, their juxtaposition triggers associations, connections, a peak around the corner of the tapestry, a glimmer of the gold of Providence.]


No Regrets

LuciIn Reverse

Turn it all backwards.  Turn time.
Unravel the half-knit sweater in
the knitting bag.  Remove the spilled
wine from the rug, return the color of dark cream
to its fibers and take them back and back
to the sheep's back before shearing.

I want my life over.  To do it
the way that would give me who I wan to be
now.  To have again chances I didn't take,
and take them.

Make me innocent.  Sluice me of
infractions.  Give me soft
pink skin and a soul so fresh that
I may love my mother again.

(Luci Shaw, in What the Light Was Like)

Knitting I know nothing of.  But I do recall the sensation of grasping a hanging thread on a shirt and pulling, watching the fabric unwind and go back to its uncreated self, mere threads without design.  No, my mother caught me then, and stopped me, before I could ruin my shirt.  Oh well.

"Turn time."  To have "my life over."  "To have again chances I didn't take, and then take them."  It's a poem about regrets, lost opportunities, wished for would-have-beens.  The poet looks at her life and says "what if. . . ?"

In this infinitesimally small speck of eternity called "life," there are thousands of decision points, roads taken, and even more roads not taken.  Scientists theorize (without a shred of proof) that each road not taken is in fact taken in a different dimension, that, for example, somewhere out there I did take that job with the small private firm, or become a journalist, or move to Arizona, or. . . countless other what ifs.  I don't know about all that.

But by God's grace I don't spend much time on the what ifs.  For Christians every road taken is one taken in faith.  It's really not where we're walking but Who we're walking with.  Looking back, I could have done differently, could have make other decisions, but ultimately, all the roads will get me to the same place:  Home.  I'm enjoying the scenery, lamenting the waste, and watching to see a golden Home come -- maybe just over the next rise.  I'm out walking, I'll keep walking, and I'm waiting.


Tolerance: Luci Shaw

Light_1 Tolerance

We think the virtue of tolerance
common enough to have become
an absolute, a necessity on our daily
shopping list.  Sunday School Love
has become Accept.  The maxim
Always Be Nice instructs us to ignore
iniquity.  Eyes averted, we practice
the invisibility of the offense.

Like the cross, love may be weakened
through wear and age and such ubiquity
we hardly see it now for what it is,
hung high on the wall, or jeweled
around the rock star's neck.  Yet
precious as porcelain, love is bone strong.
Even chipped, it is still beautiful.
it glows through tolerance; like light
it cannot hide.  Remember,
love is made for something dire.

(Luci Shaw, from What the Light Was Like, 2006)

To read poetry, you have to slow down --- love the words, the interstitial silences, and the sounds of the poem.   It requires a degree of pondering, or meditation, if you will.  It's good preparation for meditating on Scripture.  Be still.  Slow down.  Wait on God to reveal meaning.  It sometimes takes time for words to give up meaning.

Luci Shaw is Writer-in-Residence at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  For at least two decades she's been writing poetry as well as essays.  When I once had her lead an arts conference, she was a great encouragement; people who had never or seldom written poems wrote one that day.  Many of her poems are rooted in meditations on creation, a great source of inspiration.  Some are religious, many not so religious, but all are infused with a sense of the transcendent.

In this new book, What the Light Was Like, her poems "paint a picture and show the effects of light on the subject," much like photos or paintings make use of light.  Some may be a shade dark, but the Light here always shines through.  I find one poem a day is adequate.  More, and I read too quickly and miss things.  That's how life is -- move through it too quickly and you miss things.


i thank You God for most this amazing

Cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

E.E. Cummings

If you have no use for poetry, stop here, because of all poets you surely have no use for E.E. Cummings (also know as e.e. cummings).  Cummings defied all the laws of poetry, utilizing irregular punctuation, little to no capitalization, nonsensical syntax, and other breakage of form, and yet his poems do carry rich meaning and are simply fun to read.

Take the above poem, for example.  Just try it.  Read it aloud.  The pleasure is much like you receive from reading a nursery rhyme.  (In fact, if you like this one, read "anyone lived in a pretty how town," as it's even more fun to read.)  You might think I'm easily pleased, but really, if you don't enjoy the sound of nursery rhymes, you've lost something rich and good.  Find some young children and read some to them, why don't you?  Or Dr. Suess as well.

But Cummings was on another level, altogether.  He may not have been a Christian, though certainly in later years he was said to embrace a "conservative Christian anarchy" (whatever that is).  He was reared Unitarian, but came to believe in Christ as his mediator and in the resurrection of the body, so, maybe he was close, and maybe he came to faith in the God of Christianity, and maybe close is not good enough.  God knows.  Someone described him as beginning life as a scoffer (he had a sarcastic tongue and pen) but becoming more and more a Christian.

This poem immediately brings to mind Psalm 8 ("When I consider your heavens. . . what is man that thou art mindful of him?) in the contrast between Creator and created in the third stanza, as well as of Psalm 19, in its animation of Creation.  But enough.  It's too boring to analyze poetry.  You need to read it, aloud.  So, to read more e.e. cummings poetry, try this site.

And have fun. Remember, they're just nursery rhymes with bigger ideas.

[The charcoal is a self-portrait by the poet, who was also a painter.]


Sleep With Angels (A Poem)

Sleep With Angels

Angel_2In 1962
they drank hard black coffee
around a table bathed in warm light,
whispering in their worry,
grieving for what lies ahead, as

I lay there gawking at the
naked angels over my head, their
exaggerated shapes and halos
enticing and frightening me.  I was

remembering the motorcade on TV,
a procession of grief as they
carried the dead, consciences
seared by the fallen kennedy.

With fists clenched my heart burst
with questions I could not form, as
they hover over my slumber, softly
blessing as they turn for bed.

Sleep fled that twilight night, as
I beat back the darkness
with fists full of light,
under care of angels, until first
Daylight.

Well, now, the date on that poem is October 31, 1994.  Looking at it now, it seems a bit dramatic, and I wonder how to recast it with more subtlety, more complexity.

It's a composite really of nights spent in my bed as a child, listening to my parents drink coffee and talk about the day and what was going on in the world, and nights spent at my aunt's house, in a  quite different room, one that had a large painting on the wall with what seemed to me to be half-naked angels, looking very eerie about midnight.

I couldn't always hear what my parents said, but I heard more than I should have.  And even when I didn't know what they said or even understand, I understood the tone of what they said.  I knew concern.  When Kennedy was shot, when their were race riots and curfews, they were all concerned, the adults that is, and I rose and fell based on the sound of their voices -- not what they said but how they said it.

Maybe that's why I like poetry.  I've always been listening to the sound of words.


What Music and Poetry Mean

"I don't know how to analyze [music] scientifically.  I can certainly construct chords and do mathematics in music, but that seems pretty far from the essence of it.  Or poetry. . . . These are realms that, at least for the moment, are outside the realm of science.  And yet, I don't want to say that they are unreal."  (James Crow, quoted in Is Belief In God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?, ed. Preston Jones)

The naturalist assumes, as a matter of faith really, that what is empirically observable is all the reality that exists.  Thus, when moved by music or poetry, he is unable to say why a certain combination of sounds and/or words is able to evoke great emotion.  As Crow intimates, we can take apart the song's structure or analyze the meter or imagery of a poem, but none of that really gets to the essence of it.  There is something no less real that is just beyond our grasp, ineffable.

SimonTake this moment, for example.  I'm listening to Eva Cassidy singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Kathy's Song, "I hear the drizzle of the rain/ like a memory it falls/ soft and warm, continuing/ tapping on my roof and wall," a song which oozes melancholy and remembrance.  I can see and feel the cover of the duo's Bridge Over Trouble Water album (the vinyl record, that is), two guys wrapped tight against the cold, looking very, very young.  I can hear the rain and imagine lying on my bed in my room as a teenager, just listening and letting myself feel the music, strangely comforted by the blue tone, the sense that someone else felt as I did at times. "And as I watch the drops of rain/ weave their weary paths and down/ I know that I am like the rain/ there before the grace of you go I," and hearing that I suspect the song played as a sort of benediction to some forgotten breakup with a girl.  Maybe.  It also bears a deep sadness because I know that the beautiful voice singing it was cut short by cancer; Eva Cassidy died in her early thirties.  So, it's a song full of death and sadness, something Paul Simon was so adept at writing about.

Well, I can parse the words, consider the minor chords, the structure of the song, suggest that certain combinations of tones evoke biological reactions in me, or memories, but even if we can do all that, none of that will really help us understand the effect of a song, or of words.  Silly, presumptuous naturalists.  They cling to what they they see, but there is more to life and reality than meets the eye.  They can describe what's "tapping on the roof and wall," but they are clueless as to why it makes them feel as it does.

Eva's singing it now, "If you're lost and you look/ you will find me/ time after time."  They just need to open their eyes a bit wider to see a bigger reality.


The Great Imagination

" It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, 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."  (C.S. Lewis, in Reflections on the Psalms)


Denise Levertov's Poems of Faith

Levertov You do not have to agree with all that Denise Levertov was passionate about to appreciate her poetry, and for Christians that's particularly the case with her "religious" poems.  Religious is in quotes because these poems, as collected in her book, The Stream & the Sapphire, chronicle a passage from agnosticism to Christian belief.  In so doing, they reflect honest searching, some resolution, and yet even more questions.

I love the affirmation of faith and yet the humility in both the followinSapphireg poems:

In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

Birds afloat in air's current,
sacred breath?  No, not breath of God,
it seems, but God
the air enveloping the whole
globe of being.
It's we who breathe, in, out, in, in the sacred,
leaves astir, our wings
rising, ruffled -- but only the saints
take flight.  We cower
in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
on branches close to the nest.  The wind
marks the passage of holy ones riding
that ocean of air.  Slowly their wake
reaches us, rocks us.
But storms or still,
numb or poised in attention,
we inhale, exhale, inhale,
encompassed, encompassed.

Flickering Mind

Lord, not you
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away -- and back,
circling.
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
darts
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river's purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
anywhere,
everywhere it can turn.  Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow.
You the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain's heart
the sapphire I know is there?

Born in England, and home-schooled in a very literate household, Levertov began to write poems at the age of five.  She published her first work at the age of 16.  She married and emigrated to the United States after WWII, where she became a citizen eventually.  She taught, published poetry, and, at some point, came to faith.

I like what she says about writing: "When you're really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer."  She talks about prayer being very much about paying attention -- something that requires some discipline and focus.

Levertov died in 1997 -- thank God, in faith.


Give Us This Day (A Poem)

Give Us This Day

Sign says slow: death in family.
No noticeable effect.
These four-wheeled worlds pass,
     eyes fixed ahead, yet
Eternity was there ---
     Death.  It said death.

Ambulance screams: parts this flow.
I shut it out.
I press ahead, yet I can't
     avoid the sound.
Eternity was there ---
     Someone was dying.  Someone dead.

In that moment: image flash.
A fiery crash.
Searing heat unwraps
     my soul.
Eternity was there ---
     Me dying.  Me dead.

Still my breath: white-knuckled
Hands on wheel, here on the
     thread-way of doubt and belief.
I live the moment, my
     liturgy to play:
"Father in heaven,
     In our dying, give us this Day."

[This poem was prompted by seeing a sign saying "Slow.  Death in family." that I saw as I drove down a highway in a rural area of the state one morning.  That was many years ago when, perhaps, there was more respect for those who had suffered loss.  People did in fact down out of respect, much like folks would pull over to the side of a road when a funeral procession went by.  I haven't seen either happen for quite some time.  I still remember being in such a funeral procession for my father-in law and passing by a man selling newspapers in the median.  He had his hat off and his head bowed as we passed.  I won't forget that image from a decade ago.  It seems we are a culture that desperately wants to forget death.]


Blow: A Poem

Blow

Blow, Charlie Parker, blow.
Blow out Keroauc & Ginsburg,
Huncke, Burroughs, Holmes & Casady.
Give voice with every existential exhale.
Blow.

Blow as deep as you want to blow
you said.
Write swiftly, excitedly, in
accordance with your heart, with the beat.

At the South Harlem Red Drum, in a
bendrine daze, Charlei Parker's
bop bop bop is swimming in our minds.
For a moment you cohere, whispering
conspiratorily to the crazy casadys:
"Believe in the holy contour of life, man.
You dig?"
Truth is caught in the world-widening horn,
tonight.

          Stop the music, Charlie Parker.
Unblow the horn.
Summon back the Keroaucs, Gonsburgs,
Burroughs of this world.
Suck the dying right back out of them,
the going for the sake of going.

And if I meet him
in our dust,
our poverty,
our beat-ness shared,
I will tell him:

"Wake up and see the shepherds, Jack,
wake up and see the golden world
that Jesus came from, with your own
eyes, with your own heart, you can tell."

Slapping Moctezuma mud on that
dharma bum's eyes I would spit on my
hands and rub it in, harder now,
whispering as loud as I can:

Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Port_kerouac_1 [A few years back I read a book on the beat generation, the poets like Ginsburg and writers like Jack Kerouac, all who traversed Greenwich Village in the late Fifties and early Sixties.  There's much not to admire about them, but I did find their community and sense of freedom admirable, in a way.  I can't commend them, but this poem does arise out of the particulars of their lives, particulars I had a sense for, for a while at least.]


Color Me (A Poem)

Color MeClip_image002_28

          He's painting
my house, eyes
tracing every wall
every corner
every crevice,
seeing what was/ is/ will be.
Fill in the holes.
Cover the ugly.
Dab putty on the creases.
Scrape & smooth it
flat and seamless.

          He's painting
that measure-mark that charted growth,
that crayon-mark of (mis) placed art,
each chair-met wall a conversation kept, every
spot
blemish
hole ---
all gone.

          He wields
his wand & colors leap &
snake across these walls
bright &
new &
two-coat deep,
just so deep.

Now.
Can you color me?
Can you give this gray man hue?


At 14 (A Poem)

At 14

my back yard was expanding, like the
universe unfolding, and I was ready to fly
but afraid to fall.  Transport yet a dream, I went

where my feet would take me, and for a while
the earth still turned slowly and the sun might
even stand motionless, quiescent, like the time I

kissed Linda Erzoni on the stoop of my back
porch while the world, all monotone and gray,
fell away and stars lapped the edges of our

nocturnal nova.  She was  Haley hurling through
my space, a cosmic wonder, an uncharted realm,
mercury rising and me hoping all the while that this

sweet intercourse would never end.  So great were the
mysteries of love and loss that that when Mary Mergoles
shut her heart's door for John we could only walk an

hour in the dark and, for the first time, drink beer,
speechless, his life over.  It wasn't.  But he never spoke her
name again, vowing he would not be burned again.  Yet he was.

Behind our facade of certainty, we were stumbling in the dark,
touching a sacred timeless thing, unable to resist the
gravity of desire.  Yet, tortured though I was

something hollow murmured deep inside for
greater things, for lasting love, for communion full
and deep and wide, a eucharist so elusive

at 14.

[It's very strange to think of this poem now.  When it was written 14 years ago, I had no son.  Now I have a 14-year old son, and I am reminded that this age is a confusing one, even difficult.  And yet, many of our experiences are so different.  To really put myself back in that age, I need only put on Joni Mitchell's "Blue" record; dripping with melancholy, it's gauranteed to bring you right down!]


On the Midway (A Poem)

Midway

Yesterday Johnny caught DebbieDscf0037_edited_3
     moving with the fire-eater,
Down by the Tilt-A-Whirl
(Some incendiary show no doubt)
Just the nature of the beast (or love)
     on this tight rope where we're found.

          Love it, hate it
          This midway town,
          Here between Kingdom Come
               and Kingdom Bound.

Well, at night when I feel the ground quake,
     from the din of love next door
I think of Rosalita, then my boys
Watch the clock measure out my time
     wondering where I'm bound.

Past midnight I get up and walk these aisles
So strangely silent, no glitter now
I watch the moon, I know it shines
On Havana, on my home, while I'm sojourning
     here in this pretend town.

          Love it, hate it,
          This midway town,
          Here between Kingdom Come
               and Kingdom Bound.

I slung a cross 'round the Rio Grande
People watching, children laughing,
As this train goes round and round.
My way of saying, that even though I

          Love it, hate it,
          This midway town,
          I'm at peace
          Here between Kingdom Come
               and Kingdom Bound.

          Yes, I'm at peace here --
               Kingdom's Come.

Steve West

[Midways, fairs, and circuses are rich with the stuff that makes stories and poetry, what with all the lights, the cross-section of people, and the smells.  Consider Richard and Linda Thompson's song, "Wall of Death;" even the names evoke a response and suggest metaphor.  I wrote this after watching my daughter and son ride a children's train, operated by a Hispanic man whose face said a great deal.  The train was called the Rio Grande, and a large cross was hanging around its smokestack.]


Another Time (A Poem)

Creek Another Time

Cows came to lap at water here,
     by the bank,
where oak and maple would shade
     them, and where even
I might have found rest.

The sounds of traffic then would
     have been the cacophony of
birdsongs -- finch, bluebirds, robins,
     towhee, and the ubiquitous crow,

Taking a sabbath-rest from his
     plundering of the man's corn,
the man who sowed and waited and
     reaped here, by the creek,
down early from his house on the hill.

Today I pass a landscape long-shaped
     by people who no longer remember
what was here -- the green valley, 
     lapping water, caressing breeze
and the man, long gone, but today I saw it in

My mind's eye, like it was yesterday.

Steve West

[I wrote this after a bicycle ride along the greenway by Crabtree Valley, along Crabtree Creek.  I am old enough to remember when Crabtree Valley Mall was a cow pasture, when the Beltline (I-440) was not here, and Glenwood Avenue was a two-lane non-commercial strip, and when Kidd Brewer still lived in his house on the hill.]


By the Gulfshore: A Poem

Rope_2 By the Gulfshore

On the boulevard, by the Gulfshore
we're moving, time-separate from
these sun-seekers.  Like a slow movie

Our lives relive familiar fears,
paper giants germinating in these
weary souls, these somewhat hollow souls.  As we

Wait for dawn, Time screams.
We hold on, chain-bound to earth,
fraying rope flung 'round bright Star -- and we're

Climbing.

The date on the paper I copied this poem from says October 2, 1994, and while that's about right, I believe it was a little bit sooner.  Reading it now, having the benefit of some perspective on the difficult circumstances it was borne in, I flinch to read it, as I am not at all sure that I like what it says to me -- the tenuous nature of faith, and yet the stepping out in faith, the willingness to risk it all.  It was a scary time, then.

In retrospect, I can see that the rope is not really fraying because it's made out of something Other.  And we're not climbing but being pulled up, saved from drowning in our circumstances.  And faith?  It's given, not summoned up from within, and if it looks tenuous to us it's only because we can't always see Who is on the other end.  Faith is the substance of things not seen.


Embodied He Rose

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Rembrandtdescentfromthecross_1Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
   reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
   eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that - pierced - died, withered, paused, and then
   regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
   faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not paper-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
   grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
   opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
   embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

        - John Updike, from Telephone Poles and Other Poems, reprinted in
          Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter

It is significant to have a poet, one schooled in metaphor and analogy, to remind me of the shocking materiality and literality of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Real wounds, real death, and real and bodily Resurrection.

The tendency of the theologically liberal to spiritualize the events of Holy Week is an old complaint.  But even believers in the historicity of this event have a tendency to lessen the horror of it by treating it too lightly or passing over the suffering and death to the bright sunniness of Resurrection.  Easter comes too cheap that way.

Updike says it well: Make no mistake.  If He rose at all, He rose in the body.  If not, "the Church will fall."

(Painting is by Rembrant, "The Deposition, or Descent From the Cross")


Good Friday Poems

Cross

Cross_1_1On my chest this Friday afternoon,
the elegant small signature
of violent death
swings as I walk, gold tapping my
deep heart, telling me I was there.
(I did not mean to do it; I did
not know.) 
I slump under the weight
of it; my pulse
echoes the beat of hammers

- Luci Shaw, from Writing the River

On the Way In From the Country

My wife urged me not to go, for
there were troubles, she said, and
it could wait. I went

anyway, carrying my goods,
hoping to make short of this
Cross_2_1 trip, to return soon before

Sabbath.  Coming near, I heard
shouts, angry voices, jeers and
at a distance, women crying,

a man, beaten, bleeding, falling
under the weight of a huge
cross, a criminal I thought.  I

skirted the crowd, averting my
eyes from the shame of the man
but the throng pushed me nearer,

where men, seeing I was from the
country, threw my goods on the
ground, threatening me.

I carried the cross for that man,
but He carried more.

- Steve West


Poem-Walking

Poemwalk What Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge says in Poemcrazy, her excellent book of poem-prompting, is what I would say: "For me, poetry is related to walking.  Words and images fill me when I wander somewhere alone."  Like she says, "poems hang out where life is," and that's mostly in motion.  There's something new around every corner, over every hill.  Even on familiar walks, there's something new if I look hard enough.

A few years ago I was at a legal conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a new place for me, the downtown.  It was lunch time so I set off walking, a poem walk that is, my first poem walk.  I just wrote down what I saw -- words and images -- and then, sitting in a cafe, I saw it take some shape.  Like this. . .

Poem-Walk

Listen to me, Solomon Juneau.

I am on a mission from God.
I am an extra-terrestrial,
     a wide-eyed wanderer
     on this
     terrestrial ball.

See me there?  Here comes a
santaclaus man looking worn and
frail, an overdressed rabble of a
man, bearded, half-blind, under-
nourished, with a sack of treasure
     on his back.

Yes, I just touched down, Solomon Juneau,
on this blue end of Milwaukee, only
     visiting this planet.  Call it

Terra firma.  Earth.
I'm walking on the solid
flesh and dirt of life.

Lapham.  Becher.  Waukesha.
I dodge the word puddles, the
splash of image, tripping over
profundities and wonders.

Can you hear it, Solomon Juneau?
Can you hear the music of the poet thinking?

Van Buren.  Marquette.  Grand Avenue.

A black man peers from
behind a dirty screen.
     (Hear the silence speaking?)

A woman sunbathes, workers
lounge, winos loll.
     (Can you feel the wonder?)

In the Cafe Leon a
woman sips, motion, shrugs,
dismisses, her upturned laugh
     rippling through the air.

The air is pompous-smelling,
magenta in all its hipness, the
people poised and chic.  And I,

I am the meek and minding.
I eat, listen, spy.
In the cafe, on the street,
I gather the pearls of conversation,
mused by my wealth.

I am king for a moment,
resplendent in my humanness,
carrying my sackful of words,
     my rattles and my rhymes.

I might be accused of metaphoric dementia ---
diagnosis: too human, naked, unashamed;
prognosis: animal skins and fig leaves.

Are you watching Solomon Juneau?
See me spill my words?
Watch me unwrap these packages.
I'll fashion up some truth.

I am an extra-terrestrial ---
     word-full
     whacked-out and
     wondered.  A
     meteoric, metaphoric poet.

Yet, really, Solomon Juneau,
I'm just human
     (and I need to get back to work.)

(By the way, Solomon Juneau is, I believe, one of the city fathers.  He was on a big statute by the edge of Lake Michigan.  Then again,  it's been so long, I may have it all wrong.)

Try a poem-walk sometime.  You might just notice something for the first time.  Write it down.  Poems are word-music; they have to move.  You move, and they will come.


Passion (A Poem in Memory of Beryl Markham)

Passion
(in Memory of Beryl Markham)

Suspended here, wingtips touching heaven,
You savored glory, for a moment, in your
World without walls. Yet
Plummet you did, to the mundane and earthy, to
     Spend your passion.

Now in this African night, in the shadow of
Karen's Ngong Hills,
What memories do you keep for yourself?

Do you dream of running barefoot and naked in a
Primeval forest, in the vanquished Mau,
by Masai, nurtured by Nandi --
     Edenic in ideal?

Do you watch the herons and kingfishers and trotters
Ablaze in the sky over Lake Naivasha?
Do you wonder about their confident freedom, their
Secure flight, there at the door to
     Hell's Gate?

Are you placing your stake again, with the
Untamed and savage, on that rebel Messenger?
(How is it that you seduce the Splendid Outcast
Yet cannot still your
     Fearful Heart?)

A fitful waking, you hear again the
Waves (or are they waves?) that
Lick your fragile fuselage, the
Unbearable silence
     Prophesizing Death.

It was all so long ago, so long, yet
Here you remain, and wait,
East of Eden, in this
Nairobi night, in all your
     Horrible freedom.

[This poem was inspired by my reading of West With the Night, an excellent memoir of life in East Africa, by Beryl Markham, a contemporary of Isak Dension a/ka/a Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa.]

Joy in the Desert

Cottonwoodtreeinspring1943printc10091772 One of the first poems I wrote was written over 10 years ago on a trip with my wife to Tucson, Arizona.  We have regularly visited Southeastern Arizona for over 25 years, first when my wife's father had a second home there, and then, after his death, on our own.  Our children have grown up visiting the Sonaran Desert.  They know its plants and animals, its mountain ranges, its special places as well or better than the ones here in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  As do I.

Back then we had launched a newsletter at our church, and the pastor asked each elder to write a lead article on a fruit of the spirit.  I took joy.  I think I felt the first stirrings of creativity at that time, and I had the sense that nothing worth doing should be done without creativity.  I still believe that.  So, rather than a didactic essay on joy, I wrote a poem, I think.  I did not know how to write a poem then, and I do not think it very good, but, in honor of our travel to a place I love, here it is:

Joy in the Desert

It's not of my creation; I did nothing to earn it.
A single seed, dancing in the wind, fell by this stream -- coincidence to one,
     providence to another -- and my
Life began.

This is Joy --

To feel the Living Water in my wooden veins,
To know that even in the vapid, barren place outside, my roots are in the
Life Giver.

I bend, but I do not break.
I thirst, but I do not wilt.
I am gnawed at by pestilence, but I do not succumb.
I trust the Life Giver; my life flows out of the heart of Joy.

This is Joy --

To know that in the penumbra of my heaven-thrust arms, weaker ones, smaller
     ones, ones of little faith, will find strength and shelter from this desert curse;
Even to know that in my shade, weary travelers will be refreshed and set on
     their way, encouraged and emboldened;
To know that my life has significance in this mystery of life.
Even to know that one day I'll know the legacy of Joy I leave as I celebrate
     many seasons of unfurled offspring -- raindrops to quench an arid land and
     sun-warped and parched creatures.

I live Joy.  I am in Joy.  To live as His creation is Joy.  Not always felt, but fast-
     known at my core this Joy -- even in this land of fearsome extremes.

Yes, this is Joy. . .

It's not of my creation; I did nothing to earn it.
It comes when it comes.

What a mystery this Joy.
Surely the Ancient Song is true: We will go out in Joy and be led forth in peace,
     the mountains and the hills will burst forth in song before you, and we

Trees will clap hands in Joy and dance before You.

(inspired by the Arizona Cottonwood tree; painting by Georgia O'Keeffe)

OK, so like I said, it was my first try at a poem!  I'll be keeping a bit of a travelogue in the next week about Arizona and its places.  No poems.  Promise.  Stay tuned.


Tick, Tick, Tick (Part IV): Velocity

P2hands60 Velocity
(A Poem About Chronos Time)

At night
I know her passing,
a train of images
and melancholy dreams.
Sometimes slow:
     waiting for release from loss
     for a child to be born
     suffering to pass
     even love.
But these days
what I feel,
dizzying and divine,
is
her
velocity.

Pblue Remember
that time
we drank deeply
of each
liquid word,
savoring their
rich and potent
taste, warming
our souls-grown-cold, until
drunk on this new wine
I danced
my laughing audience
into the New Year?, or

That other time,
lethargic and
dazed, when we
shuffled quietly
hopefully
thankfully
into that (please God)
New Year come?

P2handsb_1 It was your
mother who said that
"travel is broadening,"
(and she knew), but
I know too that
"travel is deepening"
as we run
these grace-laid
tracks.

I rewind
replay
those word-
pictures now,
the happy-sad
soundtrack, loud
enough to wake the
living, to awaken
me.  I grasp
treasures in
her train while I
temeriously

Pretend I can
thrust my hand
into her passing,
catch the hem of her
cloak, slowing her
onward rush, only to
pull back, awed and
hushed by her
luminosity.

Pchicago3So I wait,
silent,
clock tick-tocking
on my right,
life breathing
on my left,
watching
listening
smelling the
holy smoke
certain fire
and clamor of her

l o  c   o    m     o      t       i        o         n. . . .

[The poetry is my creation, but I am thankful for the use of the paintings of Mark Dahle.  The paintings with hands seemd to fit the lines "Pretend I can/ thrust my hand/ into her passing. . .," which suggests the possibility that we can sometimes slow down Time's velocity by holding on to some moment, at least for a time.  (Actually the two hands paintings were inspired by Mother Teresa, says Mark.) The last painting seemd to suggest the last passage in the poem, the part about "smoke. . . fire. . .clamor." (And for Mark, it's about Creation.)  You can see more of and purchase prints of Mark's work here.  And if you're wondering why the poem is strung out like it is, it's a device to suggest movement, or velocity, the passage of Time.]


Old Dogs

Clip_image002_14 If you are a dog lover, read on.  If not, stop here. 

I recently was re-reading a book of poetry by Kelly Cherry called God's Loud Hand.  I have read through this short volume of poems on more than one occasion, enjoying some of the theological poems, disliking others, and puzzled by even others.  In the midst of this, I simply overlooked one poem that was non-intellectual (I think), one about an old dog named Work.  It reminded me of one of my own poems about our old and now departed dog, Faith.  So, here's to Work and Faith:

Work

The old dog, Work, one eye blind as if seeing
wore it out, a limp in its hindquarters,
lies on its stomach on the floor at your slippered feet,
content merely to dream in your presence.

In his old age, the fur on his paws has grown
so long he, too, seems to have on slippers.
When you reach down to rub his wary ears,
he sends you a secret message of gratitude.

Strange to be here so idly, after the days
of long walks, of chasing squirrels and sticks.
The days of hunting down reluctant quarry.
There were many days when he was your one companion.

It is you who should thank him, and so you do,
inwardly.  His eyes as they look up at you
are unspoken words; the blind one surely says
love.  He rests his muzzle on his paws.

It may snow tonight.  The storm windows
muffle the racket of the semis as they speed
past your house toward Illinois; the fire in
the fireplace makes a warm spot on the dog's coat,

you are warmed by both the fire and your dog
while candles burn and the coffee kettle heats.
It is as if your whole house is on fire
with a fire that does not burn or hurt.

This is home, where you and your old dog, Work,
hang out together, especially in autumn,
when the late tomatoes are killed by frost
and smoke from your chimney spirals into night.

And then there is the poem I wrote about Faith, our 11-year old German Shepherd, as fine a dog as Work and no less loyal:

Dog-Day

Lately, I miss your
siren-howl & midnight
bark, the joyous speech

of something deep
within.  There you lie,
deep within a wall of

silence.  Are you
remembering other
days, stronger days

behind brown eyes?
Do you run, retrieve &
roll on the spring grass?

I know you feel it in
your bones, the tug of
earth & water, the

winding down as spring
gives way to summer,
dog-days fall to winter.

I know it too.
I'm remembering too.

Yes, I'm sure that dogs
thrive in that land where
shadows run, where bones

are plentiful & you run &
don't grow weary.  Only roll
over now, have a scratch,

stretch & savor this moment
in the sun.  It's time to
remember, lay aside questions.

Smell the grass.
Feel the wind across your body.
Relish all that's given.

There'll be time enough to think,
time enough tomorrow.

Somehow, I can't imagine writing like that about cats, and I never heard of a cat named Work or Faith.  Those names just don't suit cats, do they?


Magic

Pasture

Magic

"Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." 
C.S. Lewis, in a letter to his goddaughter

Maybe we'd leap, eyes screwed tight,
into a chalk-drawn scene, colorful in its
broad-brush strokes, with
dance
not dirge
rhyme
not rote
simple songs of nonsense
and sense
as we take our tuppence
this time to
feed the birds.

Like poor old Lu, some might say,
we are rich young fools
who walk, eagerly
through wardrobe doors,
listening for the Voice, for the
truth in this
Deep Magic.

"Yes, grief is great, son of Adam."
Son of mine.
Surely you'll know the
purple pain
melancholy blue
red ripping
dark doubt
stench of death
in life.  Only, yet only

Together click our heels and
over an East wind we'll rise
over the dingy streets,
these cluttered passages of
memory and
mourning,
tuppence in our hands,
rings on our fingers,

One single word on our lips.


"New" Psalms

[Several years ago I tired my hand at writing in the manner of the Psalms, many of which are very honest, heartfelt longings for God.  The psalmist writes out of his trials and tribulations, as well as in the good times.  They are faith-affirming, yet not at all shallow.  As well as being good models for prayer, they are good reminders of what genuine poetry can be]

Hospital Psalm

Just once, I would like to hear a voice,
something to divide this tick-tocking
silence that wraps my ramblings, or
see God embodied, to touch my wound,
speak a golden word. Yet faith carries me, as
I mutter my psalm to the rhythm of the

elevator bell, the nurse's call, the window
looking out on home just turned the corner,
just wheeled away to darkness, into night.
Eyes liquid I press a hand to the cold, the
glass that separates, divides, and chills.
I mutter my how-long psalm to the silence,

as the man lies dying in five one four &
someone weeps in five one eight, as I
measure my steps, make my rounds, do my
part, counting the doors, numbering my days,
vicariously living the inhale-exhale of the
elevator-open-elevator-shut, as

I mutter my psalm,
listen to the silence
work out my salvation with

fear &

trembling.


When They Leave

Clip_image002_13 All children leave, eventually.  That's natural I know, and essential to their maturity.  What parent hasn't looked at a sleeping child and felt joy and sadness at the same time.  That must be a universal feeling.  From the day they are born we know they are leaving.

The best art is built on some universal experience or emotion -- like children leaving home.  "The poet," says C.S. Lewis, "is someone who says 'look at that' and points."  By doing so poets, or writers in general, lure us into an act of contemplation.  Most of us, most of the time, are engaged in living.  There's so little time to reflect.

When we read a poem or story and realize some shared life experience or emotion, our humanity is affirmed.  We know we're not alone.

067003436301 When I read the following poem by Linda Pastan, published in Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times, in reminded me of an old one I wrote, which follows it.  The particulars are different, but the experience is similar: Children grow up. . . and leave.  Enjoy.

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving
goodbye.

And then the one I wrote that I was reminded of:

Mine

I imagine
the day
when she
turns her
smile toward
some other
face, no
longer mine
all mine
only mine
brown eyes
reflecting &
holding another's
gaze, telling
secrets I no
longer share.
Only then
I hope she
remembers
her father's
face, a
longer love.

Do you know what I mean?  Linda Pastan knows what I know.


A Preference for the Ordinary

Clip_image002_12 What makes a good poem?  Well, for as many as I have read (probably thousands), I'd have to say I'm not entirely sure.  I know a bad one when I see it, but a definition of good is harder to come by.

That being said, I tend to gravitate to poems that contain images of everyday, ordinary things and that have a natural voice, that is, they do not seem to or at least do not strive too mightily to have a "point." How many times have I been asked "What's the point of that poem?", as if they have to have a point.  Our lives do have a point, for example, but we learn about that over time by watching how a person lives, by watching a life unfold.  It takes time.

By addressing the ordinary, poems awaken us to the hidden extraordinary in everyday affairs, in the mundane.  One collection of poetry I have said it well: Wake Up to YourselfPoems about the ordinary sharpen our sense of what is real; they enlarge our sense of reality.  We can see the glow of the spiritual behind the frames of everyday events.

As I've been reading through Garrison Keillor's collection of poetry in Good Poems for Hard Times, the ones I mark for re-reading are all about the most ordinary things.  Take this one, for example, from Barbara Crooker:

Ordinary Life

This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunchtime blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch's little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa's ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken's diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

Ever have a day like that?  Dream about it?  A day like that is an ordinary blessing.  You can live on its gift for a while, dream about it, hope for it.  It's like a small glimpse of the wonderful ordinariness of Heaven, where every day is a gift acknowledged, a blessing enjoyed, where work is sanctified so that every dish washed every floor swept is pure joy, a sacrament.  Pure grace.

Poems about the ordinary do that -- they give us a glimpse of how special life is, all of it.  Life is a whole lot more than what it seems.

But enough of this.  I have work to do.  I need to wash the dishes.  I'll let you know if I see the holy there, OK?


The Poetry Judge

Clip_image002_10 "When I took the rubber bands off the bundles of poems, I could hear a faint sucking, an inhalation of poem breath, poems whispering, Please sir. Please.''

So begins the poetry judge, Garrison Keillor, the unfortunate and yet duty bound reader of four hundred poems with the goal of choosing just four for the winners' circle. Actually, it's pure fiction, a the The Atlantic Monthly magazine heading reminds us it's "A Short Story," a good thing considering all those poor poets Keillor would offend and wound by his comments.

And yet Keillor is so close to truth in this bit of fiction. Humorous as it is, he gets it right when he says that "it was easy to spot the winning poems; they were the readable ones. Some were good enough that I might have read them out loud to someone sitting nearby --- the simple test of a good poem."

But back to humor. There's the poet who "offered a poem that began 'If there's a bowling lane in heaven, then I know that Grandma's there,'" or the "sparkling" metaphor of "life is a sweater we are knitting and we must ever be ready to pull some stitches and redo the sleeve." Then there are the "Bad Daddy" poems, "Mean Mommy" poems, and "Bad Boyfriend" poems, followed by all the poems on Vietnam --- bloody and lifelike, all of them.

His point? "Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether the story is true or not." Keillor is just making the point that our personal experience doesn't matter to the reader, indeed, it needn't matter. Does the poem relate to life in general? Does it transcend experience? Is it well-written?  Those are the questions.

It's a point he sums up well here: "Self-expression is not the point of it, people! We are not here on paper in order to retail our injuries. For one thing, it is unfair to bore someone who doesn't have the opportunity to bore you right back, and for another, we have better things to do --- to defend the hopeless and the down-and-out, to find humor in dreadful circumstances, to satirize the pompous and pretentious, to make deer suddenly appear in the driveway."

I recommend "The Poetry Judge."  It'll make you laugh out loud.  Those really serious poets will never get it, of course, and just be offended and angry.  But the rest of us will.  A bad poem is like hanging one of those ugly yet supposedly "significant" works of art on the wall.  Who wants to look at ugly all day when there's plenty of beauty out there?  Read "The Poetry Judge," all of it, here.


Things

Speaking of inanimate things (see Post dated February 13, 2006), this poem was enjoyable and gave me room to think.  You'll find it in Good Poems for Hard Times, ed. by Garrison Keillor:

Things

What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what is beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

by Lisel Mueller

Have you ever considered why we personify things?  Is it because we are lonely?  Or is it an antropocentric view of the world, a tendency to see everything in relation to ourselves?  Or does it stem from the lack felt by the first Adam (before Eve, before Creation was complete) who had the task of naming everything -- from the animals to plants to the inanimate -- and yet longed for someone, for something like him?  I suspect it is rooted in the later, that though Adam now has Eve he doesn't have Eve in the perfect way God intended, and so we are, to some extent, lonely and reach out to the inanimate.  Maybe.


Looking Back on ProCreation

Procreation_edit2 One of the pleasures I had over the last several years was to launch a poetry and short story journal with two friends .  We were quite presumptuous, thinking we could do so, but we learned a lot in the process about what is good and what is not so good in poetry and story.  Though no longer published, it was a great experience, one I remember fondly.

The idea behind ProCreation: A Journal of Truthtelling in Poetry and Prose, was to select and publish poems and stories that contained truth -- not just experiential truth (which is subjective), but universal truth (which is objective).  We approached it from a Christian worldview but recognized that through the operation of common grace, truth, wherever it was found and whoever expounded it, was God's truth.  We also believed, as did Francis Schaeffer, that art had both minor (because of the Fall) and major (because of Redemption) themes, so we endeavored to reflect both themes in each issue.  Looking back, we may have majored on the minor too much at times, but I think we largely got it about right.

Two groups of submitters were the most difficult to deal with: the gay community and the Christian community.  Both tended to preach too much.  As a result, their work was less artful and effective.  For gays, everything was about being gay; for Christians, all was religious.  I think I understand this, but, as Picasso once said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth," meaning indirection is a powerful tool in the hands of the artist.

Not every poem embodies both major and minor themes, and they need not.  However, the best seem to connect with us as human beings, in our difficulties and longings, and point outside of our circumstances to hope, to something or Someone transcendent, like a signpost pointing Home.

I've scanned one volume of ProCreation in, and you can access it here.  I also plan to add each issue so they can be accessed on this site (from the sidebar).  So, stay tuned!


Writing of Heaven

Suzanne Clark is a wonderful poet, a  Christian who writes compelling non-religious poems imbued with faith.  It's difficult to write a poem (or anything, really) about Heaven without getting sentimental or veering way off base in speculation.  She is able to do so without those problems in this poem found in her book, What a Light Thing, This Stone:

In the World to Come

you will see the heron landing time and again
with its great fringed wings folding up the sky.
You will see a sprig of hair from your scrapbook
loosed in blooms around your sister's face.
You will hear your name called, a leaf aloft,
and voices of rain speaking joy.
You will drink your whole life,
with the bitterness aged as heavy, sweet wine.
The bales of dreams will open and you will truly fly
or be invisible and poems will sprout from your mouth,
you will breathe water, you will know what the owl knows
and the Maker of Owls. 

Amen.                                                                                                  


Good Poems

Goodpoems In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver's insightful guide to what makes a poem a poem, she says "poets select words for their sounds as well as their meanings," (and sometimes, I would add, in spite of their meanings!)  "Rock" is that the same as "stone," she says; with "rock" there is a "seed of silence at the edge of sound."  A good poem engages our ear with the rhythm of sound and silence, sound and silence; it stirs us in ways we cannot truly fathom.  And yet. . .

And yet I can count on one hand the number of people I personally know who make poetry a regular part of their diet of words.  Part of that, I suspect, is due to a utilitarian bent infecting us all.  We live in an age of pragmatism.  Of what earthly good is poetry?  Is the time spent on it worthwhile?  The other problem is that a lot of poems are simply inaccessible to most folks, so obscure, so obtuse, that on reading the poem most people are clueless.  It doesn't mean the poem is not rich in meaning, but it requires time, and most folks don't have that kind of time.

Because of the later point, I appreciate Garrison Keillor's attention to the "accessible" poem in the poems he collects in Good Poems for Hard TimesOn the purpose of the poem:

     The meaning of poetry is to give courage.  A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader is obliged to solve.  It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right.

Poetry is not obscure, or shouldn't be, he says:

     People complain about the obscurity of poetry, especially if they're assigned to write about it, but actually poetry is rather straightforward compared to ordinary conversation with people you don't know well which tends to be jumpy repartee, crooked, coded, allusive to no effect, firmly repressed, locked up in irony, steadfastly refusing to share genuine experience --- think of conversation at office parties or conversation between teenage children and their parents, or between teenagers themselves, or between men, or between bitter spouses: rarely in ordinary conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. . . . Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn't matter --- poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart.

Good poems.  Good poems have words that stick to me, that come back to me when I'm in a jam, like the Psalms.  Read aloud, they have a pleasing sound, and that rests well with my soul.  There must be a reason God put poetry in Scripture -- not just for content, but for sound, for the restorative effect of sound.

But enough about poems.  Read one.  Here's one of the many good ones that Keillor includes in his collection, by Bob Hicok, the first of many (I'm warning you) to come:

Calling him back from layoff

I called a man today.  After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I'm OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that's a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the back of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones

hear?

See? Poems aren't so scary after all. 

Out walking today I saw a man with a chihuahua with a confederate flag for a sweater (the dog, that is).  Now that's scary.


Immortal Diamond: The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkinsg129x1631 Several years ago I was helping my wife clean the attic of her parents’ home.  We found 50 years of accumulated past wants --- the latest fashions (from the Sixties), four broken television sets, sad-eyed dolls, and outdated furniture.  Pushing the cobwebs away, brushing away dust, we attempted to bring order from chaos.  We searched for something, for anything worth saving.

I opened a mildewed cardboard box.  Inside was the dank smell of old books.  Reaching down in the jumbled pile, I fished out a worn copy of Modern American & British Poetry, copyright 1955.  Thumbing through it, I came upon a section devoted to Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I couldn’t put the book down.  The attic cleaning could wait.

The next day I rushed out and bought a copy of the only Hopkins book I could find: The Immortal Diamond: The Spiritual Vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  This slender volume contained a brief biography of the famous Jesuit poet and 53 of his best-known poems.  I was particularly captivated by two of Hopkins’ poems: “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty.”

The most refreshing thing that I found in these poems was their marriage of spiritual wonder and technical ability.  It can be a difficult marriage because so often the Christian, in his zeal, allows the poem to become overly didactic.  At worst, it can become nothing more than a prop for dogma, a propagandizing tract.  While Hopkins’ poems do carry moral meaning and serve a “teaching” function, he manages to give poetic voice to spiritual yearnings while respecting the nature and promise of the form.  Thus, at the outset I was pleased to discover a “religious” poet who remained a poet. 

You can read a bit more of something I've written on Hopkins here, but for now, enjoy one of his richest poems, "God's Grandeur":

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.

It was fitting to discover Hopkins in a humble pile of discards in a dusty attic.  For all his ability, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet of humility, full of wonder and hope at the beauty of nature and of the Divine, yet cognizant of his finite human form.  “I am all at once what Christ is, since he/ was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch,/ matchwood, immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.”  Reading Immortal Diamond, I saw his many facets.  I saw words that shine.  And I remembered who I am before God.