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According to the Buddha, right speech is a statement that is timely, true, kind, helpful (connected to liberation), and spoken with a mind of good-will. Let us all try to observe this precept.
It's time once again for our annual roundup of the books, blog posts, and discoveries that made the most impact on me this year. Thanks for your loyal readership. Feel free to share your own favorite reads and revelations from 2013 in the comments. Books need not have been published in the current year.
Most Self-Esteem You Can Buy for $25:
Right now, it's only a Halloween wig, but it's inspiring me to fulfill a lifelong dream. Go ginger in 2014!
Strangest Discovery at a Church Tag Sale:
My astute husband spotted this planter at the Christmas fair at First Churches in Northampton, which was Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards's church during the First Great Awakening. Edwards was kicked out of the pulpit eventually because he made too much fuss about teen boys reading dirty books. One can only imagine how he'd feel about this porcelain beauty, who has succulents growing out of her pelvis and right breast. My friends who remember pre-feminist kitsch have informed me that she was originally an ashtray: the matches go in the boob-hole and the cigarettes go, uh, down there. Which is even more disturbing.
Runner-up for Previous Award:
My church is nothing if not broad-minded. Thanks, St. John's Christmas Fair. I'm looking forward to learning all about the Holy Foreskin.
Best Poetry Books:
So many this year, I can't pick just one.
Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec(2012)
With furious beauty and Promethean boldness, Diaz rewrites our cultural myths to speak her truth as a Mojave woman, a lover, an activist, and a sister bereaved by addiction.
Minnie Bruce Pratt, Crime Against Nature (2013)
This groundbreaking book recounts how the author lost custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian, then forged a beautifully honest relationship with them later in life. First published in 1989, it was reissued this year by A Midsummer Night's Press in collaboration with the journal Sinister Wisdom.
Read my full review and excerpt here.
Jamaal May, Hum (2013)
This electric debut collection explores what it means to be an African-American man in Detroit, finding beauty in the ruins of the machine age. Read my full review and excerpt here.
Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree (2013)
Set in Western Massachusetts in the 18th century, during the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening, this luminous novel re-creates the domestic life and spiritual development of the theologian Jonathan Edwards. Stinson allows the complexity of the Puritan worldview to speak for itself, setting Edwards's mystical delight in nature and his deep compassion alongside his severe views of God's judgment and his defense of slave-owning.
Best Nonfiction Book/Best Parenting Book:
Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries (1991)
With bracing clarity, this maverick psychoanalyst explains how all kinds of cruelty, from child abuse to genocide, has its roots in traumatic and oppressive child-rearing practices. The child had to identify with the perpetrator's perspective in order to survive, but is then at risk for revisiting this pain on the next generation. Healing comes when you finally stand on the side of the child you once were, validating her innocent needs and feelings, instead of continuing to internalize the judgments your parents projected onto you. Warning: this book may expose many of your religious beliefs as denial mechanisms...but that's a subject for another post.
Favorite Posts on the Block:
The Gorgon's Head: Mothers and "Selfishness" I've come to believe that mothers trigger perceptions of "selfishness" in so many people, regardless of which choices the mother is making, because people are unconsciously angry about their own unmet childhood needs. Someone who had distant and unfeeling parents may view working mothers harshly, while someone who had smothering and needy parents may have a similar disdain for stay-at-home mothers.
National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It's Personal
I don't know how you'd put this on a flag, but my version of awareness would be more radical. It would emphasize what survivors have in common--with each other, across different kinds of abuse, and with everyone who breathes in abuse-enabling myths in the air of our culture. We may not all be in a position to identify abused children and find services for them, but we can all ask ourselves: What do I believe--about God, power, knowledge, sexuality--that contributes to the silencing and minimizing of abuse? What might I be telling myself to silence myself?
Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church
Overreacting against fundamentalist divisiveness, our churches minimize genuine distinctions of culpability and power within the community we are creating. If inclusion is our only defining value, where is the conversation about accountability and transformation?
Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church
What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can't accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God's will for ourselves.
And finally, the most important award of them all...
Winner of the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, Jamaal May's electric debut collection Humembodies the vitality and struggle of becoming a man. The word "elegy" is not entirely right for such energetic, muscular poems, but there is mourning here for May's native Detroit and the men of his family who were scarred by addiction, war, and racism. The speaker of these poems fights back with beauty, noticing the shine of the handcuffs while enduring police harassment, or the inspiring message on the plastic bag that holds his relative's ashes "in a Chinese takeout box". In the age of e-readers, AJB's elegant book design makes a case for the pleasures of print. Poems titled after various phobias are interspersed through the book on black paper with white type, creating moments of visual "hush" amid the "hum" of text.
Jamaal has kindly given me permission to reprint the following two poems, which first appeared in Poetry Magazine and Blackbird, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @JamaalMay.
Hum for the Bolt
It could of course be silk. Fifty yards or so
of the next closest thing to water to the touch,
or it could just as easily be a shaft of wood
crumpling a man struck between spaulder and helm.
But now, with the rain making a noisy erasure
of this town, it is the flash that arrives
and leaves at nearly the same moment. It’s what I want
to be in this moment, in this doorway,
because much as I’d love to be the silk-shimmer
against the curve of anyone’s arm,
as brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
from a crossbow with a whistle and have a man
switch off upon my arrival, it is nothing
compared to that moment when I eat the dark,
draw shadows in quick strokes across wall
and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.
Man Matching Description
Because the silk scarf could have cradled
a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet,
but was instead used in last night’s strangling,
it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs.
Because I can imagine handcuffs,
pummeled by stones until shimmering,
the flashlight that sears my eyes
is too perfect to look away.
Because a flashlight has more power
on a southern roadside than my name and blood
combined and there is no power in the very human
frequency range of my voice and my name is dead
in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license
I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—
Because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises, twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again—I want to
say, Swan! I am only a swan.
Poetry by Lauren Schmidt: "The Waiting Room of Past Lives"
In Lauren Schmidt's earthy, revelatory poetry collection Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing (Main Street Rag, 2013), bodies eat, sweat, climax, and die. Some of them are stuffed. All are handled with reverence. Comical or embarrassing moments open up suddenly into a vision of fellowship that levels social distinctions.
Schmidt shows why humor, humility, and humane have a common root. Many of her poem titles sound like premises for a stand-up comedy sketch: "Why I Am Not a Taxidermist"; "My Grandfather's Balls"; "Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus". Each time, however, the poem takes a surprising turn, reversing the typical use of disgust to create distance and superiority, and instead breaking down the pretensions that alienate us.
No one likes it here. You can tell
by our bodies: this one chews
his cuticles; that one pretends
to read. A woman fingers the drag
in her stockings. A man watches
from across the room, blowing steam
from his third cup of sludge.
He’s used up all the stirrers.
The girl behind the blurred glass
snaps her gum, watches the clock
for five. On the wall, CNN
bleats something about this
or that. The war here or there.
There seems to be only one channel,
but nobody bothers to check. We wait
in the glow of the red numbers. Now
Serving, the sign says. We pinch our slips
as if waiting for lunchmeat.
It gets harder and harder to do this.
They put a note in my file. It explains
the crutches, the bandage on my brow.
I was eighty then, collapsed in the hedges
racking my brain for the line that came
before the dish ran away with the spoon.
When you’re eighty you don’t always
remember. The last time I was eighty,
I left notes on my front door
should a visitor happen by: Be right back,
in the bathroom, scrawled by my shaky hand,
letters like the eyelashes I pulled out
with my fingers and arranged
in my notebook during Physics
in the life before that. I loved
to watch them scatter in one full
breath, didn’t care much that girls
stared at my nest of hair or laughed
at my penchant for saying silly things.
I chose my words carefully,
spelled them with my lashes.
By senior year, I had no brows
left either: two bleached seams
arched above my eyes, an eternity
of expressing horrified surprise.
My mother made them draw brows
so I wouldn’t look strange
in the casket. The irony, too much
for the man I shared it with here,
in the waiting room, a man
whose laughter made his jaw click,
like the snap of my infant neck
in the life I had that didn’t last very long.
My memory went only as far
as the garden of my mother’s
hair when she hovered above my crib
to kiss me. In the life where I learned
what it meant to be a father,
I put my nose to the rose of my son’s
lips, waited for breath, contented
just to watch his infant chest rise
and fall. I recall the feel of my own
stuttered breast as I lay in my mess
of wings in the middle of the street.
After the windshield, I remembered
the boy, the rock, the way he lifted
it above his head. Its shadow trembled
above me, dilating as it broke over me
like a dark corsage before the lights
went out and I was back in line again.
The rock was something like mercy,
but do we really have the words
for the magician’s hat of how
our lives are made and taken? We’re rabbits
blinking in stiff confusion, some big hand
fisted around the ears, feet, kicking, pendulous,
and marking time. Sometimes we’re a flurry
of doves in a round of applause. I have been
the rabbit, would be the rabbit again
because there simply is no lover
more eager to be in the world.
I have been the boy with his pellet gun, too,
a piece of wheat in my teeth and nothing to do
but wonder what a tuft of hair looks like
when it erupts with blood, wonder the sound
flesh makes when it’s pulled from fur
which isn’t anything like the sound
of denim ripping as you might think.
On CNN there is a man on his knees.
Dirty shirt, holes in his jeans.
Another man grips his hair, dark tufts
sprout between his fingers. In the other fist,
the flash of a murky blade. The man’s eyes
are lurched wide from his pulled hairline.
The shadow of the blade breaks over
a shaking face. This one stops chewing
his cuticles. That one stops pretending
to read. The woman leaves her stockings
alone and the man stops watching her.
All eyes gaze at the TV screen. We don’t see
the rest, but everybody knows what happens
next. With any luck, the man on his knees
will wake up praying near a bed
in a room he somehow knows is his.
Image Journal's Gregory Wolfe on Change and Eternity in Art
The literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, prompting some insightful reflections by founding editor Gregory Wolfe on the magazine's Good Letters blog. Image publishes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and contemporary artwork that engage with the great Western religious traditions in fresh and authentic ways. I appreciate how Wolfe harmonizes the aspects of art and religion that in my life have sometimes been at odds: the creative journey into the unknown, versus the safeguarding of revealed truths. He writes:
Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging.
In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience. Yes, of course, that’s how the world is. I knew that. But I’d forgotten. I will return to the true way, the way I’d strayed from. I won’t forget again.
Artistic styles change when they fail to reveal something new.
A rounded arch speaks of eternity, solidity, and stability. A pointed arch speaks of aspiration, a hunger for light, and matter’s permeation by spirit.
Both arches speak the truth. The newness isn’t necessarily an improvement. The newness is, in part, in the contrast itself, the revelation that there is always more to see. Reality is fractal that way.
In the early church, Jesus was depicted as the Good Shepherd. Then he became the Pantocrator, emperor of the cosmos. Then he was shown on the cross and became the Suffering Servant. In a postmodern context he may perhaps be present by way of his absence; felt rather than seen. Who knows? There are a thousand options.
When religious faith isn’t made new, it becomes ideology, detached from reality. It either becomes toxic or it simply ceases to be credible.
From the outset of my novel-in-progress about a gay man's spiritual journey, I have wrestled with the question of my right to represent this character in his own voice. (It doesn't help that some gay male writers, not exempt from the deformations of patriarchy, occasionally snipe about "middle-aged housewives" who intrude on their literary turf.) How to explain, without reenforcing straight privilege to interpret queer experience, that on some level I feel that my protagonist is me, and that I write not so much as an ally but as an autobiographer of an alternate life? Writers of persona poems and historical fiction face the same challenge of entering another's perspective with empathy rather than self-centered appropriation.
Karla Kelsey's latest review at The Constant Critic expresses well the philosophical nuances of literary empathy, which she says is made possible by the multiplicity of the self. Our conscious experience already exceeds the first-person "I". Discussing Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's new collection, Hello, the Roses, Kelsey writes:
Inhabiting another’s first-person perspective in the same way that he, she, or it, does, not only seems psychologically impossible, but also would efface the very thing that ensures the existence of all that is not-me in the world. As Husserl among others points out, had I the same access to the consciousness of another as I have to my own, that other would cease being another and instead become part of myself.
Thus the bind: one cannot inhabit anyone else’s first-person experience, and it is precisely this limit that makes another other to me. At the same time, we don’t want to say that we have completely no access to another’s first-person perspective. We want to say that what we feel in affective, empathetic moments is not merely a solipsistic self-projection.
While studies on the problem of mind hash these problems out via the discipline of philosophy, worries over the lyric I reflect the way these problems circulate in the language of poetry. As we know, the lyric I is the poster-child for the expression of first-person experience. And while we might grow tired of the limits of this perspective—of the hemming and hawing of these I’s, aching through their embodiments, bemoaning the fleeting nature of relational connection—we balk at lyric expression that “feels into” the first person experience of another. The ethical risks of such attempts at empathy include the effacement of fundamental difference with fantasy—and passing fantasy off as some sort of emotional truth.
But this need not lock us into a Cartesian box, for “Je est un autre” (Rimbaud). Or, if you prefer philosophy, “The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake” (Merleau-Ponty). We can open the box from a trap door built into its bottom: there are many ways that we experience ourselves as other to our first-person experience of the world, for we exceed our pronouns. And this first-person experience of excess, of self-as-other is kin to an experience of the otherness of that which is not the self. The otherness of other humans, animals, nature, and objects.
Perhaps we first recognize otherness because it is a fundamental relationship that we have to ourselves. Simply touch your right hand with your left and you are both touching and touched. Catch your image in a mirror unexpectedly and who is that, for a moment, you wonder. Leafing back through old poems—through a poem you wrote yesterday—you have the distinct feeling that you did not write what is on the page. As such, one way to think about empathy is along the self’s subject/object edge, considering the fact of the self as simultaneously occupying a subject and object position and exploring the object-self’s relationship with other objects.
Back in August I posted the previous installment of my prison pen pal "Conway's" series of prose-poems celebrating urban car culture, whose freedom contrasts with the living death of incarceration. He returns with this political lyric that I'm fortunate to share with you. Read it aloud and you'll hear the cell doors clang.
City Elegy IV
Do the streetlights still bleed, through the leaves of me? Where my memory remains, in my family tree's falling shadow.
A tree grows not here, on the middle of this tier, stone cold center of my universe. In the Heart of America this sanctified cell only records the heartbeat of the meat wrapped in its possession.
A continuous tape-loop snakes its way through the years -- of going nowhere. Except when the transport bus appears, wrapped in freedom's faffling flag of Hypocrisy.
Pilgrims transfer daily to more oversourced humidors, stone-n-steel honeycombs of human bondage, buzzing away. As sodium-lamps illuminate this treasure, like a billboard display. Like a halo glowing bright off any highway, wrapped up tight in a crown of barbed wire thorns, or thistled horns.
Some say that the Lord's blessing is amongst us. I only see shackles and chains wrapping our pains in the shroud of injustice. Redemption contrived, commercialized for profit.
Does God Bless the Commerce of Incarcerated America? This Holy shrine of abundance, a multitude of souls of candidates standing on street corners seeking futures, but finding no path. Beware! Don't get snagged in this trap of the one way bus trip right to here. Here, far away from contact, in the Hall of a million steel doors slammed shut. Locked away tight from another cool September night, no relief in sight.
Here, where even the strongest arms and minds tire, struggling against this brazen green money machine.
Here, amidst the husks of what Justice has abandoned.
Here, where the clamor withers to silence without contact.
Dulled by neglect, the aftertaste deepens the hunger.
Harsh sentencing schemes darken the overtones of truth.
In this tidal wave of injustice that seems to have no end, even at oblivion.
Again-n-again this massive chain drags another generation down and in. To get slammed down, for being so bold as to remove the unnecessary gold, that decorates the watch dangling from the Liberty master's pockets...
This morning I was reading the daily poem to Shane from our Alhambra Poetry Calendar for Young Readers, a superlative anthology of classic and modern poems that are written on an adult level but safe to share with younger folks. I often follow the reading with a little interpretation, pointing out interesting things about how the poem works, or reflecting critically on its message. Maybe it's silly to get into this with a 19-month-old, but I feel it's never too early to introduce the idea that he can think for himself about what Mommy and Daddy read to him. He can appreciate a book without agreeing with everything in it, or with us.
Because it's Veterans' Day, today we read the well-known poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae, who was a Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Army in World War I. The text and history of the poem can be found on the Arlington National Cemetery's website.
I remarked on McCrae's conclusion that continuing the battle was the proper way to make the fallen soldiers' sacrifice worthwhile: "To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep..." Other war poets, I observed, have drawn the opposite conclusion, that these tragic deaths ought to motivate us to seek peace.
My favorite war poem of all time has to be Wilfred Owen's "Greater Love", also from World War I. Owen was a passionate critic of the war's carnage, yet this poem (unlike, for instance, his "Dulce et Decorum Est") resists reduction to a pro- or anti-war interpretation. He is simply moved by the holy suffering of the dying soldiers, which is undiminished by questions about whether it was necessary or effective.
For more great poetry on this theme, visit the War Poetry Contest archives (2002-2011) at WinningWriters.com.
by Wilfred Owen
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!
Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care:
Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.
Your voice sings not so soft,—
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,—
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear,
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.
Heart, you were never hot
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.
National Public Radio ran a story last week headlined, "To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer". A variation of the coffeehouse Christian groups that youth pastors have been trying for some time now, these mainline Protestant churches in Fort Worth, TX and Portland, OR are staging meet-ups in brew pubs and serving beer at hymn sing-a-longs, in hope of attracting seekers who are turned off by the formality of Sunday morning services.
...Pastor Philip Heinze and his Calvary Lutheran Church sponsor Church-in-a-Pub, whose formal name is the Greek word, Kyrie.
Some patrons are understandably confused. They come in for a brew and there's a religious service going on in their bar. They expected Trivia Night and they get the Holy Eucharist.
"I tell 'em, it's a church service," says bartender Les Bennett, "And they're, like, 'In a pub?' And I'm, like, yeah. Some of 'em stick around for trivia, some of 'em take off, some of 'em will hang out and have another pint or two."
That's one of the objectives: A guy sits at the bar nursing a beer, he overhears the Gospel of Luke, he sees people line up to take bread and wine, he gets curious. Phil Heinze says pub church has now become an official — if edgy — Lutheran mission...
There you have it: The King of Kings meets the King of Beers. This Blood's For You.
I suppose I shouldn't rush to judgment just because beer gives me hot flashes. After all, my main spiritual fellowship these days takes place at my church's Wednesday night potluck. The way to my soul is through my stomach. Maybe beer will be the plus factor that motivates someone to attend a Christian activity, just as our friend Lee's steak au poivre lures us out to the parish hall on dark November nights.
Joking aside, though, we're not really there for the food. We've created a supportive, intimate circle of Christians who share basic values and help one another stay in touch with God's presence. If that wasn't happening, I'd just go to a restaurant.
So I'm skeptical that churches need to become more "approachable" by slipping religion in as background music to a good party. To the contrary, we should be articulating what we offer that can't be found elsewhere. With the waning of social and familial pressure to maintain religious affiliation, churches have been thrown into competition with many other sources of fellowship and life guidance, both secular and religious. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, if we're willing to take up the challenge of clarifying our mission.
I also see special problems with organizing such events around alcohol, as compared to casseroles. I go to church activities for safe community and insight into urgent questions of existence. Alcohol is not exactly designed to clarify the mind. It interferes with emotional self-regulation, which its fans might consider a feature, but which surely lowers the probability that Beer & Hymns Night will be more safe from unskillful speech than the average secular get-together.
The alcohol industry makes tremendous profits from selling the fantasy that drinking leads to popularity, companionship, and contentment. (Our local brewery's slogan even spells this out: Peace, Love, Beer. And the greatest of these is beer...?) I'm not saying that churches should all be temperance warriors, but we shouldn't be corporate tools, either. Rather than marketing gimmicks aimed at hipsters, let's find out what people really need for the well-being of their souls, and give it to them.
Although "Holy Eucharist Trivia Night" also sounds pretty awesome. Who knows the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation? Winner gets a free glass of water. What Jesus does with that is up to him.
Poetry by Ruth Hill: "Cast in Bronze" and "Wild Celery"
A loyal subscriber to our Winning Writers website, Canadian poet Ruth Hill has been among our most-awarded poets since she began her career only a few years ago. This year she counts 24 wins and placements in journals (so far), following 36 last year. She kindly shares two recent poems below. "Cast in Bronze" appeared in Rose & Thorn Journal (May 2012) and Silver Bow Publishing (November 2013). "Wild Celery" appears in the debut issue of Perfume River Poetry Review.
Cast in Bronze
having opened their black velvet pouches
and thrown down their burden of diamonds
often give way to evenings of magnificent bronze
Come out and see the hibiscus brazing
pigeon necklaces burnished with maize
brass bells tinkling off glittering leaves
yellow sequined arches in the village square
Evenings whose warm respites of joy
are made brief by the longitudinal shadow
We are spinning away from the sun
as it appears to be spinning away from us
Newborn bees share our view through topaz honey
hive’s hum a kazoo, dripping raindrops a xylophone
amber windows everywhere
Rocks and roads and trees all trimmed in tortoiseshell
are strewn with chestnuts and chrysoberyl
Citrine evening with soap bubbles in the air
mist of bronze others see as not there
freckles on thrush, blush on the pear
Like well-oiled athletes, golden hills flex their muscles
A single robin’s silver flute calls the universe to order
...and didn’t God layer it nice, twice,
first in its Spring Fling,
then for this Fall Ball,
with doilies of lace
and dollops of diamonds and pearls,
embroidered popcorn silk,
and braided cord
dripping with tassels of icicle dough,
spiraled peaks of whip cream snow,
with sun to warm and melt,
and sprinkle sparkles to twinkle so,
white under blue for a bride like you.
Someday lay me down to die
under wild celery, heaving its
exploding fireworks into the sky,
toes in the mud, musing,
sweet compost effusing,
second bloom from the tomb,
this glory the story of
what’s already gone by.
Halloween Poetry: Marsha Truman Cooper's "A Disregarded Pumpkin"
This seasonal poem is reprinted by permission from Marsha Truman Cooper's new chapbook, A Knot of Worms, released this year by Finishing Line Press. This collection gives voices to our non-human neighbors on earth, reminding us of our interconnectedness and our obligations to one another. As you can see from the poem below, Cooper skillfully uses humor and fantasy to recall us to empathy.
A Disregarded Pumpkin
I’ve lived in this field too long.
Nobody has chosen me to be carved
or turned into pie. My face,
never a marketable commodity,
has begun to separate from its old
expression. Even children
trudge along the rows and leave
my odd skull behind to go soft.
Look. My seeds go crazy, twisting
in their oval sleep. I see the future—
a fade of reddish yellow, my regular
features lost to rot. I wonder
if the jack-o’-lanterns are enjoying
their candles, if spices make
my fellow vegetables feel sexy
while they bake. Alone here
on the night’s cold ground, I can
suddenly sense my good luck.
I predict that the farmer
will wake before dawn to plow
everything under, open my bright
head and, whether he likes it or not,
plant another season of my dreams.
Chopping Down the Giving Tree: Boundaries and the Social Gospel
There are two kinds of parents in this world: those who think Shel Silverstein's classic picture book The Giving Tree is a heartwarming fable about unselfish mother-love, and those who think it's a horrible sentimentalization of codependence and narcissism. Regular readers of this blog should be able to guess which camp I fit in.
The Giving Tree is an apple tree, described with female pronouns, who loves a little boy. As he grows to young adulthood through old age, the boy-man asks more and more from the tree, taking her leaves and apples to sell, her branches for a house, her trunk for a boat, till finally she is only a stump that he sits on when he is a tired old man. The tree gives all these things because it makes him keep coming back, and when he comes back, she is happy. Meanwhile, the boy never says a word of thanks, nor does he seem satisfied with the gifts for very long.
Christians who like this book have argued that it's an allegory of God's boundless love, which continues to be poured out on us despite our emotional fickleness and ignorance. I don't buy that. If the Giving Tree is Christ, she's Christ without the Resurrection. This tree, like my "one wild and precious life", is a nonrenewable resource. When she's chopped down, she doesn't grow back. As far as we know, the boy doesn't even plant her apple seeds to grow new trees.
This is a perilous model for Christian discipleship because it burdens a finite human being with satisfying infinite demands. The danger of a codependent Messiah complex is particularly acute in liberal churches where God's direct, supernatural intervention is downplayed or doubted outright.
In church, we hear about stewardship of our material blessings and our fragile ecosystem, but are not sufficiently encouraged to be good stewards of the one resource on which all others depend: ourselves. Our time, energy, emotional health, material possessions, and solitude. Yes, solitude is a resource. That's why Jesus didn't heal broken legs and hand out fish sandwiches 24 hours a day; he had to withdraw into the wilderness to recharge his connection to God. By contrast, the Giving Tree is unable to endure her solitude. Are we also compulsive givers because we need the warm feelings of charity to plug the God-shaped hole in our heart? Afraid that God isn't really there for us, we'll do whatever it takes to bind another person to ourselves.
The recipient's angle on the relationship is also problematic. The sentimental ideal of unquestioning generosity forestalls investigation into whether we're actually helping. The Giving Tree's boy does not seem to grow in happiness, empathy, or maturity as a result of her gifts. Let's just say, I pity his wife.
Christians can fall prey to oversimplified ideas about duty and sacrificial love. This comes up in our domestic lives, and also in our efforts to follow Jesus's mandate to help the poor. It saddens us to pass by the man lying on the pavement, someone who already seems cut off from society, and have nothing more personal to offer him than cold cash. However, a relationship based on the high-sounding principle "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" can turn sour because both ability and need are elastic. In my family of origin, it soon became clear that the path to dominance was to inflate your needs and let your abilities atrophy. The Giving Tree's boy is never challenged regarding the importance and consequences of his demands, so he never learns to live within his means.
Before commissioning us to involve ourselves in the lives of traumatized strangers, churches must do more to educate Christians about the user-enabler dynamic and give us spiritual permission to set safe boundaries. Remember, Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, not instead of.
Generosity without accountability breeds an attitude of entitlement to the lives and bodies of others. This attitude underlies patriarchy, child abuse, and domestic violence -- pervasive social evils that are a prime contributing cause of the addictions, mental illnesses, poverty and homelessness that Christian charity targets. Social work has a place among the church's programs, but our unique leverage point is practical theology: proclaiming a genuinely loving alternative to the relational patterns that keep the cycle of exploitation going.
Poetry by Lawrence Kessenich: "Meditating with a Dog Named Vasana"
Earlier this month we held a ceremony at our house to welcome our 18-month-old, Shane, into my husband's Buddhist meditation community. We shared some spiritual readings and poetry that celebrated young children's ability to abide in the present moment, without pretensions or superimposed storylines.
I was reminded of this when I read Lawrence Kessenich's poem below, which won the 2012 Spirit First Meditation Poetry Contest. Sponsored by a meditation center in Washington, DC, this free contest awards prizes up to $175 for poems on the theme of meditation, mindfulness, stillness, or silence. The current contest is open through January 31.
Like the dog in the poem, the Young Master is very fond of his stuffed squirrel, but he is especially delighted with the singing bowl we bought him for the ceremony. Each morning he reaches for it with a smile, and we have a mindfulness moment as we listen to the ringing echoes fade away. And then he bangs on it and chews on the stick!
Meditating with a Dog Named Vasana*
by Lawrence Kessenich
The mind is not easily ignored.
Told to sit in the corner like
a good little dog, he disobeys
bringing thoughts like toys:
a green rubber block, a stuffed squirrel,
an old, slimy, gnawed-over bone.
Take this simple mantra, I tell him,
and play with that. But he wants to do more.
He barks, licks my face, sniffs my crotch,
drops a brightly colored ball at my feet.
Vasana! I say sharply.
But to no avail. He is my dog
and requires my attention.
I toss his ball across the room
again and again and again.
He brings it back to me
again and again and again.
Until, finally, he drops it,
lays down in his corner, and falls asleep,
dreaming of sticks thrown into rivers.
Good dog, Vasana. Good dog.
*Sanskrit word for concept “monkey mind”
Lawrence Kessenich is an accomplished poet living in Massachusetts—he won the 2010 Strokestown International Poetry Prize, and his poetry has been published in Atlanta Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Cream City Review, Ibbetson Street, and many other magazines. His chapbook Strange News was published by Pudding House Publications in 2008. Another chapbook was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and finalist for the Spire Press Chapbook Contest. His current collection, Before Whose Glory, was a semi-finalist for the Off the Grid contest. His poem “Underground Jesus” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Kessenich has also published essays, one of which was featured on NPR’s This I Believe in 2010 and appears in the anthology This I Believe: On Love. His play Ronnie’s Charger was produced in Colorado in 2011.
Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church
There is a paradox buried in the idea of religious community, an imperfect compromise that sooner or later all churchgoers must make, but that we don't like to acknowledge openly. This is because a church has two purposes, the social and the devotional. We prefer to pretend that these two goals never pull us in incompatible directions, or that the tension can easily be resolved by abandoning one of them with no damage to the church's mission.
In ordinary circumstances, we adjust our expectations all the time, in order to maintain equilibrium in our relationship to our faith community. We learn to get along with fellow members who make us uncomfortable, because the church is guiding us to serve God together. Or we tolerate preaching and programs that we don't fully agree with, because we've formed strong bonds with our parish family. As in a marriage or a workplace team, a certain level of compromise is healthy. C.S. Lewis discouraged "church shopping" because he believed that members' acceptance of one another's imperfections produced spiritual maturity.
But there is an ever-present risk that the tension between our social and spiritual needs will become too great.
A church with robust faith in the Incarnate God and substantial programs for spiritual formation may turn out to be a church that is not safe for authentic personal relationships -- for example, because of homophobia, sexism, or a general culture of disregarding boundaries in order to "save souls" (see Dianna Anderson's incisive post about false intimacy in evangelical small groups).
On the other hand, a church that respects its members' privacy and diversity may be refusing to provide any leadership about what it means to live a Christian life. Because of a liberal overreaction against fundamentalism, such a church may be a safe social club but no more than that. Our interpersonal roots may be spreading while the plant of our faith withers away for lack of nourishment.
The work of Christian scholar Diana Butler Bass is popular nowadays in discussions about reinventing the liberal church. Though I haven't yet read her book Christianity After Religion, from which this framework is taken, I've heard talk about her formula of "belonging, behaving, believing", which represents the current (in my view, unsatisfying) attempt to resolve the tension. Mark Krause of Nebraska Christian College summarizes it well on his blog:
Bass uses the paradigm of Believing, Behaving, Belonging to flesh out her argument. This is the order her analysis of 20th century American Christianity has produced. First, we believe a set of doctrines put forth by a particular church or denomination. Second, we change our lives to conform to these doctrines in the area of personal behavior. Third, we are accepted as part of the community. Bass sees the new spirituality-based Christianity of the 21st century as reversing this paradigm. We begin by belonging, identifying with a faith community based on personal relationships. Second, we behave, although Bass’s understanding of this is far removed from the earlier understanding. She means that we begin to fit in with this community in our lifestyle. However, in the new paradigm, this may be because we have found a faith community that matches our current lifestyle rather than any sense of transformation. Third, we believe; we incorporate the general beliefs of our identified faith community into our lives, largely on a experiential and activist basis.
As I see it, Bass's formula sets up churchgoers for a crisis of conscience or personal heartbreak down the road. What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can't accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God's will for ourselves.
This is the subterranean flaw in what conservative Christians call "friendship evangelism", i.e. nurturing a relationship of trust with another person in order to create an opening to convert her. The "trust" and "friendship" turn out to be one-sided because the would-be evangelist is not open to having his own beliefs altered by the encounter with the other. He expects her to prioritize "belonging" while he will always put "believing" first.
To avoid this pitfall, the liberal church often de-emphasizes the "believing" piece. But I've noticed that this creates its own kind of cognitive dissonance, in me at least. The church's retention of authoritarian privileges sits uneasily with its primary branding as a voluntary social club. For instance, we receive strong messaging that we should be attending church. Once we're there, we're expected to sit quietly while the person in the pulpit tells us what our shortcomings are, and what good works God commands us to do. We generally hear a lot more about what is needed from us (tithing, volunteerism, charitable giving) than invitations to share our own needs.
If the church is going to foreground "relationship", it had better make sure that its model of relationship is mutual, consensual, and not guilt-based. That's not currently happening.
Moreover, relationship is an empty word unless we have a basis for our affinity. To cite C.S. Lewis again, in The Four Loves he offers a memorable image of friendship (philia) as two people standing shoulder to shoulder, together looking at something they both love. For the friendship network that is the church, shouldn't that "something" be Jesus? But now we're back to "believing".
The real B-word that will determine the church's viability in the 21st century is boundaries. Stay tuned for future posts.
Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs
Dear readers, I have been absent from the blogosphere lately because I've been making extensive notes for future posts on "envisioning the survivor-sensitive church". These notes have coalesced around two problem areas in the relationship between abuse survivors and their faith community.
First, I see a need for churches to become safer environments by developing clearer communication channels and greater self-awareness about the community's feelings, motives, and behavior patterns. Such reforms would particularly help survivors trust the church, but would benefit everyone. Second, there are aspects of the church experience that are not problematic per se, but may be a stumbling block for people with a trauma history. The question then becomes whether the church values this population enough to find alternative ways of reaching them.
I'll share more specific ideas on this blog after I've worked them through. For now, I want to explore a preliminary question that's often a show-stopper when I debate this project with others (or with myself):
Why present one's self AS a survivor when doing theology? Or, as it's sometimes framed, Why cling to a victim identity?
I sympathize with the anxieties behind this question. I don't want to put myself forward as a special snowflake, the woman who's allergic to everything. If these reforms really benefit everyone, why do I need to mention the survivor standpoint? And if they're just my special need, isn't it distracting and self-centered to ask the church to fit around me?
On the other hand, accusations of "individualism", "narcissism", and "consumerism" are too freely tossed around the Christian blogosphere whenever people express dissatisfaction with church. Why is it presumed illegitimate for the people in the pews to voice our needs--not our need for a cooler praise band or a Starbucks in the church lobby, but for faithful guidance through the troubles that actually dominate our lives? For survivors, such guidance starts with bringing our experience out of the realm of the unspeakable.
In a perfect world, we might not require many of the identity labels that currently organize our social sphere. Identities are often asserted under conditions of shame and oppression, to recapture the power to narrate our own lives. No one, for instance, has to come out as straight. Not because straight identity is any more or less real than gay, but because a heterosexist society either assumes you are straight, or applies other, crueler labels to your deviation from "normal" mannerisms.
Similarly, though I always knew the facts of my past, I didn't assemble them into a picture captioned "abuse survivor", until a false mental-health diagnosis forced me to find an alternative to the repulsive funhouse-mirror image that the experts had constructed from my anxious behaviors. Perhaps they saw this persona because she already existed somewhere inside me, the self-hating "bundle of needs" that the neglected child believes herself to be. We internalize victim-blaming because it's easier to believe in our own depravity, which could supposedly be cured by perfect obedience, than to face the grief and terror of our dependence on unsafe caregivers.
During my lifelong process of recovery, I can expect to be interpreted against my will. The constellation of traits appears whether one is "out" as a survivor or not. I can also expect peer pressure to collude in the misinterpretation of other women who wear their wounds even more visibly. Survivor identity is my gesture of resistance and solidarity. What was once forced upon me, I choose freely: To have no place to hide. To risk being called weak, needy, biased, disruptive, mistrustful, bitter, crazy. To attempt to manifest the triumph of love and justice over the sting of social death.
What a paradox this is, that my credibility to advocate for reform may be compromised by my own enactment of it.
I pull these thoughts from my reading of the gospels, where I meet a God-embodying Jesus who inhabited a stigmatized identity to its utmost limits. But I wish this wasn't such a do-it-yourself project. The kinship of books and blogs is not a complete substitute for a real-life Christian community working together to develop theology and pastoral care for survivors' healing.
A common charge levelled at the growing "spiritual but not religious" population is that they prefer shallow and disposable online connections over face-to-face relational commitment. But what if the picture is more complicated? What if they're finding their virtual support groups to be more genuine and spiritually formative than complacent parishes whose faith is not strong enough to witness evil?
Christianity used to be better at giving suffering a language to express and transcend itself. The mortifications of the saints seem merely morbid to our conventional wisdom, whose highest ideal is the well-adjusted man. Whereas once we sang hymns about martyrs and taught their life stories to our children, now we silence tragic disclosures with the dismissal, "Don't be a martyr!"
This modern turn toward positive thinking arose because the old ways became corrupted by self-pity and sentimentalizing of avoidable damage. Identification with holy victims can certainly shade over into self-aggrandizement, deliberate masochism, or collusion with abuse in another form (as when a priest tells a battered wife to "bear her cross" instead of helping her escape).
However, that seems insufficient reason to throw out the entire vocabulary of redeemed suffering. We are ALL potential victims because weakness and pain are part of the human condition. As Hans Kung contended in On Being a Christian, the cross, properly understood, is not a reason to seek out suffering, but rather a way to dignify and be accompanied through the suffering that inevitably comes.
Can the church today re-present the cross to survivors, not as a symbol of guilt and fear, but of solidarity and hope?
Lynne Constantine is on the faculty of the School of Art at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. An interdisciplinary artist and writer, she has, in other moments of her varied career, taught medieval English literature; headed two nonprofits; freelanced as a journalist, speechwriter, ghostwriter and book reviewer; co-authored a book on migraine; and co-founded a communications consulting firm.
I met Lynne earlier this month at the Ollom Art Festival in Northampton, where she gave a lecture on aesthetics that concluded with the wise and funny poem below. In her lecture, Lynne described the shift from classical aesthetics, with its idealized representations and universal theories of beauty, to modern aesthetics, which honors wabi-sabi, "the perfection of imperfection". With the advent of photography and film, we no longer need art to establish a consensus on how things look or should look. Art can turn inward to express the artist's psychological response to her environment, without having to hold up that response as the sole correct one.
This lecture reminded me of my own turn towards experience-based theology, and away from the arguments over the one "right" interpretation of doctrine. So it seemed fitting that Lynne ended with this creative reworking of her Catholic upbringing. Rituals and images remain stubbornly embedded in our subconscious despite our conscious rejection of the belief system where they originated. Perhaps this unresolved tension is one of the imperfections that our art must express, accepting that the rift between these parts of ourselves may never heal.
by Lynne Constantine
Confiteor deo omnipotenti
I am here to confess
I do not know how long it has been
Since my last confession
But I'm here now
And I'm hoping for absolution
For whatever can be absolved
that I am not the person I want to be
That I have made up statistics
In the heat of an argument
Which have turned out to be true
Because so much of this shit is predictable
To pretending not to understand
what the homeless vet in the street asks me for
and for that I am grievously sorry
and for the fact that he's in the street I am grievously sorry
To making up sins when I went to confession as a teen:
"I laughed and talked in church six times,
I took the Lord's name in vain two hundred times."
I made them up so I could get absolution for all the other sins
That I wasn't going to be telling the priest, that old pervert.
For this one I'm not really sorry
But I probably need forgiveness anyway
Absolution is a beautiful concept
But I confess
That I am not very forgiving
Especially when forgiveness is not followed
By a sincere effort to amend your life...
...the Federal Reserve
...banks too big to fail
Are you making a sincere effort to amend your lives
After screwing the entire world
And then getting paid?
Do they make a penance for that?
That as a child I cried for hours
when I found out
that people don't really turn the other cheek
I am noisy when I am inconsolable
I may cry right now
That I want to believe in hell
I confess that I would like to pick their punishment
That I want to believe in heaven for the poor
And for my dogs
I confess that I hate the concept of purgatory
It's a do-over for mean, petty people
Who should have turned the goddamn other cheek
And amended their lives
While it could have done somebody some good.
But that's just me.
I confess that I am stubborn and proud.
I confess that I cry at stupid capitalist manipulative commercials.
Damn you Hallmark.
I confess that I can have a nasty mouth.
I confess that I am not as kind as people think
Nor as generous as I could be
Nor as ready to forgive
As I would like to be forgiven.
And yes, I would like to be forgiven.
For these and all the sins of my past life
And all the sins I will be committing
I ask absolution.
I promise to go forth and amend my life.
While my prison pen pal "Conway" waits for news on his petition for early release, he's been dreaming of returning to work on those motorcycles and racecars he loves. It's been almost a year since California repealed its harsh "three-strikes" sentencing law for nonviolent offenders, but my friend's case is languishing due to the usual bureaucracy and the slow and inconsistent work of his public defenders. The prose-poem below comes from his ongoing series of odes to urban car culture.
Meanwhile, in prison reform news, the FCC finally capped the exorbitant phone rates that were preventing many prisoners from maintaining contact with their families on the outside. Such connections are crucial to keep them from re-offending. Donate to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice at Nation Inside to thank them for their decade of work on this issue. (Don't be put off by their unfinished website.)
City Elegy III by "Conway"
No musical sound true as traffic, has moved these senses so strongly.
Lost songs echo endlessly in this ear's memory.
Low rumble at idle, or burn-out then roar away.
How can one hand, or foot, hold back the temptation of acceleration, without testing all limits?
I have dared to invoke those hidden horsepowered reins just straining to be released.
What does anyone know. Anyone who has not conspired to call upon an unstrained throttle. Especially the song. A mechanical throat that's been closed for too long sings. (A reborn derelict.)
Oh to behold the hollow night growling. Deep as an empty stomach. As another restored machine announces its hunger.
An ancient frame vibrates in anticipation, twists as it shakes off the crusted rust of ages. Then unleashes the force of factory-born flame harnessed free-wheelin' thunders voice, as it bellows out loud a groundpounding -- Move!
Momentum begins, as adrenaline purges each driver to quicken forward movement. Pushing gravity beyond simple attraction. Like: an ancient call into battle.
A charge on horseback towards the final clash of combat, or competition. When Hannibal's men came tramplin' in on elephants. To crush all those who dared to oppose.
But, even those beasts proved their flesh, to be almost as weak as man.
So, man made machines, cherished steeds became formed from metal. Each iron horse or motorized chariot was forged of stronger stranger magic.
One machine can release the sound of a thousand horses, hooves pounding at full charge.
Or, cruise by slow with the rhythmic thump of drumbeats parading by, like armored knights in their glory, celebrating a victorious return.
This is what I imagine; This is what I hear.
During another power-filled night of hot rods and motorcycles.
The music of oil pans dragging down hard streets and avenues.
I salute all those passengers, who have lost their lives, in the ultimate pursuit of velocity. Those who have sacrificed their flesh to a crush of twisted mangled metal.
I do not count your sacrifice in vain. You! Who knew the danger and felt the pure rush of living unstrained.
You, who attained the last great flash of life without regret.
You, whose headlights form a constellation of stars, up above the Earth and everywhere else.
I cannot see your vehicle, you're now too far to recognize.
But your light shines down, like the traffic I still hear.
I wonder; Are you still racing up there? Is this the sound the Cosmos creates. Is that just one huge Avenue of cars, trucks and motorcycles?
Are all those demolished vehicles polished and rollin' again -- Rolling into view, down the Avenue. Cruising with the Gods...
Celebrate Poetry and Dance at Ollom Art Festival Aug. 9-10 in Northampton
This weekend in Northampton, I'm hosting a literary reading as part of the Ollom Art Festival, an interdisciplinary event on the theme of Body, Mind & Heart. Please join us!
Choreographer John Ollom and Ollom Movement Art celebrate the release of his new book, Internal Landscapes, with the Ollom Art Festival on August 9-10 in Northampton, MA. This multimedia event includes the premiere of his show "Prisoner of My Projection" at the Academy of Music Theatre, short films, visual and performance art installations, and a literary reading hosted by Winning Writers.
John has been a great influence on my creative process. Inspired by Jungian depth psychology and ancient myths, his work centers on finding one's inner truth and overcoming shame.
For a glimpse of his teaching style and Internal Landscapes, his original method of "archetypal movement that leads to art creation", watch this 5-minute video by Emma McCagg, whose work will also be on display at the festival.
Poetry by Thom Adams: "eternal questions for a birthday bash"
I first encountered the writer Thom Adams when I critiqued his philosophical poem "Entropy Road" for the Winning Writers newsletter in 2008. He recently shared some other poems with me, one of which moved me so much that I asked to reprint it here. (Trigger warning for suicide.) Visit Thom's website for more verse, both serious and light, and articles on contemporary issues.
eternal questions for a birthday bash
who walked those final steps with you,
or danced your darkest hour?
who steadied you or tied your knot;
did you grimly smile, or weep
when the rope went taut?
what moment tipped the balance
of your dire choice?
yesterday, when you looked
happy as you bathed our only child,
or later when your words and eyes assured me
that you trusted… but you lied?
when did the painful reality occur
that no longer is no more and forever,
and latent regrets are not nearly enough?
wasn’t the love you felt for your suckling baby
enough testimony to us mortals
that god lives, but only for the living?
where did your magic meet its pleasant rest?
on a windy breeze that never stops,
or in a flash of light that seared memory clean,
or in a tiny box of lead?
or, does it spread and blend your lovely scent
in a contented whiff of… universal swirl?
why not just live life’s ups and ills
as if choices weren’t limited but that you had been cheated?
while others said their jealous prayers
with hopes of only being as lucky.
did your fearless conspirators fan their scary flames?
did demons laugh, or cross their fingers toward your twisted end?
how is it for you today… considering our son turns three?
but pees and wakes me in tortured sweat,
buries watered eyes and sobs till hurt subsists.
how nice to think of mama’s touch, yet feel only daddy’s calloused grip.
while he waits to watch the window’s evening strollers,
knowing the “what might have been” will never be…. for him.
MUST I ask again… or has your tidy damage also done you in?
is there something better nothing worse than live?
is something gained or lost again?
was it a silent whimper, or a screaming grin?
can you tell me why or what’s at stake?
… as I light three little candles on love’s birthday cake.
Talkback to Sinatra: My Poem "I Wish I Were in Love Again"
My poems "I Wish I Were in Love Again" and "third day" have just been published as contest semifinalists in Issue #7 of OSA Enizagam, the magazine (get it?) of Oakland School for the Arts. "I Wish..." is a critical gloss on Frank Sinatra's ballad of the same name, which romanticized a violent conflict between lovers. This poem originally appeared in Atlanta Review. (That's right, OSA E will take previously published work. How cool are they?)
"third day" is a collage poem using phrases from a news story about the desecration of a gay man's corpse in Senegal. The formatting can't be reproduced in this blog template, so you'll just have to go buy this great magazine, which features work by Donna Steiner, Anneliese Schultz, Linda Leedy Schneider, and many other accomplished poets and storytellers.
I Wish I Were in Love Again
When Sinatra sings, I wish I were in love again,
I imagine Love is the name
of a violent town in Texas
where the one stoplight
took a bullet long ago,
dusting the dry street with ruby glass.
Where the sheriff,
big-bellied as Cupid,
didn't see the evidence
of the split rope, the double-smudged lipstick,
the blacksnake-cold gun under the belt.
Sinatra's voice pours the golden
whiskey of nostalgia to shimmer
over the icy rocks, like the foothills
outside Love where nothing
lives but tumbleweeds and chicken thieves.
He misses the spat of cat and cur,
the flying fur, the sparks
that burned down Love's one church
when the preacher's daughter
fell asleep smoking.
Lucky in Love
is the man who didn't miss the train
in or out of town.
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,
the mayor says,
hoping to attract
a branch of the Houston bank,
a brassworks factory or even a circus
to settle in Love,
create jobs for the men
and scarcer women who lie
in saloon alleys all night clutching
souvenirs of Love to their hearts:
a postcard, a clump of red dirt.
Who wouldn't want such a loyal workforce?
Love is just around the corner,
if you've got a first-class horse.
City-trippers in the mood
for the blackened eyes
Sinatra sighs for
take the spur line to Love
en route to Laredo or Dallas.
Fanning themselves with transfer tickets,
the ladies breathe, I've never been in Love before,
mistaking the crash of plates
for an emphatic whorehouse piano.
The general store hawks banjos
with one string, plasters for the knees
of old folks who fall in Love too easily,
and of course, bullets.
If you break a hip in Love
you know what happens.
Despite the weather,
Love's no place to retire.
The all-you-can-eat buffet closes at five.
When the moon climbs the sky again
like a drunk husband going upstairs,
the city ladies take their seats
in the second-class carriage,
each with a purple bloom
aching under her blouse, or against her cheek.
It won't fade for days.
It's almost like being in Love.
Two Poems from Marsha Truman Cooper's "A Knot of Worms"
I discovered the work of Marsha Truman Cooper when her poem "You Had to Be There" won third prize in our 2004 Winning Writers War Poetry Contest. Since the judging was anonymous, I was quite surprised to learn that this searing account of a young man's tour of duty in Vietnam was not autobiographical, so convincing was her first-person storytelling.
Cooper's poetry chapbook A Knot of Worms was published this summer by Finishing Line Press in their New Women's Voices series. These quiet poems are charged with a sacred attention to healing the wounds sustained by our bodies and ecosystem. In the aftermath of war or illness, the human spirit finds wholeness by recovering our common bond with whales, dragonflies, and yes, even worms. She kindly shares two sample poems below. "Ashes" was first published in Poetry Northwest.
She will not do
what you expect, not even
if you make love to her.
She can never tell
what she has learned,
no matter how safely
she rests under your arm.
But one day, she may open a jar
she brought from that place.
She will say
it holds the burnt bones
of hands, just the hands,
of people she has known.
Though it cannot possibly
be true, you'll believe her.
You'll pour out
her pieces of calcium
as if they were uncut jewels.
You'll sort through them,
wondering which bone
was the finger of a thief,
which held a violin,
and how the tiny ones
could have belonged to anybody
but a child.
Then you will see
why she can be so positive
that we are all joined.
There will never be a way
to separate these friends.
After the Man Who Counted Dragonflies
died, he opened his eyes and discovered
he was still in Oregon, his research tent
still pitched in a forest of pines
near the edge of a snow-fed, mile-high lake.
He took off his clothes and walked
across the beach pebbles hot as coals,
splashed into icy water— a contrast which,
if he did say so just to himself, felt heavenly.
Apparently, it was still July. A blue darner
dragonfly touched down on his index finger.
He saw the indelible ink dots he’d used
to mark the animal, a pattern recorded
by date for an insect whose life cycle
ended long ago. He wanted to ask him,
a male he’d decorated, the question
that had deviled him in life. He raised
his arm skyward, but before he could speak
more of his subjects joined them. By tens,
then hundreds and finally by thousands
his friends flew to greet him. Nymphs
he had saved from extinction cracked
their shells, split open, crawled up a reed
and darted into summer. They all whirled
around the man, a blue darner wind. Then,
they landed in a mosaic of iridescence—
their wing tips touching randomly in what
looked like sunshine— while his spirit
skittered over acres of their humming surface.
As the sun lowered, he realized that there
might be darkness. At last, he thought,
they would show him what nobody on earth
could find— where they go at night.