I just finished listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with Walter Brueggemann, which was interesting on many levels, not the least for this quote by Kafka on reading books. If only we could always read the Bible as the “ax for the frozen sea within us”! The best literature, and the kind of thing we strive to publish in Relief, will disrupt our habitual lives and refresh our orientation to the world – and to the Scriptures.
5.2 poet Lynn Domina discovers her human perspective and is okay with it.
For about twenty years, I’d found myself puzzled by the idea of eternity. It wasn’t so much the idea of no beginning and no end; I could almost imagine (if not understand) that. It was that with no beginning and no end, there could be no middle either—and that led to all kinds of loss. With no beginning, middle, or end, we have no sequence, no narrative, no possibility of story.
Then I read something that suggested that in eternity, everything happens all at once. I mulled this over. How could this be? How could I, for instance, stand at the bus stop on the first day of kindergarten, adopt my own child, and bake tonight’s pumpkin bread all at the same time?
Years passed. (I live in history, not eternity, and so I can say, “Years passed.”)
One day I realized that my problem was perspective. I cannot understand eternity because of my stance in time. In order to understand eternity, I would need to position myself outside of time. Since I could not actually place myself outside of time, I began to think figuratively, and I realized that if I had a bird’s eye view of time rather than of space, I would see everything happening simultaneously. Eureka! I had solved this intellectual puzzle at least well enough for myself, at least well enough that I could begin to think of other things.
I am a poet, though, not a philosopher, as much as I enjoy sitting around thinking (some would say brooding). I prefer to read and write poetry, with its images, its specificity, its concrete language, rather than philosophy with all of its abstractions. How could I ever write a poem that spoke of how I’d come to understand such an abstraction as eternity?
I sat at my desk and tried to imagine what I would see if I could have an aerial view of time. Because I live in the Catskill mountains, what I see whenever I look out a window are sloping hills, and the pines and oaks and maple trees that cover them. I see peaks tangled with bare branches in winter, tinged with green in spring, bursting into yellow and orange and red during October. Images of mountains and images of snow have drifted into my poems during the years I’ve lived here. So when I tried to imagine what I would see if I could see everything happening at once, I saw the buds on trees, and I saw the leaves surrendering to decay.
But then I came to this great truth: I don’t want to live in eternity; I enjoy living in time. I cling to story, to memory. I want to grasp the excitement of time’s rush, the contemplative solace of time’s creep. And so I conclude the poem with this blessing: not that we may each live in eternity, but that we may each live attentively, in time.
Lynn Domina‘s poems “Flickering Green, Flickering Bronze” and “Omniscience in Babel” appear in issue 5.2. Read her full bio here.
5.2 Poet Michael Martin offers notes on a poetry manifesto.
I used to think that Guillaume Apollinaire was the author of the single greatest line in the history of literature: “I know that only those will remake the world who are grounded in poetry.” I’m not so sure anymore. The word “poetry” has lost its savor. I’m not sure if the aura of professionalism promised by the MFA is to blame, though there is something within me that groans at the thought of poets updating their websites, planning their career trajectories, networking for the big grant money. There must be more to poetry than that.
I don’t write poetry for the sake of having a career or for satisfaction of writing “poet” on my income tax forms. I write poetry in order to wrestle with the problem of God in the only way that seems to work for me. The academic study of theology, of religion, or of hermeneutics, I think, generally avoids the problem of God. This avoidance comes about primarily through the tyranny of the thesis statement: the need to come up with an argument. Poetry doesn’t need an argument. In this, it is not unlike negative theology, which also refuses to be forced to define, abstract, and, above all, name that which cannot be named. So perhaps I come to terms with God by not coming to terms with God. The poems “Visions of Vladimir” and “Words written during the suffering and subsequent death of John Paul II, the Pope of Rome” both figure ways in which I try to contend with this problem.
The best poetry can hope for, I think, is to open us to presence. This is why I am so interested in religious poetry, which, in the best cases, opens us to the presence of God, to the mysterion. I am very fond of Simone Weil’s story about reciting her translation of George Herbert’s wonderful poem “Love” every time she had a migraine. She wrote to a priest she knew about this experience, explaining, “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
I do not pretend that my two offerings in Relief 5.2 will figure that for the reader. Rather, they are documents of my attempts at discovering God’s presence through a phenomenological attendance to the world which I then try to render into language. What this betrays, of course, is that my view of the world is underwritten by a belief in the sacramental participation of God in creation. God is not purely transcendent. Christianity, in addition to affirming God’s transcendence, tells us that God is also immanent: that God abides in all creation. But remaining aware of this presence is not always easy. We often read about God’s “absence,” but I have the feeling the absence is mostly on our account. In these poems I try to make myself aware of God’s presence in the midst of my own absence.
Michael Martin‘s poems “Visions of Vladimir” and “Words written during the suffering and subsequent death of John Paul II, the Pope of Rome” appear in issue 5.2 of Relief. Find his full bio here.
5.2 poet Julie L. Moore explains how her poem became the occasion of our first printing the word “vulva” – and it turns out to be for the best of reasons.
Back in July of 1975, when I was just ten, a nurse carted me into the operating room of West Jersey Hospital. My parents walked along at my gurney’s side, my dad, holding my hand. At the O.R. door, the gurney stopped, my parents kissed me, and I looked at them and said, “Don’t worry. God is going to take care of me.”
In May of 2009, a nurse rolled me into the operating room at Kettering Medical Center in southwest Ohio for my eighth surgery and the removal of my fourth organ. My faith, scarred as my abdomen by then, was no longer blind or simple but hard as a dog’s big rawhide bone. When it fell, it clattered as it hit the floor. It was also vulnerable, capable of being devoured in one sitting, if I let it, by the sharp teeth and strong jaws of pain. And it wasn’t the kind of faith you cuddled up with.
It’s fairly easy to talk about losing body parts. I’ve received phone calls from friends and emails from readers I don’t know who find themselves in my uncomfortable shoes:
I have an ovarian cyst. Didn’t you get an ovary removed because of this? I’m going crazy here. Can you help me?
I’m having all kinds of trouble after having had my gall bladder removed last year. I heard you had trouble, too . . .
And I answer them.
Some, too, have contacted me because they endure unimaginable pain, the kind of long and deep suffering I had no idea existed when I was just ten. The kind that digs into their bones, their backs, their bellies. And that, too, I have talked about.
But there is one area that, until now, I found to be unspeakable. I knew I wasn’t alone, that other women endured what I was experiencing. But write about it? That just seemed wrong. On many levels.
Level One: I’d embarrass my family and/or myself.
Level Two: I just shouldn’t talk about that. Some things should remain private.
Level Three: If my readers know that, they’ll focus only on that and not on my work. (Maybe that’s not a category of “wrong” but rather a category of “ego.” But still.)
So I wrote about enduring pain, about making sense of suffering. I was vivid in my descriptions and clear about the temptations intractable pain brings, like overdosing on medications from well-meaning doctors. When pain stabs, shoots, tears, claws, shocks, and yes, feels like “fifty pins embedded” in flesh, who can stand it?
Yet, I avoided describing all my medical conditions for a variety of reasons. One, I didn’t want readers getting distracted by terminology and two, the most important thing was never what went wrong in my body but how, and why, I endured it.
After I’d published poems about my experiences, however, there was still a voice, sounding an awful lot like Elizabeth Bishop, that kept saying, “Write it!”
And “Prayer Shawl” was born. “Confession,” a poem I’d written several years ago, was the only poem that came close to naming the body parts that hurt, the incredibly feminine nature of my pain. But that poem was cloaked in biblical narrative, the hemorrhaging woman whose labia throbbed.
How to say vagina in a poem. Or vulva. With the possessive pronoun my.
But there it is in “Prayer Shawl,” a poem wrapped in the story of others, dear friends, who have likewise suffered, felt the temptation to throw in the towel, experienced the unrelenting grief of permanent loss. Yet endure.
And my poem is wrapped in the story of my marriage, a husband who has also endured pain and anxiety and the threat of premature death. How terrifying to live through such experiences together in our early forties. This wasn’t the way our story was supposed to go.
And how agonizing to realize that the love we shared, and yes, the making of that love, could not heal me. That I experienced such tremendous pain off and on for six years stood to threaten the very fabric of our marriage. What’s a love story without good sex, after all?
Except that sex isn’t the only way spouses can express love. Except that love can transcend even suffering. Except that prayer to a God who hung himself on a cross, while nails, no less, simultaneously punctured his tender flesh, really has sustained me.
This is my story, pain and love on multiple levels, a story that, as I’ve lived it, has often struck me dumb.
Julie L. Moore‘s poem “Prayer Shawl” appears in issue 5.2 of Relief.
5.2 Poet Maryann Corbett takes us back to the beginning of “Knowledge”
A great many narratives, fictional and real, turn on the unexpected discovery of a document. I suppose that when such a discovery actually happened to me, even in the turmoil that brought the document to light, I recognized the event as a narrative crux, something that might tie together frayed ends in the story of myself.
I found my mother’s annulment papers almost as my poem describes, but a few more details may be helpful. In 2008, my sister died of cancer. She had been the one who lived near our very elderly mother; I lived a thousand miles away. My sister’s care had made it possible for Mom to live independently, and now that care was gone. We tried home help; it wasn’t enough. After several crises, it was clear Mom would have to move to assisted living. In the course of taking over her affairs and moving her belongings out of her apartment, I found her personal papers, and in them the details of a marital history that she had told me almost nothing about, but that explained a great deal.
Learning those details at that overwrought time—after decades of living far from my childhood home and of being happier away from it—forced me to analyze all over again our family’s discomforts, many of them caused by the secret-keeping the poem explains. But the ferocity of my resentment, once I had a particular villain to focus on, surprised me, and I needed to work out its reasons.
I didn’t write immediately. The stewing stage that many poems need went on for some months. I often begin poems simply by turning on the spigot of blank verse—I’ve talked about the process elsewhere and used the image more than once before—and that was what I finally did. My most important help with the poem came from two women poets, one a practicing Catholic (as I still am) and one a nonbeliever. I wanted to know how the poem came across to both.
Then I waited. I waited a year.
I waited, because I wasn’t sure the poem should be published at all while my mother was still with us, and she is. But she’s stopped reading even weekly newspapers and women’s magazines. Computers are beyond her. I believe no harm will be done.
It’s important to me that no harm be done. In particular, it’s important to me that the poem not be read as laying blame—not on my well-meaning parents, not on the starchy foreign-born Irish nuns who taught me, not on the Church as a whole. It’s tempting to believe, when one has been unhappy, that a wrong has been done, but my most important discovery in this process is that, after the first wrong move, most parties had no choices.
The story is what it is. It’s far from the first story of people’s struggles to live with the difficult words of Jesus, about marriage and other matters. My best tools for dealing with the pains caused by the Church are still the words of the Church, words addressed to God in the Eucharistic Prayer: In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Maryann Corbett‘s poem “Knowledge” appears in issue 5.2 of Relief.