All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

The Unspeakable in Poetry: A Love Story

Julie L. Moore

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.

The Story Is What It Is

Maryann Corbett

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.

Birthed From Struggle

5.2 CNF author Heather M. Surls describes how her essay “The Door of Hope” responds to the suffering of real people.

After a day of volunteering at The Door of Hope, a shelter for prostitutes in Tel Aviv, I would crowd onto a bus with dozens of Israelis and ride to our apartment near Jerusalem. Sometimes I’d read on the way; sometimes I’d watch the orange trees, wheat fields and melon fields of the coast rise into the pines, scrub oaks and rocks of the hill country. Once home, I’d shower to scrub away the smells of bleach and sweat and dying. Then my husband and I would sit at the table and I’d begin to talk. Deflated, spent from fighting on the front lines, I’d sketch with words the women I’d met, my tasks and conversations, my small victories in speaking Hebrew.

Then I’d write. I used my ugly journal at that time, the plain spiral notebook with the cover that had soaked up something greasy on the bus. I wrote about my experiences to let go of them—catch in words, commit to the page, and release. After several months of this—visiting The Door of Hope on weekends and writing when I came home—I began my essay. I collected the scattered scraps of senseless days and senseless pain and tried to craft something beautiful. The result, after months of experiencing, writing, compiling, and editing, was “The Door of Hope,” a patchwork of stories, faces, and meditations.

The shelter, a concrete basement in the slums of south Tel Aviv, was full of art and artists. Although the walls were moldy, although rats sometimes scampered from one hole to another in full view, although sometimes a prostitute woke screaming from a nightmare, The Door of Hope made people make art. Photographers, especially, came and captured scabbed faces, desperate eyes, grocery bags stuffed with clothes, occasional hugs and smiles. The walls held some of their art: a portrait of a wide-eyed, unsmiling woman in front of a red cloth. She died. One of a skeletal woman with blonde waves of hair, wearing a piece of white silk and lace, leaning against a building. She was beaten to death with a pipe.

Art was a response to pain—that became clear as I worked and wrote. The photographers tried to find beauty in ashes. I tried to reconstruct my experiences so I could cope, so I could handle the hell I saw in back streets and broken bodies. But, perhaps deeper than that, I wrote because I wanted to redeem the pain. I wanted to make something beautiful from withdrawal-complaints and shouts in the alleyway, something poetic yet fragmented to show my lack of understanding—girl after girl, day after day, what can this mean? I wanted to make all this suffering good for something. If these prostitutes had to suffer, I wanted to expose their misery so others would see their need and feel compassion.

Does all art come from pain? I don’t think so, but I do believe that some of the best and most enduring art is birthed from struggle. I think of David and his many poems, which I’ve read for years during dark nights of soul. How wonderful that God took David’s anguish, allowed him to express it, and preserved it for thousands of years to encourage me, riding on the bus to Tel Aviv, bracing myself for the onslaught of evil and fallenness, clinging to bits of truth.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty

(Psalm 93:3-4).

Heather M. Surls is the author of “The Door of Hope,” featured in issue 5.2 of Relief.

Paul’s Advice for Writers

Brad Fruhauff

Editor-in-Chief Brad Fruhauff was surprised to find advice on writing in the Epistle to the Romans.

As Relief starts considering an expansion to graphic narrative, I’ve been trolling the web to see what Christians are up to out there in the world of comics. Let’s just say that it’s not pretty.

Not unlike a lot of the standard fare in Christian fiction, graphic narrative under the banner of God Incarnate tends toward the didactic, polemic, reductive, simplistic, sappy, disingenuous, and even outright violent. My guess is there are Christian comic artists out there in desperate need of a journal like Relief. We just need to find one another.

What’s distressing is that there’s a lot of talent out there – people who can draw really well. The stories, however, are predictable, inane, or repugnantly self-righteous. An example comes to mind of a strip, admirably drawn in the super-hero style of DC Comics or Marvel, in which a hip-looking fellow in the company of an angel tries to convert a man in a suit he meets on the street. The suit, perhaps not surprisingly for someone approached in this guerrilla manner, rejects the curbside altar call and is spectacularly dragged to hell. One is reminded of William Blake’s claim that Milton was on the side of the devils, since it’s clear this comic is enamored with the representation of the demons and the man’s terror.

The audience for this kind of narrative is not Christ’s lost sheep but the elder sons who pass by the prodigals while they’re still working in the pig sties. It is the smug and self-satisfied Christian who will be offended with God when they learn the deathbed conversions will receive the same reward as they who stayed within the fold from early in the day. (Yes I will mix my metaphors and parables.)

This seems to be the kind of thinking Paul is trying to correct in Romans. In the first three chapters he gets quite exercised about the fact that God’s judgment covers all. This is where he says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Thus none should become too proud nor too quick to judge others:

You are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?

The last bit there should give us all pause. To judge another who is under the same curse of sin as us  is to despise the riches of God, to forget that it was His goodness, not our own wisdom, that led us to Him.

Christian writers might keep this in mind when dealing with both believing and non-believing characters or when treating the things of this world. When Jesus said he brought a sword, he described the effect his salvific work would have on an egotistic human nature. He wasn’t giving us swords – in fact, he told Peter to put his sword down.

Paul reminds us that the consciousness of sin begins with oneself. In Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima identifies this sense of personal guilt as the beginning of universal love. How foreign such an idea seems to American Christianity! May we pray that we are not found inexcusable. May we rather love what Christ loves – the Creation, human beings – and do our part in remaking and re-presenting the world to ourselves to closer approximate that love.

Gathering the Kindling

David Holper

Guest Poetry Editor David Holper shares his experience reading and writing poetry and offers some insight into what he wants for our Fall 2011 issue.

As the guest poetry editor for the upcoming issue of Relief, I want to introduce writers and readers to my tastes and influences as a poet and as a reader of poetry.  Let me start where I typically start with people who ask me who my favorite poet is.  When W.H. Auden was asked this same question in an interview in 1971, he wisely responded, “it suggest[s] that poetry were a horse race where you could put people 1, 2, 3, 4. You can’t. If anyone is any good, he is unique and not replaceable by anybody else.”  That’s a good starting place because in reading a lot (and writing a lot), you move beyond gimmicks and you learn to write yourself out of the ruts that often occur in creative work.

As for me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (in a family of devout atheists, a dis-ease from which I eventually recovered as an adult) and was heavily influenced by the Beats (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginzberg, Gary Snyder), but I was lucky enough to have good writing teachers in high school, college, and graduate school, so all along I was exposed early on to an eclectic variety of styles, voices, and forms.

I began to write my own poetry in high school, but I would say that as important as practicing writing, I regularly attended open mics and poetry readings, put together my own poetry shows (with my other weird poet friends), and often read my work aloud.  That sense of the sound of a poem has been critical to my understanding and writing of poetry.  In college, I also wound up editing the campus literary magazine Toyon, which helped me recognize that quality poetry doesn’t come in just one form, particularly the one with my name on it.  Those habits of reading widely and reading aloud have definitely influenced my craft and my appreciation of other poets.

As an editor, I want a poem to offer me something that I wouldn’t otherwise notice.  I recall hearing a wonderful poem on the radio one day (a poem I’ve never been able to locate afterwards) in which a man describes flying on a plane with his wife who falls asleep next to him.  In staring at her, as well as the sunny space between them, he realizes that in the many years that they have been married, it’s as if a third presence has formed that binds them.  It’s altogether a lovely poem, but lovelier still because it reveals to us something we may have all intuited about couples who have been together for a lifetime and still find themselves in love—that together they seem to form something greater than themselves, and anyone who has basked in such a presence surely feels its blessing.

Then, too, a good poem often has a core: sometimes that core comes in the form of an idea.  Think of so many Wallace Stevens poems or William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow.  Yes, it’s a vivid image that he offers us, but it’s the line that “so much relies upon” that wheelbarrow that tells us what he’s driving at on a deeper level, i.e., the need to notice, to observe image carefully—and yet more carefully still.  But that core may also reside in the form of revelatory emotion, or as Billy Collins said in 2001, “Poetry is the history of the human heart, and it continues to record the history of human emotion, whether it’s celebration or grief or whatever it may be.”

Perhaps last of all, poetry for me has become a way to celebrate my faith.  In some way, it should make me sit up and pay attention to life and its sacred dance.  So many people around us go through life on auto pilot, and for me and for many others, poetry is a way to re-awaken us to the holiness that resides within us and all around us.  Whether it’s through picking up the thread of a Biblical narrative, observing life around us, delving into the natural world, or just contemplating Christ’s work in our own lives, a poem should gather the kindling and the wood to reignite that sacred connection that our culture so casually dampens through its superficial, banal concerns.  And when one finds a poem that sets that blaze alight, that poem becomes a treasure not easily set aside.

David Holper has worked as a taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. His poems appear in various literary journals and his book of poems, 64 Questions, is available from March Street Press. He teaches at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, CA, far enough from the madness of civilization to get some writing done. He is Relief‘s guest poetry editor for Issue 5.2.