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Filtering by Tag: poetry

You Must Change Your Life

Christina Lee

railway-station-1007167_1280 Naomi Shihab Nye describes poetry as “a conversation with the world, a conversation with those words on the page allowing them to speak back to you—a conversation with yourself.”A few weeks ago, at AWP, I heard Nye speak on a poetry-activism panel with Luis Rodriguez and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Griffiths’ photography and poetry gives voice to the grief and rage she feels at the police brutality in America. Rodriguez, the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, has seen poetry unite his diverse, complicated city. All three poets spoke with a beautiful urgency, reminding us of the power in our art.  

This seemed to be the theme of AWP. Claudia Rankine was the keynote speaker. Her book, Citizen, is the perfect example of revolution-inciting poetry.

In fact, every session and panel seemed to be built on this same idea. Throughout the conference, I kept thinking of the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” After contemplating the beauty and power of the statue, the speaker feels an edict: “You must change your life.”  

The Monday after the conference, I drove to work in a bit of a funk. I missed the urgency and energy and buzz of the conference. Then the story of Dagmar and Wali came on NPR and reminded me that returning to regular life was the whole point.  

The story concerns a very odd couple: Dagmar Nordberg is a 60-year-old Swedish museum director. Wali Hafiz is a 23-year-old Afghani engineer and refugee. Wali was brutally beaten and left for dead by the Taliban after he refused to support their efforts. He was forced to leave his wife and young daughter and flee to Sweden. This excerpt from the NPR transcript describes Wali and Dagmar’s first encounter:

They met on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.

"He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes," Nordberg recalls. "And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, 'It's winter!' "

Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.

"He said, 'I know, ma'am,'" she says. "That was the first time I heard Wali's voice."

Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee and she could either go on with her life or help him. "I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences," she says.

So she took him in, taught him English, and secured him an apprenticeship. If you play the story to the end, you’ll hear them laughing together at her kitchen table…two unlikely kindred spirits.

I’m sure Dagmar, as a museum director, would have liked what Nye, Rodriguez, Griffiths and Rankin had to say at AWP, if she’d been able to hear it. I’m sure that when she curates the art in her museum, she looks for works that challenge and inspire change.

What amazes me is the way she altered her life in one moment, because of one encounter. Her story reminds me that it isn’t enough to listen to great speakers or to feel moved by great art. We must also be willing to take action.

I can’t get over that line she called out over the train platform— “It’s winter.”

Those words did what Nye says all poems should do. They connected strangers and moved them from hostility to understanding. They began a conversation. And ultimately, they transformed.

Printed out on a page, separated from their story, they might not look like much. 

It’s Winter.

Still, that’s the best poem I’ve heard in years. 

Exteriority

Howard Schaap

Photo by Bradley Davisi / CC BY 2.0 The first time I washed myself in sage smoke, it was my introduction both to smoke in ritual and to sage. I vaguely wafted the smoke around my head as I had seen others do, but the experience was entirely foreign to me. I’d stepped over this prairie plant all my life and never wondered about its character, its smell, its purifying capabilities. Wrapping myself in its smoke was a baptism of sorts. We were out on the prairie, at a Lakota burial site discovered on an Englishman’s farm, which the Lakota had come to re-consecrate. The foreignness I felt was entirely my own.

Back at the pot luck up at the farm, someone said, “Did you notice the hawk that was out there, blessing us?”  

I had not noticed that either.

When I first read Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” it helped make manifest what I’d missed. “To pray you open your whole self/ To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon,” the poem begins, “To one whole voice that is you.”  

I’m a stumbling pray-er. Too often for me prayer has been akin to a grocery list and un-akin to an opening.

Right off in “Eagle Poem,” too, we’re in an exterior setting powerful with heavenly bodies. This I know. I have a particular memory of fall in mind: sunset and one heavenly body ignites a sliver of the other, sending a shiver among the corn.

“And know there is more,” the poem continues, less as command than as a statement about the nature of being in prayer:  You “open” yourself and “know” there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear Can’t know except in moments Steadily growing, and in languages That aren’t always sound but other Circles of motion. Like Eagle that Sunday morning Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky In wind, swept our hearts clean With sacred wings.

This is the first sleight of hand. The poem takes us from the more that we cannot see, and bypasses language, replacing it with the circles of motion there in the sky, with the eagle circling. And subject is joined to object: the exterior circling of the eagle sweeps clean the interior of the heart.  

We see you, see ourselves and know That we must take the utmost care And kindness in all things. Breathe in, knowing we are made of All this, and breathe, knowing We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out this morning Inside us. We pray that it will be done In beauty. In beauty.

I see the circles, feel them even, external in my mind until the sky flips and suddenly it’s “Inside us.”

It’s the kind of thing I want from art, when the interior becomes the exterior, entangling Self and Other, till the Other is I and I, Other, and I have to disentangle again the one from the many, the firmament from the waters, the man from the dust.

Or do I?

Believing in Poetry in Haiti - Part 1 of 2

Adele Gallogly

IMG_4759 I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. —Gregory Orr (as posted by Image Journal)

This quote comes up on my Facebook feed while I am straining for a wireless signal from a humid guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I am a few days into a work trip as a staff writer at a disaster relief and community development agency. Sweat gathers in my back. My eyes are dry from a full day in contact lenses I rarely wear. I have just finished a supper of spicy beef and beans over rice accompanied by bread and mango juice, both fresh.

I am safely accommodated here in this bustling metropolis, where honking cars and colorful tap tap crowd the narrow streets bordered by litter-clogged gutters. Here, where bright purple flowers spill out over barbed wire-topped gates and roadside vendors sell wares ranging from intricate handcrafted metal art to unlabeled pill bottles.

Safety and comfort have been rare commodities in Haiti. Just over twenty-one decades ago, this nation claimed independence after the first successful slave revolt in human history. Just over five years ago, a horrific shaking of the earth killed an estimated two hundred thousand people and reduced buildings in the city and countryside to rubble.

What might it mean to believe in poetry as “a way of surviving” here, in this place of concrete streets and mountain crests, poverty and creativity,  political corruption and revolution? As a visitor—a foreigner with a notepad and a fixed agenda—I cannot of course know completely. I can only glimpse and theorize and listen as I meet with project leaders and literacy students in my path.

In addition to learning about beginner literacy programs already underway, I’m also here to see a new program in its seminal stage. It is a post-alpha program giving those with basic reading and writing skills the chance to grow in their capacity to read and write and their love for these activities. These lessons focus heavily on the form of poetry. Students memorize poems and learn how devices such as rhythm, meter, metaphor, and rhyme give language its deep music. Eventually they work at their own creations.

Gregory Orr’s words of belief enter my tired mind with a fitting weight as I think of these learners perched on poetry’s earliest threshold. I’ve read Orr’s books, even heard him give a lecture. I know his personal story of a life marked by violence, addiction, civil disobedience, and a tragic shooting accident that claimed his brother’s life in childhood. He does not speak lightly of suffering or survival. He reminds me that poetry is a generative spark. A lifeline. A rush of breath, a new light. Pick your survival metaphorthey all click with some power here where daily life is a struggle for many.

These literacy classes are not about bringing poetry to Haiti. I bristle at that word, so often used in missions-speak about “bringing God” to a country or community. God is always there and everywhere, already. He is present. His Spirit is moving, working.

I believe it is the same with poetry. It is already present in this country, woven into its history and the new legacies made by those who have cause to speak heavy of both great affliction and great joy. Every country is a country of creators. Literacy is about naming and shaping what we, as creative people, read and make. Oh Lord, what a gift. Help me see it freshly in this place.

*

(Read Part 2 here)

Fado

Jayne English

The Ship Near Coast by Ivan Aivazovsky So few grains of happiness
 measured against all the dark
 and still the scales balance.
 - from The Weighing by Jane Hirshfield

When my siblings and I were kids, we observed the attributes of mercury on our kitchen table. We must have gotten it from a broken thermometer (and I’m not sure how we escaped its toxicity). We watched the mercury bead up and roll ahead of our fingers, always propelling itself away from our touch. The silver gem held its shape, in spite of being a liquid, due to its high surface tension. It was lovely and fascinating. Now, all these years later, I see it as a metaphor for longing; a soul leaning toward something precious that’s just beyond reach.

Longing resides in future tense and past tense. There is either something we yearn to have or something we used to have and want back, such as love, peace, adventure. We either reach toward something before God gives it, or reach back for something taken away.

Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Fado” speaks of yearning. The poem is titled after a type of Portuguese music of longing made popular by sailors who missed loved ones while away at sea. In the poem, Hirshfield paints a portrait of a woman in a wheelchair singing a fado in a “half-stopped moment” when dawn is just beginning to light the skies. Those in the club with her are silent as she sings her song. The wheelchair imagery suggests brokenness at the heart of the poem. It ends this way:

and a woman in a wheelchair is singing a fado that puts every life in the room on one pan of a scale, itself on the other, and the copper bowls balance.

What is this balance? Maybe it’s balance between brokenness and song, or between the audience’s empathy and the singer’s longing. We might say that the beauty of fado, and what balances the scales in the poem, is how the woman inhabits both wanting to be made whole and accepting brokenness.

Longing has its own vocabulary. It’s not resignation (it’s not what I want but, whatever), or exasperation (I’m so tired of this mess I just don’t care anymore). And it isn’t really just acceptance (it is what it is). Longing speaks the language of prayer, thy will be done. Its language resides in the tension between not wanting God’s will and holding it close. Jesus’ prayer in the garden, take this cup, balances on a word; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done. No matter how much we want out of one circumstance or into another, don’t we really long for God to have his way? The word fado translates as “fate” which is apt if we think of fate in the sense of a heavenly father who balances in his heart the precious things we long for.

Their Eyes Meeting the World

Jean Hoefling

11 HoeflingSee that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. Matthew 18:10

The first grade art assignment was simple enough: draw our mothers working around the house. I went with a laundry theme; as the oldest of four kids I probably saw my mom beside that front-loader a lot. But to draw it? I was an abstract-leaning kid even then, and this exercise in visual realism apparently escaped me. I managed to produce a spindly specter with sea urchin fists inside a swishy enclosure whose boundaries pushed against the edges of the paper. While my classmates’ drawings yielded Mary Tyler Moore moms next to sensible blenders and ironing boards that looked like the real thing to me, my own mother was caught in an appliance nightmare. I simply could not visualize her anywhere but wedged inside that washing machine. I remember my tears; I still feel the moment’s helplessness and shame.

My mother saved the drawing. And now I know—because I know the rest of the story and a whole lot more about the psychic wisdom of young children—why I created what I did. I knew intuitively what grownups wouldn’t admit for years more—that Mrs. Johnson was desperately, clinically depressed, with no way out of the spin cycle there on Meade Street.

Child psychiatrist Robert Coles remembers his mentor, poet-physician William Carlos Williams, encouraging him to trust the psychic acuity of young children as they drew or painted their symbolic concepts of reality: “Look at them, looking, their eyes meeting the world. . .“ In Coles’s book on children’s art, Their Eyes Meeting the World, Williams tells him, “A youngster drawing is . . . a youngster telling you a hell of a lot. When will we know that?”

When indeed will we know that? A child dying of leukemia says little but paints a girl floating on a river of blood (her transfusions no doubt) toward a verdant, healing island. Then she dies. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her either how things are or how they ought to be. When will the chattering, arrogant world lose its appeal and we turn to the uncluttered expressions of the least of these and pure in heart who see and hear things we no longer can? Wasn’t it Christ who claimed God forms perfect praise in the mouths of children?

Writing in Place

Jill Reid

airport-731196 In late July, just as the lawns on my street were properly scorched and my small garden gave up its last stunted tomato, my daughter, Ellie, and I boarded a plane for upstate New York. We ate chocolate chip granola bars and chewed the gum we stuffed in our backpacks the night before. In flight, I jittered on Starbucks espresso, and Ellie drew pictures of clouds with the fresh blue notebook and green pen we bought just for the trip. And when we found our luggage on the carousel and headed toward the entrance where my best friend was waiting to pick us up, I suddenly had the strangest desire. For the first time in weeks, I felt compelled to sit down and write.

Known for his writing about the power of myth, C.S. Lewis believed that "the value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity." Standing in that airport in that moment plunged me into a story that could have belonged to someone whose life is much more exciting than mine. Everything about the heft of my backpack, the squeak of Ellie's shoes, and the drag of the suitcase along the airport tile felt bigger, more profound than it had six hours ago in Louisiana. This fresh place in location freed the ordinary to be all that it had been before, but that I was unable to experience under "the veil of familiarity." Suddenly, there was something mythic about holding my seven-year-old's little hand, her favorite doll under her arm, the both of us standing in a place we never stood before and might never stand again.

Writing in any place is tough. "Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job," writes Neil Gaiman. "It's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins." I write, more often than not, against the urge to go back to bed, to clean my kitchen, or do just about anything else in the world besides sit down with that blank page. On my better days, I write, anyway. But the writing isn't always good; the writing doesn't always feel worth it. And sometimes, in the process of waking up, making the coffee, and staring at the screen, I experience the treadmill sensation of moving without moving, of writing in place.

In her poem, "Sometimes, When the Light," Lisel Mueller suggests that an angle of light is enough to produce the mythic jarring of relocation.

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall, under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on, so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw, you would die, or be happy forever.

The surprise in the poem arrives not just in the "secret" taking place behind the shagginess of unkempt trees. The surprise in the poem also arrives with the word "again." The speaker knows "again that behind that wall" something "marvelous and dangerous" is taking place, and the fresh angle of light has transformed the crumbling landmark she might overlook on her routine drive to work into a revelation. She has seen this place before but forgotten to notice the "marvelous and dangerous" about it.

I seldom have the chance to board airplanes for New York. Somedays, the only landmarks I see are the ones I pass on the way to the kitchen table where I sit down, morning after sleepy morning, to drink my coffee and work out my writing. But right now I'm still charged with the loss of familiarity I experienced after that flight. And I'm also on the lookout for fresh angles of light to illuminate again the "marvelous and dangerous" that I have forgotten to notice.

Twenty Little Poems

Rebecca Spears

Old books “It is that incidental, almost accidental, encounter with memorable beauty or knowledge—that news that comes from poetry—that enables us, as the poem by William Stafford says, ‘to think hard for us all.’" — Tony Hoagland, “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

A friend sent me a link to Tony Hoagland’s article, “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America.” I am a poet and an instructor, so I should read this, right? The grand title gives me pause, but the case that Hoagland makes for his canon of twenty poems is astute. I have been trying over the years to inculcate in my students not only the pleasures of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, but also the necessity of poetry.

The word “save” is always intriguing. Often I use the “save” function on my computer to hold onto an article I’ve been reading or to keep my written work safe. Sometimes I will save something in the Cloud. I think about saving grace and salvation sometimes. Hoagland is suggesting a kind of salvation that comes from reading poetry, a national salvation no less. And he may be onto something. I have often thought that poetry has a saving power, a way to put us in touch with the magnificent and the miniscule. To read a poem well, we have to slow down and look closely. The close looking that poetry requires is akin to meditation, which is not exactly what Hoagland is advocating, but close looking often translates to thoughtful actions in life.

To acquaint students with poetry, Hoagland suggests using living, well-wrought contemporary poetry in the classroom, and working our way back to the classics. This is, in fact, how I approach poetry with my students. It makes so much sense to work our way backwards in literature, because language becomes less familiar the further back in time we go. But to return to the theme of salvation: Hoagland calls poetry “our common treasure-house” and explains:

"We need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling . . . . We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its preview of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak."

If we all subscribe to Hoagland’s argument, then we can collectively save ourselves culturally through a common currency of poetry. So Hoagland also offers up several ways to read poetry and acquire a common language. These categories are especially helpful to me, an instructor who likes to organize curriculum thematically. Hoagland’s topics range from poetry that teaches the ethical nature of choice or respects solitude and self-discovery to poetry that stimulates daring, rehabilitates language, and acknowledges trouble ahead. If as a culture, we had more poetry in common among us, language to help us appreciate the beauty and trouble of everyday living, we might also be shored up collectively, and eventually feel closer to that great shalom we often wish for among ourselves.

The Poetry of Loss and Resurrection

Jill Reid

Robert Freidus Sometimes, especially when I’m most in need of meeting myself—the actual Jill long lost within the daily, rigid busyness of life—I hunt for myself in the files on my computer.

I look for me between the lines of what I have managed to write down, in words and images that, over time, come together in patterns and threads and whispers. And I try to understand what I believe I have been trying to tell myself. I have discovered that the Jill who has been writing these past few months is one who can’t stop talking about the past, about memory, about loss.

A few months ago, I stood in the cold corner of a funeral home with a twenty-one year-old college student whom I have come to love and admire very much over four years of teaching her. Just a day earlier, she was taking notes in her English literature class. Now, she was standing near the casket of her mother, killed on impact in a tragic car crash. And just like that, the month became not her first month as a college senior, but the month in which her mother died, the month she would forever associate with brutal and unexpected loss.

I know that grief and loss almost always find us when we aren’t looking. And even when we are looking, our God-given human instinct to exist, to expect others to continue to exist along with us still baffles our ability to navigate what we somehow feel was never meant to be—this road of vanishing faces, this road of vanishing moments. We feel we are made to last. We feel those we love were made to last. And yet, like pencil etchings on a growth chart, our human lives can feel so measured by the losses we endure, the grief we live with.

A few weeks after the funeral, I read a poem by Lisel Mueller that stunned me in all the aching and haunting ways the best poems do:

“When I Am Asked” by Lisel Mueller

When I am asked how I began writing poems, I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died, a brilliant June day, everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench in a lovingly planted garden, but the day lilies were as deaf as the ears of drunken sleepers and the roses curved inward. Nothing was black or broken and not a leaf fell and the sun blared endless commercials for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench ringed with the ingenue faces of pink and white impatiens and placed my grief in the mouth of language, the only thing that would grieve with me.

I think the poem haunted me because of how powerfully Mueller’s images portray a collision of experience—that relatable and agonizing experience of being alone in a cheery, bright world with your own dark grief. The placement of a hard “stone bench” in both the middle of her poem and the middle of a garden communicates something of the hardness and ruttedness one faces in the middle of loss. The flowers bloom beautifully and unsparingly, advertising their wholeness in a season where “nothing is black or broken” except the mourner, sitting on a gray bench, stuck between bloom and loss.

Mueller’s poem helps me understand the self I have discovered in the files of my computer. I think I write about loss and memory and the past because those things never really are lost or past. I think we write poems and read poems because, among other things, poetry becomes the landscape of resurrection. When Mueller finds that language, that poetry will “grieve” with her, she not only resurrects the memory of her mother, but she also raises up her own grief and gives it a safe space to unfold, to exist. In our busy lives, it does seem that there is little room to negotiate loss. But in the world of the poem, there is space, not only for those we mourn but also for those who mourn.

(Photo by Robert Friedus)

A Little Experiment

Brad Fruhauff

NL-351235-2 At Relief we’re always interested not just in great writing, but in getting that work into the hands of ordinary church-goers—no English degree required. But while plenty of people think of themselves as novel readers or even nonfiction readers, very few people think of themselves as poetry readers; the poetry people are always presumed to be in some sort of world of their own. But this summer I decided to try a little experiment and run a church small group on reading contemporary Christian poetry.

The good news is that it worked. Mostly. Some of what didn’t work wouldn’t have worked with another kind of small group either. But the fact that it worked at all was, frankly, a little surprising. As I think back on the experience, I’ve learned a few things I’ll try differently next time:

  1. Go for it. I just submitted the idea without asking anyone. The church leadership was very open to it, and a lot of people were pleasantly surprised by it.
  2. Set the bar high and your expectations low. That is, aim for as many people as you can hold, and ask everyone you can, but don’t be surprised if there is more enthusiasm than commitment — especially during the summer months.
  3. Meet somewhere comfortable and quiet. A café can be nice but still noisy, and people are more likely to come out to someone’s home, anyway.
  4. Choose a convenient weeknight. Most of us, including myself, had a hard time making every Sunday evening, for a host of reasons. Folks are a little more likely to be in “go” mode on a Monday through Thursday.
  5. Find the right pace. This will be slower than you want to go and probably a little faster than the group thinks it wants to go. Hopefully this means most people will have the time to read during the week and that you’ll usually leave feeling like there was more to say (which will be true). We usually read 12-20 poems per week and actually talked about 3-4.
  6. Empower your group. We began with Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem as a nonthreatening entrée into reading poetry, but anything you can do to permit people to respond honestly and candidly is important. I tried to model honest inquiry and authentic enjoyment as well as openness to ambiguity and mystery. It wasn’t easy for everyone, but we generally avoided the anxiety of the “right”
  7. Don’t teach, but do lead. I didn’t come each week with any real agenda other than to help folks enjoy poems I also enjoyed and to learn how they responded to new poetry. Thus, I didn’t feel the need to lecture at them, though I sometimes did explain concepts or trends when relevant. What I did try to do, however, was to hold us all accountable to the text. I’d let us wander on a tangent inspired by the text, but if I felt someone was misunderstanding or getting a little loose with their reading, I’d call us back to the text to make sure we had solid footing. Occasionally, I’d see that I was misreading.
  8. Our Community Life pastor always reminds us that small groups succeed when their leaders pray. Pray of course for the needs of your group, but pray, too, prayers of praise for the beauty of the written word.

(Painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones)

Rehearsal Space

William Coleman

chair

It’s coming on autumn. Soon, I will feel compelled to read a poem by Gregory Orr to my senior class. I might ask each of them to read it aloud again for themselves. I will likely do the same in the spring, before they leave.

Ghosts at Her Grandmother's House

It is autumn and I can see the lake because leaves have fallen. The distant water becomes blue leaves on the bare branches of oaks.

I look back at the house: two empty armchairs on the porch. She is sitting in one of them, and my wife is a child in her arms.

I will say this poem for their sakes, but also for my own. To read a poem is to breathe where it breathes, know as it knows. Inhabiting the consciousness of this poem, I become as composed as I struggle to be in life, as capable of seeing and trusting in the endurance of life, as capable of love. To read such a poem is a rehearsal.

After all, I am standing outside a house that holds few or no memories for me, within the gathering cold of a season of harvest and dying, and the rhythm of my perception is so untroubled, I feel at home. In such stillness, I am given to see living water, present to my sense precisely because the apparent fell away. In apprehending this moment, what’s far grows near. Distant blue (that mirrors sky and holds life unseen) limns the weathered trees before me. The convergence is so complete — conflating, as it does, earth and sky, water and air — it should shock my cognition, disorient, leave me bewildered, but the rhythm goes on being serene. The images that arrive are of deep rehabilitation, and they come as though expected: ghosts, guests. The attended imagination, I understand, is nothing to be feared.

How easy it would be now for me to become entranced, fall in love with the richness of the vision I've been given. Instead, in this consciousness, I turn. I turn from the element that filled an earthly depression and dazzlingly replenished life thought to be lost; I turn as though guided by what I saw, as though looking for its kin. I turn toward the life of my beloved. Again, loss and death are transfigured—necessary conditions, I see now, for me to see what I see now: the unending nature of remembered life. Here is my wife, years before the time I say I came to know her. And here is her grandmother, on this same porch, cradling the girl I will call my wife. Standing in the open air of autumn, I love what they love, and love them more for knowing them more.

For the time it takes to say the poem, I feel and know what it is for my self to dissolve into attentiveness, for time to coalesce, and for love to become more present.

And so, when soon I say this poem out loud and ask others to do the same (for I am a teacher), I will do so in the belief that when the bell propels us from the poem’s depths up to our own clamorous surfaces, and sends us out toward other people within a world that seems to be falling apart, something of this poem's consciousness will stay with us as we go.

Writing against Loss

Jill Reid

memory This summer, along with a talented poet friend, Rosanne Osborne, I co-led a poetry and faith workshop using Dave Harrity’s book, Making Manifest. The book emphasizes writing as a way of recovering an awareness of ourselves and our Creator by focusing on the significance of single moments, both past and present. The makeup of the workshop was both surprising and just right, made up of multiple generations of women who discovered, through writing, how much more they had in common than any of us initially anticipated. For a month, writers in all stages of life wrestled hard with memory, paying careful attention to what Dave Harrity calls “the disappearing instant,”and living inside the particularity of a moment long enough to locate the images and words capable of capturing the moment’s essence and implications.

Writing about memory can be a tricky thing. “The writer must,”poet Jeanne Murray Walker instructs, “learn how to manage time and manage it well.”For writers, this managing of time is a tall order, particularly when, as busy human beings, we feel much more managed than managing. However, there is reprieve in the world of a well-written poem. That poem has the supernatural ability to stop time, to allow for the kind of reflection that counters the pace of the “real”world.

As challenging as it can be to set up the world of a poem, to find a way into the lyric or the narrative, to decide which lines to cut, to settle on the dominant image that, hopefully, will beautifully marry all the poem’s assorted parts, the poem that delves into memory offers the writer and the reader an opportunity to sit still inside of a single moment, to settle into instances crisp as the day they were happening. The poem offers the writer and reader the chance to recover something that has been lost.

Poet Ruth Stone writes that “memory becomes the exercise against loss.”Stone’s words imply high stakes for the writer who chooses to engage the past.   The struggle of that poet is the struggle to recover and locate someone else’s memory in her own, to be both universal and specific, and to do both in the breadth of a page or two. Those poems are difficult to write and often to read. But those kinds of poems are my favorite ones. Poems that strive to unearth the past push us to be our most human selves, to locate our forgotten persons and moments, to pull them from the margins of the past, and give them space to breathe again. Ultimately, such poems offer us the opportunity to have faith that our participation in this act of recovery truly is an exercise against loss.

(Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu)

Freedom Summer and Poetry

Adie Kleckner

freedom-summer-oxford_wide-7280ed4c7c60684492366928b178182f478f1299-s6-c30 In 1964, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The summer before, Martin Luther King Jr. had led his famous march on Washington. And in Jackson, Mississippi Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP was shot and killed outside his home. His children were in the house.

That summer, in a civil rights fervor, college students from around the country were bussed into Mississippi from Oxford, Ohio to break Jim Crow’s strangle hold on Mississippi. The 300 students were in their mid-twenties, black and white, self-educated and college-educated.

This summer marks 50 years after Freedom Summer.

I moved to Jackson, Mississippi 8 years ago. I had studied the Civil Rights movement in high school, had read MLK Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But nothing prepared me for the stark contrast between white and black in the Deep South.

So much has changed, but also nothing has changed. Everybody can ride the bus and sit in whatever seat they would like, but in Jackson, mostly African-Americans ride the bus. The schools are not segregated, but the public schools of Mississippi’s capital city are comprised mainly of African-American students.

50 years ago, the Freedom workers established Freedom Schools throughout the state to teach disenfranchised people their rights. They came to register voters, but they also came to educate. Many of these freedom workers taught poetry.

One such worker wrote in her journal about a student in Indianola on August 17, 1964: “I can see the change. The 16-year old’s discovery of poetry, of Whitman and Cummings and above all, the struggle to express thoughts in words, to translate ideas into concrete written words. After two weeks a child finally looks me in the eye, unafraid, acknowledging a bond of trust which 300 years of Mississippians said should never, could never exist.”(110).

Poetry, but more importantly, the ability to understand the power of words and naming, the subtlety of language that kept so many African-Americans locked in slavery years after it was abolished, broke chains.

Here is one such poem:

A Negro Condition

by Lillie Mae Powell, Pilgrim’s Rest Mississippi

On a day while I was visiting a certain

City this is what I saw. A Negro

Soldier with a broken arm who

Was wounded in the war.

The wind was blowing from the

North; there was a drizzle of

Rain. He was looking from the

Last place; his arm was in a sling.

The Negro soldier didn’t go

Home. He was looking to the east

And to the west. His broken arm

Was in a sling.

I live in a state that struggles with its past, tries to reconcile wrongs done generations ago. The battle lines have been smudged. Fifty years ago, bravery was found in walking across picket lines, in refusing to move, in silent (and sometimes not silent) protest. And in poetry. Always in poetry.

Naming the Silence

Guest Blogger

edge1 Tuesday, I give my junior high ESL classes a simple homework assignment. As you speak English, I say, pay attention to where you fall silent. Notice the words you don’t have English for. Then choose one of those that you think you really ought to know and look up the English definition.

I assign this mostly because my students, who speak Chinese at home, are having trouble wanting to speak English. I want them to start listening, and to be a little curious.

The next morning, the students remind me that they are ready to share their words. For once, everyone has done the homework. Their words are scribbled on small bits of paper: bride, executioner, honesty, forgive, ensue, barrette, vacuum cleaner, voodoo.

Lilith has brought in phenomenon. She says she means a word for “the strange and beautiful clouds.” Phenomenon fits, sort of, but I suspect that her Chinese word is more casual, less scientific. There are so many words like that. Words that fit perfectly in the shells of their original sounds. Words that resist being pried out and served up in just any language.

I help each student pronounce the English they’ve chosen. After I do, the students teach me their Chinese word.

Or rather, they try. Chinese has always been hard for me. My students wave their hands like orchestra conductors, trying to signal the up and down inflections of the Mandarin tones that fit so naturally on their tongues.

It takes a long time for all 19 students to share words. I keep expecting the class to get restless, but they stay focused, listening in a sort of reverent silence.

I’ve been thinking about that silence ever since. That’s just not an everyday mood in a junior high classroom. What made that assignment so different?

I had asked my students to teach me something very personal about their learning, and about their lives. It was something that allowed us to step into each other’s experience. Together, we were naming the silence between us—now we could both say the word in our home language.

Really, poetry is a similar act. As poets, we learn to listen for moments in life for which we don’t yet have language. When we find these unnamed spaces, we translate them for others. It’s not always a perfect translation, but in the act of naming what was a silence, we are drawn together.

- Guest Blogger, Christina Lee (Read her poetry in Relief 7.2. Purchase here.)

Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt

Have you been writing lately?

Abby Jarvis

24 jacob-wrestles-an-angel

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…

It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from, when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

- From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz

“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:

Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or

Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or

No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.

Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.

Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.

Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.

The Eyes the Window, The Mind the Poem

Brad Fruhauff

2

The Eyes the Window by Marci Rae Johnson (Sage Hill Press, 2013)

I'm a smart guy, but I'll admit to liking poets who tend to take a little more direct approach to their work. If I feel a poet intentionally creating obscuring prisms or building brick walls of her erudition, I tend to lose interest. Such poets are either engaged in some other conversation than that which interests me, or they are not trying to engage in a real conversation.

Marci Rae Johnson's The Eyes the Window is a rare exception. One actually senses that Johnson is literally feeling through the poetry, and yet she remains always just out of reach. It's a fascinating collection that makes you feel at once a witness to intimate moments and a stranger outside of true intimacy.

The first of the book's three sections introduces the "thought problem" of existence, or, more specifically, of consciousness. In the tradition of the Modernists, and before them the modern philosophers, Johnson begins with the mind reflecting upon itself, alone and therefore unable to substantiate its own existence:

To be. Infinitive. From the Latin infinitas as in the mind of God, the universe the space before and after. —"Showing Existence or Condition"

The self cannot, it seems, be in the infinitive. Memory, for instance, is too spotty and changeable. Johnson's search for the stable places of the self recall Stevens's "poem of the act of the mind." This is a book of somewhere's, maybe's, and could be's. Significantly, it is a book of desiring, and of desiring relationship. "To be loved" seems an attractive, plausible way to be.

But again, Johnson's work is so ambivalent. She writes in impressions and isolated thoughts that read something like watching Persona or L'Avventura, somehow working together into a whole through the desiring self. The reader stands right beside the speaker of her poems, breathing on her neck as she watches the waves on a lake outside her window. She confesses her desires, confesses her ambivalence, and then seems to recant her faith in everything she just said.

Is existence possible? Is love possible? In the second and third parts Johnson develops two journey narratives, one by car and one by train. Are these metaphors for the stale motions of a disintegrating love, or play spaces where love is possible just before it is impossible again? There is a heaviness to it all, and so many episodes of missed opportunity that I want to read it as the former, but there is such pathos in the desire that I want to believe these poems attempt to honor the brief moments of connection rather than mourn all the absence.

Johnson unabashedly commits the affective fallacy and contorts the world to projections of her own mind or emotions. These are poems in search of a real outside the self, after all, so it is appropriate that they presume a hyper-subjectivity. But this also allows her to playfully turn the banal into the beautiful. Quantum physics serves to multiply the possibilities of romance, road signs become subtle metaphors for poetry or for stages of relationship, and even Google suggests the conceptual poem, "28 Results for 'I.'"

Get this book and read it on a quiet morning with a cup of coffee. It will get inside you and linger and, what would not be the worst thing, unsettle you.

(Painting by Rene Magritte)

Relief Issue 7.2 Thinks You're Pretty Smart

Brad Fruhauff

The Picture Book 1939 by A.R. Middleton Todd 1891-1966

As we get ready to print 7.2 (debuting at the Festival of Faith and Writing next week), I've been noticing how many of the pieces ask so much from the reader. If art is, or can be, a difficult pleasure, then I think you'll enjoy issue 7.2, but in that Relief-y way that isn't satisfied with pat answers or disingenuous questions.

Of course, this means that the issue as a whole, which is to say our authors, think that you as readers are pretty smart and can handle some uncertainty, some openness, and some unrestrained wonder—if you're into that kind of thing. The teacher in me wants to make sure you're not among those who sell themselves short. Most people are better readers than they think; as often as my students say they're "not smart enough" for the poems or short stories we read, but when I ask them for their responses, their questions and gut reactions are often right in line with what the piece invites and evokes.

I'll highlight just our Editors' Choice recipients to give you an idea of what to look forward to. In fiction, Amy Krohn's "Master of Light" reads like memoir, it's so full of those inarguable facts that are so indifferent to its heroine's fantasy. Not only that, but Krohn manages to pull off an entire story in second-person narration without it feeling in the least like a cute gimmick. Her story asks "you" to think about what it would mean if your farmer husband suddenly turned missionary and left you behind. The answer "you" come to is both easier and harder than you might expect.

In CNF, Angi Kortenhoven shares an encounter with one of her own students, years later, seeing all his potential being rubbed away by the banalities of daily life. Kortenhoven ends on a bitter note, clinging to hope almost in a plea to the reader to nod in affirmation. She's not offering hope, but asking you whether you can find it in yourself.

Finally, in poetry, Bob Denst adds a subtle twist of playfulness to scenes that are ultimately about great beauty and sometimes sublimity. His "Wildland," in particular, powerfully reverses the normal questions we ask about God's actions or will when natural disaster strikes.

These authors represent some of what I love most about what we do at Relief, finding the stories and memories and metaphors that represent the mysterious or ineffable without trying to tame it.

(Painting by Henry Lamb)

The 59th

William Coleman

27 swans

In the fall of 2000, as part of my work for a literary magazine in Boston, I visited William Meredith in the home he shared with his partner, Richard Harteis, in a wooded community near Uncasville, Connecticut.

Nearly two decades earlier, at sixty-four, Meredith had suffered a stroke that had immobilized him for two years. As he recovered, it was found that he had expressive aphasia, a condition that arrests the ability to render into words what one perceives or thinks. Until then, William Meredith had made his living as a teacher and as a writer. He was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1978 to 1980.

Before we went inside, Richard showed me the view from their back yard. He said that he and William had been working on writing haiku. One image at a time, he said.

When I finally met Mr. Meredith, he was still in his bathrobe, eating cereal. I was early. He told me so. Then he told me to sit down.

There at the kitchen table, I asked my questions—veiled versions of "How should I live? How should I write?"

With each one, he watched me acutely, and then disappeared as he grappled toward utterance. "A good man," I remember him telling me over the course of half a minute, "is a useful man."

The first poem of his I ever read was called "Poem." My teacher, Albert Goldbarth, had handed copies of it around the workshop table one evening, and read it aloud to us.

The immaculate, stately phrasing of the first stanza immediately compelled me. I knew at once that those words were committed to my memory:

Poem

The swans on the river, a great flotilla in the afternoon sun in October again.

In a fantasy, Yeats saw himself appear to Maud Gonne as a swan, his plumage fanning his desire.

One October at Coole Park he counted fifty-nine wild swans. He flushed them into a legend.

Lover by lover is how he said they flew, but one of them must have been without a mate. Why did he not observe that?

We talk about Zeus and Leda and Yeats as if they were real people, we identify constellations as if they were drawn on the night.

Cygnus and Castor & Pollux are only ways of looking at scatterings of starry matter,

a god putting on swan-flesh to enter a mortal girl is only a way of looking at love-trouble.

The violence and calm of these big fowl! When I am not with you I am always the fifty-ninth.

In the years to come, I would see the justice of the poem's title, how the work gathers much of what is essential to his work as a whole: public speech about private matter, arising from kinship and deep reverence clarified by strict observance.

Daniel Tobin, in an essay in the Yeats/Eliot Journal in the summer of 1993, notes that for Yeats, "Man was nothing... until he was wedded to an image…Still, it took him many years of arduous labor…to realize fully personal utterance in his poetry."

Yeats was fifty-two when he imagined in Coole Park that he was wedded to a lone swan that would, with all the rest, one day fly from him, to build life on another's waters.

The desolation of his imagining that his imagination would one day disappear is of the kind Tobias Wolff describes for Mary in his short story "In The Garden of the North American Martyrs," when she finds that the words for her thoughts "grew faint as time went on; without quite disappearing, they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away."

Yeats died in 1939. Meredith wrote his poem in 1980.

Before Richard turned to open the glass door of the kitchen, he followed where my gaze had long since alighted. He lamented the power plant that had been built on the far banks. But the power plant was not visible to me. For there, on the river, were the swans.

 

Writing and Seeing | 7.1 Poet Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo

Trevor Sutton

wrist 7.1 Poet Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo writes about a broken wrist and the ritual of seeing.

A few weeks ago, I broke my right wrist, the one I use to write. It’s currently immobilized—under the skin, with metal plate and screws, and over the skin, with a cast of purple fiberglass.  This has disturbed my regular rituals and rhythms of writing.

After more than twelve years of writing poetry regularly, I have developed more than a few. Some have to do with time of day, and others with how I set up my laptop or tracking system.  But the most important practice of what makes the poetry happen is opening the poetic eye. Not unlike Emerson’s transparent eyeball, it creates a kind of mystical awareness of the world.  But in true twenty-first century form, my poetic ‘eyeball’ doesn’t always let the self drop away.  It is a net in which ideas can be caught and held up to the light.  My juxtapositions are often between the sacred and the profane—a news report, a piece of art, commercial detritus, a personal experience--in the same field of vision as a religious idea or image.

The profane is everywhere, but connecting the sacred takes practice. Sometimes the sight of an unfamiliar object, or a snatch of conversation, reminds me of a particular theological idea, frequently one that I have sought to explain to students in my Hinduism or Judaism classes. A hesitant churchgoer, (I practice a kind of attendio divina), my beloved Episcopal Eucharist can also provide another sight of the liturgical God. Just reading scripture is not enough; the poems require the physical engagement of religious practice.

Close attention—visual, tactile, aural—requires practice too. It is symbiotic with the discipline of writing. Otherwise, what I notice can just pile up and rust into a poetic junkyard. I must keep writing to keep seeing.

Right now, I am watching for the purple cast’s reflection--what opens into the world (and in scripture) when life gets broken. And I’m learning to type with one hand.

Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo is author of "Flies" and "In Which Buddah Reads Aloud Firecracker Instructions"  in issue 7.1 of Relief.

Wanting Freedom | 7.1 Poet Joel Fry

Trevor Sutton

free 7.1 Poet Joel Fry talks about being free.

I hardly ever remember writing first drafts, unless they are connected to a specific event, and most of my work is not.  My poem "Such a Bright Future" describes my varied thought life, in which I attempt to get at the meat of my existence, but ultimately I realize Jesus Christ is my refuge, and like Paul, I feel that I am being poured out in a sense, and that God is pleased with me.

My life entails defining my existence in a way that makes sense to me.  I can do what I want, but that soon leads to addiction.  I am even addicted to Facebook.  So true freedom (or at least the highest form of freedom) seems to be the liberation from selfish desires, not so much the ability to do whatever I want.  I like what the Lord says: "If you drink of this water you will never thirst again."  This is also like the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want."  Everyone is free to be included with God in Christ.  That is the ultimate, and very simple, revelation.

Joel Fry's poem "Such a Bright Future" appears in issue 7.1 of Relief.

The Liturgy of Listening | 7.1 Poet Kerri Snell

Trevor Sutton

7.1 Poet Kerri Snell tells about the importance of listening for writing poetry.

listenA poem that “works” for an audience is at once both personal and universal. It is still a mystery to me how some of my poems transcend ambiguity and self-consciousness and become living works. I write to understand, and yet my poetry usually provides me with more questions than answers about God, about Nature, about relationships.

Why do I write poetry? I think it is because reading and writing poetry comforts me in a mothering sort of way. I can bed down with my own lack of knowledge and feel that through creation of a poem, I can accept, as I believe God accepts, my glaring limitations. Poetry is for me an experience of Grace.

I have immersed myself in the poetry of Maurice Manning of late, stunned to discover the form he has mastered in capturing old ways and old voices. His poems are linguistic artifacts described through one of the purest voices I have encountered. Like Manning, I write from a distinct geographical landscape. His is Kentucky and mine is Oklahoma. Nurturing my poetic landscape is my personal window into the heterocosm of a poem and it is for me worship. My landscape requests certain liturgical activities more in keeping with Emily Dickinson’s concept of the Sabbath than with the Evangelical Church.

In order to enjoy a successful day of writing, I must get outside every day, usually for a walk or a run. I have to engage in some form of physical exertion in order to slow down my thought processes so that I can record them. Creating on optimal environment for poetry to happen is integral to my success as a writer. I seek light, open, minimally-cluttered space, and of course, solitude. My writing process involves engaging the works of other poets, remembering old hymns, reading the Bible, reading a ton of nonfiction, and then writing, writing, writing. It is remembering loved ones. It is reading history. It is contemplating the future. Mostly, it is prayerfully working to respect the perspectives of others. Poetry requires courage, as does faith. In the midst of doubt, we must create a fluid knowing.  When we begin to see everything as a possible prayer, we begin to learn to listen. Listening is the pivotal liturgical act of poetry.

Kerri Vinson Snell's poems ""Freedom", "The Well", and "Bride"" appear in issue 7.1 of Relief.