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Speechless

I’ll be honest. Many contemporary worship songs just don’t do it for me with their repetitive, self-focused lyrics. Some songs even diminish words themselves by stressing “how words cannot express” one’s feelings for God. So then the words pretty much stay at the surface level, since they’ve been given the heave-ho, and my eyes glaze over into the expression of sleep.

As one who lives and worships with words, lines like that get under my skin. I can and wantto express myself with words! Is there something inherently unspiritual or unfeeling about vivid images or surprising diction? However, I have to face the fact that Paul speaks to the whole phenomenon of wordlessness in Romans 8:26: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 ESV)

I am not a biblical scholar. I can’t say for certain whether this verse refers to emotions, speaking in tongues, or a mysterious silence we humans aren’t privy to. But I do know in those rare times of deep communion of God, I can sense a feeling, almost a wave sweeping over me, that does not attach itself to language. Perhaps I can capture the sense later in a poem, but in the moment, it’s just Spirit, just the wave.

I’ve been enjoying David Keplinger’s collection of poems, The Clearing The Clearing (New Issues, 2005). His poem “Without” speaks to this sense of wordlessness in a way that I’ve never been able to articulate. (How’s that sentence for some irony?) Enjoy this beautiful poem.

Without

“Where knowledge and desire ends,
There is darkness, and there God shines.”–Meister Eckhart

Upon his stroke, he did without. Still
He found that he could think, lacking words.
Seeing it, he could think a wooden table,

A glass, its dusty water, its blue,
Unsinkable stars. What spoke to him? He didn’t
Think the names. He had to listen. Like an ache

Far into the yard and to the neighbor’s yard
And to the neighbor’s neighbor’s even cows
As dark as hammers flickered in that self-

Same cloud. Twilight, they and all the lights
Would fade. No sense could hold the cows,
Their figures indistinguishable from the land,

In the same late angles as the land, when
He knew: This is God thinking. But he was
Thinking it without. Without This. God.

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Don’t Drive By

In the Dinah section of A Thousand Vessels, I explore the story of a young woman who is raped–then sought as a wife–by Shechem. In a vengeful rage, her brothers proceed to kill every male in the city. I’m sure they felt justice was done, but in the end, Dinah still carried the pain of her brutal attack to the grave. Of course violent perpetrators should face the consequences of their actions.  I can think of few missions more important than breaking up a child sex ring and bringing these criminals to justice. But in the end, the pain and memories remain. Fight for justice for victims, yes, but also take the time to reach out to them, listen, and show unconditional love and grace. There are probably more than you know, right in your neighborhood.

Drift (originally appeared in Nimrod as “The Hiding Place”)

At last, April. We drive past the forest preserve,

treetops simmering green. I roll down the window

and press my palm to the wind.

I’ve read that in spring, young girls are driven

to places like these, forced to huddle under damp logs.

Some are thirteen, some are ten, some are six,

shivering in stilettos and halter tops.

They draw daisies in the dirt with sticks

as they wait for the men to appear at twilight.

The girls teach themselves to float away,

drifting to the canopy of branches.

One girl becomes a wisp of cloud;

one becomes a squirrel. One becomes a sparrow,

flitting among the open spaces

until she alights on a bud. She perches there

and refuses to move. When the wind tosses

the branch, she dips and sails with it, oblivious

to the whimpers below, the sudden pops

of raindrops, the rush of passing cars.

Mind Sprawl

Growing up–and then driving–in Southern California brought its stresses, especially the iconic So Cal freeway system with its clogged arteries of frustrated cars.  When approaching those giant concrete interchanges, the synapses must fire at an even faster rate as one considers, “Do I really want to go east? Why are there so many black skid marks on the side of that concrete bridge soaring into the clouds? How earthquake-safe are these things anyway?”

This week, one of Scott Cairns’ poems, “Sacred Time,” has proven to be a spiritual touchstone for me. He does not speak of freeways but of the “sprawl and velocity” of our minds. I know my mind, anyway, whether in California or Illinois, constantly swerves on and off the ramps of my daily decisions and preoccupations with little thought of the God who keeps this whole mess together–and speaks through it all. I’m thankful for poets who can speak so clearly of our need to slow and abide. Enjoy the poem.

Sacred Time

Not time at all, really, but space

like you don’t know, and knowledge there,

in general, finally admits

how meager a consolation

it has been all along. Once

you grow accustomed to the sprawl

and velocity your own mind

articulates (and that queasy

rocking tapers to a hum) you might

have pause to entertain a sense

of presence reaching suddenly,

and now, and deeply, ever so.

Sarah was beautiful. She rode the waves of faith and doubt and perhaps laughed at inappropriate times. She also carried a spark in her womb, the star that birthed a constellation of generations. When writing about Sarah, I too explored the depths of my doubt and the feeling of loss that accompanies every gift. The poem “Sarah Considers the Stars” delves into some of the emotions Sarah must have surely felt as her life and body sagged into what seemed to become an unending, desolate future. Small footnote: the star “scraping” through her body somewhat painfully refers to the release of an egg. Some women, myself included, experience sharp pain at the time of ovulation. That may be too much information, but hey–it’s all for the art, right?

 

 

 

 

Sarah Considers the Stars

“He took [Abraham] outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” –Genesis 15:5

 

After Abraham feel asleep,

she pulled her cloak

 

around her shoulders

and walked out to stare

 

at the night. Stars collected

in the crevices of mountains.

 

They spilled into the oak groves

and clung to the branches.

 

And when she spread her hands

to the sky, they rested in the sags

 

of flesh between her fingers.

The world is dripping with stars,

 

she thought, and still not one

belongs to me. She considered

 

hating them. She considered

wishing a heavenly storm

 

to drown them. But she only

murmured, I am through

 

and walked off, holding

a sudden sharpness in her side,

 

as if a star had dislodged

there, and turning and scraping

 

and shining its path, settled

into the bare sky of her body.

 

This is the week we’re all thinking about new beginnings, of course, with 2012 just days away. I haven’t made any resolutions except for committing, I suppose, to greeting my fortieth birthday in August with a hospitable attitude.

When writing the “Eve” section of A Thousand Vessels, I of course explored all sorts of geneses. I imagined a suburban business park as a new, wild land; identified with Eve’s first experiences with marital discord and birth; and considered my own new beginnings in marriage and motherhood.

In “My Daughter’s Hands,” I recount a moment when I began to realize that my daughter was a separate entity ready to explore her own Eden of discovery without me. As I’m sure many parents will agree, these moments are bittersweet: we must allow our own “creations” to make their own choices, good or bad, with the beautiful freedom God affords.

My Daughter’s Hands

When did you hatch these pink birds
that alight on everything in the house?
They land on power cords and houseplants,
perch between the window blinds.

At communion, I hold you on my lap
as I take a cup from the silver tray.
Every muscle in your body strains.
You want nothing more in this world,
love nothing as you love this purple vial.
Color swims there. Light bounces.
You whimper, stretch and shriek.

People turn. Yet I know the moment I say no
your world will begin to go wrong.
You will learn that most bright things
are never meant to be touched
and have purposes other than your joy.
You will learn the tension in my neck
as I shake my head to the beautiful movements
of your flesh. You will swim against
the current of my voice jutted with stone eyes.
And eventually, even when we embrace,
a curtain will fall between us
like the thinnest, coldest silk.

So child, take the cup and let it splash;
suck the sweet plastic and grin.
May your saliva roll down your chin and neck
like jewels, sparkle on your fingers
that have just this brief time
to fly over the world.

Of course it’s easy to forget about a cold, poor teenager agonizing through labor pains amidst the inflatable reindeer and Vegas lights of December. For most of us, Christmas is a time of filling up–on parties, plastic junk, spritz cookies, and sentimental TV shows that denigrate all those cold-hearted idiots who don’t believe in Santa. But in many ways, Christmas is a time of breaking down. Jesus breaking down the established order of who really inherits the earth. The incarnation breaking down the addictive power of sin. God’s radical humility in taking the form of a screaming infant breaking down my own sense of self-importance. This Christmas, I want to break apart my strongholds, the walls between me and God. I want to lay down the broken pieces–then allow that slow, beautiful filling up to begin.

Jeanne Murray Walker, a fabulous poet of faith, explores the birth of Christ in its most physical sense in her poem “Silent Night.” God rips through Mary like lava, like a “wild train.” Mary, Murray writes, “is blown apart.” May you, too, be blown apart by the eruption of God’s love this Christmas and in the coming year.

SILENT NIGHT

 

–for Marjorie Maddox

 

The holly bush stands by the peeling door

she stumbled through last night, under the stare

of curious eyes. She didn’t make it far

 

beyond the first stall, so she lay down there

to let her body have its way with her.

Rubbing her back, he braced himself against the door.

 

Maybe she wished that she could give it up–

the greeting of the angel on her stoop,

her yes, the thousand future paintings. She would swap

 

it all to stop this lava. Not to erupt

with God. To halt the bleeding of the Infinite

into that barn. Peaceful? Silent? It was abrupt,

 

loud, violent. She was blown apart. Body went

one way, she went another. Just to keep her blunt

place in the world, she sent her eyes hunting

 

the holly: that woman, sister, aunt, waiting

patiently outside to help. As God came ripping

through–a wild train–her eyes kept holding

 

that tree. She rests now. Wind is leaking

into the barn, the animals are sleeping.

Outside, the holy holly bough is breaking.

 

Okay, let me be forthcoming from the get-go. I’ve neglected my blog for over a year and a half. When I started the blog, I enjoyed writing the posts; this is true. But a lot of other things crept into my life. Those creepy kids. Those creepy poems. Those creepy instruments begging to be practiced.

That’s not to say that all was quiet over that span of time. I published two poetry collections, got a generous grant from the NEA, and, most significantly, potty-trained a child.

But did I mention the poetry collections? This one, A Thousand Vessels, was just released by WordFarm Press. I mean, really just released. I haven’t seen it yet, but a friend of mine who got it in the mail yesterday said it was. . .you know, pretty okay.

“All right,” you may be saying, “this woman’s obviously returning to her blog in order to promote her book. What a narcissist! What an opportunist!”

Yep.

During the next, oh, ten weeks, I will be posting my thoughts about one woman from the Bible per week, including a sample poem from the corresponding section of the book. (A Thousand Vessels is indeed based around the lives of ten women from the Bible. Some of the pieces are persona poems; others, personal, thematic connections to the women’s experiences.)

While I’m at it, I will return to my original purpose in creating this blog, which is to examine the process and experience of writing–and reading–poetry while stumbling toward Jesus. I’ll have time now, what with the diapers gone and all. I promise! Please join me.