After a long hiatus from Facebook, my blog, and other assorted technological distractions, I’m starting to get back into the swing of things.

Here’s an easy post: a poem I’ve already written. I’ve been writing poems based on Paul’s writings, including some of the headier stuff in Romans. I based this poem on the idea of being buried with Christ in his death. As I tried to imagine what that might be like, a poem emerged. Happy Lent!

This poem was first published in The Christian Century.

Buried With Him In His Death

We fought for one more sputter

of the old life. Even though a breeze passing

over your sieve of skin could send you

screaming, you muscled up your diaphragm

to whisk more air into the fire.

I held my own terrors to my chest:

failures and brush-offs, cancers and crashes,

all the anxieties I had grown to love

heaving and cracking like your ribcage

until we both gave out.

Then there was the mess of prying us loose:

wailing women and splintered lumber,

flesh stubbornly sticking to the nails.

But what swift hands, that Joeseph of Arimathea,

what purposeful footsteps crunching the ground!

He wrapped us in linen and spices.

Only the hapless world could think of packing

fifty pounds of aloe around a dead man’s wounds.

But we drank it in like deserts

until finally even the lizards scurried home.

I lay in the cave and wanted to touch you,

but my hands were no longer mine.

They closed in on themselves like daylilies.

The stone rumbled over the window of light,

and then our difficult rising began.


Garbage Day Angels

Tomorrow is garbage day in Lindenhurst. Every Monday I hear the diesel engine, the grind of brakes stopping at every house, the clangs of trash cans and recycling bins emptying into the dumpster. Sometimes I notice the guys hopping out to deal with the bins, but usually I don’t. I’ve got children and brand new trash to deal with inside the house.

That’s right–I often forget to notice people, especially the predictable servants of our neighborhoods who clean up after us, deliver our mail, and plow our streets. What a miracle, really, that we’re all made in God’s image yet have the opportunity to move in and out of each other’s lives so freely, that we can pray for strangers, encourage them with the simplest of gestures, and capture them eternally in a poem.

Eamon Grennan’s poem, “Wing Road,” made me think about trash day a bit differently this week:

Wing Road

Amazing, how the young man who empties
the dustbin ascends the truck as it moves
away from him, rises up like an angel
in a china-blue check shirt and lilac
woollen cap, dirty work-gloves, rowanberry
red bandanna flapping at his throat. He plants
one foot above the mudguard, locks his
left hand to steel bar stemming
from the dumper’s loud mouth and is borne
away, light as a cat, red leg dangling,
the dazzled air snatching at that black-
bearded face. He breaks into a smile, leans
wide and takes the morning to his puffed
chest, right arm stretched far out, a checkered
china-blue wing gliding between blurred earth
and heaven, a messenger under the locust trees
that stand in silent panic at his passage. But
his mission is not among the trees: he has
flanked both sunlit rims of Wing Road
with empty dustbins, each lying on its side,
its battered lid fallen beside it, each
letting noonlight scour its emptiness
to shining. Carried off in a sudden cloud
of diesel smoke, in a woeful crying out
of brakes and gears, a roaring of monstrous
mechanical appetite, he has left this unlikely
radiance straggled behind him, where the crows,
covening in branches, will flash and haggle.,

In my last post I discussed my desire to listen to the Spirit throughout the writing process. After writing my draft for this week, I realized that I write the same poem over and over again: trying to conquer my fears by taking my thoughts captive. When I talk about fear, I don’t mean fear of rejection or failure or public speaking. Those things are child’s play. My fears are those of exploding planes, fiery car crashes, and dramatic, earth-swallowing quakes. My mind has always had a tendency to wander to these action-flick scenes, and I don’t quite understand why. But rather than trying to fight these poems, I’m letting myself go with them. Training my mind to focus on the “pure and lovely” is one my biggest challenges. Why not embrace the challenge and allow the Spirit to do His work? This week I spent some time thinking about Romans 8:6. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The following untitled draft emerged.

I maneuver my minivan down a licorice stick
of asphalt. Salt spews from a cavalcade
of trucks, but the glacial shoulders advance.

I try to fight where my mind wants to go:
a bamboo foot-bridge swaying over a river,
a quarter-inch slip and plunge into white.

My family laughs about the Abominable
Snowman, imagining his stomping up I-55
and toppling a truck-stop Dairy Queen.

They’ve taken the side of the storm,
this morning’s watercolor of Doppler radar
now a miracle birth in our headlights.

I pray that I can unclench and love,
see the mysteries of the Spirit
in these swaths of black ice, the arms

of Christ in the muscled mounds of snow.
The exits count down toward home.
We’re safe, I say, we’re safe, we’re safe.

The kids trace their names in the fog,
flakes like sweet alyssum flowers
blurring their faces in the window.

A New Year of Poetry

I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not against resolutions; I just don’t usually make them in December. Forever a student and a teacher, I think in terms of the school year, setting goals in the late summer and diving in to the new me on the day Lydia’s bus pulls up.

One New Year’s tradition I do have, however, is writing in my journal for an hour or two on New Year’s Eve, reflecting on the past year. The tradition started in 2005, when I was so thankful to God that I had made it through that tough year that I wrote pages and pages of grateful reflections. But I am not a journal person: this is the one day I endeavor to crack the notebook.

Reflecting on my life shall come later tonight. Now I want to think about how my poetry is going to look in 2010.

On a practical level, I have already started sending poems to my friend Marci at the end of each week. She sends them, too, and the “pressure,” however so small, to have something done and somewhat readable helps me focus. Once I subtract weeks for winter break, spring break, and our annual three-week vacation, we’re looking at 46 weeks. That’s a lot of poetry–almost a whole collection’s worth. I’m excited to think about all these poems in utero, waiting to be born in 2010.

On the less practical, and much more important level, I want to be changed by poetry this year. Once I asked a former professor of mine about the whole point of it all. We are living in a culture that does not read poetry all that much. More and more poets are graduating with MFAs, and we’re all competing with each other to get books published that mostly other poets will read. Why do we do this? Or more importantly, why should we do this?

Her response: “I am not so idealistic these days to think that poetry can change the world. But I do believe the process of writing it can transform the poet.”

In this blog, I’ve been writing about the relationship between poetry and faith. I believe the Holy Spirit can work through artists to speak to other people. But this year I want to listen to the Spirit’s voice as I write. Where does my imagination travel as I begin to write? What do I envision, and why? Why do I return to the same images again and again (stars, wind, insects)? What are these poems trying to tell me about myself, about the world, about God?

If I listen well, I won’t get an answer. I’ll get caught even deeper in the mystery.

Nativity Suite

Several years ago I wrote this set of poems as a gift to family and friends. I thought I would share them again. You will notice that Anna and Simeon are included but not the Magi; I wanted to include only those people from Jesus’ earliest days, not his toddlerhood. Yes, I am that Type A. Surprised?

I must also credit Willow Springs, in which the “Mary” installment first appeared.

If I don’t post until then, a blessed Christmas to everyone.

I. The Shepherd

Last night I watched another wet lamb

slide into the dark and beheld this same

drowsy beauty:  a mother bending toward

her nursing young. New limbs trembling.

Matching rhythms of breath.

The angels told us to praise and adore.

I spend my life trying not to love

such small things. But again and again

I carry my new lambs and name them,

play songs for them on the reed pipe,

bind their broken legs and search for them

in the foothills, until they are sold and worn,

served up, split open on an altar

and I feel my own blood rushing to the edge.

II. Joseph

Of any birth, I thought this

would be a clean one,

like pulling white linen

from a loom.

But when I return to the cave,

Mary throws her cloak

over the bloody straw and cries.

I know she wants me to leave.

There he lies, stomach rising

and falling, a shriveled pod

that does nothing but stare

at the edge of the feeding trough

with dark, unsteady eyes.

Is he God enough

to know that I am poor,

that we had no time

for a midwife, that swine ate

from his bed this morning?

If the angel was right, he knows.

He knows that Mary’s swell

embarrassed me, that I was jealous

of her secret skyward smiles,

that now I want to run into these hills

and never come back.

Peace, peace, I’ve heard in my dreams.

This child will make you right.

But I can only stand here,

not a husband, not a father,

my hands hanging dumbly

at my sides. Do I touch him,

this child who is mine

and not mine? Do I enter

the kingdom of blood and stars?

III. Mary

The angel said there would be no end

to his kingdom. So for three hundred days

I carried rivers and cedars and mountains.

Stars spilled in my belly when he turned.

Now I can’t stop touching his hands,

the pink pebbles of his knuckles,

the soft wrinkle of flesh

between his forefinger and thumb.

I rub his fingernails as we drift

in and out of sleep. They are small

and smooth, like almond petals.

Forever, I will need nothing but these.

But all night, the visitors crowd

around us. I press his palms to my lips

in silence. They look down in anticipation,

as if they expect him to suddenly

spill coins from his hands

or raise a gold scepter

and turn swine into angels.

Isn’t this wonder enough

that yesterday he was inside me,

and now he nuzzles next to my heart?

That he wraps his hand around

my finger and holds on?

IV. The Angel

Oh, God, I am heavy

with glory. My head thunders

from singing in the hills.

This night will come once.

Enough bright lights.

Enough shouting

at shepherds in the fields.

Let me slip into the stable

and crouch among

the rooting swine.

Let me close my eyes

and feel the child’s breath,

this wind that blows

through the mountains and stars,

lifting my weary wings.

V. Anna the Prophetess

Widows of Jerusalem, I too was once

young enough to believe my life mattered.

When I woke, the sun rose for me. I tucked lilies in my hair.

Now I am eighty years a temple dweller.

What a wonder of faith! they proclaim. Truth is,

I cry in the dark. I beg priests for bread

and pick insects from my hem. But today,

an infant came to be blessed. He curled

into the crook of my arm, and when his eyes

wandered to mine, I remembered every hope

stored in my childhood’s heart: gazelles

and henna shrubs, doves perched in the crags.

I touched his face—

that skin we were meant to wear forever.

*         *          *

Widows of Jerusalem, this is what I know.

You are not dying. You are falling slowly

into another world, where bread will grow

from a thousand fragrant fields; where lilies

will clothe you in sunrisen petals;

where everyone will call you beloved child again.

VI. Simeon

As a boy, I lay awake

at night, jealous of the stars

that rose over my roof

and climbed into the lap of God.

They whispered to him,

and he whispered back.

He loved their cool blue devotion.

I prayed as the moon

traveled, as the night birds

sang in the cedars.

He is the Rock.

His works are perfect.

Upright and just is he.

But at sunrise, I always

felt alone. Perhaps

I didn’t pray long enough.

Perhaps my words

got trapped in the rafters.

Now I am old. Ah, bed,

receive these heavy bones.

I have seen my salvation.

I close my eyes, and warmth

spreads through my skin

like the laying on of hands.

Go ahead and rise, stars.

Whisper about the origins

of the universe, your secret,

holy fires.  Tonight I will remember

the child I held to my chest.

I will pull my cloak to my face

and drift in the sweetness of milk.

Nibbling Back Time

As we near the end of the year, it hardly seems original to talk about how fast time passes. A year, a decade, my entire adult life–they have all fluttered into some mysterious storehouse of synapses in my brain. Most events and memories lie dormant until some trigger–a picture, a song, a smell–brings them into bud again.

Sometimes I feel time passing so quickly I almost experience a sort of breathless panic. 2010 seems so hard-edged and space-age, so beyond the scope of anything I imagined when I was asked as a fourth-grader, back in 1981, to write an essay describing what I would be doing in the year 2000. (I said I would be a single woman living in the mountains and raising Siberian huskies. Ironic, given my aversion to large dogs. And the fact that I’ve been married for 16 years. And live in Illinois.)

We have no control over the future, of course, but we can write poetry. Poetry can do the hard work of preserving the moments that make up our lives. And I believe the Holy Spirit has used poetry, both others’ and my own, to transform me as I reflect upon the rushing past.

This beautiful poem found in Scintilla, a magazine out of Wales, captures the way I want to live in 2010.

At Staplehurst

by Hubert Moore

No need to cross the bridge

to catch the train to London.

It sides up to you

and what you miss

is rabbits lounging in the present

green and easy

on the other side.

You don’t have to climb

the steps and look

at how they don’t consider

when, how long, how soon,

but keep time tender

by nibbling back and back

its blade-tip as it grows.

What They Can Do

Lately I’ve been challenging myself to reframe the way I see parenting. I’ve been trying to control my kids less and learn more about who they are. Amazing how my giving up some control has actually helped our household find more sanity and harmony.

Anyway, the following poem by Paul Willis, along with a recent local kids’ production of A Christmas Carol (I can’t help it–gets me every time), has helped rekindle my wonder toward my own children.

But before the poem, some of you may remember my posting from a few weeks back about how tough it is to write good joyful poems. Well, right now I’m reading a whole slew of them in Paul Willis’ new book, Rosing From the Dead. It’s an excellent read just out from WordFarm press. Put it on your Christmas list!

What He Can Do

after Elizabeth Holmes

Bounce a flat basketball between his legs

without looking.  Dive through a breaking wave.

Find anything on the Internet in six seconds.

Batter a drum till the walls shake.

Sag his jeans to the lowest

inch possible.  Refuse to sing.

Polish his cymbals until they shine

with his own reflection.  Call out the note

of the vacuum cleaner—a middle C.

Skate off a curb with both hands

deep in his pockets.  Sleep till noon.

Hold a dog the way a dog wants to be held.