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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

This mini-essay came out of a writing exercise (the first one in “The Practice of Poetry,” edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell).   It’s a collection of exercises written by poets.  The first one is from Ann Lauterbach and she just says to write about an early experience with words.    She says the purpose is to “trigger your initial experience with language” (3), and to link experiences with reading and writing.  I did the prompt and thought it was something worth archiving in my blog. I may keep working with it and better shape it–polish it, but here it is in its rough form. Also, I may have written something like this on the blog before because it’s a memory I come back to a lot. Whatever. Enjoy.

Each Sunday my parents took me to a meeting with their Christian fellowship. We met in an elementary school.  I was younger than six and too young, at least for me, to wonder what was the function of the room when it was not used for the Sunday meeting.  The room was simply where we went on Sundays before I went off to Sunday school; it was the place where I must sit still and endure three songs, sharing, and a prayer.  I recall a brown carpet, folding chairs.  The room was narrow and there was a hallway with a staircase nearby.  Sunday School was up these stairs and in another room that was small and also brown and had lots of bookshelves.  I was too young to wonder what kinds of books these were and I don’t know if I was old enough to read.  This is the very fact that makes me think that in this memory I was too young to read.  If I could, I would have been more interested in the books because I am pretty sure I have been obsessed with books since I knew how to use them.

Our church was never called church but called “fellowship” and our services were never called services but “meetings”, which now strikes me as a bit cult-like, but really, the gesture was meant well; the grown ups did not want to align themselves with the unattractive aspects of how Christianity had evolved over the years.

We began each meeting with singing; these songs were not planned out beforehand but requested on the spot from fellowship people.  In other words, we sang what other people felt like singing. It was democratic. We used a songbook somebody in the fellowship put together by numbering songs and sticking them in a folder with a table of contents.  (These folders were definitely brown, though the other brown details I am unsure of.  It could be that because these folders were brown that I see this entire memory in different shades of brown).  The lyrics were typed on an old type writer and I believe ridden with typos, though I didn’t notice this yet because, again, I couldn’t read.  Most of the songs were hymns, popular hippie christian songs (a crust of bread in a house of peace is worth much more than the finest feast), or songs people in the congregation wrote.  My mother had a song in this book that I would hear many times before I knew it was hers.

So, we were singing.  It was right before my father prayed for the kids to go off to Sunday school–or as I later joked, “prayed the kids out of there”–and one of the songs, called “Yahweh,” had an eerie tune.  I took interest in darkness even as a toddler and I tended to prefer songs set in a minor key.  I still prefer them.  In the song we sang, “Though I walk through the fire, I will not be scorched or burned.” I realized what the song was saying and thought about them somewhere along the lines of: whoa. shit.

I was sitting next to my Sunday school teacher, Claudine (a Swiss woman who was the mother of my best friend at the time), and I asked her what those words meant.  Why was the speaker of the song walking through fire (and the sea in an earlier verse)?  Wasn’t that dangerous?  She asked me to bring it up in Sunday School.

I don’t remember what Claudine said about it to the other children.  Undoubtedly, something about God’s protection. I don’t remember who else was in that room or what the other children said.   I probably said a lot.  I talked a lot then in class as I do now.  All I can remember is that I understood that the fire in the song was not a literal fire.  I think this was my first time understanding that language can be figurative, that language can have layers, that it can be used in different ways to connect to people.  In this case, an image: walking through fire unscathed.

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transition

And you say to yourself just what am I doin’
On this road I’m walkin’, on this trail I’m turnin’
On this curve I’m hanging
On this pathway I’m strolling, in the space I’m talking
In this air I’m inhaling
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
In the tune I’m hummin’, in the words I’m writin’
In the words that I’m thinkin’
In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking?

~Bob Dylan, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”

My friend recently exposed me to Dylan’s poem and that quote in particular captures how I feel this week–transitioning from one place (school and degree) to the next.   Especially the last two lines.

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This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Rumi, Translated by Coleman Banks)

I especially like the line about sorrows cleaning us out for a new delight.
Similarly, Flannery O’Connor has an interesting thought about grace:

Human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.

(From Richard Gionnone’s Introduction to Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg)
In other words…
Pain is inevitable, like change is inevitable.  Why resist it?
Probably because we’re living our lives like we’re on some survival show.   What if someone told us we don’t have to worry about survival any more?  That every ounce of pain and disappointment we get is for our benefit, if we allow it to be so?

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I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Ark.

Copyright 1988 by Billy Collins.
All rights reserved.

I’m writing rhetorical analysis and this poem came to mind. I think it sort of epitomizes the tension I sometimes sense between scholarship and creative writing.

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At the very end of my drive back to school, I caught the beginning of an NPR program called Speaking of Faith. This week’s episode, Listening Generously,” featured physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen.   (You can read the transcript or listen to the episode here.)

I didn’t get to hear much on that drive (no time to give it a generous listen) because I was very close to my college town, but I did hear  some. She described her grandfather, and his  beliefs as a Jewish mystic who studied the Kaballah:

My grandfather felt that the world was in constant communication with him, that there was a spirit in the world, a God in the world that could be spoken to and could respond at all times, that there was a presence in the world that was holy and sacred and that he was in constant dialogue with this as he went through the events of his day.

I love the idea of being in constant dialogue with God, which I think is at the heart of mysticism, and that prayer is an ongoing thing.  She also told a story from the Kaballah that her grandfather told her as a birthday present when she turned four.

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.

And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

So many of the Chinese ideas I’m reading about for my class, particularly from the Dao, seem to compliment this idea of communion as a  contribution to restoring the world.  We find meaning when we interact with others.  Also, some things I know about Jesus also inform this restoration idea–for instance, when he describes, in Matthew 18, God’s presence among the two or more who gather in His name.  Or why He might spend so much of His teaching describing how God expects us to interact with other people (in response to God’s love for us, without judging, full of forgiveness.)  The idea also helps me understand the way Jesus, himself, interacted with others during his journey.

I know it is not hip to the doctrine to say that God needs us.  We are supposed to believe that God doesn’t need us, that if he wanted, he could just smite us all and start over.  This might be true, hell if I know, but it’s important for us to know that God wants us.  And he wants us together.  And it’s interesting to know that in Thai, want and need are not separate ideas.

I like this story, and the idea that our job is to find hidden light in people.  This goes a little against what many of us have been taught–that light doesn’t enter into a person until they have been saved.  Maybe we’re taught our role is to help people to get that light inside, I am not sure.  But this seems to contradict a passage from Ephesians someone read last Sunday in church, which she concluded by saying, “You see? Everything has already been done.”  God’s accomplishment makes a lot more sense to me if we are to go about in the world looking for the light that is already within people and explaining to them, in relationship to what Jesus is done, that all they have to do is “show up.”  And by that, I mean, be aware of the work God is doing, collectively, with all of our lives.

I guess I have a hard time relating to the salvation idea because for me, it was not a one time endeavor.  My relationship with God much more resembles a restoration.  And that restoration comes out with dialogue.  It’s fascinating to think of the poetic implications of Jesus’ statement that we are the light of the world; if we all have bits of light but stay alone, disengaged, our light is too dim to be of much use.  But if we contribute our light to something collective, larger, we will have more light than we know what to do with.  And by being in dialogue with God, our eyes get used to that light.

The interviewer, Krista Trippet, stated that she told her son the story of the Kaballah and then the conversation turned into a discussion of the significance of story.  Remen said,

There’s a powerful saying that we tell each other stories — sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live. They tell us about who we are, what is possible for us, what we might call upon. They also remind us we’re not alone with whatever faces us and that there are resources, both within us, and in the larger world, and in the unseen world, that may be cooperating with us in our struggle to find a way to deal with challenges. And when I say a story doesn’t have an ending, for example, part of my story is you telling your little boy the story of the birthday of the world. That’s also part of my grandfather’s story, right? And your little boy has never met my grandfather, but perhaps my grandfather will be woven into his life in some way. It may be a very small way or it may not, I don’t know, but in that sense no one’s story is ever finished.

Sometimes I feel a little lost in studying writing, as if I’m wasting my time and should be doing something significant.  I think most people who pursue the arts in any way (literature, music, whatever) must go through this.  Writing and reading often seem like selfish acts–so much work we do just gets thrown away.  But listening to this interview helped me to see my work in another way.  It’s a noble thing to want to tell stories, to learn the best way to tell a story, and in turn, to learn how to understand other people’s stories. That is the work of a writer–we make sense of other stories and let them influence us.  Then we weave them into our own story.  This is how we help each other collect light.

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Poems for Faraway Friends

For Siripan:

A green elephant pulls two leafs from a sketched tree
and a blue dog sniffs them, a bit of his blue reflects
in blotched shadowing across the elephant’s trunk.
The tree, dark and dying, the leaves, sepia and swirled

and the florescent shimmers across the coated finish
every time I move, blinding me to the image,
or just a streak of it,
remind me that I’m sorry, this card you sent

got bent in my bag and I
move around too much.  And where you are,

where leaves don’t change colors but elephants do,
I’m there too, in phrases of your language that sneak
from my mouth into a pool of monolingual misunderstanding
in streaks, blotched shadows
nobody notices.  I notice.

For Chirasak:

You gave me an assignment:
two hundred pages by the Buddhadasa
Bikkhu.  Bound by staples and masking tape,
lists of ways to look,
The Art of Living.  To read and learn
the core: not merit points
but perspective.

And you live by day:
another canceled trip to Bhutan, another project for
a new prime minister, another road pond, another bicycle.
I ask, you say, “so so. Because of”  me.
From way over there, you beg for photographs
of yellow leaves and red brick but when I take one
I hear you say my product is not beautiful:
mai suoi.  I don’t know why I hear you.

You gave me the book
in exchange for the core of Jesus. I meditated
and gave an answer and you said
you liked it, you believed it, you believed it all.
I try to give you autumn but I cut off a building,
trim a tree, catch the hand
of a passerby. I can’t fit what you fit into frames.


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Three poems.

http://www.octopusbeakinc.com/index.php

I forgot how the editor found out about me–I think he was looking for Bangkok writers.    Anyway, you probably read those poems before but there you go…

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