Tag Archives: poetry

A Prolonged Hesitation – Meeting God in the Spaces

Ireland Upland

Silence is God’s first language. – John of the Cross

Spaces captivate me. The spaces between things – pauses, silences, rests between notes, empty rooms, expanses of prairie, moors, and highlands.  A friend of mine from a large urban center once came to Kansas for a visit. I drove her out west on I70. The empty space terrified her. She much prefers the human made canyons of New York City, than places where the land itself dominates the environment and asserts its untamed, mysterious vitality.

In my work as a listener to the stories of others, I find the spaces between the words, the sudden silences, or the time a person takes for thinking to be where the treasures lie, where holiness abides.

flintyhills3

I recently found a friend in the poet, Rilke. I drove south through the stunning space of the Flint Hills to Wichita to The Magnificat Center. This haven of hospitality and spiritual nurture hosted a retreat led by Mark Burrows, scholar of medieval Christianity. Mark had recently translated some of German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s early poems.  Prayers of a Young Poet, Paraclete Press.

For an evening and a day Professor Burrows opened up Rilke’s poems like small packets of compressed holiness. Once set free by Burrows’ translation and our imagination, the poems awakened us to the immense and voluminous God this young poet had discovered.  In the spring of 1899 God had wooed Rilke during the Russian Orthodox holy week services at Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition.  By the end of our brief time together I felt the room we gathered in enveloped by presence and I, too, felt holiness pulsing in me.

The resonance of Rilke’s images and Mark Burrow’s masterful interpretation slowed me down, and ushered me into in the mystery of Rilke’s God. I was taken out beyond myself and the horrible cold I had brought with me to a more spacious place. The image Rilke used to express his desire to touch into God’s immensity was heath, the open, treeless landscape of moor and bog.

Whatever you yearn for, my soul, say it
Be heath, be heath, be wide.
. . . .
Be heath, be heath, be heath

Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark Burrows, p 30.

Heath view

What is it in us that allows God to meet us with fullness, depth, and beauty? The potential is always present. Love or loss of love may do this, preaching may do this, sacraments, art, music, nature, beauty, may do this. Yet we must offer the space, the openness, the inner heath or expanse of Kansas Flint Hills to become the altar for this dancing God.

As the psalmists, prophets and Jesus knew, poetry may offer such an altar for the sacrament of presence.  Paul Valéry defined a poem as “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” That is also not a bad definition for a parable. Parable and poem both dis-orient, surprise, stop us in our tracks, and expand our awareness beyond our previously known world.

Poetry invites, even demands that we hesitate, off balance, scratching our heads, to teeter between sound and sense. Most things which reveal Transcendence (that which is beyond our selves) require us to enter the unfamiliar and wait on the edge of not knowing, without having to rush in and fill the moment with a refutation, argument, praise, or anything to end the awkward, uncomfortable “dead” space. It seems to me that good art makes us hesitate and allows what we may perceive as dead to rise up before us. Surely good preaching, celebrating sacraments, and prayer ought to do the same.

Moor
Yet hesitation is seen as a flaw, a lack of confidence, or making someone have to wait. Thomas Merton wrote that we live in a time of no room, in which we are “obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within [us] by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, acceleration.” Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, ed. Kathleen Deignan, p 32 

We live in a time of no room with no space for a soul’s edges to roll out, unconfined by agenda. Hemmed in by a culture which has convinced itself that time is a commodity, of which there is great scarcity, our souls become cramped, stunted, and deformed by the crushing weight of  having to produce and fill every moment with sound and human activity.

communion cup

Time is the sacred vessel of encounter with divine presence.  Where else do we think it is going to happen, if not here, now in this moment? We put little, if any, space between and within the words we speak to one another. We have little available “random access memory” in our minds.  Words pile upon words. Life is reduced to thirty second sound and image bites. Minds are crammed and obese with knowing, calendars booked solid, days filled with activity, and hearts full of oneself.

Who among us will be bold to hesitate, to linger in the land of uncertainty on the shore of wisdom?   Who will offer shelter for silence to collect itself, curl up and hum to itself in the sun? Who will be heath?

________________________

Please note Praying Life Readers: I will be leading a retreat at the Magnificat Center in Wichita, Kansas on March 22-23, 2013.  For more information and to register: Retreat led by Loretta F Ross  It would be great to see you there!

For Fraught Souls

Autumn Invocation

Lord of courtesy, you’ve brought the corn
In, you’ve hung the trees with ripe, rich fruit,
Master of tides,  you’re cooling down the sea,
Watcher at horizons,  you’ll deliver
Most ships securely at home.
But Master of the moon,  this world is dark
With terror,  evil,  not dark like dark of space
And stars.  O God,  save us from our fraught selves,
Put prayer into our minds.  Be in the shrine
Of vivid,  innocent imaginations.
Receive the love there is,  Lord,  help all nations.
Author unknown

In this season of thanks, let us pray for all fraught souls, those heavy laden with sorrow, the oppressed, the lost, and discouraged. May each one reach into the eternal harvest of gratitude that opens to those, who have passed through suffering and loss. Sustain us,  Oh Master of the tides, with appreciation for the simple gifts of life. Amen.

I have loved this poem for years, but somehow lost the name of the author. If you know, please leave the name in the comments. I would like to give credit for this beautiful piece of writing.

The Writers Workshop, A Love Story

Lovers entwined, a kiss-print still/singeing your collarbone come morning,

Buzzing cicadas, whose mouthparts reek of root juice.

A splayed hand
nailed to tar shingle
on a Texarkana roof.

A silo squats in kindling grass, kneeling like a giant monk,

Laundry day debunks the laws of physics, where the personal is the thermodynamic, for this homemaker

A Requiem for a shoe: a shabby wingtip with broken ties ….lying on its side in the byway … becomes, somehow holy.

A teacher singing show tunes and weeping in a middle school classroom, filling empty space with melody, another period/full of lyrics; accidents.

These images and snatches of experience, have been resonating in my mind, calling out to me, reflecting parts of myself, and connecting me to someone else’s story, passion, or singular beating hope.

The lines are the work of the following poets in the order in which the excerpts appear:
Timothy Volpert, “Love, don’t limit me to looking,” (untitled poem, first line)
Leah Sewell , The Cicada Fling, excerpt
Ben Cartwright,  Accidents, excerpt
Peter Wright, The Silo, excerpt
Cale Herreman, The Personal Is the Thermodynamic
Sandy Morgan, Requiem for a Shoe, excerpt
Ben Cartwright, Melody and Empty Space, excerpt

The Topeka Writers Workshop

I spent evenings this past summer in the company of a small group of local writers. Mainly younger than I, they are part of what I like to think of as “the hip scene of Topeka creative life”- that outpouring of energy among young artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs of the past five or six years.  We meet after hours at the Blue Planet Café to drink coffee and munch the cookies the owner leaves for her writers.

The Topeka Writers Workshop was founded three years ago by Leah Sewell, who facilitates it as well. Leah gently leads us in writing exercises and the workshop model of critique. I joined the group because I wanted to get out of a box and mix it up with people different from me around a passion we share in common, good writing.

The group turned out to be mostly poets. At first I was afraid to tell them I am poet too, having written and published poetry since I was ten or so. But these were real poets, serious poets, the kind, who say they are addicted to poetry and take big risks for it.  One is a PhD candidate in creative writing, another is an MFA candidate. Besides, what I was bringing to the workshop was prose, chapters from a book I have been revising forever.

 

Confession, Mom and the Starlit Road

Yet I need to confess that poetry is in my blood. I remember gathering with my family around the radio in the evenings to listen to Len Howe read mom’s poems, broadcast from WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. I recently found in her files a sheaf of postcards dating back to 1948 from the radio station telling her when her poems would be read on the show Starlit Road.  Over 79 of her poems were read,  some more than once.

In the kitchen mom often stopped mid task to grab a towel, wipe her hands, and scratch out a line of poetry on the back of an envelope. I recall her urgency to get a phrase or image written before it went down the drain with the dishwater. Sometimes I sat on a chair while she ironed and read aloud from the first poetry book she owned, Untermeyer’s Modern American and British Poetry, (1928). I loved Edna St Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, and Walter De La Mere.

Only much later would I learn of mother’s inner struggle between longing to be a poet and the demands of wife and mother. When she asked the poet, Paul Engle, why through the ages only men had become great writers, he told her, “Women simply do not have the stamina for rigorous creative arts. It happens in all the other arts as well as writing.” He went on to say that great writing required the writer to suffer great tragedy which apparently the obtuse fellow assumed only came to men.

Poets Exposed

I never took a creative writing class. I skirted around the edges of poetry, deciding to perform it rather than create it. My undergraduate and M.A. degrees were in speech and theatre with a minor in English. I only began to claim being a writer in my mid thirties.

So I sneak into the group with my prose to be critiqued, and, of course, they go after it like poets. Write that paragraph like a prose poem. Take out all the extraneous words. These economical sifters of sound and meaning hone in to the spare, bare truth. They sculpt experience and meaning until reality is exposed, glistening on the page – a newly delivered child wet luminous – like a miracle:

 her long legs dawn strawberry blonde
 & I am an old wolf maintaining the furnace

(Peter Wright, teaching me to swim, excerpt)

They talk about my writing, while I listen:

I don’t think this fits here. It’s good, but use it elsewhere, says one.

This is contemplative. You pose a question and then approach and answer in different ways, notes another, getting what I am up to.

If you can’t already tell, I have fallen in love with them. The tall pianist who lopes in, plays a prelude, and reads his hilarious ironic piece on the ill-fated love story of two workers in a call center for a sex hotline. (Ok, I did blush a little.) The house-husband with a gentle soul needing to talk of something other than lunch boxes, cartoons, and laundry and be known as more than dad and husband. The unassuming woman, who quietly grieves the unspeakable loss of her dearly beloved. The PhD candidate who sends me to the dictionary to look up anamorphic and writes poems that turn over in my mind like ancient runes. The young woman, who shyly offers her poem, anticipating abundance in the putting together of two lives. And our guide, Leah, who tosses off these stanzas:

Above my head a dark sight
thrums and swoops, careens
fast to the blunt flatness
of a fence post. Fallen starling,

parted beak, gasp of dread
glint-wing broken open
in a sinister cape. I cup
its gloss in my palm.

The children fret and coo as I carry the bird
to a canopied place, wish it peace,
and bow away from its pointing eye.

The storm’s outskirt arrives
in black overhead. The wind
grips my face, tells me to get inside.

(Leah Sewell, Backyard,  excerpt)

(By the way, you must read this poem excerpt out loud to taste and feel the wonder of its consonants and rhythm in your mouth.)

Each member brings poems which stun me with their beauty, jolt me with clarity, slap me with surprise, intrigue and invite me into the warm mystery of another human being.

And I like it that they are not churchy. Trust the reader more, they tell me. (Don’t preach.) Let us make the connections. (Don’t patronize.) Let us have our own meaning. (Don’t proselytize.) We are open and welcoming, but please don’t write like the kind of Christian, we were afraid you might be, when you first joined the group. Like hound dogs, they sniff out my defensiveness, my need to please, and expose my vulnerability.

They confront me with my own prejudices and what it means to write about God and even use the J word (Jesus) in a culture where the word, Christian, makes many people, including me sometimes, squirm.

Flannery O’Connor called poetry the accurate naming of the things of God. Taking their cue from the great southern writer, these poets simply inspire me to write poems, to trim away the fat, to consider just what I am trying to accomplish here, and cast off all self consciousness. They make me more contemplative and honest.

Psychologist Carl Jung observed,

Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.

I am interested in communion, that co-union of minds and hearts, that bridges the isolation and the apparent inadmissible truths between us, where we find a home,  if only for a moment or two, in one another. I found it with these poets, reaching beyond their isolation with the things that seem important to them.

Don’t Miss This

If you are looking for a home, a little clarity for yourself, and some good entertainment, come to the Blue Planet Café on Friday evening, September 21 from 6:00-8:00 pm for Topeka Writers Workshop READS. Be there to listen and meet these writers. I think you will fall in love too.

______________

Leah Sewell is a poet, book designer, magazine editor and MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska. She is a past recipient of the Association for Women in Communications Women Making Headlines Award in media and the Penwomen Scholar Award for Letters. Her poems have or are expected to appear in PANK Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Roufus City Review, Weave Magazine and Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems. She is the founder and facilitator of the Topeka Writers Workshop in Topeka, Kansas where she lives with her family.

Mr. Collins Serves Me a Scone


 –  Love and Gratitude in a Season of Sorrow


I had breakfast this morning with Billy Collins, American poet laureate. We met on the patio at dawn. I chewed my breakfast bar, while I watched him chew his thoughts –   snatches of his days – savored, digested, and transformed in that warm oven of his imagination into tasty little scones.

And, the Lord is my witness, the man reached across the table under the tan umbrella and deftly placed the buttery sweetness into my mouth with his long, elegant fingers.

The trees were full of glad chatter, tweets, and whistles. Down the block a car started up. I slowly relished Mr. Collins’ scone, so rich and luxurious, beside my sensible protein bar. My dog, snoozing at my feet never noticed, when I fell in love with charming Billy. But that brown squirrel on the power line might have seen the cockeyed gratitude oozing out the corners of my mouth and running down my chin.

Here, help yourself to one of Billy’s scones:


As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse

I pick an orange from a wicker basket

and place it on the table

to represent the sun.

Then down at the other end

a blue and white marble

becomes the earth

and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.

 I get a glass from a cabinet,

open a bottle of wine,

then I sit back in a ladder-backed chair,

a benevolent god presiding

over a miniature creation myth,


and I began to sing

a homemade canticle of thanks

for this perfect little arrangement,

for not making the earth to hot or cold

not making it spin too fast or slow


so that the grove of orange trees

and the owl become possible,

not to mention the rolling wave,

the play of clouds, geese in flight,

and the Z of lightening on a dark lake.


Then I fill my glass again

and give thanks for the trout,

the oak, and the yellow feather,


singing the room full of shadows,

as sun and earth and moon

circle one another in their impeccable orbits

and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.

              Nine Horses – Billy Collins

I know. Life is hard, even horrific. I wish I could give you answers and take away the pain. All I have is Billy. Take down a glass. Fill it to the brim with homemade gratitude. You know the kind, fermented with what is handy – the cat sleeping in the sun, the hot coffee in the brown cup, the yellow feather –

and sing a little cockeyed canticle of your own.

Saved by Poetry

(Caution, rant alert.)
I am really tired of people who are in charge of things – leaders, authorities, and grown ups – fighting. I am annoyed with how much of the “news” consists of offering ringside seats at the latest knock down, drag out. I am sickened by sarcasm, cynicism, stridency and the legitimizing of fear, anger, and blame as reasonable and acceptable points of view in communal problem solving. I am annoyed by emails which trumpet, Read and weep and conclude with This is bad…..real bad….these guys MUST be stopped, stopped now, and stopped HARD!!!!
Thank goodness, April is poetry month. It has arrived just in time to save you from the black hole of my self righteous indignation.
When my brother and I picked, poked, badgered and teased each other into tears and blows at bedtime, my poet mom would holler up the stairs, “You kids settle down or I am coming up there with a stick with a bee on the end of it.” Mom rarely raised her voice or showed anger, but that image of her bounding up the steps waving a stick with a bee attached would hush us up and settle us down right smart. Just contemplating mom doing such a thing was sobering. So we turned over in our beds, sighed, and fell into the sleep we so sorely needed.
Flannery O’Conner wrote that poetry is the accurate naming of the things of God. For me that means everything, for what does not belong to God? For accuracy we must step away from bombast, pontification, egotism and fear to look courageously into what is so. Rather than exalting anger and fear and attempting to defend truth by diminishing all other competing truths, poetry invites us to gaze generously upon the reality of our common experience that points in the direction of truth, which poetry would never claim to possess, but only to love.
Poetry is the sensuous earthy praise of dirt, color, and detail. Poetry holds in its open palm the transformative reality of the winged sparks of sun bouncing off the blackbird’s belly, and the piercing sting of a stick with a bee on the end of it.
God, who consented in Jesus to be tethered to time, space, race, nation – the unique, speckled, flecked and marked human form of one homo sapiens, has in that startling incarnation blessed and made holy the spare, the absurd, and singular. In each particle of creation the deity scintillates, and truth shouts for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
A poem has been haunting me for the past two weeks. Remembering only snatches, It’s lemonade. It’s lemonade. It’s April, I finally hunted it up. Read it out loud right now to your cat, your friend, or just for the glorious sound of it.
It’s lemonade, it’s lemonade, it’s daisy.
It’s a roller-skating, scissor-grinding day;
It’s gingham waisted, chocolate flavored, lazy
With the children flower-scattered at their play.
It’s the sun like watermelon,
And the sidewalks overlaid
With a glaze of yellow yellow
Like a jar of marmalade.
It’s the mower gently mowing,
And the stars like startled glass,
While the mower keeps on going
In a waterfall of grass.
Then the rich magenta evening
Like a sauce upon the walk,
And the porches softly swinging
With a hammockful of talk.
It’s the hobo at the corner
With his lilac-sniffing gait,
And the shy departing thunder
Of the fast departing skate.
It’s lemonade, it’s lemonade, it’s April!
A water sprinkler, puddle winking time,
When a boy who peddles slowly, with a smile remote and holy
Sells you April chocolate flavored for a dime.
-Marcia Masters
I recall this poem every April, but I probably hadn’t read it for more than 35 years. Hmm, things have changed. Some of the images sound dated. Scissors grinder? What’s that?
The polite soft spoken man showed up every spring with his neat kit and folded soft rags that smelled of oil. He would sit on the front steps, while I watched him sharpen my mother’s scissors. A small man with creases in his face, he worked carefully, thoughtfully as he ground, polished, oiled and then replaced his tools, and folded the cloth he wiped the scissors with. I smell the oil and metal, see the dandelions on the lawn, and feel the warm sidewalk under my bare feet. He told me he lived in Florida in the winter. From spring to fall he worked his way through towns across the country, sharpening scissors and knives, talking to children, and carefully folding his rags.
Other images sound out of touch: The happy hobo pausing to smell the lilacs has been replaced by large numbers of homeless people – most not so happy.
However, the rich magenta evening like a sauce upon the walk, trips over the tongue like a tap dance and coats the mouth with the aftertaste of expensive chocolate. Just the other night, I watched that magenta evening spread its warm sauce over the streets and sidewalks of my neighborhood.
You can see how a poem can evoke, expand and unfold within your own experience, taking you to places you have long forgotten and inviting you to see your present with new eyes.
I used to think our problems would be solved if all politicians were required to take a weekly ballet class. The intense focus on the body with its specific articulation of holiness, seemed to be good for the soul. To pay attention to the turn out of the leg, the strength of the abdomen, and the way the arm and wrist occupy space would ground lofty ideologies and silence talking heads. The sweet and humbling honesty of doing all this surrounded by mirrors would level the playing field. The thrilling self surrender of a grande jeté would put many things into perspective.
Maybe all it would take is a few good poems.
Why not write one yourself this week? Stretch yourself to accurately name some of the things of God. With a smile remote and holy, post it here or on the Sanctuary Facebook Page, and add your singular, sane and supple sanctity to the dance.

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