Why We Need Dismal Poems About Death and Maggots

ednastvincentmillayAll the beauty in the world is no compensation for the ending of love, Edna St. Vincent Millay argues in her brief and bitter poem, “Spring,” Yes, there are flowers and they are nice. Yes, there is the natural world in its cycles of rejuvenation and sprouting. But all of that, she says, is entirely worthless and even insulting when you are standing by the grave of the friend who is not there or anywhere, who is never to be found again. When you watch the first shovel of earth drop onto the casket, your heart within you will be filled with terror. You will turn instinctively to tell it to your dearest friend, to explain your disorientation and your loneliness. But they will not be there. And for this shudder of panicked isolation, there is no compensation. Millay is angry that anyone might think that anything could make this sorrow the least bit better. It is not enough, she says.

And I think God is not quarreling with Millay or angered by her hopeless poem. When I hear God responding to Millay, I hear him saying, “No, it’s not. It’s not enough. It’s an outrage.”

It’s not enough that here in the chaos and the misery of lives punctuated by deaths, little good things happen. Little flowers sometimes open. Little kind words are sometimes said. God knows that. After all, if there is a God, isn’t he a God of truth and of the real? Nothing that is real should be too much for the world’s maker to handle with complete understanding and goodness. So I think that every honest and skillful representation of the human experience should be of value to Christian people because it can tell us something about what is real. What is real in this poem is its unflinching stare at the dark bottom of the human experience of death. The poem tells us that humans are horrified and unmade by the thievery of death. This is a real thing to which God has a real response. And that response is, “I won’t stand for it.”

[Read the full piece in the Spring 2019 issue of the Cultivating Project.]

A Poem for Post-Christmas

20181224_123008 (1)This year, I spent Christmas in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and in all honesty, it was hard. It was sweet that Alex and I finally got to spend our very first Christmas together and it was sweet to have quality time with his family and take part in different traditions. But for the first time in many years, I didn’t get to take a starlight walk through a field and imagine the chorus of angels behind the silence. I didn’t perch atop a hay bale under a barn roof and journal with half-numb fingers about the glorious implications of lesser-known Christmas carols. There are no fields here, of course, and certainly no hay bales. What’s more to the point, there is no space for solitude in nature, and I’m finding more and more that productive reflection and rest is really difficult for me to achieve indoors.

One thing I did do was spend two full afternoons in an upscale shopping mall, hiding out in a bookstore and looking for some soul peace. On Christmas Eve, I was there the whole afternoon, thumbing through poetry books, vaguely looking for something to anchor my anxious heart.

The triviality of the world can be stifling and I think we all feel it at different times and in different ways. I feel it most when I’m in the presence of hopeless materialism, when I’m watching people get bogged down and burdened by the tightening chains of things that are without longevity, purpose or meaning. And of course, there’s nowhere like the mall if you want to get yourself a load of that.

One of the books I explored that afternoon in the bookstore was Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems For Hard Times. In his introductory notes, Keillor explains why he thinks poetry has something to contribute to people who are suffering. “The meaning of poetry,” he says, “is to give courage.” And that stuck with me. Because ah. That is what I chiefly need.

Since I couldn’t find any poems that spoke to what I was feeling, I started scratching out a brand new one, pouring my sadness and frustration into lyrical words. But, as so often happens, hope happened at the end of it.

This poem is meant to push back on the dangerous idea that what we’re up against today is somehow worse or less conquerable than what has been in the past. For a traditional artist like me, whose heart beats faster at the sight of hard-copy letters and old-fashioned style and the texture of paper, who feels a sadness in the pit of my stomach when I see isolation creeping into culture or the price of postage going always up; well, this is vital.

It’s vital that Jesus came into a horrible, horrible, world where nothing made sense and everyone was confused. Where truth was murky and beauty was treacherous and self-preservation was central. These things have always been, taking one form or another. And that’s vital.

It’s vital for post-Christmas, when we’re trying to get ready for the new year, for the sorrows that are inevitable, for the loneliness of being human, for the days when faith doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.

Star Of Bethlehem FlowerThe title of the poem refers to the ornithogalum flower, also known as the “Star of Bethlehem.” I took an interest in it earlier this month when I was working on the January edition of the Letters From the Sea Tower. I wanted to make a little illustration for a striking line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In his exploration of the mythos of King Arthur, Tennyson employs the phrase, “wearing the white flower of a blameless life,” and I chose the small, unobtrusive, starry ornithogalum to be my model for the white flower. But as I began to write this poem, it came to me that if a white flower is a representation of a blameless life, there is someone who wore it far better than even King Arthur. Here’s to Him.

And without further ado, here’s my little poem. May it bring you some courage to face the shallowness of the world with limitless grace and cheerful defiance. May your life in some kind resemble the humble, white-flower life of Jesus.

STAR OF BETHLEHEM [Ornithogalum]

The world was just this way
 	when
Baby Jesus bloomed in the
 	crisp winter and the frost
 		couldn’t wilt him.
People then as now
 	were lost in the unnavigable maze of the self
little guessing there was
 	around any corner
a turn into a passage fragrant
 	with fresh air
 	 	and the urgent invitations of the gulls.
People then as now
 	were shelling out their small, limitless lives
 	for those briefest of commodities:
		pleasure and applause
when Christ came low and
 	behold
the white flower of paradise opening
 	gently in the carpet
 		of the grass.

			

Thoughts on Faith and Egrets

Great Egrets Landing in Shallow Water

“…unruffled, sure, 
by the laws
of their faith not logic, 
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”
         (Mary Oliver, EGRETS

 

My husband and I have both been ill this week, with our throats too scratchy and hoarse to even read The Fellowship of the Ring out loud to each other before bed, as has been our usual routine. So last night I picked up Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which was given to me as a gift by a dear friend from Dr. Bob Fink’s Creative Writing workshop. And in one particular poem, I found words to accompany the current season of my life and the newest Great Secret I’ve discovered.

As is usually the case, it was right there in plain sight.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a lot of heartache and disappointment. I’ve seen the crumbling and the ruin of people, places, and things that I’ve loved with reckless abandon. And the reckless abandon part of me has been all but swallowed up.

I’ll be quite open with you. Last semester, I came through a massive crisis of faith. The years of disappointment and loss came to a head and I found myself unable to place any confidence in the goodness of God. A mentor met me for lunch at Jason’s Deli and I cried through most of our meeting, unconcerned about who might see.

But time passed and the throes of doubt and anger dissipated. Even though I wasn’t getting along with God, I was dead-set on holding on to him. Like Peter said —

—Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

His words became like the theme of my life. And I was sad that the fire had gone out, but I was not shocked. I had read so many warnings about this from the Aristocracy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, Abraham, Moses – they all fought this darkness, this blank space. I knew it wasn’t new to me; there wasn’t room for self-pity.

I would just keep going. I would just keep doing the things. I would not worry about whether I felt anything. I would just do it.

But loving Jesus, it’s not a Nike thing. It’s not a thing like Shia LeBeouf yelling at the camera and pumping his arms like a gorilla (I know, why does that video exist?). It’s not like that.

That’s what I learned in Tijuana. Alex and I were part of a group that went down to Baja 143earlier this month. We built a church and a home (well, we hammered a few hundred nails, at least, and slung lime green paint on the boards, our construction skills being minimal). In the park a little boy sat down next to us while we ate our lunch one afternoon and he spoke to us in Spanish and we painstakingly constructed and fumbled through clumsy questions and answers for him. And mostly we just sat together, us and the little boy from a lonely village in the desert, not saying anything.

But what was most beautiful about the trip was all the stories people told and passed on. On the bus, on the street, in meetings after dinner and breakfast in the frigid breeze blowing off the ocean, people told their stories of staggering grace. Their stories of change, and transformation, and hope deferred but nevertheless arriving. Their stories of faith.

And I learned something: faith isn’t only an action word. It isn’t only about what we do. It is also a climate of the mind. It is a determination to believe, come what may, in the coming of the promise. It is a rejoicing. It is a feast. It is a banquet in honor of things that are not. And when we’re holding that banquet, there’s no need to feel foolish, for at the head of the table sits God — who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Kilmurvey House

kilmurvey
I’m not in Ireland today, but the grey sky in West Texas has been pouring steady water for over twenty-four hours. When I went running down the flooded little streets in the drippy dusk earlier, I lingered over my memories of wet days in the Aran Islands back in March.

And I decided to post this little poem that I wrote earlier this week in Dr. Bob Fink’s creative writing workshop. The poem was an attempt to distill the essence of my experience at Kilmurvey House, a lovely historic stone home that serves as a lodging-place for island visitors.

The photo included here is not my own, but it is just how I remember Kilmurvey House. The lighted window on the right side of the picture is the window into the “rose tea-room” mentioned in the poem – a room where my now-fiancé and I read a little book of W.B. Yeats’ poetry on a wet, wet day much like this one.

IMG_0567The poem I most clearly recall reading was “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” because we discussed it at some length and questioned whether cynicism is a natural accompaniment for age and, if so, whether it must be?

Yeats famously visited the Aran Islands in 1896 and told J.M. Synge: “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” Kilmurvey House was standing when Yeats was on the island, but no one in our group was certain whether he ever went there specifically.

When I first set out to write this poem, I wanted to know for sure – I thought it was important to the poem. But as I began to think about it more deeply, I realized that this small fact is immaterial in the scheme of things. What matter is that I was there, reading Yeats and wrestling with what he said and I wanted to give words to that experience. So this is my best attempt.

KILMURVEY HOUSE


No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
       (W.B. Yeats, Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?
)

I don’t know if Yeats ever came here or not
on a pitching ferry passing
the wild atlantic way the saltgrass air in his nose
the gulls wheeling.

There are always red coals in the rose tea room
the kettle about to bubble
and the little warm milk pods in the bowl on the
ancient piano.

Why should not old men be mad? Even the ocean
is white with rage
throwing beaten egg stones up on the beach
howling in the boulders.

Yet will you sit with me here in the circle
of bodhran thunder and light?
Sometimes the mind breaks and spills
birdlike solos.

Abilene: A Letter To My Children

abilene2

[I wrote this reflective letter last month as part of a final project for the Fall 2016 Semester Honors Discourse in Cultural Theory, taught by Dr. Travis Frampton and Dr. Dan Stiver.]

My Dear Children,

I spent some years of my young adult life in a strange metropolis on the highway that shoots through arid West Central Texas as straight as an arrow. In the Gospel of Luke, there’s a tetrarch that governs a place called Abilene, a name that means stream or brook. Texan Abilene is a stream of sorts because people from all over the world stream into its several private universities and stream out full of purpose and dreams and ambitions. But Abilene is a desert too, a spot in a road that links desolate oilfields to desolate oilfields, a wasteland of dry and disembodied knowledge, a place where things come to die. It’s an enigma how the same place can either give life or take it, depending on what you’re looking for. I think it’s mostly about what you’re looking for.

wedding-2Of course, I haven’t met anyone yet – whether in Abilene or anywhere else – who was looking for death, who didn’t hope to make something of themselves or at least to be happy. Sometimes I think the hunger to be happy might be the lowest common denominator that links people together into one all-inclusive category. The thing is, what is it they want to make of themselves? I think there’s one dominant haunting question at the core of most of the anxiety that confronts young college students trying to figure out what to study and where to live and who to marry: What version of me is going to be the happy one? It was like that for me.

The myths clamor to answer this question. Because a myth is a story and stories give an illusion of structure to a world where sometimes nothing really seems to fit together, where nothing seems certain, where nothing makes sense. People used to tell myths around the fires at the heart of villages, out under the stars on warm summer nights. They used to spin tales to make sense of wind and sky and tempests and echos and all the things that troubled and thrilled them and kept them bound to the whims of the natural world. But today, myths pour in on big screens in cinemas and small screens in our pockets, and they answer different questions. Rather than trying to structure nature, which has been somewhat tamed for an increasingly urban world, they’re our best attempts to structure our freedom, to build a framework where we can fit and be confident that we made the best possible choice.

instagramBut how can you make the best possible choice when the choices are endless, when no matter what you pick, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life scrolling through the Instagram feeds of peers who chose other things and continuously broadcast what you will never have? When I try to think of a foremost trauma that has shaped my generation, I wonder if maybe this is it: Freedom. Options. The Infinity of Possibility. The War Against Regret. Social Media. How can we be safe from these things?

Let me tell you about Abilene. In Abilene, I learned how to mix a smooth watercolor wash and stretch art paper. I learned about voting math and asteroids. I learned how to get out of a chokehold and how to polka and how to conjugate the subjunctive tense in Spanish. But I also learned something else, something that easily eclipses all of these things, something that made the West Texas years worth it:

Life isn’t safe. You have to love. It’s not safe but it’s all you can do. And you must be brave enough to do it even when it’s as scary as a lonely leap over a ravine; because love hopes all things, believes all things; because it’s love that’s making the whole world new. And love is the scariest thing of all.

There’s more. If you love Jesus, you will have a well of gladness that doesn’t have to be quenched. You can quench it if you want, but this is much more your choice than anyone will tell you.

I know. This one is a hard sell. As much as we want and need to believe that there’s a way for us to be sane and cheerful whatever comes, when it comes down to it, the comforting temptation to be aabilene victim is mighty overpowering, isn’t it? But it’s no solution. In one of his many bad novels full of staggeringly good thoughts, George MacDonald talked about this irony of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“All the doors that lead inward to the secret place of the Most High are doors outward,” he wrote. “-out of self, out of smallness, out of wrong.”

In Abilene, I learned the hard way that what it means to carry Christ is to carry a spring in your heart, a spring that can’t help leaping up, coming out, spreading its little fingers of joy to everyone it encounters. In Abilene, I learned that if you’re not a stream of life, as vulnerable as water, you’re a desert. Don’t be a desert.