This is a poem I wrote in April, 2005, when I was working as a college prof. Thankfully, my life isn’t like this anymore! My reading isn’t near as erudite, but much more enjoyable, and it’s easier to get outside.

Like those games in truck stops with quarters piled on flat metal trays

with the promise that, if you play, you can keep whatever falls,

so books roost on counters, tables, chairs, wherever they can find a space,

vital knowledge being held within the folds of their wings,

ready to be shaken loose. Nearby, I see Pinnock, Gerald May,

Kierkegaard and Hauerwas.  Walker Percy and John Calvin

lie one atop the other on my desk; Camus is on the floor,

in a scrum of existentialists topped by Frederick Neitzsche.

How nice it is, I think, to be the type of person who reads such books

and talks of them with other priests serving in a shrine of culture.

***********************************************************

Outside, winter’s bony fingers pull on gloves:

azaleas have exploded

with bursts of bloom as bright as any fireworks,

dogwoods twirl white parasols,

and souls have risen from the dead.

The sun inhabits Lent’s lengthened days.
Snow sheets first were dappled
like metal pounded lightly by a hammer.
The melt then crept down roads,
disappearing into drains.
Eventually snow skirts pulled back
from houses’ knees.
Now there’s just a snowplowed pile or two,
memories of disappeared abundance.

The uncovered ground still sleeps,
her dreams not even tickled yet by daffodils.
Unbudded trees hope dauntlessly for leaves.

Seasons pass away;
there must always be a death
before a resurrection.

The spectral grave clothes are gone
and sunray fingers knead dirt,
the heart’s about to beat again.

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

This poem is a meditation on Psalm 77, a lament that seems suitable for the current moment. At the end I reference Marta C. Gonzalez, an Alzheimer’s patient who still retained a memory of her days as a ballerina. At the bottom of the page I link to a video of her that went viral.

Troubles fill the day
and spill into night.
My unresting hands reach out,
refusing sleep’s deficient comfort.

It’s not me, God, who wants
to prop my eyes ajar,
so it must be you.
I remember my night songs,
doves fluttering with hope,
and wonder where they’ve flown to.

“God, will you always be like this?
Did your unending love
reach its end?
Favor, mercy, sympathy—
have they all been chewed to pieces
by your angry jaws?”

Sometimes, I think it to be so,
but stubbornly my mind
recalls your deeds, the wonders
that my eyes have seen,
my ears have heard.

Even if I forget all else,
may your music and your dance
be so implanted in my heart
that I could be like
Marta C. Gonzalez.

She,
though wheelchaired and demented,
became again a ballerina,
filled with grace and light,
when she heard the song.

“Sermon on the Mount” by Aurel Naray. Image: http://www.hungarianartmastergallery.com

Blessed are the destitute, the desperate,
the bankrupt and impoverished,
the penniless, insolvent and exhausted,
all those who know they lack.

Blessed are those who bleed,
cut by the knives of race and class;
blessed are the aberrant,
eccentric, odd, and offbeat,
peculiar, queer, or freakish.

What, though, of the stiff and solid,
punctilious and diligent,
respected and presentable;
what of those who sit on
straight-backed chairs counting silver,
stashing it in sacks?

Which group will be welcomed
into the coming kingdom of rejoicing seas,
elated fields, and delighted, singing trees?
In the teeter-totter world
where the lowly are uplifted
and the pompous are pushed down,
open my hermetic seal to let
the pressured air of pride hiss out.
In emptiness alone
can I be filled.

In deep autumn
the leaves have flushed
to yellow, orange, and wine;
some drain further
down to muddy brown.
Unlike animals
who add a winter coat,
trees shed their clothes–
leaves scoured away like scales.
Breezes animate leaf flurries
that descend like rainbowed snow.
They tessellate the ground
with muted beauty.

Not so long ago, trees were budding,
twigs proudly swelling
with the green vehemence of new life.
Life writes most gorgeously
in the prologue and the afterward.

Yesterday, I watched home movies
filmed by my father when I was young.
Christmases with gifts,
birthdays with cake,
throwing snowballs,
paddling in the pool
friends and relatives
scattered throughout.

How much life there is
within the space
from Spring to Fall.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

Here is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:11 as it played out one night:

I rush, intending to be finished early—
wash the floor and vacuum,
fold up clothes and fix tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m hoping to have time to sit
out on the porch and read a bit.
All goes well until
it quickly doesn’t.

The sink is the first to balk;
the disposal chokes on a chunk of metal
dislodged from its innards.
Water spills into the space below,
soaking boxes and bottles and jugs,
a variety of oddities. Everything
needs to dry. A plumber
will have to come. Oh, boy.

Meanwhile, it’s started raining
I had left some stuff—a mask,
a paper napkin, and a music player—
on the car trunk. Soaked. Toss
the napkin, dry the mask,
will the music play?

The chair on the porch is wet as well.
No reading there tonight.
The shower curtain falls as,
too quickly, I snatch a towel
to absorb disordered water.

Swiftness does not win the race,
nor strength the fight or smarts the cash;
welcome time and chance
and watch tranquility dissolve.
Remember, Bob, that you are dust
and give to God your trust.

 

 

The description of Babylon in the book of Daniel seems oddly familiar 2500 years later. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek take on that empire and all empires from then until now:

Just settle in, assimilate
ignore your grief, ignore your ache
and when the music plays, bow down
before the king of Babylon.

You will be taught (tuition free)
all magic spells and oddities;
it may seem strange, it may seem wrong;
it’s how things roll in Babylon.

Our businessmen are savvy whores,
there’s merchandise in all the stores;
buy fig trees now on Amazon!
wealth does accrue in Babylon.

So I give thanks, at night in bed
for clothes and houses, wine and bread,
and I decide that I belong
consuming stuff in Babylon.

The king is petulant, it’s true:
“Tell me my dream, or off with you!”
The vision comes before the dawn
to men who prayed in Babylon.

There’s just a few who will not sing
their native songs, or anything.
They think instead of days begone
and turn their hearts from Babylon.

The kingdom of the Lord will come
and we’ll rejoice before the Son,
while waiting though, we still are fond
of all the charms of Babylon.

Image from newengland/today/Aimee Seavey

I live life in a bumper car
swirling around an amusement park corral.
Collisions will occur, whether by intent
or accident. Some impacts may be jolting
but family and school, church and community
have so swaddled me in a robust ring of rubber
that I bounce off whenever there’s a clash,
startled but essentially unharmed.

Some people have no bumpers to absorb the shocks,
just flimsy metal sheets that collapse on impact.
Those who flee in fear to the furthest corner
they can find are of this sort, as are those
who in pain and fury try to inflict
as many dents as they endure.
There are also the courageous.
Though unbuffered, they take it as duty
to venture out each day, knowing
that wounds await but
commending all to God.