poetry


Highwayman.jpg from Wikimedia Commons

This is a poem I wrote last month. Sometimes I write something that I particularly like. This is one of those things. I don’t know quite why. It’s about the unpredictability of life, not a particularly pleasant theme. Maybe it captures my present situation-mom dying, having to move, lots of uncertainties ahead-fairly well. I’d be interested in reactions that others have when they read it.

Our lives are often linear, 
not wavering from course, 
so that we come to think we’re on 
a road that’s without forks. 
 
As things remain the same, we will 
increasingly take hold 
of calculations that provide 
illusions of control. 
 
But change is like a highwayman 
that’s lying just ahead 
to rob us of our certainties 
and leave our plans for dead. 
 
A bone will break, a car will crash, 
pneumonia grows from coughs; 
God uses ordinary things 
to throw the balance off. 
 
He baffles and befuddles us 
disturbing our neat rows; 
the Holy Spirit hasn’t come  
to coronate the known. 
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This was my first poem of the year, written in early January while reflecting on the year past and the year to come. It’s main image comes from Isaiah 40:8–“Grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of God endures forever.” It seems appropriate both in regard to the start of Lent and the present turmoil in the world.

Grass withers and the flower fades
winter comes to take away
whatever lacks abiding root
whatever lacks tenacious truth.

For metal rusts, the moth consumes;
the wealth that promised to accrue
gives little help when health erodes
thus proving a deceptive hope.

But we are blessed, not cursed by rust
for it discourages false loves
and losing is a discipline
that lights the way when dreams have dimmed.

Grass dies and human strength erodes
the word of God continues whole--
his grace and goodness are the hinge:
he opens and we enter in. 

	
	

Here is the Brief Rule of St. Romuald, who founded the Camaldolese Order in Italy a little over a thousand years ago. The rule is taken from https://camaldolesedownunder.com/st-romualds-brief-rule/ this website of an Australian Camaldolese monestary:

Sit in your cell as in paradise;
put the whole world behind you and forget it;
like a skilled angler on the lookout for a catch, keep a careful eye on your thoughts.

The path you must follow is in the psalms – don’t leave it. If you’ve come with a novice’s enthusiasm and can’t accomplish everything you want, take every chance you can find to sing the psalms in your heart and to understand them in your head; if your mind wanders as you read, don’t give up but hurry back and try again.

Above all realize that you are in God’s presence, like a little chick tasting and eating nothing but what its mother brings.

Reflecting on this rule a year ago during the time of isolation imposed by covid19, I wrote the following:

This room has become the cell sustaining me,
with its bed and chair and desk,
its wallpaper looking just a bit like burlap,
a calendar that usually lags a month or two behind,
and stacks of unread books and magazines.
Art hung here and there tells me of the world
beyond these walls—a field in Idaho,
a lake spread like smooth flooring 
beneath clouds plastered softly to the sky,
a quaint European street,
and a room somewhere that’s always sunlit
even during these cloudy winter days.

Wanderlust reaches out of the frames to tug
at me, but I isolate in place,
fishing just among my thoughts,
freshened by the sunlight streaming
from the psalms that my heart sings.
I peck gratefully at whatever seeds
my mother-God supplies.
Contentment visits and
my cell expands to paradise.

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com
Advent comes, I wait, and know
that all of life is waiting.

I wait for the particular,
what I’m sure will happen—
school to start, graduation to occur,
guests to arrive, Christmas Day to come.
Waiting is faith.

But I mostly feel the weight of my wait
when I’ve left my certainty for contingency;
I check my watch more often when unsure
the train will come on time.
Waiting is doubt.

I wait not in completeness, but in lack—
no Invictus here for me, but need, 
for I am not enough. Other souls
and the mangered God must come
to fill me where I’m incomplete.
Waiting is emptiness.

And emptiness is such discomfort
that I seek some substitute,
some easy way. Yet all the while,
the One for whom I wait
waits steadfastly for me in hope 
that I will disavow distraction
and give myself to him.

Waiting is surrender. 
PXL_20211102_212444491

Necessities accomplished,

in stillness I sit down and read.

I find the place where I left off,

backtracking a bit to find

headwaters of the stream

spilled out by the author.

I row among the words a while,

their black debris floating

on a sheen of white.

There is much worth netting,

remembering, collecting.

Five pages in, my eyes,

winched at first to thought

and concentration,

   slowly

       uncouple,

          skittering

        across

    the

  lines,

    nothing

       understood.

           They

                       close,

            and

 the

            snow

                           of

     slumber

                           softly

 falls.

Clouds empty

inadvertent blessing

on the earth.





It is summer yet, but barely—
some days already suitable for sweaters.
Light’s vast expanse is shrunk, 
tailored ever tighter, as if the year
became obese but has been dieting
and will with winter shrink 
to skeletal. 

After eight, my dog and I go out 
and find the yard is deep in darkness.
I thought to take a flashlight
to help us find our way, but discovered 
that the scant rags of light left over
from the day’s rich finery 
are enough for us. 

Wendell Berry writes about a hunter
so exasperated by his temperamental
lantern that he tossed it down a hollow,
then proceeded better than before. 

Perhaps I’ve huddled
close to lamps and lanterns overmuch. 
The darkness has more light 
than I imagined, and in it 
I can see the stars. 
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When I go out, I usually have an agenda that usually takes priority over the strangers I’m walking past. Occasionally there’s an exception, though. This poem describes a time I put my agenda aside and made connection.

A young man sat cross-legged on the sidewalk,
not looking up, playing his guitar, 
the only sign that he was panhandling was a sign:
“Homeless traveler, please help.”

I passed him easily the first time 
and went beyond two steps when coming back
before becoming gum-footed.
I had a few spare dollars and a few spare minutes,
so why not offer both? I turned around.

We talked a bit.
He was passing through, 
he liked the town but found it hard 
to be among the homeless here,
so he was leaving soon. 

Then he volleyed this:
“Would you like to hear a poem?”
He had been writing one about the friends
that heroin had stolen. I said yes,
so he flipped a battered notebook open. 

I remember words of sorrow, pain, and anger,
but most of all determination to express all this.
There must be many more like him—
heads down but eager to be heard.

I thanked him and he smiled, 
glued his palms together, 
and bent down in a bow.

It was a fifties family trip, and we had stopped for ice cream.
I was only three, so to choose a flavor wasn’t easy.
I went back and forth, one and then the other.
Finally I picked,
and was handed a delicious treat.
It wasn’t what I wanted!
Dismayed by this great injustice, chocolate having staged a coup
unseating dear vanilla and sitting smugly on the cone,
I threw it on the ground.
Hustled in the backseat by embarrassed parents,
I sobbed out my unmet desire.

Choice is curse and blessing.
What is it that I know I truly want?
Who do I want to be?
With whom do I want to spend my life?
What purpose do I want to animate my days?
Asked that way, there are far too many choices,
a multitude of flavors I have trouble even understanding.

Better to remember I’m already on a path
that I decided I would follow long ago,
or, even more, that chose me
back before I first drew breath.

I want the gain but not the loss,
the excitement, not the boredom,
the joy but not the shame,
bliss without the bitterness,
connections, not the separations,
but life doesn’t offer ice cream
free of fat and sticky fingers.

So, don’t ask me what I want;
Ask instead if today I have
sufficient light to see my path
and sense enough to follow it.

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com

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.

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