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.

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 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.

 

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

I continue to write poems every Sunday. Recently, I’ve focused on the devastation caused by the coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote about the remarkable ways in which our life in the public places of society have changed. The poem ends with Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to wait in silence/for the salvation of the Lord.” The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC., so it has much to say about life in times of sorrow and hardship.

Chairs sit in shuttered restaurants,
waiting like forsaken dogs for the return
of those who might not come.

Plazas have been emptied of the thousands
who once poured through them like sand;
just a few grains remain.

Cars that used to prance about mostly stand
in their stalls, hoping for the day they will
return to roaming.

The city’s hum and throb has ceased,
engines stilled as the hands that goaded them
suddenly slack from their endeavor.

Life is paused in midstep as an enemy invades,
we listen to dispatches from the front,
mourning all the fallen.

I rest in the stillness, where comfort is
proportional to trust: it is good to wait in silence
for the salvation of the Lord.

I am practicing the discipline of writing a poem every Sunday; I’ve posted a couple of them on this site. I’ve recently finished reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of the poems I’ve written were in response to Dante the pilgrim’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. For example, in Canto III of Paradiso, Dante arrives at the lowest sphere of heaven, where he encounters Piccarda Donati, the sister of an old friend of his. He asks whether she is satisfied here or instead yearns for a higher position. She replies that she is completely content, telling him to:

“think carefully what love is and you’ll see
such discord has no place within these rounds,
since to be here is to exist in Love.” The Portable Dante, tr. Mark Musa)

Dante reflects, “Then it was clear to me that every where of Heaven is Paradise.”

It seemed to me that Piccarda’s mindset could serve us well here on earth, that we, too, can everywhere live in God’s love, if only we look at the world through that lens. As I wrote, I thought about walking the day before through a park. The calendar still said winter, but spring was clearly afoot. Here’s the poem:

If “every where of heaven is paradise,”
then what in all creation is excluded?

Today’s a joint where winter bends towards spring:
snowpiles wounded by the warmth
bleed bracing rivulets;
the sun’s become a bright and blushing debutante;
trees yet unbudding stretch tall so golden rays
can trace their fuzzy silhouettes;
marsh grasses from last summer weave tan tangles
that, like oldsters everywhere, murmur
about their former days of glory.

Where can I go that heaven won’t infuse?
Even in a darkened room
sunlight pokes its fingers through the blinds
and, in the splay, blissful dust specks dance.
So I sit in my cell as in paradise.
To be here (or anywhere)
is to exist in love.

 

 

national poetry month

 

Babes and beasts alike pay little heed
to time’s progress–its clattering or stealth.
Attending to the clock becomes a need
only after I’ve become a self.

It’s National Poetry Month, so I figured I should try to rouse my creative energies enough to produce a poem or two.  I wrote the brief verse above early in the month, and thought that was all I would do.  Last night, though, I managed another effort:

 

 STATIONS

My father, shouldering the gravity of years

grips the handles like an ancient farmer

bent to his plow.  His walker, an insensate

mule, pulls him through the ruts

to the stations of his life—

commode, recliner, wheelchair, bed.

Meanwhile I visit the gymnasium’s altars—

Nautilus. elliptical, and stationary bike.  Why

do I imagine that the sacrifices offered there

will give me any different end?

Two poems in 30 days–that’s better than my combined output of zero for the year to this point.  I can’t wait to see what I’ll do for next year’s National Poetry Month!