Poetry

Pocket Poetry: What We're Reading for National Poetry Month

Sojourners has published poetry — the language of praise, lament, psalm, scripture, love, and prayer — in our magazine pages since our earliest years. In recognition of National Poetry Month’s “Poetry in Our Pocket Day,” and in celebration of Sojourners’ historical love of poetry, our staff selects our favorite poems below. And be sure to check out the poem published in our May 2015 issue, “This Is Praying” by Lisa Dordal.


Karen LatteaVice President, Human Resources
"Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" by Wendell Berry

“Ask the questions that have no answers. / Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. / Say that your main crop is the forest / that you did not plant, / that you will not live to harvest.”

For a person of faith fighting injustice, these words can lift heart and soul. Desmond Tutu likewise said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world,” echoing Pete Seeger’s philosophy that the accumulation of many small deeds adds up to big change.

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10 Artists of the Black Lives Matter Movement

While statistics, tweets, marches, and articles can bolster and enliven movements, art brings in the endurance. Art makes injustice a song that gets stuck in your head. Art makes murals out of obituaries, and hope out of statistics. Below, check out some of the art surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement:

1. Epitaph as protest. In “All Eyes Are Upon Us” (Sojourners April 2015) Gene Grabiner references 14 fallen people of color—men, women, and children, from 1973 to 2014—all casualties of “this war against the people.”

2. Nightmares. In her spoken word poem “black. anathema.”Jessica Edwards mourns the feared death of her unborn black child: “My soul mourning you prematurely, / clutching my empty womb bitterly.”

3. Words of protest. In August 2014, Split This Rock, a national network of socially engaged poets, chose “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith for their poem of the week. Smith opens:

“I am sick of writing this poem / but bring the boy. his new name / his same old body.”

4. Selma’s now. In “Glory,” the Academy Award-winning song from the 2014 motion picture Selma, John Legend and Common connect the civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Dear Francis

When it comes to living small,
you were ahead of your time,
which is why I nominate you
patron saint of tiny homes. So
you haven’t heard of them?
Think: chapel for one on wheels
with cedar floors, a loft to sleep,
and a skylight in the roof—here
is where I’d go to pray, and where
I pray to live (pending a friend
to let me squat, and the zonin
board’s OK). It’s a new way
of being poor. I hope you will
approve.

Humbly,

Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, lives in Winooski, Vermont.

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Redemptive Verses

POET BRUCE WEIGL inhabits two places in his life, in his work. Two places that could not be more different. But in the course of our conversations, I come to think of them as a single place, the way two hands are part of a single body. One place is Lorain, Ohio. The other is Vietnam.

Ever since the Vietnam War ended, the life of this mill worker’s son has swung between those two far-flung poles.

I met Weigl at a Starbucks in Manhattan’s East Village. I was interviewing a friend of his, Adrie Kusserow, about her book of poems on South Sudan. Weigl was content just to drink his coffee and listen to us talk. He intervened only once, when Kusserow and I began decrying public indifference to South Sudan’s pre-independence history of slaughter, enslavement, and banishment by Sudan.

“If I may defend my fellow human beings here, there are so many places in the world today where there is suffering. It is understandable that people may miss one or two,” he said.

The suffering of the Vietnamese, and of soldiers like himself who fought in Vietnam, is still burned into his psyche like some gory tattoo. It is to be found in every one of his 13 books.

In his poem “Ice Storm,” from The Abundance of Nothing (TriQuarterly Books), short-listed for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, he writes:

I got my own personal Jacob’s ladder,
buddy, reader, listener to this
sad song. I built a temple for the ghosts
because they just kept coming.

Weigl’s work is strewn with ghosts: ghosts of Vietnamese children hit by American fire (but also the cherished non-ghost, his adopted Vietnamese daughter, Hahn), the ghosts of a soldier’s legs severed by a Bouncing Betty, the ghost of his own lost self, inflicted miserably on bar girls. He constructs a stairway of ghosts that empties into a redemptive space. A space that has prevailed over the ghosts, while being unable to actually evict them.

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Anna

I.
The wailing and the murmured prayers,
the animal ruckus, and coin against coin,
smoke hanging in the temple spaces—
offerings that bear our love to the seat of heaven.

For sixty years my soul has leaned
so hard toward the Almighty, I’m open
like a flower drenched with light
that blossoms into words.

Yet I wonder, will I rest too soon
will I sleep like Miriam
with no honey from the Promised Land
to sweeten this old life?

II.
But now she enters with new-mother steps,
her strong gaze searching us
for hearts that see. I turn to tell all
who wait, who yearn for consolation,

look, she brings the Word most fully,
this young woman cradling the body
of Emmanuel against her heart
arms trembling with the weight.

Kristina LaCelle-Peterson is an associate professor of religion and part of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Global Engagement at Houghton College in New York.

Image: Woman holding baby,  / Shutterstock

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51.

Wizards! Caspar! Melchior! Balthasar!
Why fly straight to Fox Herod? Through
Unbounded night—! Bringing only news
Ripe for bloodletting. How black a star
You follow. Herod knows. How bizarre
A kingly claim. Will he oppose? Muse
Like Mary? Ha—! Mothers’ sons lose
Heads to swords & axes. Herod bars
The throne to Jesus. Who kills first?
Herod orders. Dash ’em every one—!
Every male child under two years old.
God’s son Jesus flees to Egypt. Thirst
For blood remains. Later he won’t run.
Soldiers spear his side. So God behold.

Marilyn Seven is an artist living in New York City. This sonnet is number 51 in an unpublished collection of 100.

Image: Three wise men looking towards the star,  / Shutterstock 

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VIDEO: A Dream Deferred in Ferguson

Ryan Herring, former Sojourners intern and editor-in-chief of the The Ghetto Monk, traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to participate in the protests and events “eerily similar to ones decades ago during the civil rights movement.” In Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” Hughes asks what happens to a dream deferred.

Decades later, Herring finds himself echoing Hughes’ question in ‘Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!’ (Sojourners, November 2014). Will the dream for equal rights “dry up like a raisin in the sun,” like Michael Brown’s body “left to bake in the sweltering heat for nearly hours after he was executed?” Or will the deferred dream “explode?” In other words, will the laments and protests of Ferguson grow into a larger movement for racial equality? 

Watch this video to see photos from Ferguson and to listen to Herring reading “Harlem” in the background.

Jenna Barnett is an editorial assistant for Sojourners.

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Everything Changes the World

Boys on a beach,
women with cookpots,
men bombing tender patches of mint.

There is no righteous position.
Only a place where brown feet
touch the earth.

Maybe you call it yours.
Maybe someone else runs it.
What do you prefer?

We who are far
stagger under the mind blade.
Words, lies.
My friend in Bethlehem says,
Pious myth-building and criminal behavior,
that’s what.

Every shattered home,
every shattered story worth telling.
Think how much you’d need to say
if that were your kid.

If one of your people
equals hundreds of ours,
what does that say about people?

Naomi Shihab Nye, born to a Palestinian father and American mother, is a poet, novelist, and anthologist of more than 30 volumes. Her newest book is The Turtle of Oman.

Image: A Palestinian women sells grape leaves,  / Shutterstock 

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