Poetry

Infantry

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

I

The crumpled woman pushes through the door
and sees your plump limp limbs

held tight in my buckled arms.

She remembers holding
such sweet eternity.

II

His temple:
life's bright beating softens here.

Some say it holds the place of time,

watch springs wrapped tight
under the bone.

III

Waking, he is held by his father,
whose arms have newly borne

weapons made

to breathe heavily
into our enemy chest.

Bree Devones Hsieh works with Servant Partners and lives in Pomona, California.

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Second Line


Blindfolded and gagged, tossed in the back
of a car—it's how they gather up young men
and after tire irons and chains, leave some

lying in the road like dirt, rained on all night.
Some are bundled-up, tossed off a bridge
into the river whose muddy swirls warn:

kick, fight, breathe, twist your arms free.
Some do. They rise, spit out the rags
stuffed in their mouths, limp back to town,

and one begins to sing—slow at first— Lord,
I want to be in that number
... Another moans
a low muted tone where words won't go.

And there's a bridge from verse to verse,
where bodies rise out of thicket and ditch,
out of jail cell, ravine and watery grave,

where gone, invisible hands seem to lift
like drum sticks, and soul sax blood brass
begin to flow, a band improvising

resurrection, until the dead
take to the streets, a spirit insurrection,
dripping river muck and frayed rope—

with crow-pecked eyes, burnt flesh, charred bone,
they rise, every flown soul finding its way
back through troubled air to swell that song.

Betsy Sholl, former poet laureate of Maine, lives in Portland. Her most recent poetry collection is Rough Cradle (Alice James Books).

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Jesus is Stripped of His Garments

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Dresden's Shrove Tuesday

Deep with one savior’s death, how many more?
In observance of which, the Dresden burghers
as usual held Shrove Tuesday circuses
around Our Lady’s Church, the Frauenkirche,
eating pancakes before their fast for Easter.

At midnight, Allies drew ash from their firestorm
on a hundred-thousand heads. Remember,
the Good War’s firesticks on Dresden’s timbers
in revenge for Coventry, where in embers
Ash Wednesday passion plays were once performed,

the old guilds raising monstrance of the Host
from their painted wagons. Remember Churchill
letting Germans bomb Coventry’s Cathedral
to protect the broken code, letting death fall
on leafy English streets like flash-bombed ghosts

in Dresden, Tokyo. Remember, we must
beg forgiveness like the medieval poor
for sin. How many miracles of war
must we work, burning flesh to spirit, before
remembering we are dust returned to dust.

Judith Werner lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

Image: Destroyed Coventry Cathedral, Lance Bellers / Shutterstock.com

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The Place of the Green Wand

A GiveBox in Berlin / Sally McGrane

Something called a GiveBox appeared
this fall on Falckensteinstrasse, and my first gift

was a memory: Dorothy Day, decades ago,
gently quoting St. Basil to me: If you have two coats,

you've stolen one from the poor.
Like a walk-in cupboard on the sidewalk, brightly

painted, decked out with flowers, this GiveBox
is for the anonymous exchange of gifts.

I brought books here and found a biography of Tolstoy,
who once made my teen-aged self dream of giving away

everything, and now, over a whiskey,
the idea returns: what if I stripped myself

of all but the necessary, left things off, day by day,
at the GiveBox? Of course, whatever his genius,

Tolstoy's life ended in confusion,
in quarrels, in flight—did he really think,

at 82, he could dispossess
himself and set off wandering? When his body

was brought home, it was buried
in the place of the green wand,

the glade where his twelve-year-old brother
once told a story about a stick hidden in the earth

that, if found, would bring lasting happiness to us all.
As though, having all but rejected his own novels,

he could dispense with everything
but story—Tolstoy wanted no tombstone,

no service, no clergy, and after all he had written
it was the legend his brother made up that he turned to.

A parable Dorothy Day, who lived to 83,
took seriously until the end.

I met her in my teens when she was in her 70s,
just out of jail after picketing for the rights

of migrants. Visiting a nephew who was dating my sister,
she joined us for dinner—someday, someone may ask me

the old question,If you could have a meal
with anyone, living or dead
… Going to a French restaurant

with Dorothy Day would be a good answer,
and I was lucky enough to actually do it,

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Conjectural Navel Gazing (Jesus in Lint Form): A Poem

Ethiopian cross. Photo illustration by Cathleen Falsani.
Ethiopian cross. Photo illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

I cannot
think that you don't
sound
or breathe
weep
or grieve
I will not
think that you don't
want
or ply
the cosmos
with love
or grace
seeking
us
lost again
I can believe
I can lose you
I can thwart you
I can set you up
I can watch you fall
to die
again
you breathe
weep
cry
sing
and I
am here seeking
better signs

When You Are a Child

You wait a long time for Christmas morning
drifting asleep even as the ebony slate of sky
shatters in clarion silence
Glory, Hallelujah!
and shepherds in the hills cast down their rods
look up at angels and find themselves
no longer huddled in darkness
but lucent between the stars.

You, no longer a child but still drifting,
enter the mystery that is darkness
willing to open the gift inside your own singing
recognizing the song of songs from the first Eve—

     We all live for the Light
           that the lowly born, a glimmer, leads
the way

and you wake up, still in the dark
but watchful    and ready now.

 

Sandra M. Tully is a Wisconsin poet, educator, and community spiritual leader.

Image: Burning candles, Elena Itsenko / Shutterstock.com

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Pay Attention: An Afternoon with Billy Collins and Mary Oliver

Rachel Giese Brown
Mary Oliver has won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Rachel Giese Brown

What’s the first thing you think of when you think poetry readings by a Poet Laureate and a Pullitzer Prize winner? Well, whatever it is, I’m sure you weren’t thinking dogs.

Nonetheless, pet dogs were brought up more than anything else during poetry readings by Billy Collins and Mary Oliver at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. on Sunday. They managed to bring up their dogs in a beautifully poetic way, of course.

But perhaps the most important take away from the evening came from Oliver during a question and answer time after the readings. She said something like this: “Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it. We’re soaked in distractions. The world didn’t have to be beautiful. We can and should think about that beauty and be grateful.”

Those are words I have tried to live by for the last year.

Both poets demonstrated that attention in their work — even in poems about dogs.  

Nineveh

He uproots teeth primordial in nature and that eat his soul
with appetite the size of mercenary forces plundering a city

whose inhabitants do not fight back because most of them
are women, children, and animals that creep on all fours.

He knows of a city not spared and is without name, unlike Nineveh,
whose repentant king decreed:

Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth,
and they shall cry mightily to God.

He thinks of what to do but knows that he is not the prophet
Jonah and therefore lives a life absent of divine interventions.

Yet he wallows like Jonah when swallowed by the whale of life.

A city stands in the far regions of his soul, beckoning the presence
of creatures clothed with sackcloth.

Elvis O. Alves, a hospital chaplain, teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Image: New York City skyline, santi_madrid / Shutterstock.com

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Reading Ayn Rand at the Hospital

About love she was all wrong,
the old capitalist, patron saint
of the self-made rich. How well
she misunderstood the paradox deep
as mothers’ grief: that finding our self
requires losing it, that love and loss
make one truth, not two. Objective
as granite in relationships, her hero
never collapses into cancer with a wife,
never drops into death with a brother.
No, Howard Roark, fountainhead
among architects, never really suffers
because he never truly loves. He relates
in a Randian arithmetic of negation:
one self living for another self equals
no self. Devoted to one ego alone, his
will is rigid as the steel girders he
sketches across the vast unknown. I
turn another tedious page, count
what’s left to read, then gaze
out the window to worry
what my wife’s biopsy will mean.
Beside me since sunrise, our daughter Mary
sets aside a limp issue of People,
ruffles my hair, then pours me coffee,
strong, steaming—just as John Donne
in slippers hustles his IV pole
down the corridor, his free hand clutching
the breezy back of a worn hospital gown. He
hurries to our chairs, bows to Mary
with metaphysical flourish, then whispers
through a painful grimace to me,
“Look, son: for your wife’s sake
lose that damned book!” Ducking
behind a lush fern to avoid his nurse,
the ailing Dean of Meditation 17
grabs my sagging shoulders, leans
in that long English face to declare,
“Now listen, you: Ayn Rand’s all wrong.
Got that? No man’s an island. Period.
And you can take that to the bloody bank.”

Mark Hiskes teaches English at Holland Christian High School in Holland, Michigan.

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