Poetry

Trading

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
                                                                —Wordsworth              

      Okay, for now, I give up business
to search for the private life of daffodils,
             tracking spring, longing to sink
into some sweet bull’s-eye
            of stillness. Beside the Schuylkill River
      iris fly in place, their frilly lips
            trembly, almost obscene.
I take off my shoes and wade,
      first one foot, then the other
             where the river bares its white teeth
in anger, biting the rocks. I think
             of turning into a tree, but instead
                            I pretend to be a heron, trying
for such beatitude and stealth
            that I might show the river
                            how to clear up its old
misunderstanding with itself, how to
        be one thing. Sometimes it’s possible
             to see God standing on the bank,
       one hand keeping the world’s atoms
             from flying apart, the other shading
                            his black eyes, gazing around in love
at his creation. I settle back
                            into my own shape.
The river quiets down. Dark’s rising,
     stars just coming out
             against a navy sky. It’s like seeing fire
      through a colander of darkness,
piercings in the lovely screen of night.


Jeanne Murray Walker, poet, playwright, and teacher, lives outside Philadelphia. Her collection New and Selected Poems will be published in 2012.

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Against the Night

We are the lay of the land—
pocked, hilled, knowing every ember
and seed imprinted on our bones.

Alone and together we, all paling petitions,
move forward on the ash road
hungering to be reawakened

By some whisper
spoken in a mother tongue
we think we used to know.

In the end there is the keeping on
toward hosannahs not yet shouted
up against the night.

Belle Fox-Martin is a United Church of Christ licensed minister in western Massachusetts.

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Words

While he was in jail, two policemen
came to his apartment, took
all his books, sat at his kitchen table
drinking his coffee, and cut out
the forbidden words: kitchen
was first to go; kiss, kissing, lemon.
They were on a roll. Library went,
then lips. His wife looked on
in silence, her arms crossed. So they
cut out silence. They backtracked
to arms, breast, breasts, chest.

The floor was overflowing with tiny
snowflakes engraved with bed, door
dancing, running, open. They were
on fire, cutting whole phrases:
Tomato soup is not merely physical
—from an essay on poetry.
From Spinoza’s Ethics:
All things excellent are difficult
and rare. When they finished
they collected their snowflakes,
and his wife re-shelved the books.

Later they released him, and he ran home.
Dancing through the open door, he kissed
his wife, took her in his arms and to bed.
It was not merely physical, or difficult,
or rare (Spinoza notwithstanding).
And his library grew many new words.

R.M. Blair facilitates weekly poetry workshops for guests at Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington, D.C.-based service center for homeless women and men.

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Soul Food

Author Annie Dillard, standing in her writing shed, 1987. By Getty Images.
Author Annie Dillard, standing in her writing shed, 1987. By Getty Images.

When Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis departed on his three-month sabbatical at the beginning of January, I sent him a list of books, films and music that I thought would nourish his mind and spirit in, perhaps, different ways than the media he normally consumes do.

Jim's sabbatical — a true Sabbath in the literal sense — is designed to be a time of rest and, more importantly, rejuvenation. It will also be a creative time when he will be working on a new book.

Jim is a creative. A writer. A visionary. He regularly digs deep into his heart and soul, breaks himself open and pours out his passion, hope and faith for the edification of others. If creatives aren't diligent, though, we can work ourselves into the ground. Our wells can run dry.

In sending Jim this list of what I like to think of as "soul food," I hoped to inspire his imagination and give him new fuel for the fire, if you will.

Prayer, Poetry, Politics

READING KAZIM ALI, one is reminded in a way of James Baldwin, whose book The Fire Next Time defined and is intertwined with the civil rights struggle during the mid-’60s. Ali is a Muslim-American poet, essayist, and novelist whose two most recent books similarly will be invaluable to those wanting to know what it means to be Muslim in post- 9/11 America.

Ali writes in his “Poetry Is Dangerous” piece in Orange Alert, a book of literary and political essays, of arousing the suspicion of an ROTC man at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania while innocently disposing of poems from a poetry contest he was judging. The son of Indian Muslims, his “Middle Eastern” appearance was cited, and the police were brought in. He was told that in the “current climate” (the year was 2007, and America was on “orange alert”) he had to be careful about his behavior.

“It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone,” Ali writes. “It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled.”

Even in Fasting for Ramadan, Ali’s spiritual journal of insights, associations, and revelations jotted down during the 30-day fast, his mind cannot escape menace. He mentions the orange peeled and eaten in the morning, and the sunset, also orange, seen in the evening. That leads to his reflecting: “Orange alert means now is the time for creative expression, for flowering; now is the time, more than any other, to eschew practices of exhaustion and death and turn toward our interior sources of love and light.”

Ali is a contemplative writer happy to contemplate happiness, or its opposite, or to explore the mystery of Hajira (Hagar) looking for water in the desert. (“What was she thinking?” he writes.)

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How Dare the Sun Ascend?

We all knew it would come.
Someday. Always later.
Mañana.
It comes for us all. Sure.
Of course.
We know that. Someday.
Mañana.

But when someday draws near
for someone you love
whose silenced breath sears
your lungs with flames of grief
and sobs so immense
you wonder:
How dare the sun ascend?
The stars to shine?
Even the yeast to rise!

Who authorized the Earth to turn another inch?
Gravity itself should be suspended,
and the new moon halt in midair
with its ghostly light exposing
every predator’s stare.

All words—every syllable—fail and flail about
as if comfort answers to incantation,
as if death leaves no bruise,
as if sorrow can be shhushhed away like
crows from the cornfield.

Only flesh on flesh can convey
the pledge, to shivering hands and quivering hearts,
the implausible news that dust is not the end.
Only cheek to cheek,
and mingled tears,
chase back fears
to their perditious haunt.

For the soul come undone,
let skin speak to skin, with hands’
gentle brace of countenance consumed
in doleful, woeful recoil.
The dirge will
have its day,
the sigh will have its say.
But not more, not a minute
more, than its allotted time.

For the day lies in wait
when fear will be trumped,
every tear satiated, every
mournful lament yielding the floor
to the sound of angels clogging,
feet pounding parquet
in rhythmic cadence,
whirling and twirling,
with shouts of delight
and volleys of glee
harmonized
by fiddle and banjo and bass.

The Caller of that dance
has been known
to raise
the dead.

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