Poetry

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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Remembering 9/11 Through Music and Literature

Ten years on, I'm remembering the literature I read and the music that kept me going in the days and months after 9/11. I had Rumi and Whitman on my bedside table, reading them back to back, alternating between selections of the Mathnawi and poems from Leaves of Grass, sometimes feeling like the two were one, the soul of America, and that the soul of Islam were intersecting at some point beyond where the eye could see:

Whoever you are!, motion and reflection are especially for you, The divine ship sails the divine sea for you. -- Walt Whitman

Come, come, whoever you are, Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, Ours is not a caravan of despair. Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times It doesn't matter Come, come yet again, come. -- Rumi

Until then, the Quran for me was a book of personal spiritual guidance, a convening symbol for my religious community. But after 9/11, I viewed it as a balm for my country's pain, especially lines from Ayat al-Kursi: "His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them."

Heaven's Back Door

Eschewing perfection, they knotted in a flaw,
the human signature and kink that made
the carpet whole -- not less perfect, but more
for the fraying edge, the bleeding dyes
that cloak their treasure in disguise,
an act of indirection modeled from on high:
as when the Deity said Be ...
and out crawled -- the twisted,
the crippled, the deformed.

Surely He was speaking metaphorically,
this fallen world a figure for some brighter,
truer Word; this knotted, knotty life
designed as time's poor foil
and fool, a school whose graduates
recoil beyond the mortal coil.
Or is the coil itself the thing
the Weaver meant
when He said Be ...?

The loops and tangles of our fate
no metaphors for straight, but how all lives
must spin and be unspun in arabesque,
curving first away, then back again
toward whence they came.
Error being the game perfection plays --
which, by seeming less, becomes the more.
Arriving at heaven's back door
by our flawless sense of indirection.

Richard Schiffman is a poet and writer who splits his time between New York City and New Mexico.

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Giving Voice

the heart dares the word dares the page
lest love stick in the throat of this pen,
and go untold

i remember my name
in your voice
echoing down the underground hall
beneath niebuhr place:
come, crack a jar of scotch
come for talk and a minted brew of tea
come to life. wake. arise.
(an ascent follows, sweet and rash)

somehow that calling
pipes through the kentucky hills retreat.
while i practiced sport, before smoke rose from detroit
your prayer with louis and circle
breached the walls to fall also on me.
summoning unbeknownst an answer.

(later, in a season of crushing dark
you opened for me the gatehouse door
there to walk and breathe and eat the psaltery
to face dread dreams and heal)

confess a thing:
even on this island now
the tabletalk of poet and keeper
hatches the seminary renegade.
that heady charismatic anarchy
revives as we speak
and our once fresh formation
turns, can it be, to eldering.

as toward the body politic
flesh of word presented,
burning with truth the charnel house lies,
this blood on pillars gashing gold vermillion,
or hammer nailing it to the door of church and state.
in consequence, this bravery with a difference
the holy ghost gone militant
free in the cuff, in the dock, in the yard

for all
for missives kited in and out
for the discipline of hope
for drinking the moon underground
for writing on the wall, against it
for bread in lotus fingers

all echoes in the heart at dusk
footfalls on the way beloved
this thanks untellable

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a United Methodist pastor who serves St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, was mentored as a seminarian by Catholic poet and peace activist Daniel Berrigan, SJ.

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Immigration Theology from a Dreamer

'Statue of liberty' photo (c) 2011, Rakkhi Samarasekera - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

"I will call them my people, who were not my people. And her beloved, who was not beloved." (Romans 9:25 referencing Hosea 2:23)

Estranged, alienated, and removed; anyone living in an industrialized modern society in the 21st century would be able to define, or at least identify the sentiments of these words. Our time is one of mass communication and instantaneous access to knowledge. And yet our lives are too compartmentalized, increasingly divided, and our society reflects this. Indeed the existential writers of yesteryear were correct in diagnosing the iron cage that would befall us, ultimately leading to an eclipse of reason.

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