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Grief (with thanks to Denise Levertov), conte crayon on paper, 11 x 12 inches

Levertov’s poem “Talking to Grief” gave me this image that helps me to acknowledge and honor such sorrows; I’m so grateful. And grateful also to my spiritual director, the Rev. Sandee Yarlott, for the language of “acknowledging” and “honoring.”

While I was working on the drawing, I returned to the poem and decided to try to translate it into Spanish. Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, and it’s probably more than I can do to get a literal translation right, much less evoke the poetry of the original. I have a lot of questions for my Spanish teachers when we meet next week, such as “what’s the nearest Spanish equivalent to ‘grief’?” and which of the various terms for “mat” evokes the kind you’d be likely to give to a stray dog, and whether the tone is at all like Levertov’s. But here’s my first pass at it. Friends who are fluent in Spanish, I’d love your input on the translation, if you’re so inclined. The English original is here.

Hablando a Luto
por Denise Levertov

Ah, Luto, yo no debería tratarte
como un perro sin hogar
que venga a la puerta trasera
por una corteza, por un hueso sin carne.
Yo debería confiar en ti.

Yo debería engatusarte
para entrar la casa y darte
tu propio rincón,
Una estera gastada para acostarte,
tu propio plato de agua.

Tú piensas que yo no sé que hayas estado viviendo
debajo de mi porche.
Tú añoras que tu verdadero lugar esté preparado
antes de que el invierno venga. Necesitas
tu nombre,
tu collar y chapa. Necesitas
el derecho de ahuyentar intrusos,
mi casa la tuya
y yo tu persona
y tú mismo
mi proprio perro.



On this grim anniversary, I’m moved to share one of the greatest war poems I know, which was inspired by Genesis 22 and the war that began one hundred years ago today, by most reckonings. The poet, Wilfred Owen, died in that war. He was 25.

“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


One could write a book (and I’m sure many have) on Emily Dickinson’s complex attitude toward prayer. I’m reading all of her poems in order, and the one I read today, #576, is more straightforward than many in its treatment of prayer:

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —

If I believed God looked around,Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —

And told him what I’d like, today,And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity —

And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn’t stay —

She no longer believes in the God of her childhood, but she feels the lack. It’s interesting that the way it feels to live without that strong God isn’t expressed as pain, fear, sorrow, loss, or even uncertainty, but lack of balance. Maybe this poem isn’t as straightforward as I thought at first. Dickinson has a way of doing that. Whatever poise a reader possesses, she disturbs it, almost as if she set out on purpose to do it.

The munchkin recited a poem at dinner: “Hug o’ War,” by Shel Silverstein, which she had memorized just because it was up on a wall at school and she liked it. It was a treat. I went and got one of our books of his poems, which she likes (though we don’t have Where the Sidewalk Ends) and she read us another.

Getting into the spirit, I got a book of Frost poems and hunted for one that would be accessible to a seven-year-old. “Design,” which I love, is too difficult. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” would have filled the bill, but I’m glad I didn’t think of it, because having to skim several poems brought me to this one that I had never encountered. I defined “rued” for Munchkin and read aloud:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Today was already a day unrued,but this poem added an Ahhhhh . . . that made it even more sweet. Maybe the next time a day needs a sprinkling of grace, the thought of “The Dust of Snow” will be the  crow that changes my mood. And maybe it’s a good poem to meet at the age of seven; maybe Munchkin hasn’t noticed yet that if she’s open to them, moments like this can turn her heart around on a hard day–or maybe she has. I think I’ll ask her in the morning.

Reading some more about Emily Dickinson before giving today’s sermon on some of her poetry and its power, I came upon the description of her  “earliest friend,” Benjamin Franklin Newton. He died young, but before he did, he had a great influence on her that she referred to throughout her life. Among other things, he introduced her to Emerson, whose poetry, she wrote in wonder, “has touched the secret Spring.” Hm, I thought. Wonder if he was  a Unitarian. Sure enough, his minister was Edward Everett Hale.

By the grace of the internet, I found this poem during a time of grief some years ago. The only consolation at that moment was the hope that the friend who had died, who had been in a lot of emotional pain, “divested himself of despair and fear” upon moving from life to death, and I was so moved and grateful to Jane Kenyon for having put this hope into words. In Mexico, I heard it said another way: the dead are happy because they have no more worries.

Happy Dia de los Muertos to the living and dead!

Notes from the Other Side
Jane Kenyon

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Adrienne Rich has died.  I have used her work in worship (“Transcendental Etude,” excerpted in our hymnal) and preached on it ( “Power“) and quoted it in my statement of why I’m a minister and what my vocation is about (“Natural Resources”):

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.

It sometimes gets printed, incorrectly, in this way:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save,
so much has been destroyed.

I have to cast my lot with those . . . etc.

Breaking the sentence into two sentences that way, and making the first half a complete statement, implies that the rest is somehow separate: that “casting our lot” is what we do in spite of this heartbreak and this destruction. But what the poem says to me, says for me, as it was written, is that it is because so much has been destroyed that I want to be among those who dedicate their lives to tikkun olam, the repair and healing and remaking of the world. That is more powerful and empowering.

As soon as I read of her death, I thought of the poem of Rich’s whose phrases have the most staying power in my mind, “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev.” I wanted to post it here, but it does not print out correctly on the computer and I don’t want to mangle it, so I hope you will click on the link and read it as she wrote it. (I also recommend reading it aloud.)

The main texts for my sophomore English class in college were the Norton anthology and Rich’s collection The Fact of a Doorframe; if I recall correctly, it was the only volume by a single poet that was required. Piece after piece in that book was poetry by Emily Dickinson’s definition: it took off the top of my head. It never has fit back on the same way since, and marvelous things drift in and out that would not have taken shape if not for her words. Thank you, Adrienne Rich.

Black History Month, day 26

A poem from Audre Lorde:

Who Said It Was Simple

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in color
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

and from Rita Dove:

The Bistro Styx

She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her.What’s this,

I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that’s when I saw she was dressed all in gray,
from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl

down to the graphite signature of her shoes.
“Sorry I’m late,” she panted, though
she wasn’t, sliding into the chair, her cape

tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel.
We kissed. Then I leaned back to peruse
my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole.

“How’s business?” I asked, and hazarded
a motherly smile to keep from crying out:
Are you content to conduct your life
as a cliché and, what’s worse,

an anachronism, the brooding artist’s demimonde?
Near the rue Princesse they had opened
a gallery cum souvenir shop which featured
fuzzy off-color Monets next to his acrylics, no doubt,

plus bearded African drums and the occasional miniature
gargoyle from Notre Dame the Great Artist had
carved at breakfast with a pocket knife.

“Tourists love us. The Parisians, of course”–
she blushed–” are amused, though not without
a certain admiration . . .”
.                                                      The Chateaubriand

arrived on a bone-white plate, smug and absolute
in its fragrant crust, a black plug steaming
like the heart plucked from the chest of a worthy enemy;
one touch with her fork sent pink juices streaming.

“Admiration for what?” Wine, a bloody
Pinot Noir, brought color to her cheeks. “Why,
the aplomb with which we’ve managed
to support our Art”–meaning he’d convinced

her to pose nude for his appalling canvases,
faintly futuristic landscapes strewn
with carwrecks and bodies being chewed

by rabid cocker spaniels. “I’d like to come by
the studio,” I ventured, “and see the new stuff.”
“Yes, if you wish . . .” A delicate rebuff

before the warning: “He dresses all
in black now.Me, he drapes in blues and carmine–
and even though I think it’s kinda cute,
in company I tend toward more muted shades.”

She paused and had the grace
to drop her eyes. She did look ravishing,
spookily insubstantial, a lipstick ghost on tissue,
or as if one stood on a fifth-floor terrace

peering through a fringe of rain at Paris’
dreaming chimney pots, each sooty issue
wobbling skyward in an ecstatic oracular spiral.

“And he never thinks of food. I wish
I didn’t have to plead with him to eat. . . .” Fruit
and cheese appeared, arrayed on leaf-green dishes.

I stuck with café crème. “This Camembert’s
so ripe,” she joked, “it’s practically grown hair,”
mucking a golden glob complete with parsley sprig
onto a heel of bread. Nothing seemed to fill

her up: She swallowed, sliced into a pear,
speared each tear-shaped lavaliere
and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth.
Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted

vines and sun poured down out of the south.
“But are you happy?” Fearing, I whispered it
quickly. “What? You know, Mother”–

she bit into the starry rose of a fig–
“one really should try the fruit here.”
I’ve lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.

and from Alice Walker:

I said to Poetry

I said to Poetry: “I’m finished
with you.”
Having to almost die
before some weird light
comes creeping through
is no fun.
“No thank you, Creation,
no muse need apply.
I’m out for good times–
at the very least,
some painless convention.”

Poetry laid back
and played dead
until this morning.
I wasn’t sad or anything,
only restless.

Poetry said: “You remember
the desert, and how glad you were
that you have an eye
to see it with? You remember
that, if ever so slightly?”
I said: “I didn’t hear that.
Besides, it’s five o’clock in the a.m.
I’m not getting up
in the dark
to talk to you.”

Poetry said: “But think about the time
you saw the moon
over that small canyon
that you liked so much better
than the grand one–and how suprised you were
that the moonlight was green
and you still had
one good eye
to see it with

Think of that!”

“I’ll join the church!” I said,
huffily, turning my face to the wall.
“I’ll learn how to pray again!”

“Let me ask you,” said Poetry.
“When you pray, what do you think
you’ll see?”

Poetry had me.

“There’s no paper
in this room,” I said.
“And that new pen I bought
makes a funny noise.”

“Bullshit,” said Poetry.
“Bullshit,” said I.

I really wanted to post “Seeker of Visions” by Lucille Clifton. To my ears its “walking men / wrapped in the color of death” are the world’s accepted leaders and decision makers, the ones who casually sow death with their international wheeling and dealing, and ever since reading it a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about them and what she is saying to us. However, whoever holds her copyright doesn’t like her poetry to be reproduced on the net. I recommend it.

I bet you have a poem by an African-American woman that you’d like others to see. If so, please post it, or give us the title/poet, in the comments!

Black History Month, day 11

Joy and I once stayed in a great little B&B in Maryland whose rooms each had a literary theme. (We fantasize about running a place like this sometimes. We’d make it a mystery B&B, with rooms devoted to different authors and sprinkled with clues from their works. We will never do it in this lifetime, because nothing about running an inn appeals to us except brainstorming about how to decorate the rooms. I wonder where you get a Maltese Falcon?) Ours was the Langston Hughes Room: art deco furnishings, a big portrait of Hughes, and, since this is the Book Lovers’ B&B and they know rooms need books, books about Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a period I love: its music, poetry, and art. The rebirth of course points to a death and dearth that preceded it: who were the Duke Ellingtons, Langston Hugheses, and Romare Beardens of a generation earlier, whose work was never played or published or shown in a gallery?

Here are three poems from that great flowering of the 20s and 30s.

Angelina Grimke: Trees

God made them very beautiful, the trees:
He spoke and gnarled of bole or silken sleek
They grew; majestic bowed or very meek;
Huge-bodied, slim; sedate and full of glees.
And He had pleasure deep in all of these.
And to them soft and little tongues to speak
Of Him to us, He gave wherefore they seek
From dawn to dawn to bring unto our knees.
Yet here amid the wistful sounds of leaves,
A black-hued grewsome something swings and
Laughter it knew and joy in little things
Till man’s hate ended all. –And so man weaves.
And God, how slow, how very slow weaves He–
Was Christ Himself not nailed to a tree?

Countee Cullen: Incident

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Jean Toomer: Evening Song

Full moon rising on the waters of my heart,
Lakes and moon and fires,
Cloine tires,
Holding her lips apart.
Promises of slumber leaving shore to
charm the moon,
Miracle made vesper-keeps,
Cloine sleeps,
And I’ll be sleeping soon.
Cloine, curled like the sleepy waters
where the moonwaves start,
Radiant, resplendently she gleams,
Cloine dreams,
Lips pressed against my heart.

And that last one makes me have to leave my keyboard and go upstairs to look at my sleeping daughter.

Black History Month, day 10

A highlight of last fall’s church schedule was the service in which the poet Everett Hoagland spoke. I don’t think I can describe the value of his poetry better than brother UU blogger Patrick Murfin did: “I commend the essential bravery of Hoagland’s work, which connects the intimate and personal now to the vastness of a historic and global outrage . . . . This is self-knowledge on an epic scale. All of us, regardless of our origins would do well to come to such grips with the long shadows of our own histories.” (Mailbox, UU World, June 2004)

Every time I hear a poet read aloud, I remember that that’s how poetry should be read. When I forget and try to read it silently, it loses at least one dimension, maybe more like two or three. So I urge you to read these poems aloud.

At East/West Beaches

The day night was born
we searched for time and sea-
smoothed fragments of blue, green,

brown bottles. Glass
cleared of gloss
made of man-
and woman-
made fire

and sand
made from
stone, made
from rock, made
from cosmic dust. We

fringed the lips of under-
tow with footprints the waves
redeemed from the firm, wet
shore. We gathered and gave each other
milk white moonstones, aeons
old obsidian, pebbles trans-

lucent as sucked rock
candy and rolled up our jeans in the raw
salty mist. The sun sank into

a violet-lipped quahog, and grit-edged
night opened like a mussel. Under
lacquered, pearly black
light of moonrise we crossed
over a sandbar
into camp

by duned scrub
beach rose. The night day
was born we turned
around and found
no footprints.


“necessary and inevitable
like the ‘inevitable’ slave past
through consciousness like the present”
—Augustino Neto, “The Path of the Stars”

Gorée ten miles off shore beckons
from the western horizon like the landscape
of the troubled dream and we sleepwalk to the ferry.

Twenty thousand-thousand gone through the Gorée trade alone
we are told.

This is a Catholic isle off a Moslem land.
This the church where truth was chained.
Here Jesus died and rose again.
The beads we say are knots of blood.
Here they force-fed us after the trek in chains.
Here men were sold by size, nubile women penned
and prized for comeliness. Mulattoes conceived here,
and their mothers, were boated back to the main-
land to buffer tides of rage. Here children’s
chains are sold as souvenirs; they anchor history
and the mind. Here they took, selected the best;
the rest: lame, old, small and sick were helped
to die.

The writing is on the stockade walls: poster sized
revolutionary rhetoric, Pan-African credos, race
pride logos, reminders, challenges and warnings
written in black by the descendants
of the survivors of the dried blood red walls
of the pastel colonial buildings’
shuttered silence.

We’ve had to come all the way
back to see poetry kill people, blind them,
cause them to cough blood and be crippled
in a French provincial palace of mind,
with a court, an overmonied ten percent
of the population, prospering lords and ladies,
fronting masks. Eighty percent of each dollar spent
on the slave factory island, on a ROOTS tee shirt
goes to France. “See Your Roots” cotton
shirts off bony backs are hawked by hungry hustlers
inside the barracoon’s walls. Bloods at its
doors trade cowry shells for your money or
urge on you a brand new djudju bag—

for fifty Central African francs.
At sunset on Gorée Island, where scavenging
brown hawks wheel above the huge metal cross
atop the island’s highest point, the volcano
sleeps silent as the broken cannon pointed there
over the Middle Passage. . . .
down a long dark corridor a doorless doorway
to the past and future opens
to the surf’s wash and soft thud on the black
boulders. The blue-eyed horizon of this eastern
shore . . .
You are your shadow silhouetted in the rectangular
frame that is the grave of time, where so much went
underground. You had to, had to, you
had to come all the way back
to the rock fortress, to the slave pens,
get down
on your hands and knees and crawl into
the stone oven of a cell
where the African rebels’ yells and defiance were kept
in solitary. Compressed by silence and circumstance
to diamond-hard blues. Completely black
inside the cell alone, one sees and hears things
clearly in the deep darkness. Overhead are heard
the voices of African-American tourists
calling their mates to, “Come look at this
Tyree. Come see this Dee. . . .” One hears a sea
of twenty thousand thousand voices at once

but also this from the shadows that always crowd
your view-finder, even in the dark:
“Do you tan? The native women are
charming. Does he take MasterCard? How
can they be so resigned? Gee, Gorée is neat fun!”
Inside the cowry shell you hold to your ear
you hear your name and heartbeat;
you finger the humming walls of the
cubicle and chip the tactile darkness
for a keepsake to put in your
djudju bag: ancient black lava rock.

You crawl out into the light
of the setting sun, face the western horizon
and, stripping as you go, hanging your watch
and jeans, western shirt and shoes on your white
shadow, you wade into
the east shore of the Middle Passage—
the hyphen between African
and American—
the surf hisses and steams off you
like water around white hot iron.
You walk out farther, level with your
heart. Farther, until the edge of life
is just over your head. You hold your
breath under water, open your eyes, clench
your fists and let the bellow bubble out
of you.
But you bound off the sand and obsidian
bottom and beat your breath back to the surface. . . .

As we board the ferry back to Dakar
the ghosts of twenty million swarm the wharf;
waifs with open palms and eyes closed by
disease and blindness, with ringworm in their
rusty dreadlocks, beg
for fifty Central African francs.

The Paris of Africa.

At sunset, the sea around Gorée is red;
it recedes revealing twenty thousand-
thousand gone and western rigs drilling
offshore for new black gold.

Later, alone in the bush, squatting
at the base of an ashy baobab, you contemplate
it all: your blue jeans,
the same old cotton, under
the same old sun,
the same old so-called “communes,”
the same old mules,
the same gaunt shadows lengthening
in the light. And how
oppression always
smells the same, looks the same, how
poverty personified is always full
of the same self
hate and hospitality.

You look at, listen to
the little whirlwinds, dust devils
swirling on the dry red road
and think of goopher,
think of vévé.
You take a twig and score
your name under a poem
you are able to read in the deep
red dust:

We are dust.

Rock is the placenta of time.
But rock can be shattered.

You cannot break dust;
it defies the hammer.
Chisels cannot carve up-

on it. Its stuff will not
make good statues of your heroes.
Heroes are made of it. Blown up?
Explosives never destroy it.
It cannot be slung or thrown.

but it can kill you.

“East/West Beaches” and “Gorée” are two in a sequence called “Homecoming,” which you can read here, where there is also a link to his books. You can hear the man himself read here:

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