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I love this art form, which I discovered when my daughter did some in school last year. I immediately introduced it in our monthly class at church, Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart Through Art, and then offered it as a spiritual practice at a ministers’ retreat this week.

The mix of a found- and (for lack of a better antonym) created-art approach helps me get rolling. Words on a page suggest associations, and then the associations stimulate original ideas.

Here are two I made at the retreat.

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Beyond, more time for dreaming

For the first one, the words “an answer” and “caught” caught my eye first. I’d been pondering mystery and my own “irritable reaching after fact and reason” against which Keats counseled. Sometimes an answer prevents me from dwelling in the “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” from which wisdom might emerge. So right away I knew I wanted to draw the bars of a cell across the part about the answer. I also wanted the piece to suggest a happier alternative, and while the words I found seem obvious now, it took some searching and thinking to figure out which ones to use, and how. When my eye lit on “beyond,” I had that second half.

The second piece ended up being about creativity itself. “A passage opened to her fingers.”

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A sigh hollowed out the chamber of The heart

Our unwitting, but I trust not unwilling, collaborator was Lloyd Alexander, since my copy of The Black Cauldron, from his Chronicles of Prydain, was in several pieces. I hated the cover anyway, which was the poster from the forgotten, and, judging from the drawing, lamentable, Disney version. I’m going to look for the edition with the cover I remember and loved in my childhood, and buy Taran Wanderer while I’m at it: my favorite of the series, which we don’t yet have. (My sister loved them too, and our set was hers, so I’ve acquired my own set piecemeal in adulthood.)

Look at that. I started out writing about art, and ended up writing about books. That tells you why I love this kind of art.

I’d like to share the ones colleagues made as well, but I only asked their permission to put them out on a table at the retreat, not online.

Try one yourself! If you don’t have a falling-apart book or can’t bear to write on one, a photocopy works. To see lots more examples, the best search term is “blackout poetry.”

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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,
considerar
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.

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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
swings;
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.

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