Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mark Jarman -- Questions for Ecclesiastes

I presented at Breathe Writer's Conference last October, a talk about his wrestling with faith through verse. It's not easy to do -- religious writing veers toward tradition and kitsch -- and it takes bravery to say something true because the truth is often difficult and messy. We're called to these difficult truths, the doubt and the waiting, the inexplicable events and the lack of answers. I love how Jarman handles it in his poem "Questions for Ecclesiastes." It's one of the best things I've ever read. 
I'm writing poetry right now for a reading at The Scarab Club -- February 15th. It's easy for me to get in my head about writing, endlessly cycling through lines, letting the form dictate content. Reading this calls me back to the point of poetry, of all great art: to call us back to this world and the see tenderly again the people, the pain, the joy, the great beauty.

Questions for Ecclesiastes –– by Mark Jarman

What if on a foggy night in a beachtown, a night when
the Pacific leans close like the face of a wet cliff, a
preacher were called to the house of a suicide, a
house of strangers, where a child had discharged a
rifle through the roof of her mouth and top of her skull?

What if he went to the house where the parents, stunned
into plaster statues, sat behind their coffee table,
and what if he assured them that the sun would rise
and go down, the wind blow south, then turn north,
whirling constantly, rivers - even the concrete flume
of the great Los Angeles—run into the sea, and four-
teen-year-old girls would manage to spirit themselves
out of life, nothing was new under the sun?

What if he said the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor
the ear filled with hearing? Would he want to view the
bedroom vandalized by self murder or hear the
quiet before the tremendous shout of the gun or the
people inside the shout, shouting or screaming,
crying and  pounding to get into the room, kicking
through the hollow core door and making a new
sound and becoming a new silence - the silence he
entered with his comfort?

What if as comfort he said to the survivors I praise the
dead which are dead already more than the living,
and better is he than both dead and living who is
not yet alive? What if he folded his hands together
and ate his own flesh in prayer? For he did pray
with them. He asked them, the mother, and father, if
they wished to pray to do so in any way they felt
comfortable, and the father knelt at the coffee table
and the mother turned to squeeze her eyes into a
corner of the couch, and they prayed by first listen-
ing to his prayer, then clawing at his measured
cadences with tears (the man cried) and curses (the
woman swore). What if, then, the preacher said be
not rash with thy mouth and let not thine heart be
hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in

What if the parents collected themselves, then, and asked
him to follow them to their daughter's room, and
stood at the shattered door, the darkness of the
room beyond, and the father reached in to put his
hand on the light switch and asked if the comforter,
the preacher they were meeting for the first time in
their lives, would like to see the aftermath, and
instead of recoiling and apologizing, he said that
the dead know not anything for the memory of
them is forgotten? And while standing in the hall-
way, he noticed the shag carpet underfoot, like the
fur of a cartoon animal, the sort that requires comb-
ing with a plastic rake leading into the bedroom,
where it would have to be taken up, skinned off the
concrete slab of the floor, and still he said for their
love and hatred and envy are now perished, neither
have the dead more portion forever in anything
that is done under the sun?

What if as an act of mercy so acute it pierced the preacher's
skull and traveled the length of his spine, the man
did not make him regard the memory of his daugh-
ter as it must have filled her room but guided the
wise man, the comforter, to the front door, with his
wife with her arms crossed before her in that ges-
ture we use to show a stranger to the door, acting
out a rite of closure, compelled to be social, as we
try to extricate ourselves by breaking off the exten-
sions of our bodies, as raccoons gnaw their legs from
traps turning aside our gaze, letting only the numb
tissue of valedictory speech ease us apart, and the
preacher said live joyfully all the days of the life of
thy vanity, for that is they portion in this life?

They all seem worse than heartless, don’t they, these stark
and irrelevant platitudes, albeit stoical and final,
oracular, stony, and comfortless? But they were at
the center of that night, even if they were unspoken.

And what if one with only a casual connection to the
tragedy remembers a man, younger than I am today,
going out after dinner and returning, then sitting in
the living room drinking a cup of tea, slowly
finding the strength to say he had visited these
grieving strangers and spent some time with them?

Still that night exists for people I do not know in ways I do
not know, though I have tried to imagine them. I
remember my father going out and my father com-
ing back. The fog, like the underskin of a broken
wave, made a low ceiling that the street lights
pierced and illuminated. And God who shall bring
every work into judgement, with every secret thing,
whether it be good or whether it be evil, who could
have shared what he knew with people who needed

urgently to hear it, God kept a secret.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Uttermost Parts of the Sea

Psalm 139, a psalm of David

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my anxious thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Disembodied Literature and William Blake

You see quotes on cards and refrigerator magnets with quotes by famous authors, disembodied literature ripped from its context. One of my students read out William Blake's The Book of Thel today and I recognized the line Every thing that lives / Lives not alone, nor for itself. I must have seen it in some wall art kitsch or as an instagram quote. It has a good ring to it but in context, it's grimmer and even more precious than I knew. 

Thel, a beautiful maiden of the valley, disputes with a lily, a cloud, a worm, and a clod of clay on the evanescent of vernal life, spring fading and death coming after high summer. She learns that the clouds water flowers that are fed by worms and that she will one day be food for the worms to nourish the flowers. This line comes as the cloud comforts her in her knew knowledge. It stuck with me through the day, resounding in my head in my student's sonorous voice. 

Everything will come in time. We are connected, even if not speaking. Our lives are not our only. The stone falls. The placid surface breaks as ripples go out. We will never know just how much we touch other lives and other lives beyond those. We meet in the meeting of ripples.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Where I Lived and What I Lived for -- Bennington

I found these snow football pictures Julia Pistell took during our first winter residency and posted a few on Instagram. My friend Ben replied with a quote from a shared favorite novel A Separate Peace: Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the world today" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

It's a good quote and Bennington is as close to Gene Forester's Devon as anything. That winter residency was beautiful and real. Snow football in the sunset splendor of the Green Mountains made us feel like Kennedys. It stamped me, yes, but it isn't only Bennington and that time. When someone says "life" or "reality" to me, it's that sense of community I assume they mean. I've been lucky in mine and was lucky to be a part of this one in the freezing winters of Vermont, playing with my poet and prose comrades without keeping score, then climbing into the common room through the window, hands cut by the razors of snow, jeans frozen stiff.

Dink's Song

This is my earworm, my sad anthem for happy days of friends and Detroit beauty. The harmonies are perfect, expected Mumford. The lead is Oscar Isaac who I know better as Poe Dameron, X-wing pilot from the new Star Wars. It's an old song collected in 1934 from a woman named Dink who sang it while washing her clothes in a river. It's a ballad of longing for a lover departed across the river to Arkansas, leaving the speaker pregnant with his baby. Whatever river of time or space or circumstance separates us, dear reader, fare thee well.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Rye Whiskey

I'm sitting at the counter of Great Lakes Roasters, warming up for the bitter cold of a January Detroit with a rye whiskey old fashioned. There's a traditional song Rye Whiskey that goes 

      If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck
      I'd dive to the bottom to get one sweet suck
      But the ocean ain't whiskey and I ain't a duck
      So we'll round up the cattle and then we'll get drunk
      Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry 
      If a tree don't fall on me, I'll live till I die

The Landrum men have a debate over the best lyric among the hundred or more verses. My father loves the poetic leap of being a drunk duck in an ocean of whiskey and the pullback into reality and settling for action. I love the irrefutable logic of "if a tree don't fall on me, I'll live till I die." It makes me think of Horace's poem celebrating the day where a falling tree nearly killed him but didn't. 

Either way, the drink itself makes for slow sipping in a fast world. I raise a glass to you, reader, and wish you a future free from falling trees. Let's live till we die. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

A New Year

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God.
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
(Isaiah 43:2-3, 18-19)

Lines Written between Dublin and Keflavik

These words are not meant to be read in their entirety. Skim them the way this plane skims the cloud layer, jostling sometim...