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
heaven?

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.

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