Who is This ‘We’?: Poetry for the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally

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photo by FancyCrave via Unsplash

I’m not going to make the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally in Onancock today (Saturday, June 30) from 11-12:30. And when asked for a statement, I couldn’t find the words.  So I contributed this poem to be read.  May we find the ‘we’ that is truly ‘us.’

Who is this ‘we’ into which I am enlisted?

What is this sweet land of liberty I invoke when I sing, “My country ’tis of Thee”?

What God do I invite to bless America?

Who are the ‘we’ who hear cries from the Valley of Texas

and wonder what ‘we’ we have become?

 

‘Our’ ancestor, we Christians say, was a wandering Aramean.

When we look to the Scriptures we hear Deuteronomy’s command

to look after ‘them’—the sojourners in our midst—

because ‘we’ were sojourners in other lands.

We are those who sing ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’

while motherless children in scattered camps feel it more.

We are those who have beaten our breasts (insufficiently)

and sought repentance (insufficiently)

and proclaimed (insufficiently)

that we see and deplore the excesses and the evils

of native peoples separated from their lands and kin

of enslaved peoples separated from their lands and kin

of Japanese American families detained with their kin.

The injury is not only to ‘them’

but to us.

 

When we use the rationale of deterrence to excuse cruelty,

we injure ‘us.’

When we meet those who have left troubled lands seeking asylum here

and offer them instead more trouble, more trauma, no room at the inn,

we injure ‘us.’

When we allow our immigration policy, debate, and system

to devolve into division and expressions of helplessness

we injure ‘us.’

 

“When was it that we saw you homeless, naked, hungry, imprisoned

and did not respond with the love you showed us

but instead with the inhumanity we know too well?,”

the separated goats asked Jesus.

“When you did not see me crying for my father, my mother, 

my daughter, my son.

“When you did not see.

“When the injury came to me,

it came to you.”

It comes to us.

 

Who is this ‘we’ into which we are enlisted?

It is you and me and them and us.

We are one people.

 

To call for a humane and fair immigration system is not a call

for the end of borders or law enforcement or thoughtful policy.

It is a call for the end of injury

…to all of us.

—29 June 2018

Why We Don’t Care About ‘The National Water Situation’

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“For all my love of rivers, ‘our nation’s rivers’ have not moved me once.  The rivers that move me are those I’ve fished, canoed, slept beside, lived on, nearly drowned in, dreamed about, sipped tea and wine by, taught my kids to swim in, pulled a thousand fish from, fought and fought to defend.  I’ve come to suspect, for this reason, that is only the personal geography–the one experienced in daily depth–that can in fact be in-habited, and only the personal geography that has that Yeatsian ability to connect us, root to root, to people or places we’ve never met…

“The personal geographies conveyed via the arts converge in our interiors, create resonance, expand knowing through mysterious soul-to-soul empathy.  Whereas ‘the national water situation,’ I have come to suspect, will never create anything more artful than bureaucrats.”

—David James Duncan, My Story as Told by Water, p. 72-73.

If that stirred your soul…consider joining Alex for a writing retreat where the Tye meets the James

Soul of Place - Flyer

Everyday Apocalypse: Poetry

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photo by Joe Leahy via Unsplash

Katherine Sonderegger is right when she says:

It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, 222)

The whole thing should have ended right there at the burning bush—

Moses face-to-face with this lethal revelation of the Divine Presence. 

And yet it didn’t.  It doesn’t. 

Each moment, each atom,

does not explode the universe

despite its unlimited power. 

Here be dragons.  Here be angels. 

Here be the End of All Desires and the Furnace Forging New Ones. 

Who needs a trajectory toward apocalyptic catastrophe? 

Suns melt every day. 

Moons turn to blood. 

Stars come crashing down out of the firmament. 

And we blithely go on,

unheeding,

unmoved.

–Alex Joyner

The Writing Life–It Came for Me: Poetry

On visiting Hunterdale with kin long after Grandma died:

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photo by Simson Petrol via Unsplash

It was pathetic to look at–

Grandma’s glorious garden overgrown with grass.

Her long back yard littered

with automotive and boat wrecks.

The scuppernong vines half

the size they were back when.

Still, amidst the mess, I could make out the spot

where I first knew my Uncle Bill as the person he was.

I could hear him talking with my dad over the neighbor’s arbor.

The rich, languid pace of Bill’s voice.

The more clipped but equally spacious tones of my father.

The rhythm so familiar.

The timbre soothing

in the deep way of Grandma’s stillness.

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photo by Henry Perks via Unsplash

And there I was,

looking at the spot where a great tree once stood

and beneath which I watched

Uncle Bill work on his journal.

It was a rag tag Woolworth’s notebook of a thing

filled with random quotes and stray reflections,

clippings from newspaper cartoons and articles.

I was transfixed.

In the summer of ’77, I would have been 13 years old and full of life.

Maybe it was ’78.

When I got back home

I bought a big, spiral-bound thing with a purple cover–

–5 subjects!–

and started my own.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

It was enormous all empty like that.

I filled it with Mark Trail comics

and paeans to Uncle Bill

and lost and found loves.

In such lost groves and abandoned arbors,

beneath trees that only root in memory now,

in books with uninked pages,

in the company of blood so strange and yet familiar,

the writing life–

it came for me.

–Alex Joyner

Sitting Beneath the Michigan Tree: Back at the Festival of Faith & Writing

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Kwame Alexander opening the Festival of Faith & Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.

Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.

His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”

I needed that.

This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.

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 The Michigan Tree & Me

I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.

I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.

So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.

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Downtown Grand Rapids

I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.

The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.

There is power in words. And beauty. And life.

And God.

And yet…: Good Friday poetry

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photo by IV Horton via Unsplash

Yes, there’s a day for suffering,

for marking love’s dark mien.

Contorted faces bearing the cost of contingency and time.

There’s no reason to the grief,

there’s no cause for any tear.

Even the call to Private Ryan–Earn this!–

can’t elevate the squalor of our deaths.

We all end

in ridiculous deformations

of our former selves.

Whatever potency we pretend to

is buried with us in the grave.

So nail it up there for us to see.

Splay us on a tree with righteous indignity.

Reveal us for what we are–

rank imposters after glory.

And yet…

–Alex Joyner

Tinder Mercies – Poetry

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photo by Peter John Maridable via Unsplash

‘But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder and the whole world sparks and flames.’

—Annie Dillard, ‘On foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley’

‘I have found the dominant of my range and state—

Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love’

—Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Let Me Be to Thee’

It is hearth glow now,

fire for the long eve

flaring occasionally with the spark.

It still has light to give.

It may yet spawn raging blazes

But it pops in hidden crevices of wood

it bides the time

it endures

is not consumed or exhausted.

It wants only tending

this tinder

this tender

this tent and testament.

O what monstrous act was this of yours

to set me loose with a container of fire?

Alex Joyner

Praying with Fire: A Review of Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon

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photo by Aaron Thomas via Unsplash

“Dear God: Can you forgive someone for an act they cannot repent of?” (26)  So goes Maggie’s prayer journal in the aftermath of an affair in Jamie Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon.  Maggie has committed to move on.  Has cut off communication with the poet she spent one night with in Chicago.  In one light, she sees the ways the relationship has led her away from God, her husband, her children.  But she’s captivated by what it has meant and isn’t ready to let go of it.

That’s the interesting thing about sin: Major disrupting force in the universe.  The thing God says ‘no’ to.  The chasm that separates us from God and the wholeness God intends.  The power which estranges us from our essential self and enslaves us.  And yet what an illuminating light it shines!  “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you,” Richard Rohr says in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

41k+KOofr-L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, some will say that Maggie is luxuriating in it.  She soon leaves off talking to God and begins to write to James, the lost lover, in entries she never sends to him.  She converses with a voice that sounds like a therapist (but who actually may be God) who tries to help her put the experience in a larger frame but she resists any effort to diminish the memory of the affair.

She narrates the difficult relationship with Thomas, her husband of twenty-five years and father of her two beautiful children.  “Thomas is, in fact, a good husband,” she says. (20)  But her ambivalence shows through in describing his awkward and demanding sexual approaches to her, both before and during their marriage.  He has only a grudging interest in her faith, despite the fact that her life with God is the fire that burns through everything.  He will sit in the pew with her on occasion.  He will nurture her and the children.  But she will still long for theology and poetry and someone with whom to share it.

Whether you, dear reader, will see this longing as holy discontent or ludicrous self-justification is an open question.  I suspect readers will be divided.  My own appreciation for the yearnings of mystics and the revelatory power of misguided desires made me a fan from the first page.  Julian of Norwich is etched into Maggie’s plight (and quoted).  The English priest and poet John Donne haunts Maggie’s confessions: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?”

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Jamie Quatro

Maggie takes a scandalous interest in her own pleasures and pains.  She is raw and honest, naked on the page.  The book’s narration fragments in time without ever losing sight of the struggle of her soul.  We bounce between prayers and poems, memories and text messages—the scattered evidence of this signal season in Maggie’s life.

It ends with Maggie’s ultimate revelation of the affair to Thomas, something she had never hidden very well from him anyway it seems.  The narrative rattles off the possible futures for the couple, but not before Maggie rouses herself to a summation—a “fire sermon” that she calls “a litany, a confession, a proposal.” (184)

She does it on a dare from the inner therapist voice to articulate her thoughts, to preach them to herself.  “It would sound like blasphemy,” Maggie protests.

I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire.  I might not believe the things I say.  I would say them anyhow.  To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe.  Maybe even detach.

So say them.

I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.

How do you know unless you try? (183)

So she says them.  And you might roll your eyes.  You might call her a heretic.  But you may hear a strange and wonderful affirmation of the marriage covenant and the virtue of acknowledging and renouncing the ways our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” You may find “intimations of immortality…reminders of the glory whence we came.” (190-1)

If it’s the affirmation you hear, you read the book that I did—a glowing furnace of a novel.  The testimony of an ecstatic soul.  The cry of the blissful, tortured pilgrim this side of eternity.  An appeal to God to “let me burn.” (191)

The Dream-bent Farmer: Poetry

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photo by Jeff Qian via Unsplash

‘What is this world but a seed of desire

some dream-bent farmer sowed in a field

waiting for

the end of winter, waiting to be getting on

with business of timothy and clover?’

—Abigail Carroll, ‘Spring Forward’

God is a dream-bent farmer sowing the seed of desire.  Time leaves us this task.  It is time’s gift to separate the initial moment from the consummation.  Without time there is no desire, only undifferentiated light.  Desire provides the space for shadow, heartbreak, longing, and treachery.  But its the elation I feel — the wonder of finding a place at all where I can be safely revealed, received.

I desire much and muchly.