The Coasts of Anhedonia – Poetry

The land,

this land,

is not a problem to be solved.  

It is a matrix,

this mother,

for health.  

The great migrations of the day—

from Syria, the South, central Africa—

are symptoms 

of a greater dis

location.  

It’s not just about resources 

and economic opportunity 

(or lack thereof).  

These are the coasts of a cultural anhedonia—

an inability to find pleasure 

and to thrive on the good land.

 

We have taken all this juice, 

all this joy,

(Gerard’s Spring),

and made of it 

an ugly thing.  

We’ve tacked up boards 

on the windows. 

Suffocated our homes. 

Lined our thoroughfares with loan offices 

and convenience stores.  

While churches and masonic lodges 

decay 

into dust.  

There is no beauty—no life.

 

What are opioids but the death spiral of dulled senses?  

What are these birds outside my window 

but an angel’s appeal 

 

to wake up?

–Alex Joyner

How to Get Over the Election – 2018 Edition

We went to the polls. We voted for change or not. We resisted or didn’t. And in the end, we remain divided.

One pundit I heard this morning said that the most profound and confounding divide in America is the rural-urban/suburban split. As a site begun after the 2016 elections and devoted to understanding the heartlands of rural America, I offer the following review of posts to get you up to speed if you’re just now turning to this complex landscape:

Poetry

To Know the Country Whole

Essays

Rural is Plural

What Goes Without Saying: Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

You’ve Got the Wrong Enemies

Rural Soul by Sara Porter Keeling

Interviews

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild

Still Kinda in Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow

Book Reviews

The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America by Robert Wuthnow

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from The Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank

Burning from Beginning to End with Scott Cairns

It’s all here.  Beginnings and endings.  Heaven and hell.  Divine intentions and bodily appetites.  That’s what you get with the poet Scott Cairns.  Look for the kitchen sink.  I’m sure it’s in there, too.

Recently I came back for a season to Philokalia: New & Selected Poems, Cairns’ 2002 collection.  It’s as rich and evocative as I remembered.  Nobody captures the sensuality of angels brushing the earth and women brushing their hair like Cairns.  He’s going to linger on the moment, as all good poets do.  After all, “So little to be done, and so much time.” (67)

Let’s start at the creation.  Actually before.  In ‘The Beginning of the World’ Cairns gives us audience with the Lover who hungers for a Beloved prior to anything coming into view:

God’s general availability, His brooding peckishness, an appetite and predilection—even before invention—to invent, to give vent, an all but unsuspected longing for desire followed by the eventual arrival of desire’s deep hum, its thrumming escalation and upward flight into the dome’s aperture, already open and voluble and without warning giving voice. (121)

Then, let’s go to the apocalypse—‘The End of Heaven and the End of Hell’ in a 12-part poem titled ‘Disciplinary Treatises.’  The destination turns out to be the same no matter how you’ve lived.  We lose the “feeble fretwork” of this age and we become ourselves.

And that long record of our choices—your

every choice—is itself the final

body, the eternal dress. And, of course,

there extends before us finally a measure

we can recognize. We see His Face

and see ourselves, and flee. And shame—old

familiar—will sustain that flight unchecked,

or the Ghost, forgotten just now—merest

spark at the center—will flare, bid us turn

and flame unto a last consuming light:

His light, our light, caught at last together

as a single brilliance, extravagant,

compounding awful glories as we burn. (132)

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Scott Cairns

Like Jamie Quatro, whose novel Fire Sermon earlier this year mined the quarry of desires, carnal and spiritual, Cairns is not afraid of burning. He knows the impossibility of staying on the surface.  Even when he pretends, as in the poem ‘Taking Off Our Clothes,’ “that there is no such thing/as metaphor,” he fails.  “[T]his could all/be happening in Kansas,” he says, and yet his proposed simple encounter with a lover becomes, despite itself, transcendent.

Cairns has now created a body of work that stands among the best of any Christian poet.  His range is impressive, from the quotidian to the esoteric.  And the depth of his study shows through, sometimes lightly, often with surprising depth.  As when he investigates the Greek word nous, showing why it is more than mind and describes it thus:

Dormant in its roaring cave,

the heart’s intellective appetite grows dim,

unless you find a way to wake it. (26)

And then he goes on to suggest an exercise to do just that.

I spend many mornings with a Scott Cairns poem.  His collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, which I reviewed earlier, is a great introduction to the Christian spiritual tradition.  Philokalia is a great introduction to the poet himself.  And so much more.

The Last Sunset: Poetry

fullsizeoutput_28I didn’t really believe it was my last

as I watched a sky so orange as to subdue

the harshest skeptic of sundown magic.

But I wondered.

How many people in mortal peril see such sights as they slip away?

Polar explorers perishing under pulsating green northern lights?

Mountaineers admiring the blue tint of the ice as they

plunge inside a crevasse?

There is beauty in this world, I tell you.  Beyond me.

After me.

–Alex Joyner

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.