One benefit of being a Christian writer is the constant reminder, by a community of people who hold me accountable, that poetry is not salvation. I am constantly aware of the temptation I feel (and that I see exercised in the work of other poets) to make poetry something more sacred, more powerful than it can be. Certainly the language and vision poems might provide is needed, especially in a church often afraid of indirect and sensual assertions of the truth.
However, the longer I’ve written, the more I’ve come to see that poems are not magic; poetry is not eternal life. In fact, I believe that to sacralize poetry is to separate it dangerously from its sources - the languages and landscapes and social worlds from which it grows - and to risk making it an art form for the poetically elect. It is when I begin to expect poems, both those I write and those I read, to be poetry, and not a sacrament, that they come closest to meaning and making the differences they can: they become ways into the worlds that we know and suspect would be better.
My own poetry has grown most when I have sought to do a bit less in each poem. Early on as a writer, I often choked my work on too many ideas, too many notions. While still working to create poems that sing in several registers, I have learned that it is the body of my poetic output that can collectively say what I suspect.
As I look back and ahead at those poems, I see four forces that weigh on my work as a poet, pressuring their ways variously out of my mouth and onto the page:
- Place, especially the landscapes of Illinois (both urban and rural);
- Conflicted faith, a kind of brutal curiosity about how humans understand our position in a sometimes grace-filled yet often grace-less universe;
- Memory, with all its problematic risks towards sentimentality and all its possibilities of recovery;
- And music, particularly the music of language as it attempts to engage place, faith, and memory.
I don’t consciously set out to make poems represent or embody any of these forces, but I recognize them when they appear. And I attempt to temper the power of any one of these heavy notions that might (and often do) weigh down a poem. Have I asked of a poem something it cannot do? Or have I written, as poet Scott Cairns suggests, a poem that tries to “to find things out, not to communicate some previously ossified conclusion.”
So though poetry is not salvific, it can change the vision of the poet, and (if the poet does her job) of the willing reader. If poetry matters, it matters because it sensually persists in raising our level of suspicion that mystery and juxtaposition linger nearer to the truth than do statistics and taxonomies. Poetry persuades, or shifts our vision, not through magic, but through acts of argued seduction, showing us what it might be like to leave neither our senses nor our minds absent from the world.
Beethoven’s Romance in G
Here is why we listen—
a fifteen year old boy
who will not yet have mangled
his heart in the barbed wire
of loss and desire
can sing violin strings
through humid air
so the deaf man’s
beautiful wound heals aloud,
above and within us.
Hands on a fretless neck
and bow on stretched string
vibrate his narrow shoulders,
echo under his slim, clean
fingers. The sound moves,
presses grooves, cuts and grows
through his still body and eyes,
where he can only imagine
the fresh and worn scars of love.
But he can hear and bless
the air with lucid sound
that filters through fences
unassaulted and free,
and, in this morning,
saves and releases
what will be graceful
tomorrow and in memory,
even after being sifted
through the sieves of ourselves.
Prayer and Fugue for Two Hands, In Ordinary Time
What ordinary tasks you do
with your fingers and hands the rest
of the time: lifting coffee mugs,
adjusting the radio knob,
smoothing a tie, pushing numbers
on the phone or the ATM,
doodling with a pen while students
play. Risking all to slice bagels.
Our own common hands know these deft
touches, the familiar wonder
of the palm, all five fingers stretched
across a lover’s chest, rising
and spreading with each easy breath
perfectly collapsing to rest.
But I have heard Barber explode
from your hands in a theme wilder
than you or he had intended.
Almost without you, the fugue
comes rolling in fast, faster
waves than youth and beauty, pure skill
can answer, can answer in time.
I have shifted in a hard chair,
closed my eyes because too aware
that your whole weight rested too square
on your fingertips, an encore
offering of Bach’s muted prayer.
“Jesu, Joy” a pensive desire,
so private that lips don’t dare
try to part, release such pure air.
Our bones are only sticks in flesh,
wired with muscle to over
reach, lunge and protect. Human hands rise
to cover faces when friends die
or confess their wrong, raw envy.
I want them, sometimes, on the ends
of my thin arms. A single day
to knead bread or write a few checks,
then learn how it is to feel speed
or prayer build beneath tendon
and nerve, the wrists aching from use,
from counterpoint beyond control.
Satisfying envy, I comb
instead through a wife’s hair or lift
a daughter over wide puddles
to the car. Such little effort
miracles require, habit trained
into the touch. This must be how
you hold and hurl hard work from your
grasp, fooling us into belief,
into hope that our skin can sing,
that joy is native to our hands
and as ordinary as song.
She was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.—Acts 16:14
A heart opens,
unfolds like a bolt of fine purple cloth.
And there is God,
wrapped in the body’s best linen,
tangled tight within a woman’s woven heart,
stretched wide to meet the threadbare world.
A Map of the Kingdom
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” —Mark 12:34
How near to the borders can we venture,
How close to the looming or invisible walls
Without being taken, trapped like wild game,
Netted like unsuspecting fish that hover in their own blue kingdom
To be suddenly tangled then yanked high into a world of light and air?
Some creatures love to be sought, not found,
Love to be caught, not bound,
To be lured within range,
Never quite aware of where the net
Has cast itself - much wider than we suspect.
Perhaps our sore lips already speak the language of this nearby land.
Listen. It almost sounds like plainchant.
Or jazz. An anthem, a cadence
To coax and measure our steps.
We should watch where we walk.
We should watch what we say.
A kingdom of margins will find us.
God’s grammar is not far from our tongues.