Poetry Friday: “Sabbath”

skinSabbath as beloved bride and queen: familiar tropes in Jewish liturgy and thought. Now, thanks to Dan Bellm’s “Sabbath,” a subtle poem of loss and longing, a promise and a vow, we have another metaphor: Sabbath as mother. The Sabbath, a fixed period of time, stands outside of time. Jews are commanded to keep and remember it, and these two commandments, according to Lekhah Dodi, Come, My Beloved, the mystical hymn sung on Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, were spoken in a single utterance. The Sabbath: an overcoming of apparent physical limitations, a confounding of ordinary distinctions. Not unlike what we experience in Bellm’s poem. Here we encounter a holy day and a mother, but they mostly seem to both at once. Here we encounter a mother and a presumably male child, though the adult-child becomes a kind of mother, bearing inside him, safeguarding the image, the memory of a mother, a Sabbath now gone. Woman gives birth to boy who as a man becomes a kind of woman. Creator becomes creation becomes creator becomes …  Mother, child, Sabbath: without and within. Love, loss, and holiness. A powerful poem to help us receive and hold, hold and release, give birth to and be born this Sabbath and, God willing, many Sabbaths to come.

—Richard Chess


——   consolation but
a promise, and not because
———I must: not as you

———carried me but to
be your keeper, a place where
———you remain the one

———bearing life: not as
a god or idol that I
———have made too small, but

———only blessing you
do I keep the blessing safe:
———infant image of

———the created one
I long to be, Sabbath-self
———concealed in the guise

———of ordinary
time, my life the covering

———that protects the vow.


Dan Bellm is a poet and translator living in Berkeley, California. He has published three books of poetry, most recently Practice: A Book of Midrash (Sixteen Rivers Press), winner of a 2009 California Book Award and named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of 2008 by the Virginia Quarterly Review. His first book, One Hand on the Wheel, launched the California Poetry Series from Roundhouse Press; his second, Buried Treasure, won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize. He teaches poetry, as well as Writing and Midrash, in Image’s online Glen Workshops, www.glenonline.org [www.glenonline.org]. He is also a widely published translator of poetry and fiction from Spanish and French, and teaches literary translation at Antioch University Los Angeles and at New York University. His poems and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Best American Spiritual Writing, The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, and many other journals and anthologies. On the web: www.danbellm.com.

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Comfort and Dis-ease

By Stina Kielsmeier-Cook

Comfort croppedWhen I was in college my theology professor, lecturing on the Kingdom of God, turned to me and asked, “So, Stina. When you are older and own a home and have a perfectly good kitchen and dining room and so on, I want to know: Will you spend thousands of dollars updating it? Redoing it?”

When I was the invincible age of twenty-two, the thought of having thousands of dollars to spend on anything—let alone owning a real home—seemed a million years away. And what a silly question: Of course I wouldn’t spend my fictitious money on frivolous home renovation projects. I wouldn’t settle for a domesticated life of fine things.

We were talking about the Kingdom of God, after all. About upside-down priorities—of the last, first. Of giving all that we had to the poor. I never imagined myself wanting comfort; I who grew up with it and never knew life without it. My head and heart were fixed on higher, nobler things.

“No,” I replied to my professor, my voice bold before my classmates. I looked around importantly. “No, I would never do that.”

I smile to myself now as I remember that moment, as I sit here, molded into the couch. My back is sore from carrying my infant all day, from lifting my preschooler in and out of the bucket swing at the park. I grab a box of Honey Bunches of Oats from the top of the fridge; I burrow my hand inside for a fistful of comfort.

Comfort, comfort. I didn’t realize how much I would want comfort, how quickly I would seek it out.

Shortly after college my ideals led me to live in an intentional Christian community in rural Georgia. I remember talking to one of the wizened long-termers (a real radical, in the flesh!) who had served there for thirty years. Over cups of weak coffee from the community kitchen, I told him about my dreams of living prophetically, of selling everything I had to follow Jesus.

Cradling my warm mug in my hands, I asked if anything had surprised him in a lifetime of communal living below the poverty line. And he told me: “I never knew how much I’d crave comfort. I never knew how tied to routine I would become, how reluctant to change.” I choked back my surprise, the coffee sour on my tongue.

I am starting to understand what he meant, now that I live in a neighborhood that is far from desirable on paper—high levels of poverty, crummy schools, home burglaries. When my husband and I were twenty-four and newly in love, living here felt perfect. It rang with some of the soaring idealism I had then: thoughts about God in the city, of loving our neighbors, of fleeing the suburbs. It was easy then to be critical of people older than me—white and well educated—who bought up McMansions and retreated from neighborhoods like mine as soon as they had children.

And yet here I am, thirty-one years old, eating cereal on the couch and circling things in the IKEA catalogue. Being broke, it turns out, is stressful. I fantasize about having money, about being able to buy new clothes. To join a gym. To afford nice things for my daughter. To be free of guilt while tossing a few comfort items into the Target shopping cart: nail polish in trendy colors, a pair of sunglasses. For buying a coffee to go.

And it’s more than wanting material goods; I am unused to being a minority. I am unused to living in an area with high crime. I fear for my kids when sidestepping syringes on our walk to the park. My discomfort with difference, my search to find others who look like me: I feel these primitive instincts disrupting my lofty ideas of life in the city.

We are all seeking our kind. It’s natural and normal for humans to want to be with people who look like them; it helps promote a sense of identity, of connection. Yet, I know that God wants more for us than benign comfort and sameness; after all, Jesus purposely alienated himself from his in-group—devout Jews—by befriending tax collectors, Romans, prostitutes, and foreigners.

I know all this, the parables burned deeply into my psyche, and yet I just want to shut my eyes sometimes—new shoes might help, perhaps, or another cookie.

A former mentor of mine once led a Bible study on Colossians and I’ll never forget his words. “We should never feel comfortable in this world,” he told us. “We are aliens and strangers, we feel dis-ease for a reason. It reminds us that we belong to God and God’s kingdom.”

Dis-ease, I think, as I open my laptop and read another email about a shooting in my neighborhood, as I search the internet for home values in areas that have the city’s best schools, wondering if we’d ever be able to afford the mortgage. I sigh deeply, taking another handful of cereal, finding a small satisfaction in each sweet, crunchy bite.


Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is a writer from the fair and frigid city of Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and two kids.

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The Beautiful Miracle of Our Fragility

Heartrate monitor

While I was finishing grad school, I worked two jobs, the first at an infectious disease research center and the second spent tabulating data from death records of women who had been killed by partners. It’s amazing how much data is forgotten in the world, how many trends and progressions are hidden in numbers waiting to be grouped and observed.

Students of viruses and bacteria and violence—and the suffering that accompanies them—start to feel split from other people at some point. What I mean is: The population-based study of epidemics, heart failure rates, quality of life-years, and breast cancer complications is aimed at making people grotesque, burdens of risk, carriers of microbes. Dirty, stupid, and contaminated.

As students of public health, our goal was to decrease the burden of disease, lower cancer and heart disease risk, prevent sexually transmitted disease, and always be tabulating causes of death and trying to stop them. But people, with their eating and drinking and loving and hating, with their carbon-based bodies and relentless submission to the physical laws of matter, were always in the way.

There was a joke a lot of the professors told about how the most effective way to stop any virus is to drink a gallon of bleach. It’s funny (and horrible) because it hits us in the place where we’ll always think there’s something intrinsically wrong or broken with us, and because it puts us at a remove: We can pretend we’re all fixable. [Read more...]

Honey, Let’s Get Tattoos: Tattoos and Embodiment

Continued from a previous post. Read part 1 here

Tree tattooAfter my wife Katie and I decided to get matching tattoos, we spent months pinning designs and discussing placement, and—let’s be honest—fighting over pretty much every detail. It probably had been easier to choose our children’s names. We’re a stubborn and volatile couple, so there was no chance this would be a sweet story; it could only be a struggle of wills. We arrived, exhausted, at a conclusion, but somehow still grateful for one another, and when we finally got to the tattoo parlor, it could only have been anticlimactic.

Our artist, a large bald man named Bear with tattoos all over his arms, neck, and head, told us to walk around for twenty minutes or so while he made the stencils, giving us the opportunity to argue one last time about where to get marked. We had agreed on tree of life designs—mine more Celtic and hers more organic.

The tree invokes diverse mythologies, not least that of Genesis where it represents the source of eternal life in Christ. It also hearkens to an image of growing together from the sermon Katie’s grandfather gave at our wedding. We’d get the design on our inner forearms—my left, her right—so that they’d sort of knot up whenever we held hands, ‘cause we’re sweet like that.

Agreeing to get a tattoo in the first place had been something of a process for me, and it brought me in touch with the conflictual relationship between my theology of the body and my actual emotions about my body and my wife’s. When we actually pulled the trigger, we both learned something about ourselves. She learned she was not nearly so casual as she had thought herself: She reneged on the forearm placement and opted for her back. I learned, to my own surprise, that I existed in space and time.

Maybe that’s dramatic, but that’s how it felt. When I woke up the next morning with a large, black, knotted tree on my arm, I felt a different relationship to the world than I had the previous day, what I knew was embodiment. [Read more...]

Why Art?

Window panesI’m propped in bed reading my current bedtime novel. Pausing to reflect on a particularly engaging passage, my eyes raise from the novel—and rest on the shelves of poetry volumes on the opposite wall. Some of these books I open often; others have sat there untouched for years. Yet I need them all there. When I walk into my room I need to be surrounded by poetry.

On Saturday evenings, my husband and I choose a film to watch. Sometimes we choose a light film, sometimes a profound one. Whichever we choose, the evening enriches us. We chat afterwards about certain scenes, certain characters. We go onto IMDB to see what other viewers have said about the film.

Over the past several weekends, I’ve attended some of my favorite performances: my favorite string quartet, my favorite modern dance troupe, my favorite chamber music ensemble. When I was a child studying music and dance, I could have followed the harmonic changes in the quartet, could have named (and even performed) some of the dance moves. I’ve forgotten all that; yet I still crave these artistic events, still sit through them transfixed, still leave feeling enlightened, ennobled.


I cannot imagine my life without art. I cannot imagine our human lives without art.

Why? What is art? Why is it essential for our full humanity? Why are we especially scandalized when a crazed group like ISIS destroys ancient artistic treasures?

I recall an answer that Greg Wolfe offered in a Good Letters post a couple years ago:

Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging. In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience.

“Art makes things new”: this is Greg’s theme. Without art, then, we’d plod through our daily lives without ever recognizing (re-cognizing) the depths drawing us along.

Art gives shape to our experience. Without it, our days would sludge along like a long, slow mudslide. But with art, the sluggish flow stops; we see a human figure carved in the mud, the clay. It’s a figure of pride…or of pain…or of reaching, longing, stretching toward the meaning without which our lives are clogged with sludge.

“The joy of art is watching how something takes on meaning,” said film critic Nick Olson at the 2015 Glen Workshop. In film, he added, “you watch the meaning become embodied.” I’d say the same for sculpture, for painting, for dance—even for fiction. And I’d add: in music, you hear how something takes on meaning.

And in poetry? Well, here’s a poem that enacts what Greg Wolfe said: that art finds a new form to show us afresh something familiar, to shock us into a recognition that’s also a conversion. Take this stanza from David Craig’s “The Apprentice Prophecies”:

It’s your steel porch rail in sunlight
beneath the mailboxes; bright, flat black,
the brick behind. You’ll be struck dumb
by the ordinary, and everything will start to matter:
what shirt you put on,
how to pronounce your name.

Art shapes the ordinary so that we’re “struck dumb” by it, so that everything starts to matter. Can I leave that string quartet concert and say something nasty on the way out? Like “Hey, you’re blocking the aisle; move along, move along.” This is inconceivable. The music has ennobled me, ennobled us. Everyone leaving the concert hall is smiling with gratitude. Or, as Craig continues in the poem: After you’ve been “struck dumb by the ordinary,”

You’ll start helping dogs across the street,
be careful not to cycle over worms
after rain.

And that novel I’m reading at bedtime? Right now it’s Austen’s Emma, which I’m reading for the fifth (tenth? twentieth?) time.

I know that Emma will prove herself worthy of Mr. Knightly by the end, but meanwhile she’s making every sort of blunder possible, showing herself meddlesome, self-righteous, overly self-assured. She misreads almost everyone of her acquaintance, with nearly devastating effects on them. In creating the character of Emma, in creating the novel Emma, Austen has shaped our ordinary human follies so that we see them anew.

Once Emma acknowledges to herself the mistakes she has made, once she’s repentant about them, she and Mr. Knightly can marry and—yes—live happily ever after. This is the shaping that art can give us. We know that, in reality, we won’t live happily ever after—not until eternal life. We know that we’ll blunder again. And again.

But the hope of living happily—if not “ever after” then afterwards for a while—is held out to us by Emma. Like the major chord we hear with relief at the end of one of Beethoven’s anguished late string quartets.


Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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