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Poetry Friday: “Love’s Last” by Christian Wiman

The spring equinox was on Monday. I am slowly seeing a flush of new life around me, like plum tree blossoms and nettles, while winter’s dank decay is still lamentably present. Christian Wiman’s haunting and tender poem “Love’s Last” from his collection Once in the West (originally published in Image issue 81) echoes loudly for me right now during this transition of seasons. Within his austere couplets, Wiman ponders the passage of time and recalls memories from his youth. The poem begins, “Love’s last urgency is earth / and grief is all gravity.” As a poet who battled an almost fatal illness, Wiman reminds us of the spiritual guidance we can receive from our own lives, from our past selves. The daring and curious child he once was, slashing at bee’s nests, shows Wiman how “mystery mastering fear” can illuminate the perpetual questions we carry. We are all able to start anew yet we are never that far from death and, in the in-between, may we all unearth a bit of hope and redemption.
—Jessica Gigot

“Love’s Last” By Christian Wiman

Love’s last urgency is earth
and grief is all gravity

and the long fall always
back to earliest hours

that exist nowhere
but in one’s brain.

From the hard-packed
pile of old-mown grass,

from boredom, from pain,
a boy’s random slash

unlocks a dark ardor
of angry bees

that link the trees
and block his way home.

I like to hold him holding me,
mystery mastering fear,

so young, standing unstung
under what survives of sky.

I learned too late how to live.
Child, teach me how to die.

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Christian Wiman’s newest book of poems is Once in the West, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. He teaches at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Poetry Friday: “In Tandem”

a blurry shot of a rim of the top of tree branches on the bottom of the image, with a giant white sun sending rays out from the center of a black sky, rimmed with a halo of light.Here is a poem that takes aim at our clichés about aging and death. It does so with subtle cleverness, by putting “in tandem” an old spruce tree and the nursing home resident to whom the poem is addressed. Though there’s no stanza break, the poem divides into two parts, each of nine lines. The first part is all negatives: the clichés (like “it had a good life”) that we would not apply to the tree if it toppled over dead. The second part is all positives: how we “would have marveled” at the “pale corona of roots, / like arms uplifted and exposed.” The tree is anthropomorphized here: its uplifted arms make it more human than the nursing home resident of Part One. And more full of rich life: “we would have breathed in / earth smells and the inner life of the tree.” The poem’s final three lines again contrast the responses to the toppled tree versus the nursing home patient. The imagined tree evokes in the speaker and patient a “curious” scurrying happiness, while they know that any “small talk” of the patient’s “recovery” is fantasy. This is a poem that seems simple in its accessibility, yet it draws me into meditation on the ways our culture thinks about human frailty and mortality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme”

a woman sits in a room lit by a single lamp, the rest of the room is shrouded in shadows. she has her hand up and is holding a cup, her face is turned away and bathed in shadows. on the wall sits images and postcards, and a desk is full of books and small papers.It’s fairly common for a poem to be inspired by (or be in conversation with) a famous painting. Less often, though, do we find poems engaging with a musical work. Yet that’s just what happens in Carol Davis’s poem “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme.” Fans of the brilliant jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane will immediately recognize in Davis’s title the name of Coltrane’s masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” And a line from the final movement of this work, “Psalm,” is quoted in the second stanza of Davis’s poem. For Coltrane, the “Love Supreme” is God. For Davis’s speaker, it’s less clear. The poem opens with disturbing images of bodily disintegration. Coltrane’s piece then enters the poem, offering the speaker the possibility of “another pulse in me.” Hopeful musical images continue into stanza three, with the church’s organ heard from across the street. But then, in the final stanza, musical images merge with the (apparent) loss of a loved one. “Where you’ve gone,” psalms like Coltrane’s ecstatic praise of God are abundant. Yet on the cello’s neck, “fingers [wait] / above a stalled note”: the poem’s speaker longs to connect with the lost one (“ear of my ear”), but can’t. Something is stalled; loss finally overwhelms the speaker. So the poem gives in to the grief of its title: “Grief Daybook.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Ghazal: Woman at the Well”

Image of bluish green water glinting with sun spots and two hands hovering over the top of the water, on the left side of the frame. I’ve always found the ghazal form intriguing. Its couplets, all discrete, are linked by  a phrase repeated in each couplet’s second line. The changes rung on this repeated phrase are where much of a ghazal’s action takes place. In “Ghazal: Woman at the Well,” Carolyne Wright takes “the woman at the well” as her repeated phrase—the Samaritan woman whom Jesus asks for a drink in John 4:1-42. At first the poem stays fairly close to the biblical story, though the initial question—“who is the woman at the well…?”—hints that further exploration of her identity will follow. And it soon does. In stanzas 7-8,  we see her longing for a land that isn’t drought-ridden, as Samaria is: she dreams of “oases of date palms” and of “pomegranate flowers.” Then the poem stretches her identity further. As “on the night of destiny, the angel Gabriel descends,” we wonder if the woman at the well is Mary. Next the woman is on the bottom rung of Jacob’s ladder, reaching toward heaven (from Genesis 28:10-19). Then she shares the features of women both of Sychar (in Samaria) and of Shechem (in Israel); these two peoples did not associate with each other, so Wright’s woman, somewhat like Jesus here, is effecting a reconciliation in her very body. Finally, all these women share a fate mirroring the woman at the well, even becoming her “second self.” (Wright ends by honoring Agha Shahid Ali because he was the poet to introduce the ghazal form to Americans.) 

—Peggy Rosenthal

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Bible Thumping

Guest Post

I once saw a girl beaned in the head with a Bible.

Her attacker was a well-muscled star of our middle school football team, so his throw was hard, accurate, and had a bit of a spiral.

To be fair, the weapon wasn’t a full Bible, neither was it large. Someone in this guy’s group of cronies had procured a box of those miniature New Testaments kids are given in Sunday school, and brought them in his backpack with the intention of evangelizing—through force.

I noticed something was up that morning in the gymnasium, where the buses unloaded and students lounged in the bleachers waiting for the bell to ring so we could go to homeroom. With only one teacher—usually a distracted gym coach—on duty, it was easy to get away with mischief, and many of the students, hormonal and restless and facing another day of Algebra and cafeteria food, had mischief in their hearts.

Usually this manifested in mostly benign ways—spitballs, lewd shouts, or dropping someone’s clarinet case beneath the bleachers, so the unlucky student had to navigate the sticky darkness beneath to retrieve it. But on this morning it transformed into something more sinister.

From my seat across the basketball court, I noticed a few students stand up and begin moving at once. Without realizing at first what was happening, I watched as a pack of good old country boys surrounded a bunch of black-haired Goth kids—eyes heavy with liner—like a pride of lions might surround a herd of gazelles. By the time the prey raised their eyes, it was too late: they had been accosted by the words of Jesus.

Afterwards, whistles were blown and the ensuing fight broken up, but on my way to first period I saw a girl, walking alone, on the receiving end of a long pass. I knew little about her except she had dark hair that hung to her waist and a fascination with vampires. The Bible hit her in the back of the head and she whipped around in shock, blood drained from her face, tears pooling in her eyes.

Rumors spread throughout the day of assaults that continued across campus when no adults were around to see. I witnessed no others myself, but after lunch I found a few loose pages from the gospel according to John, with gold-rimmed edges lying in the mud. The words spoken by Jesus were printed in ink the color of blood. [Read more…]