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Poetry Friday: “Afternoon Swim”

green and blue water in some kind of reservoir, surrounded by dark sides. the water is lit up by the reflection of trees. The play of grammar has always lured me. I’ve wondered: why do English sentences take the shape they do? So when I reached line 4 of Lance Larsen’s “Afternoon Swim”—with its bold announcement that he was switching from second person to first—I was hooked. Play with grammar is this poem’s medium. I laughed out loud at the course of Larsen’s sentence about another sentence: “a sentence in a Victorian novel fallen against the belly // of a pregnant somebody dozing on shore, turning now / to devour a delicious direct object.” Yet soon—surprise!—the direct object being devoured is the loaves that Christ multiplied, and the poem’s play turns theological as well as grammatical. And metaphysical, too, by the poem’s end, as it moves into pondering why words have the meanings they do—and how our very self is constructed.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Erasure”

In dark trees by Alberto Garcia on flickrHave you ever felt that your own existence is being called into question? That you might be real but in the next moment disappear? Robert Cording explores this feeling in his poem “Erasure.” At first the poem’s speaker decides that his life is “too neatly drawn” and needs some erasure, some subtleness. So he goes out into a field as night falls. His experience there becomes more, though, than he can comfortably handle. Cording dramatizes this through masterful repetitions. Watch what he does with the word “here.” In stanza one, it refers generally to life itself; I’m “here” in the living world. In the following line (the beginning of stanza two), “here” is a specific place: the field. But by the final stanza, “here / I am” sounds a note of panic, as the speaker senses death taking him over. Death’s approach, meanwhile, is marked by repetitions of “dark/darkness.” At first, in stanza three, it’s the speaker’s own choice to place himself outside at twilight, with “darkness rising up.” As night comes on and shadows take away the names of oaks and ash trees, “the dark adds the slightest chill.” But “It’s then / that the invisible hearse of darkness / waits for me to get in.” The speaker feels his life slipping away as darkness overwhelms him. He calls out for “someone” to verify his living reality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Bewilder”

Beluga whales swimming in a bluish cave with light illuminating them in the ocean.This is a poem about scale, about the awesome power of the Creator, who in turn gave humanity the power to create. And it’s about the power of a created being, and its potential to do good or evil. Here we have a whale sighting, her powerful fluke useable for constructive or destructive acts—“so many gestures// a fluke or fin can make with or/ without ruin.” Over time, the Leviathan has stood for evil of various kinds. Yet the bulk of the poem celebrates the whale’s beauty without romanticizing or anthropomorphizing. Indeed, it makes deliberate strides against that temptation, admonishing: “her eye deeply/winking at my eye, no more/ human for that.” The poem affirms, if for no one else than for the speaker, that the whale was made for her own good purpose, for God’s own good purpose, “to sing… for enchantment and for love.” The mystery of creation rises into view, immense, blinking its wild eye, and then disappears again, leaving our hearts pounding. Leaving us feeling more alive, as any good poem— creation—ought to. 

—Melissa Reeser Poulin


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Poetry Friday: “Gravity and Grace”

Balloons against cloudy sky and dark treeThere was a time, early in my process of conversion to Christianity, when I took Simone Weil as my spiritual guide. And a tough one she was—exactly in the ways that Betsy Sholl elaborates in this poem. The epigraph that Sholl chooses is one of Weil’s many expressions of how the self gets in our way if we want to get to God: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” The void, for Weil, is the human person totally emptied of self. Sholl brilliantly goes deep inside this core concept of Weil’s and fleshes is out by dramatizing it as a lively beach scene of boys blowing up balloons. So Sholl can at once be playful (“the boys…blowing off gravity” as they let the balloons go skyward) and also as serious as Weil herself (“I read / you’d like to be blown away, see a landscape /  as it is when I am not there—as if the self // blocks God the way bodies block light.” Sholl’s title, by the way, is the title of the first compilation of Weil’s essays published after her death.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]