About Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

A Song of Songs for These American Days

highway 61 by H. Michael Karshis on flickrWith thanks and apologies to the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Neil Young, Wallace Stevens, Bruce Springsteen, the Wailin’ Jennys, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, God, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Sam Baker, The Band, Bruce Cockburn, The Grateful Dead, Richie Havens, and all the musicians and poets who have sustained and nourished me to this day.

I read the news today. Oh boy.

They’re sealing the cracks in the ceiling. Now how’s the light going to get in?

A friend on the left says these days her husband stands guard at the door to their home, his life a loaded gun.

Another friend on the left says, if it comes to it, she’ll seek happiness in a warm gun.

Me? I am lying in a burned out basement, calling all angels, but the angels have lost their desire for us. [Read more…]

How Do You Write?

arthur-dove-leaf-forms-spaces-abstract-on-wikimediaDo you write with a pen?

Do you write with the wind?

Do you pray first? Do you pray when you are stuck? Do you pray after? Or are you praying the whole way through?

Do you wait for the singer on the beach or the sinner in the confession booth to finish before you begin? [Read more…]

Traveling Through These Days of Awe

Rick Chess photoI’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.

How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?

Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.

We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring. [Read more…]

Getting Close to You, God: A Meditation During the Month of Elul

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when. [Read more…]

Of Cookbooks and Lynchings

by Jessie.yang on flickr“Men and women in automobiles stood up to watch him die.” That’s the sentence one student recalled when I asked the class what was memorable in Eula Biss’s essay “Time and Distance Overcome.” The man who died was a black man “accused of attacking a white woman.” For his alleged behavior, he was “tied to a telephone pole and burned.”

After we discussed the short essay for about forty-five minutes—its structure, its late revelation of her personal connection to the subject—her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a telephone pole on which he had been working fell—I directed the students to the last section of Biss’s powerful Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which offers additional information and reflections on the writing of each of the essays.

“I began my research for this essay,” writes Biss, “by searching for every instance of the phrase ‘telephone pole’ in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 370 articles.”

This alone, I thought, is useful information for a first year college student: how one conducts research for this kind of essay. [Read more…]