Poetry Friday: “Onesimus”

onesimus2In this month of painful national and international news, Tania Runyan’s poem “Onesimus” offers a gut-deep breath of brotherhood. The poem recounts the story of Philemon, a new Christian Paul addresses on behalf of Onesimus, both Philemon’s fugitive slave and also a new convert. In “Onesimus,” Runyan singles out, perhaps, the most marginalized and voiceless in the ancient Greco-Roman world: the slave. Allowing him to directly address Philemon in a voice as ridged with humanity as a fingerprint, Onesimus focuses on images that establish the paradox the poem builds on. Gnashing lions who love “blood sweet with freedom’s fleeting breath,” flesh-splitting lashings, and even a branding are all, within the context of the narrative, lawful punishments for Onesimus’s failed escape. But the poem uses the raw imagery not to merely implicate Onesimus but to tether the reader to Onesimus’s plight much the way it tethers Onesimus to Philemon. In the last lines, the poem completes its shift from Onesimus’s plight and toward his humanity in his use of the powerful and symbolic “I am.” Onesimus cannot escape Philemon nor can Philemon escape Onesimus—either his suffering or his humanity. This revelation lodges itself into both the reader’s chest and into Philemon’s life to “pump forgiveness and prayer through your veins /…make you / see Christ in every jangling harlot….” It’s the image of both men being bound to one another that moves the poem toward a radical brotherhood that makes them both equally “a slave to God’s bidding.”   

-Jill Reid [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: Four Sonnets

medivalmanuscriptSonnets meditating on illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages may sound a bit sanctimonious, even borderline pompous, but like all the best sonnets, Melissa Range’s subvert expectations. The sonnets, each named for a pigment monks used to color the manuscripts, explore the seedy underbelly of each pigment. For starters, they are all highly toxic. Also, kermes-red is made from “the insect’s brood /crushed stillborn from her dried body,” making even its origins destructive. Verdigris, once applied, is corrosive. It “eats / the page and grieves the paleographer.” How could such beautiful art be made up of something so deadly? How could such devout men be poisoned by such a noble calling? Range explores these questions: “Taking the paint on his tongue, he tastes the blood / but, pocked Christ, can’t feel your toxins enter.” It seems paradoxical that the sonnet form, so measured and contained, can raise such unwieldy, sprawling questions about beauty, faith, art, and death. The strict meter, rhyme scheme, and heavy reliance on Latinate words conjure the mood of a meticulous monk in his cell. (Lines like “but a toxic and unearthly green meet /for inking angels wings, made from copper sheets” beg to be read aloud.) And yet, the sudden switch into first person tilts the poems, almost uncomfortably, into the personal in lines like “There’s copper in my brain, my heart of hearts / in my blood, an essential mineral,” and, “this bright solution, like your law / has leached into my pores.” It’s a poet’s job to ask questions without simple answers and to challenge her readers’ perspectives. Range does this beautifully, crafting poems that explore not just the mystery in this ancient art but the way we view beauty in our own lives.

—Christina Lee [Read more…]

The Cult of Emotion

6342521726_1709c6f3f5_zAs a newish, struggling Christian recovering from two years in a fundamentalist youth group, I committed to starting afresh in college. I was going to get fellowship right this time.

My high school church had been all about the rules: No secular music (unless oldies from the 1950s). No shorts with hems higher than the ends of your fingertips. No left-leaning politics.

But the people I met at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of California, Riverside, were all about the heart. As I started spending time in Bible studies where I learned to read the scriptures for myself, I wished I had understood all along that Christianity was about following Jesus, not a list of don’ts.

But even the heart seems to have some rules. The heart can quickly become an idol, our emotions, laws. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “For Whom the Resurrection Is the Full Moon Rising” by Mark Wagenaar

15312920273_04562aa7c5_o-e1456334680521This is a poem to stretch the mind. It begins by stretching our imagination to a cosmic event: a “moondog,” which is a rare bright spot in the moon’s halo. It’s formed by a “mirage of light & cloud & ice”—an image which then brings the speaker down to earth, into his own life. But this life, as he sees it, is stretched among mind-bending options: for instance, he’s “not willing to lose / that which I cannot keep/ for that which I cannot lose.” Then comes what for me is the poem’s core image: “Crumb by crumb the self is whittled down.” It’s the self of the Christian classic The Cloud of Unknowing, the self that must dissolve into “a leash of longing” for God’s very being. The “leash” then leads the poet into a metaphor of himself as “stray dog,” from which more mind-bending apparent opposites follow. All are playing with the self’s “dissolutions,” until the poem’s final line: the diminishment into a mere parenthesis filled with absences.

—Peggy Rosenthal
[Read more…]

The Dragon and the Yahrzeit Candle: On Forgetting and Remembering, Part 1

4023219337_acef69b314_z (1)I remember my social security number.

I remember the combination to a lock—13 right, 27 left, 5 right—that rusted beyond use some years ago. How many years? I don’t remember. But I remember this: it was two locks ago.

I remember the name of the city in which I was born. I remember the name of my elementary school. Turns out that this information is useful beyond merely contributing to my still unfolding (fortunately) personal story. City in which I was born, name of my elementary school: answers to a website’s security questions.

I remember Shabbat dinner at the Jerusalem home of Edna and her husband and their son, who was home for the weekend during his mandatory period of service in the Israeli Defense Forces. [Read more…]


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