Poetry Friday: “June Prayer”

image of the shape of a window falling onto a green wall by a staircase from the sun.How to pray for someone bent over by grief when nature is stretching upward in the June sunshine? This is the question posed by Robert Cording’s “June Prayer.” We learn in the course of the poem that the young son of a woman “I love” has died months ago, and that she asks the poet to pray for relief from her grief. Much of this poem’s action takes place in the final words of lines whose grammar runs into the next line (in what is technically called enjambment). Take line 2’s “I know”: it sounds like the beginning of a statement of certainty until we drop into the “only” of the next line. Or line 6’s “Lord, take pity”: we expect this to be a prayer for the woman, but it turns out to be a plea for pity “on this prayer.” Or later in the poem “Lord, the sun is…” drops into “stronger,” a strength we’d pray for the woman herself. Then “all she sees” leaves us hanging, until it settles onto “the boys she must forgive each day” for simply being alive. Finally, there’s the enjambment of the poem’s closing sentence. The poet prays that the woman might be released “from her season of captivity in the dark”—which we take to be the darkness of her grief, until in the final line it becomes “the dark / belly of memory where she waits for you.” That is, for God.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Preaching the End of the World

For my husband, Brian Jarboe

I learned the news that guitarist Chris Cornell’s death had been declared a suicide on Thursday, May 18—which also happened to be the fourth day in a row I had not managed to get over to the pharmacy to pick up my antidepressant prescription.

Which meant that I had not taken my medicine for at least four, maybe five, days. I felt vaguely apprehensive about the prospect, for sure, but I’m not a major sufferer and the dosage is low (Sertraline, 50 mg).

In fact, I was amazed at how relatively “normal” I felt, after all. It was a busy week at work with some scary tasks I had to accomplish, amid the usual hours of driving in traffic. I found myself taken over by a rush of passionate energy, in which every word, every moment, everything I had to do, seemed as though it were falling into place, as orderly and infinite as tiles in an Arabic mosaic.

You’ve probably already figured it out, but I was just a wee bit hypomanic.

When I heard the news report—mere hours after Cornell had been found dead in his Detroit hotel room—I was threading my way through D.C. streets in my ragged Volvo on the way to my eight-year-old daughter’s piano recital.

And when I was finally there, sitting in a hot basement stuffed full of parents, and a girl, maybe ten, began singing and playing along to “Burn” from Hamilton, tears started running uncontrollably down my face, and I realized my folly, the delusion I’d had of my own invincible efficiency. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Sewing Box”

Painting of a Girl sitting in front of a sewing machine facing a window that lets in slats of light on the girl and the burnt orange walls.We don’t think enough—or at least I don’t—about how objects can contain memory. But Murray Bodo’s poem “Sewing Box” shows us how: in this box in which memory is literally contained. Each of the four stanza takes us deeper into the box. At first it’s just “the busy / sewing box I’d organize on visits home.” So it’s a box, we guess, that belonged to the speaker’s mother. In the second stanza, it becomes “a memory chest,” as the speaker recalls his mother’s using it “to mend socks and hearts” after a hard day’s work. At the start of stanza three, the box becomes (alarmingly) “a sepulcher”; evidently the mother has died, and the box remains untouched between the speaker’s visits home, its “spools of thread, / buttons, thimbles, needles, and pins” all “stilled.” Then the final stanza heralds an unexpected discovery: “This year I found a hidden drawer / not noticed before…” The speaker finds in the drawer long-ago objects, including a needle-holder that he “made / for you in fourth grade.” But then the drawer reveals even more unexpected contents: holy cards and other religious aids to prayer. With these, which ends the poem, I see the box sacralized—as at the same time, the entire history of the speaker’s relation to his mother is sacralized as well.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Muddy River

an image of a black and white subway car moving in a soft blur through a subway station.By Jen Pollock Michel.

It was the summer of Leiby Kletzy, the eight-year-old Hasidic boy kidnapped from his Brooklyn neighborhood in broad daylight and brutally murdered. It was also the summer I almost lost my seven-year-old daughter Camille on a Toronto subway platform.

When I turned, from inside the train, to see my daughter—outside, standing alone—my feet became bricks of indecision. The doors chimed and began closing. A stranger jumped to pry them open, and I pulled her inside, smothering her small body to my chest. She didn’t even know our phone number.

Six years later, I am preparing Camille to ride the subway unaccompanied for the first time. Almost thirteen, she is the happy new owner of a cell phone. “You’re going to have to look for the stairs that say “Northbound’ on the way home,” I say, rehearsing the route she will take home alone.

The train rumbles in as we stand several feet behind the thickly painted yellow line that portends the sheer drop onto the tracks. I imagine the accident, the surprise violence that sends us, unprepared, over its edge. [Read more…]

Mysteries Sherlock Holmes Can’t Solve

shot of a person writing in a journal with a pen. the journal is resting on the person's knees and they are sitting on a couch. you can't see their face.“No, you should definitely major in English,” I told our babysitter, a high-school senior from our church who is considering an English or Communications degree. “Fiction is just like faith,” I said, “it’s its own kind of knowledge that makes our lives richer.”

I really believe that, though I have to renew my conviction from time to time. I also believe faith is a kind of fiction. The kind that apprehends necessary truths. Not the truths we call science or philosophy, but the truths we call mysteries.

Growing up, mystery meant Sherlock Holmes and The Hardy Boys. It meant a problem of insufficient information, a puzzle of the material world that required careful reasoning and a little courage to sort out.

The Hardy Boys solved pretty ordinary problems, though. They were adventures as much as mysteries. In Sherlock Holmes, by contrast, mystery took on a cosmic significance.

Holmes’s ability to reason in linear fashion from observation to conclusion indicates his mastery of the basic machinations of the world. The largest mystery, in many ways, has been solved for him. He may have moments of reflection on the tragedy of misplaced love or foolish ambition, but he lives in a more or less mechanical world whose workings can be known and understood.

I used to love the clarity with which Holmes sees the world. I loved the precision with which a sign leads to an inevitable conclusion. A dirty hat means a problem with the wife. A man’s abnormal interest in geese means he’s a jewel thief.

This is a reassuring view of the world, and I was drawn to it because I never experienced the world as so certain, myself. I still do. The world is made, perhaps, for those who feel confident they understand it, and not so much for me. [Read more…]