A Prayer for Kendrick Lamar

It occurs to me each time I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s new album, Damn: The award winning and much celebrated rapper laments over and over that he feels like nobody’s praying for him. It’s his greatest fear.

I’m not sure you can listen casually to a Lamar album. Each song demands attention to every word. Each song puts you on edge: Which of Lamar’s personas or characters will speak next? At the sound of Lamar’s anxious voice, we become anxious for some resolution.  It is no time to relax. Too much is at stake. He bends the past, with all of its scars and regrets, and the future, with all of its hopes and fears, into the present. The moment of decision is always at hand.

Lamar guides us along his wayfaring path where confronting his fearfulness shapes a fearsome faith. He shepherds us, trying to “find a way to make it on this earth.” You could say that “Kung Fu Kenny”—Lamar’s new persona—recognizes and seizes life’s opportune moments when he is threatened from both within and without. The problem is Damn provides no easy way. [Read more…]

Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium in Paradise

By Adam Tyler Horn
When Dante finally sees Beatrice near the end of the Purgatorio, he quotes Virgil’s Aeneid in the presence of his guide, Virgil himself. “I know the signs of that ancient flame,” he exclaims, transforming Dido’s doomed hailing of Aeneas into a renewed celebration of Beatrice as Beatitude, as icon of God instead of fetishized lost love-object.

But when he turns to look for Virgil, Virgil is gone.

I remember reading the Purgatorio for the first time one summer at Jesus College, Cambridge. I spent most of those months either sitting on a bench by the river reading Dante or walking around town listening to Sufjan Stevens. The two blurred together; the finger picked outro to Stevens’ 2010 album, The Age of Adz, felt especially like Dante to me: longing-drenched, somehow beckoning beyond itself. Stevens has always had the trick of transcendence.

The more I listened, the more I heard Adz as an Inferno for 2010. Vague romantic obsession and fear of death abound; Stevens’ “impossible soul” is felt as some kind of ghost in a machine, cause for anxiety rather than for celebration. “I’m suffering in touching ordinary bodies,” he confesses. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Key”

I love this poem for its exuberance. The fat bee, “big as a blackberry,” bumping heavily against the pane. The impossibility of an acorn’s power. The very idea of “infant waterfalls.” Each vivid, particular thing of beauty from the natural world that Friman presents to us bears itself simply and humbly– yet appears remarkable when dressed in Friman’s carefully chosen verbs. There are few poems about happiness that demand my attention in quite this way (Malena Morling’s “Happiness” is one), and I think the secret is in those verbs and images, how they strike against the page like bells. I also love how the quiet, hopeful little word “happy” is tucked away in the middle of the poem, as if the speaker is a little embarrassed to even mention this desire, so certain that the ability to be happy should just come naturally. Should not even be thought of as an ability, in fact, but ought to be her way of being in the world. “To wake/ each day having to slog through scales.” Is there any better description of what it means to be human? So much a part of the natural world, and altogether something else, too. 

—Melissa Poulin [Read more…]

Epiphany in the Memory Unit

Image of a profile of a person's face with light illuminating the cheeks and forehead, the face is shrouded by a round blurry object in the foreground.By Cameron Dezen Hammon.

The priest’s wife handed me her half full can of beer. It was Christmastime, and the beer she was offering was a Texas IPA, sweating seductively on the table between us. I brought the can to my lips and the slightly bitter taste of the half-warm beer filled me with relief.

I needed a drink. It was 7 p.m., and I’d arrived late. We would be heading out to sing carols at the Alzheimer’s unit of a local nursing home, a well-appointed facility near the neighborhood in Houston where I am a music minister and where the priest’s wife’s husband is rector.

The nursing home smelled faintly of Clorox and overcooked vegetables—as I suppose all nursing homes do—but I had been unprepared for the regret that hit me with that smell. [Read more…]

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…]