In Appreciation of “Staying Power”

In Appreciation of “Staying Power” August 5, 2010

Tomorrow I will post our new poem for the month of August. But before doing so, I feel it’s time to give “Staying Power,” our poem for June and July (it was a hard one to learn!) a proper send off.

In our short time of memorizing poetry together, I’ve never had such a response to a poem in the sidebar. The day I posted it in June was one of my highest blog traffic days yet. It’s a poem that demands an emotional response and that’s what I love most about what “Staying Power” has done to me and for me.

Memorizing a poem, as I’m learning, is an investment that seems to carry over into the rest of life. There are so many images in “Staying Power” that have continued resonating in my daily life.  Walker’s image of God’s silence (or perhaps the speaker’s own doubt?) as a “metal sky” has been powerful (especially with the two months of gray sky we’ve known here in San Francisco). The sky has always represented the space between us and our notion of God (the heavens). That’s why worshippers lift their hands up, why little kids wonder if God lives in the clouds. When I imagine the sky suddenly sealing itself and bolting the door, I get really, really claustrophobic. I don’t like to think about it for long.

Another image that resonates? The speaker’s command to grab “any language by the scruff of its neck” is fascinating to me. Who comes up with that? To imagine all language as a semi-domesticated puppy that can’t help but “toddle back into the godfire” no matter where it is placed in the world is profound. I think it’s true. No matter what we do as a society to master religion, to master our own need (or lack of need) for God, poets and artists and storytellers will always come back to the existential: Why are we here? Who are we? Where did we come from? Is there a God?

We can only domesticate language as much as we can teach our puppy to poop outside. Sometimes a dog is a dog.

Here’s something else I love about this poem. Walker spends all this time on the metaphor that God is fire and then, almost at the end of the poem, scraps that. She admits to all metaphors’ failure to fully embody the subject matter. So she goes for the next best thing: a phone. What? A phone. I love that. I love that she has been so earthy in her descriptions of God. She’s been talking about God through nature: the sky, the element of fire, and now she compares God to something human made, something lifeless, a machine.

But what she does with that phone holds the most power over me in this poem. The phone suddenly becomes my phone. It suddenly becomes the antidote to the problem of nature: The sky’s power is too much for me to comprehend. Fire burns out of my control. But a phone? I can hold it. I can own it. I have my own individual number. Maybe the metal sky has made me angry. Maybe it has overwhelmed me and trapped me. Maybe I want nothing to do with the blazing fire that I fear will consume me and my life. But there’s a phone.

…You know you didn’t order a phone,

but there it is.  It rings.  You don’t know who it could be.

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out

the plug.  It rings.  You smash it with a hammer

till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up

metal bits.  It rings again…

Up till this point, the poem has been operating at a distance. Suddenly, I am involved in the story. “You” is me. And I don’t want to talk. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever I do, no matter how I claw at that machine and pound it on the table, the voice on the other end will not give up.

And Walker reminds us that the voice on the other end won’t give up because of love. But it’s not necessarily God’s voice that loves me (though, I think it’s implied). It’s me who is doing the loving. It’s an awakening that all along, despite the metal sky, despite the questioning, the angry stance, I’ve been in love with God.

That’s why I’m constantly moved by this poem. God the persona is reckless, persistent, and mysterious. But maybe that’s not the most surprising news in the story. Maybe I’m most surprised that I’m in love with the voice on the other line.

Over and over and over, I’m in love with the voice on the other line.

If you memorized or even just adored this poem from afar, I’d love to know what you think about it as well…

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