Everyday Poems #20, “With Lassos Folded”

radnoti

What is so staggering about the poems Miklos Radnoti is not just the clear-sightedness of them but the context. I love/hate the story of his wife finding his final poems. He had been a prisoner of WWII in Hungary. Though a Christian, he was still a Jew by birth, his wife and he converting later. He was shot in Hungary on a “Forced March” and buried in November of 1944. When his wife had him dug up after the war, she found some poems in hi clothes.

miklos and wife

Even translated his words are powerful:

I write, what else can I do. How dangerous a poem is – if you only knew – a line, however delicate, whimsical: there’s courage in these also, do you see?

He’s right, you know. There can be danger, I suppose. Plato wanted to banish the poets from the ideal republic. The poets were valued there, though. In the modern day west, Beyonce and Kenny Chesney are valued. And whatever those songs are, they are not in the country of poetry.

The dangerous poetry is the kind that looks at the world and see things as they are. At least more so than the average person walking around. A veil is lifted. And those who grasp at money and control prefer the veil. They want to hold onto…well everything.


“With Lassos Folded”

With lassos folded
and placed in your account,
they will break you.
Like the horse watched
from the fence
by onlookers with hats tipped.
Them whooping –
you frothing,
sweating,
missing the green pastures of yearlings

Everyday Poems #19, “The White-Knuckle Grieving”

donald_hall_jane_kenyon_1993

When my brother called to tell me Mom had been rushed to the ER, I could hear it in his voice. We were watching a Cardinals game, I think. And while I was glad my mom went on ahead of us and was with Dad, it was sad to know she was alone when she took that last breath. Of course, to say she was alone is to deny the reality in which she had daily walked. We are never alone.

My brothers and I and my Aunt sat around my mom’s cancer-racked body in the ER. They gave us some space. We laughed and we cried and prayed. No parents any longer. I remember looking forward to sleep but not looking forward to waking up.

Jane Kenyon is one of my favorite poets. I do not know if I have read a poem of hers I did not like. She is far too often known as the wife of Donald Hall, another of my favorites. And she also died far too soon of cancer. I’d like to include one of her poems here because it’s honest and sad and beautiful all at the same time. And everyone has been through something that colors the most ordinary events.

The Sick Wife

The sick wife stayed in the car
while he bought a few groceries.
Not yet fifty,
she had learned what it’s like
not to be able to button a button.

It was the middle of the day—
and so only mothers with small children
and retired couples
stepped through the muddy parking lot.

Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers
in the cars of the prosperous.
How easily they moved—
with such freedom,
even the old and relatively infirm.

The windows began to steam up.
The cars on either side of her
pulled away so briskly
that it made her sick at heart.


The White-Knuckle Grieving

It is true, joy comes with morning.
But more often than not, years later –
after the soul’s dark night mourning –
after the years level-best thieving –
after the white-knuckle grieving.

Everyday Poems #18, “With A Few Clicks”

larkin

“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” – Philip Larkin

Of course, what Larkin meant was that inspiration came from being deprived of something desired. And poets, time out of mind, agree. Larkin, like many 20th century poets was a jazz music fan and critic, which I think you can hear in his poems. He also eschewed fame and did not enjoy it. He even saw that as a deprivation.

In “Aubade” he contemplates the inevitability of death and how everyone must face it. It’s a dour piece of writing but then at the end, he points out more often than not, the ordinary requirements of our work rouse us from such thoughts –

“Work has to be done.”

 

Five or six years ago I was working as a banker. I was the guy who put in loan applications and opened checking accounts. I was not a great banker, at least not at first. I got in trouble a lot for not selling enough financial products.

At one point, those of us who were not selling enough credit cards had to go to a remedial credit card class, in which nothing was remembered except one thing. There was one young man who was very good at selling credit cards. And his “trick” was to call up customers, who had introductory offers, under the guise of just checking in on them. Then he would exclaim, “Oh wow!” and exclaim to them what the offer was.

We had to practice doing that “Oh wow.”

The bank was not always dark. But there was enough soul-destroying moments that I often found myself searching for poems online during work, just to catch my breath. I always felt like it was my own private rebellion. I knew they would not approve. But I would search for one like living water. Often I would print them out and hang it on a cork board to the right of my monitor.

The irony is, by the time I left the branch, I was becoming very successful by not doing what they wanted and by simply being honest.

I never did the “Oh wow” thing.


With A Few Clicks

With a few clicks you built a canal
for your wandering bark,
with unfurled sail. To wonder in
another stream altogether –
away from the stagnant pool
of numbers and bottom lines,
ties and a crease on the leg –
to that land where Heaney reigns
and Auden jests and Berry rails –
where Bradstreet’s lines are fixed
like Eliot’s point. What water
to dive in and swim on through!
But first the dark and dank
of the tepid pool shaken off.

Everyday Poems #17, “Joy?”

dylan thomas

“These poems, with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of man and in Praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.”       
– Dylan Thomas

Amidst all the funny memes and lists and posts of Bible verses, I am assuming there is a lot of disappointment out there. Lots of cancelled plans. Life coming to an almost complete standstill. You can only binge-watch so much to hold back the emotional tide of loss. Laughter can help, but before long it feels like a band-aid on a growing tumor.

Dylan Thomas said poetry “makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

With a wink he points out that poems – like songs – remind us that in our unique suffering we are not alone. It is ours, yes. But by force of logic, the poet has captured what we have felt and known. “I know that feeling!” We realize the poet has seen what we have seen before we could. The same light dawned on them.


Joy?

There is much to be had.
This is why the debris field
of broken glass hopes
is so hard to walk over.

We see in those shards –
ought to have been.
Could have been.
But are not.

And so a dream unfulfilled here,
a failure there,
and life cut short
right there at your feet.

You’d kick at the pieces in anger,
but for a shining glint
when the light turns just right
on jagged edges.

If there can be dancing
in a valley of dry bones,
then all these too
can now be made new.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

fears

1. The world markets fear. It trades in anxiety. The world wants you to worry. But the King says, “Don’t be afraid.” Furnish the home of your mind and heart with passages that remind you to not be afraid. Arrange the rooms of your soul with passages and stories of God’s provision and protection. Fill your life with reminders that the unseen realities are the highest realities so that you will be content and have confidence in your King.

2. I used to not understand David in the Psalms when he would talk about how much he loved the law. Made no sense to me. I did not love the law like he did. But Willard helped me see something I had not been able to see – the law is the path toward the best life possible. Obeying the commandments of our God requires faith that he knows what he is talking about. I had no problem with placing my confidence in him for the afterlife. But I did not have much confidence in him for this life.

3.  If grace is not the modus operandi, it’s not a ministry, it’s a business and grace is just marketing.

4.  I love being isolated with my family.

5. The only political perspective that is helpful and needed during this global event is that we have a King and a kingdom. This is also true during the normal times.

6. In the midst of a harder situation for believers, Peter says, “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.”

7.  (Laying out in the yard listening to Bob Dylan with my son, Dylan)

Dylan (11): Do you like this Bob Dylan song more than “Where I Belong?”

Me: Nothing is better than “Where I Belong” buddy.

8. Sometimes confidence in God will look like to others you are not taking a situation seriously.

9. Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Lean into that.

10. Everyday Poem #16, “While Everyone Else Was At Work”

While everyone else was at work
I reclined in a hammock
under the towering oak
that stands
like God in full glory and majesty
and which we know
could fall on us at any moment.

But I drank red wine
from a mason jar and
read Donald Hall poems, as birds
sang or talked, I couldn’t tell.

In early April you can smell
the privet and cut grass
(and red wine too)
if everyone else is as work.

 

Everyday Poems #15, “A Will For When I Am Dying, But Not Yet Dead”

billie-holiday-9341902-1-402

I must’ve been thinking of my parents when they were dying when I wrote the following. My dad in a hospital room. My mom in a sad room – facility where they did some therapy but had all the trappings of a nursing home. Hospital rooms can be sad. But nursing homes are almost always so by default. At least that place where my mom was.

And every room had a TV on all the time. As if that machine was as important or more important than the ones helping them breathe and get up. We had to go get a wheelchair. But the TV was always present. And I felt like it was a poison no one else could taste any longer.

Carl Sandburg said, “Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” I have found that poetry happens when either I do not understand or am not understood. And even when I understand but cannot get anyone else to.


A Will For When I Am Dying, But Not Yet Dead

Whatever you do,
do not
sit me in front of a television.
Banish the screens.
Kill my television
and play for me
the B Minor Mass
and the Intermezzo.
Let them only be interrupted
by the voice of Billie Holiday,
lest I die before I’m dead.

Everyday Poems #14, “Have You Ever Not Feared?”

Eugene-Peterson

I’ve got a sermon to work on so not much writing for today. But I do keep coming back to Wallace Stevens’ idea of the poet being “the priest of the unseen.” And I wonder if Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite writers, knew that quote and had it in mind when he asked, “Isn’t it interesting that all of the biblical prophets and psalmists were poets?”

If Stevens is right and Peterson is right, then maybe pastors and teachers within the church would do well to ignore the business leader manuals and marketing strategies – at least for a while – and listen to Hopkins and Dickinson, Berry and Radnoti.

Just a thought.


Have You Ever Not Feared?

Have you ever not feared?
To stand there in all that mercy,
if only for that split second
with nothing to fear, is heaven itself.

Everyday Poems #14, “Willie Nelson’s Guitar”

WillieNelson_TriggerFB2.658e65f41aebcd149041b12da7c1972d

Some of my earliest memories are of vacations with my parents, either to stay at that house right behind the Thomas Donut Shop in Panama City Beach or to stay with my Aunt and Uncle up in Gatlinburg. They owned an auto parts store in town.

On those trips, we listened to Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond and Willie Nelson. “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” moved me even as a kid. Old country songs remind me often of some of the best things about good poetry and often veer into the country of poetry. They talk about normal things and help you see them differently.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote “Ozymandias” – which we all had to read at some point – said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

I like that quote. Most people appreciate a poem every now and then if only for that reason. It helps us see beauty in something we might have missed. Poetry helps us with perspective. A poem’s value might be gauged by how well it changes the way we see something we already knew was there but did not see it for what it was.

Like a beat up guitar.


Willie Nelson’s Guitar

It’s hard to write a poem
about Willie Nelson’s guitar.
It’s not like flowers and starlit nights
or my wife’s curves and smiles.

No, his guitar is beaten up
and has a hole in the wrong place.
It’s covered in scratches and
looks like it’s been around forever.

It’s not like the beautiful body
I saw hanging in a store once –
perfect red, and silver shown –
I can’t even play, much less own.

It’s ugly and brown and black
and looks like it could fall apart
but really nothing sounds better
than Willie Nelson’s guitar.

Everyday Poems #13, “This Morning I Did Not Clock In.”

heaney

On the day Seamus Heaney died, I went to the library to find a volume of his poems, of which they had none. So then I went to the used bookstore down the street and joyfully found his collection, Seeing Things.

I think it’s the first poem of that collection in which he writes, “A 9 to 5 man, who knows poetry.” Now I did not yet understand that poem but I was a 9 – 5 man struggling as a banker and poetry was a way of grasping at beauty in a world in which only numbers and profit ruled. Since then I have learned the line may be a sly criticism of a particular person. But no matter.

Heaney’s poetry has always had this ancient and modern sound in my ears. Ancient, probably because he grew up outside of Belfast on a farm that was in his own words, “medieval.” But Modern, because his poetry became popular in a world of modern machines and modern ideas about the world.

He is intensely likable. I have listened to every podcast multiple times in which he is featured. And one of my favorite books, Stepping Stones, is just one long interview and that kindness is on every page.

One of things I like about his poetry is the lack of cleverness. Now, I like a clever poem. But his are never that. They shoot straight, even the ones that take a few readings to get your head around.

Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it. – Seamus Heaney

He is from Belfast. So you must expect a beautiful sadness behind whatever he writes. Below is my favorite poem of his. I do not have a lot of complete poems memorized, but this one I have and will keep. It is one of the poems that hung like a beacon in my last cubicle at my last job at the bank.

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

I can remember the joy of driving into work on my first day as a teacher after leaving the bank. Little did I know I would be working with people who knew the work of Seamus Heaney and prized it. They also knew the work of Mozart and could discuss it. This would be a new and beautiful world. A world I miss.


This Morning I Did Not Clock In.

Instead,
I listened to the Clarinet Concerto
and drove under cobalt blue skies.
I also thought about Seamus Heaney
and those lines,

“Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.”

By then the duet of Susanna and Constance
in that scene when Andy
locks all the doors
and turns on the intercom
and they can all hear the beauty
taking over the morning.
During all this,
my desk sat empty.

I guessed all my poems
were taken down from
those short dead gray
walls, never read,
and thrown away.

But the sky hung blue
and I could only listen
with all the joy I knew.
Also, I did not clock in.

Everyday Poems #12, “This Is the Day”

monday

I hated Mondays slightly more than other days when I worked at the bank. They were always frantic and everyone was running around and the more some ran around frantic, the more others did too. You’ve seen it, too.

But it wasn’t just the bank. Everywhere seemed to burst into a frenzy after the weekend. And I did not like it. But I was always trying to get perspective. At least I had a job. We never missed a meal. And you’ve felt that, also.

We were healthy.

While we lived in Greenwood, Lori, a friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer. I remember that on one particular eventful day – maybe the day of surgery, I cannot remember exactly but I do remember that it was a day that held the possibility of dread and fear – she woke up, sat up in bed and quoted from Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

“Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” – Salvatore Quasimodo

That took something, I have always wanted. On hard days, Bethany and I quote this to each other. Keep in mind that what we call a “verse” is a line from an ancient poem written by someone from a very different culture. And yet what he wrote we all “get.” We want to look at even the hard days and see them as something to rejoice. We get that. If poetry does anything well, it has the ability to reflect back what we recognize within us and sometimes around us.

The following poem is a result of Lori’s confidence and my desire to acquire that confidence.


 

“This is the day”

You have made –
a Monday –
a day of full inboxes
and frantic bosses –
and car repairs
we cannot afford
regardless of cost –
a day with a child’s fever
and sales goals –
a day of projects rushed
and turned into teacher –
a day of prayer for mercy
and simple graces –
a day to rejoice in –
a day he has made
and I’ll be glad in it –

at least I’ll try.