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Archive for February, 2008

Then it was spring and I was inexplicably happy.
I knew where I was: on Broadway with my bag of groceries.
Spring fruit in the stores: first
cherries at Formaggio. Forsythia
beginning.

First I was at peace.
Then I was contented, satisfied.
And then flashes of joy.
And the season changed–for all of us,
of course.

And as I peered out my mind grew sharper.
And I remember accurately
the sequence of my responses,
my eyes fixing on each thing
from the shelter of the hidden self:

first, I love it.
Then, I can use it.

Louise Glück
from Vita Nova (1999)

Commentary: I want it to be spring because it has been winter for a long time here where I live, in a town outside of a city with a pink fountain … Today, the temperature was above freezing, and the snow began to melt. The forecast for tomorrow says it will be cold. But I am keeping my eyes open for spring. It could come early.

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I believe that Amy Tan’s book, The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), may be her most autobiographical novel yet. It is so close to the bone–the bone of memory.

When I read it, I clearly heard exact echoes of conversations and events Amy Tan recorded in her autobiographical “musings,” as she calls them, the essays in The Opposite of Fate (2003).

The Bonesetter’s Daughter is about three generations of women. Ruth Young is forty-six, in a ten-year live-in relationship with her Jewish boyfriend, Art, who has two daughters, Dory and Sophia, from a previous relationship with a woman named Mirriam. (The names alone speak volumes. Ruth’s name comes from the Bible; Art is a muse. Sopia means “wisdom”; Mirriam means “bitter.”) Ruth’s mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and struggles with her memory–but she always has. And her past is full of secrets and complications that Ruth begins to discover … including a mother, Ruth’s grandmother, who committed suicide in China years before.

The story is so much more than the plot, of course. It’s about memory, about writing, about the relationships between the living and the dead. It’s about ghosts. It’s about names, forgetting them and then remembering them again. Christianity is there, trudging along, because Ruth’s grandfather was a Christian … just like Amy Tan’s father and grandfather were.

The book holds in its pages a lot of pain: the pain of loss, of death, of guilt. The pain that hurt me the most to read was a memory Ruth Young had of how she was sexually abused by a neighbor when she was eleven. And I wonder if something like this happened to Amy Tan.

One of the most beautiful parts of the story, for me, is when Kai Jing is telling LuLing, who will be Ruth’s mother, how he loves her. He shows her a little book with brush paintings on mulberry paper called “The Four Manifestations of Beauty.” LuLing, as narrator, says, because they are teachers, “Anyone who overheard us would have thought we were speaking of school lessons. But really, he was speaking of love.” Then he shows her the four manifestations, which are called competent, magnificent, divine, and … effortless.

I believe this is a beautiful book, an important book, a literary book. It is clearly situated in the historical context of each generation it describes. For that and other reasons, it is a story that must be read.

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Like a gondola of green scented fruits
Drifting along the dark canals of Venice,
You, O exquisite one,
Have entered into my desolate city.

The blue smoke leaps
Like swirling clouds of birds vanishing;
So my love leaps forth toward you,
Vanishes and is renewed.

A rose-yellow moon in a pale sky
When the sunset is faint vermillion
In the mist among the tree-boughs
Art thou to me, my beloved.

A young beech tree on the edge of the forest
Stands still in the evening,
Yet shudders through all its leaves in the light air
And seems to fear the stars–
So are you still and so tremble.

The red deer are high on the mountain,
They are beyond the last pine-trees,
And my desires have run with them.

The flower which the wind has shaken
Is soon filled again with rain;
So does my heart fill slowly with tears
Until you return.

Richard Aldington (1892-1962)

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Poets read. They write poetry, yes, but they also read poetry … and lots of other things. To write well, I believe, it is important to read well.

I read a lot, but the reading I do doesn’t always count, in my own estimation, because I am reading to help students learn how to write or I am reading to write an academic paper or I am reading to write a sermon or a lecture or a presentation. I guess these kinds of reading should count.

It certainly matters that I spend a lot of time reading essays my students write about their choices and identities, their families’ oral histories, and the wild geographies they want to explore. It matters that I read literary criticism about medieval poetry, especially, lately about the fourteenth-century poem, “Pearl.” And it matters that I am reading about the Samaritan woman in John 4 since I am preparing to preach a sermon in two weeks at Church of the Savior about her encounter with Jesus.

But I am reading all of those things for work.

I can remember, years ago, that I used to read books because I wanted to do so, intensely, almost irresistably. I read for the pleasure of reading. And reading was a great personal pleasure of mine.

I remember talking with my aunt Cheryl when she was in graduate school, and she told me she didn’t have time to read the fantasy books I was recommending because she was too busy reading about anthropology. She said if I went to graduate school, this would happen to me, too. I didn’t believe her. But some things are true whether we believe them or not, and her prediction did come to pass.

So it is a wonderful thing, now, to read things because I want to read them and not because they serve any immediate purpose related to some work I am planning to do. I read Lauren Winner’s memoir of her conversion, Girl Meets God, this way just this week. I loved the book.

I’m very interested in memoir in general and in conversion stories in particular. In terms of modern memoir, I like James McBride’s Color of Water and Louis Owens’ I Hear the Train and Vickie Smith Foston’s Victoria’s Secret. I love spiritual autobiography from the Middle Ages, like Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Vita Nova and Divine Comedy, Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love, and The Book of Margery Kempe.

And as for conversion stories … I often think of the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road and Saint Augustine in the garden reading Romans and the Emperor Constantine before the Battle of Milvian Bridge who beheld a vision of the Cross, a vision that changed the course of the Roman Empire and the whole world. I think of the Anglo-Saxon King about whom the Venerable Bede wrote, a king who saw a sparrow fly in a window, through his hall, and out another window and realized our life is like that without faith–we don’t know where we came from or where we are going.

Lauren Winner’s book is in these traditions of memoir and conversion testimony. Lauren is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. She was raised as a Jew in the Reformed tradition, and when she grew up, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. Later, she became a Christian, and she joined the Anglican Church.

At the conclusion of her book, she retells a story from the Talmud about Elijah and the rabbi Yehoshua. The rabbi is looking for the Messiah, and Elijah tells him he can find him at the gates of Rome. The rabbi goes and recognizes the Messiah by the fact that he uncovers and binds up leperous wounds one at a time, not all wounds all at once. The rabbi asks the Messiah, “When is the Master coming?” The Messiah replies, “Today.” When the rabbi returns to Elijah, Elijah asks him, “What did he say to you?” The rabbi says, “He lied to me. He said he would come today, and he has not come.” Then Elijah said, “He meant, today, if you would only listen to his voice.”

Lauren’s is a powerful story, and I recommend it.

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One Saturday morning he went to the river to play.
He molded twelve sparrows out of the river clay

And scooped a clear pond, with a dam of twigs and mud.
Around the pond he set the birds he had made,

Evenly as the hours. Jesus was five. He smiled,
As a child would who had made a little world

Of clear still water and clay beside a river.
But a certain Jew came by, a friend of his father,

And he scolded the child and ran at once to Joseph,
Saying, “Come see how your child has profaned the Sabbath,

Making images at the river on the Day of Rest.”
So Joseph came to the place and took his wrist

And told him, “Child, you have offended the Word.”
Then Jesus freed the hand that Joseph held

And clapped his hands and shouted to the birds
To go away. They raised their beaks at his words

And breathed and stirred their feathers and flew away.
The people were frightened. Meanwhile, another boy,

The son of Annas the scribe, had idly taken
A branch of driftwood and leaning against it had broken

The dam and muddied the little pond and scattered
The twigs and stones. Then Jesus was angry and shouted,

“Unrighteous, impious, ignorant, what did the water
Do to harm you? Now you are going to wither

The way a tree does, you shall bear no fruit
And no leaves, you shall wither down to the root.”

At once, the boy was all withered. His parents moaned,
The Jews gasped, Jesus began to leave, then turned

And prophesied, his child’s face wet with tears:
“Twelve times twelve times twelve thousands of years

Before these heavens and this earth were made,
The Creator set a jewel in the throne of God

With Hell on the left and Heaven to the right,
The Sanctuary in front, and behind, an endless night

Endlessly fleeing a Torah written in flame.
And on that jewel in the throne, God wrote my name.”

Then Jesus left and went into Joseph’s house.
The family of the withered one also left the place,

Carrying him home. The Sabbath was nearly over.
By dusk, the Jews were all gone from the river.

Small creatures came from the undergrowth to drink
And foraged in the shadows along the bank.

Alone in his cot in Joseph’s house, the Son
Of Man was crying himself to sleep. The moon

Rose higher, the Jews put out their lights and slept,
And all was calm and as it had been, except

In the agitated household of the scribe Annas,
And high in the dark, where unknown even to Jesus

The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night,
Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight.

Robert Pinsky
from The Want Bone (1990)
and reprinted in The Figured Wheel (1996)

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Welcome

Welcome to the Poetry Place! This is a sanctuary for poets, poetry-lovers, and lovers of poets.

It is so easy to miss the poetry of life because we live in a world that doesn’t always celebrate the creative expression of the human soul. As Anna Akmatova wrote in 1917 in her poem, “Song about Songs”: “It seems that the voice we humans own / Will never sound, never celebrate” (trans. Lyn Coffin).

At the Poetry Place, we want to own our human voices, to sound in the silence, and to celebrate poetry. You are invited to join us!

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