Archive for July, 2009

Outside the hotel window, unenlightened pigeons
weave and dive like Stukas on their prey,
apparently some tiny insect brother.
(In India, the attainment of nonviolence
is considered a proper goal for human beings.)
If one of the pigeons should fly into the illusion

of my window and survive (the body is no illusion
when it’s hurt) he could be taken across town to the bird
hospital where Jains, skilled medical men,
repair the feathery sick and broken victims.
There, in reproof of violence
and of nothing else, live Mahavira’s brothers and sisters.

To this small, gentle order of monks and nuns
it is bright Vishnu and dark Shiva who are illusion.
They trust in faith, cognition, and nonviolence
to release them from rebirth. They think that birds
and animals—like us, some predators, some prey—
should be ministered to no less than men and women.

The Jains who deal with creatures (and with laymen)
wear white, while their more enterprising hermit brothers
walk naked and are called the sky-clad. Jains pray
to no deity, human kindness being their sole illusion.
Mahavira and those twenty-three other airy creatures
who turned to saints with him, preached the doctrine of ahimsa,

which in our belligerent tongue becomes nonviolence.
It’s not a doctrine congenial to snarers and poultrymen,
who every day bring to market maimed pheasants.
Numbers of these are brought in by the Jain brothers
and br ought, to grow back wing-tips and illusions,
to one of the hospitals succoring such small quarry.

When strong and feathered again, the lucky victims
get reborn on Sunday mornings to the world’s violence,
released from the roofs of these temples to illusion.
It is hard for a westerner to speak about men and women
like these, who call the birds of the air brothers.
We recall the embarrassed fanfare for Francis and his flock.

We’re poor forked sky-clad things ourselves
and God knows prey to illusion—e.g., I claim these brothers
and sisters in India, stemming a little violence, among birds.

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The “high heavenly priest of the White Lake” is now
a small mound in an endless plain of grass,
his pendants clicking and pearls shading his eyes.
He never said anything about the life after death
whose body is clothed in the bluegrass and the smoke of dew.

He liked flowers and water most.
Everyone knows the true story of how he would write his verses & float them,
by paper boats, downstream
just to watch them drift away.
Death never entered his poems, but rowed, with its hair down, far out on the lake,
laughing and looking up at the sky.

Over a 1000 years later, I write out one of his lines in a notebook,
the peach blossom follows the moving water,
and watch the October darkness gather against the hills.
All night long the river of heaven will move westward while no one notices.
The distance between the dead and the living
is more than a heartbeat and a breath.

Charles Wright
in The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry

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” When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

from “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

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Recently, I wrote a book review for Columbia University Press. In return for this, the press gave me my choice of a select number of books from their current list. One of the books I chose was Invisible Light: Poems about God edited by Diana Culbertson. Last night, the book arrived, and I read this poem:

“The Mystery” by Ralph Hodgson

He came and took me by the hand
up to a red rose tree,
He kept His meaning to Himself
but gave a rose to me.

I did not pray Him to lay bare
the mystery to me,
enough the rose was Heaven to smell,
and His own face to see.

This poem, short, poignant, and lovely, reminds me of the fairy-tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” A rose is a symbol of love and life.

I read another poem last night as well:

“Night” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Silence, and whirling worlds afar
through all in circling skies.
What floods come o’er the spirit’s bar,
what wondrous thoughts arise.

The earth, a mantle falls away,
and, winged, we leave the sod;
where shines in its eternal sway
the majesty of God.

I love the astronomy of this poem and the way the spirituality of it is woven into the stars. I was reminded of something my friend Wendy recently read to me by Frederick Buechner from his memoir. In one particular moment, he imagines himself having a conversation with his grandmother, a woman who passed away years ago. To explain how she died, she simply says to Frederick that the world slowed down so much that she could finally step off of it. I thought that was an interesting picture.

The collection edited by Diana Culbertson is divided into two sections. The first part contains poems written as if from God’s perspective: from Him to us. The second part contains poems written from the poets’ perspectives: from us to Him – prayers, essentially. Some of the prayers wonder aloud about God, about who He is and why He does what He does and whether or not He is lonely. Other poems, including one from the book of Job, express great awe in the face of the Creator-God.

I am enjoying this collection of poems, and I think others would, too.

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When I was a white boy
with the skinny legs and pointy elbows,
I watched them dance the punta.
The early drums in distinct, one with the waves
that steal kisses from the shore.
Always the woman first, eyes closed
and head swaying: left then right
like a green culebra until she swallows
the music, takes it into herself and it takes her
hips. The tambores obeying her
gyrations, circling each other like buzzards
and climbing the air to desperation.
Then a man: wide-eyed, hungry,
the braids in his face and him not caring.
The music soaring to a frenzy
and the womanhips saying youcan’thaveit.
And the people howling and hooting
because they know that this is true,
but this is always the way
with a man and a woman.

Peter Strand
from Kodon (fall 2008)

Commentary: Garífunas are a people from Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The punta is a dance. A culebra is a snake; tambores are drummers.

Peter Strand was my student as a freshman at Wheaton College, and I will never forget how he reenacted the the lover-transformed-into-a-hawk from Marie de France’s “Lai of Yonec” in our class!

This poem was published in Kodon last fall. It reminds me of what an extraordinarily sensitive young man Peter is – and what a talented poet aware of all the riches of our senses!

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When a man starts out with nothing,
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart-
The strength there,
The will there to build.

First in the heart is the dream-
Then the mind starts seeking a way.
His eyes look out on the world,
On the great wooded world,
On the rich soil of the world,
On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,
See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.
The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.
The hand seeks tools to cut the wood,
To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
A community of hands to help-
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

A long time ago, but not too long ago,
Ships came from across the sea
Bringing the Pilgrims and prayer-makers,
Adventurers and booty seekers,
Free men and indentured servants,
Slave men and slave masters, all new-
To a new world, America!

With billowing sails the galleons came
Bringing men and dreams, women and dreams.
In little bands together,
Heart reaching out to heart,
Hand reaching out to hand,
They began to build our land.
Some were free hands
Seeking a greater freedom,
Some were indentured hands
Hoping to find their freedom,
Some were slave hands
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
But the word was there always:

Down into the earth went the plow
In the free hands and the slave hands,
In indentured hands and adventurous hands,
Turning the rich soil went the plow in many hands
That planted and harvested the food that fed
And the cotton that clothed America.
Clang against the trees went the ax into many hands
That hewed and shaped the rooftops of America.
Splash into the rivers and the seas went the boat-hulls
That moved and transported America.
Crack went the whips that drove the horses
Across the plains of America.
Free hands and slave hands,
Indentured hands, adventurous hands,
White hands and black hands
Held the plow handles,
Ax handles, hammer handles,
Launched the boats and whipped the horses
That fed and housed and moved America.
Thus together through labor,
All these hands made America.

Labor! Out of labor came villages
And the towns that grew cities.
Labor! Out of labor came the rowboats
And the sailboats and the steamboats,
Came the wagons, and the coaches,
Covered wagons, stage coaches,
Out of labor came the factories,
Came the foundries, came the railroads.
Came the marts and markets, shops and stores,
Came the mighty products moulded, manufactured,
Sold in shops, piled in warehouses,
Shipped the wide world over:
Out of labor-white hands and black hands-
Came the dream, the strength, the will,
And the way to build America.
Now it is Me here, and You there.
Now it’s Manhattan, Chicago,
Seattle, New Orleans,
Boston and El Paso-
Now it’s the U.S.A.

A long time ago, but not too long ago, a man said:
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then,
But in their hearts the slaves believed him, too,
And silently too for granted
That what he said was also meant for them.
It was a long time ago,
But not so long ago at that, Lincoln said:
There were slaves then, too,
But in their hearts the slaves knew
What he said must be meant for every human being-
Else it had no meaning for anyone.
Then a man said:
He was a colored man who had been a slave
But had run away to freedom.
And the slaves knew
What Frederick Douglass said was true.

With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Negroes died.
John Brown was hung.
Before the Civil War, days were dark,
And nobody knew for sure
When freedom would triumph
“Or if it would,” thought some.
But others new it had to triumph.
In those dark days of slavery,
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
The slaves made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
That song meant just what it said: Hold On!
Freedom will come!
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
Out of war it came, bloody and terrible!
But it came!
Some there were, as always,
Who doubted that the war would end right,
That the slaves would be free,
Or that the union would stand,
But now we know how it all came out.
Out of the darkest days for people and a nation,
We know now how it came out.
There was light when the battle clouds rolled away.
There was a great wooded land,
And men united as a nation.

America is a dream.
The poet says it was promises.
The people say it is promises-that will come true.
The people do not always say things out loud,
Nor write them down on paper.
The people often hold
Great thoughts in their deepest hearts
And sometimes only blunderingly express them,
Haltingly and stumblingly say them,
And faultily put them into practice.
The people do not always understand each other.
But there is, somewhere there,
Always the trying to understand,
And the trying to say,
“You are a man. Together we are building our land.”

Land created in common,
Dream nourished in common,
Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!
If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder!
If the fight is not yet won,
Don’t be weary, soldier!
The plan and the pattern is here,
Woven from the beginning
Into the warp and woof of America:
Who said those things? Americans!
Who owns those words? America!
Who is America? You, me!
We are America!
To the enemy who would conquer us from without,
We say, NO!
To the enemy who would divide
And conquer us from within,
We say, NO!
To all the enemies of these great words:
We say, NO!

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.

Langston Hughes

Commentary: Happy 4th of July!! Here are beautiful words with a deep meaning:

“The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.”

I am so thankful to be free.

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