Survivor-Centric Liturgy: An Example from Inclusive Church (UK)

Inclusive Church is a UK-based resource for making the Church of England more welcoming and sensitive to diversity around sexuality, race, class, disability, and mental health. The latter topic caught my attention during my ongoing search for materials for a trauma survivors’ Christian study group. What’s great about Inclusive Church is that they see the disabled and mentally troubled not merely as categories of consumers to be reached with an existing product, nor as objects of Christian charity, but as co-creators of theology from the standpoint of their lived experience. That’s been the goal of my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog as well. It disappoints me that most Christian books recommend using faith to suppress the socially uncomfortable symptoms of trauma, such as anger and rumination on the past, rather than heeding their radical challenge to faith.

This article from the Inclusive Church’s mental health resources page, “The Secret Holders and Bearers”, is by two community mental health chaplains who are willing to take up that challenge. In the portions quoted below, they consider how some standard prayers in the Sunday Eucharist service may reinforce abuse survivors’ distorted sense of themselves as broken and powerless. We need much, much more work like this.

…Are we prepared to be changed, transformed, outraged, and can the secret-holders enable our secrets to be borne more gently, even if they need to remain hidden for a while? Can we bear to hear when the practices and the theologies heard in some churches have not contributed to the empowerment of lives and voices but to their continuing silence? Even where genuine expressions of compassion and pastoral care have embedded the idea of ‘victim’ rather than the radical Gospel idea of partner and co- theological agents?…

…Let’s hear their words and attend afresh to our own and let’s attend to our liturgical language, see again the symbolism and architecture of our services and hear the clamour and the whispers, the invitations and the barriers that inhabit the theology in our liturgy and hymns. I am not saying that the brief account of these liturgical examples are wholly problematic but they are an example of a presently largely cataphatic liturgy with very little liturgy of lamentation and an apophatic perspective that speaks so much of human experience and especially the lived reality of those with long term and abiding mental health issues:

Just some examples from the present Common Worship Order 1 Service for Holy Communion:

Confession Prayer: We have wounded your love and marred your image in us (so many secret holders bear the woundedness that is wholly the responsibility of others and blame themselves throughout their lives and have been forced to blame themselves, lives overwhelmed by guilt. We tentatively suggest that such a statement echoes the feelings they already have about themselves, ‘knowing’ they are wholly unworthy of any kind of love, let alone the love of God).

… Lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light (on the face of it, who could argue with such a sentiment? However it represents a larger problem with the ‘darkness’ imaginary that suffuses Christian liturgy and theology. So many of us, in so many different ways, have found the metaphor of darkness wholly positive and therapeutic and the prospect of light almost unbearable at times. We need to look again at these intimately related metaphors.)

Prayer before Distribution: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs… (We know this is an optional prayer but nevertheless, and because it has been taken wholly out of context from a biblical story which effectively says the opposite, a sense of unworthiness just before we break bread together is, for all of us, and especially for those who live every day with an overwhelming and unbearable sense of unworthiness, wholly unfortunate directly before the gathering at the feast. We are worthy, all of us; we do not have sinful bodies but beautiful bodies and minds. Neither of us, personally, has been able to say these words for a long time because of our own inner battle with a sense of unworthiness imposed upon us by others).

Lenten Reading: “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision”




In Holy Week, which begins next weekend with Palm Sunday, Christians all over the world meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death. Catholics and some Episcopalians enact the liturgical drama of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the events leading up to the crucifixion. There are many ways to find ourselves in this story, a large cast of characters with whom to identify, both guilty and innocent. And sadly, there are many LGBT people who feel crucified by the church itself, cast out and forbidden to imagine a Christ who is for them and of them.

Douglas Blanchard’s 24-painting series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” stretches loving arms across this divide. A new book by Kittredge Cherry (Apocryphile Press, 2014) brings these images together in book form for the first time. Cherry, who curates the Jesus in Love blog about LGBT spirituality and the arts, here gives invaluable in-depth commentary on the paintings’ inspiration and their place in art history. Each chapter includes a prayer to say while contemplating the image, like a Stations of the Cross liturgy. Toby Johnson, formerly of Lethe Press and White Crane Review, closes the book with reflections on new directions in gay spirituality.

This suite of paintings is radical by virtue of its traditionalism. Inspired by 15th-century master Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of the Passion, and visually quoting famous works such as the Isenheim Altarpiece, these paintings boldly situate themselves in the mainstream of Christian iconography. At the same time, Blanchard transforms the meaning of those scenes by placing them in contemporary urban settings that include LGBT characters. The Jesus figure, a clean-shaven, simply dressed, handsome young man, could be (but does not have to be) read as gay. There is no doubt, though, that his followers include people of diverse sexualities, gender identities, ethnicities, and class backgrounds, while the crowds attacking him bear close resemblance to the hellfire-spouting protesters on the fringes of Pride marches.

I found this book very helpful for my own prayer life. I would love to have a stronger heart-level connection with the person of Jesus, but often struggle to connect with the ubiquitous beard-and-bathrobe representation of the Savior, which feels cliché and remote from my experience. I felt a stronger bond with Blanchard’s Jesus, who could be a divinized version of my imaginary gay best friend/novel protagonist, or simply a safe male friend and ally to my queer family. I also loved the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a female angel.

Whether or not I picture Jesus as the man in these paintings, this book gave me permission to imagine “my own personal Jesus” in the way that speaks to my soul. What makes him Christ is not his gender, his archaic clothing, or the straightness and whiteness that Western orthodoxy has attributed to him, but his works of love: speaking truth to power, creating community for outcasts, laying down his life for his friends. By that measure, the Jesus in this book is the real deal.

Get your copy here!

Watch the video “Introduction to the Queer Christ” at the Jesus in Love blog. It includes a selection from Blanchard’s “Passion” and other artists featured in Cherry’s book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

Queering the Tarot: Gender Roles and Diversity

I wrote last month about my new attraction to tarot cards as a source of archetypal images that nurture my intuitive side. My starter guidebook, The Tarot Bible by Sarah Bartlett, works off of the Universal Waite deck, the most mainstream and familiar version of the modern tarot. As I discovered at Namaste Bookshop, there are many fanciful variations featuring dragons, kittens, angels, scantily clad fairies, and other characters that wouldn’t look out of place on a 10-year-old’s diary cover. However, I wanted to begin my studies with the foundational set of symbols. There’s one problem, though:

Who are all these straight white people in my tarot deck?

It’s funny, because tarot seems so transgressive and anti-authoritarian to me as a questioning Christian, but coming from a media literacy/social justice perspective, it looks like a step backward. After all, the Waite deck is a mishmash of multicultural symbols compiled by 19th-century bourgeois Europeans. It makes sense that the deck would be peopled with British storybook knights, ladies, and peasants. Although charming, these illustrations can make me worry that I’ve traded the radicalism of Jesus for a white hipster card game.

The implied gender roles can also be confining. I’m drawn to the cards that combine masculine and feminine energies in one character, such as the female personifications of Strength and Justice, and uncomfortable with cards such as the Empress, which seems to essentialize womanhood as fertility, beauty, and nurturance. These are good qualities, but not ones that I have wanted or been permitted to express for a lot of my life, a mismatch that has made me feel like a failure as a “woman”.

I’m a big fan of queer-identified writer Beth Maiden’s Little Red Tarot website. In an archive post from 2011, “Passivity and Activity – the High Priestess”,  she wrote:

“It’s only laziness that keeps us believing such things [active versus passive] are related to masculinity or femininity. My big bugbear with tarot is when I find it clinging rigidly to silly gender stereotypes, but actually, the more I study and learn, the more I realise tarot itself can totally elude those types of restrictive ideas–it’s only in interpretation that we get taught what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ as a shorthand for the qualities we assign to each.”

Her analysis explores how the two priest figures in the Major Arcana, the High Priestess and the Hierophant, can reverse our gendered expectations:

“By exploring the inner world and dedicating herself to understanding what is ‘behind the veil’, she shows courage, she encourages us to do some seriously hard work. Being quiet and listening to our inner selves does not equal passivity! Meanwhile the Hierophant receives knowledge from books/tradition. It’s not about thinking for yourself with this card–so in what way is this active?”

Now what about those white Disney princesses? A post from 2010 on the Integrative Tarot website questions whether it’s possible to have a multicultural tarot. We mustn’t simply repeat the Eurocentrism of the original tarot creators by appropriating Native American or African cultural symbols, as an overlay on what’s still a fundamentally Western feudal iconography (knight, page, queen, king, swords, etc.). The discussion in the comments is also worthwhile.

The Pagans of Color website recommends some decks with more inclusive imagery, though many of these are not readily available for purchase. The multicultural Daughters of the Moon goddesses deck looks intriguing.

Of course the one I really want is Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano’s Gay Tarot. Perhaps the Hierophant in this deck took Beth’s criticism to heart, since he’s breaking with tradition by officiating at a same-sex wedding!

“Bullies in Love” Book Launch Video

My new poetry collection Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) had a successful book launch party this weekend at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. My collaborator, fine art photographer Toni Pepe, gave a fascinating presentation about her artistic process, inspired by sources as diverse as Old Masters paintings, family snapshots, and Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits.

Please enjoy this 37-minute video of my reading, introduced by Little Red Tree editor Michael Linnard.


My Poetry Book “Bullies in Love” Now Available from Little Red Tree Publishing


My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, with fine art photography by Toni Pepe, has just been published by Little Red Tree Publishing (New London, CT)! Pre-orders available now.

The book launch reading will take place on Saturday, March 7, at 2 PM at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton, MA. Come buy a signed copy and see a slideshow of Toni’s beautiful photos.

American Book Award winner Pamela Uschuk says of this collection: “In her remarkable collection of poems, Bullies in Love, Jendi Reiter has created an complex odditorium of characters with unique and often disturbing voices: poems peopled with bullies, the disenfranchised, monsters, prostitutes, criminals, the abused and forgotten, all searching for meaning, for faith and love in a postmodern, often cynical world.”

Enjoy a sample poem below, inspired by the Young Master. (He took this selfie on Grandma’s phone.)



Son, it is time to begin breaking
your awakeness into wedges of five, twelve, sixty
rotations of pinned hands,
to pace off the sermon, the cartoon, the billable hour.

Why is it not spitting time? Why is the song over?
You pound like CPR on your teddy’s voice chip
till he squeaks again, That’s right,
a circle is round and has no corners.
Of the alphabet, you took to O first,
pointing it out on toothbrushes and tattoos.

Son, it is time to position P and Q
and fork and knife and light and dark washing
in the baskets where we say they belong.
Why is milk white? Why do shoes match?
You want to choose and cry at both choices.
Not that hat. Not that tomato.
Not that story.

Why is the bird lying on the ground? Why isn’t it tomorrow?
I read you the page about Pig Robinson’s aunts:
They lived prosperous uneventful lives, and their end was bacon.
Goodnight loom, goodnight soon.
You whisper to sleep
counting the wallpaper stars
with the only number-words you know:
two-three, two, three.

The Spiritual Gift Shop; or, Living in Syncretism


Ash Wednesday selfie with Buddha outside Namaste Bookshop, NYC.

I spent four days in New York City last week to take Internal Landscapes movement lessons with one of my artistic mentors, the choreographer John Ollom. John’s work invites one to occupy the “liminal space” where mental preconceptions are relinquished and new insights arise from listening to one’s body. He challenges the compartmentalization of sacred and profane, regarding Eros as the undivided source from which flows not only sex but spirituality, art, and interpersonal intimacy.

My visit coincided with Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, when we are encouraged to re-evaluate our lives and renounce obstacles in our journey toward God. Lent can be a time when we shame ourselves and further split off the shadow side of our psyche. Or it can be a hopeful movement into the liminal space where we have to trust God more than our ideas about God.

This year, I’m giving up doubting my intuition for Lent.

How do I know when the cadence of a poetic line rings true? What’s that feeling when my novel characters are telling the truth and surprising me, and how’s it different from the gut-level suspicion that we’re bullshitting each other? How does my body, never trained in dance, free-associate from one gesture to the next during an Internal Landscapes lesson, suggesting new images rather than merely illustrating my pre-conceived storyline? How do I know what gender and sexual orientation I am?

I can’t dissect these intuitive processes the way I can pick apart a theological argument. But I can’t retrain my traumatized nervous system through political analysis alone. My head’s gone as far as it can go. Mistrust, fear, and alienation can only be overcome through openness to receiving the life force wherever it manifests.

My intuition knows that quickening feeling when a new line of inquiry makes me feel vital, curious, clear-headed, creative, and pleasurable. That’s the thread I follow through the labyrinth in my creative writing. Now I’m taking baby steps, with some guilt and anxiety, toward the same non-dogmatic attitude in my religious life.

Religion was where my inner child sought order, stability, clear moral boundaries, and the public accountability created by community norms and rationally defensible creeds. Traditional Christianity appealed to and reinforced my dualistic thinking: faith/superstition, good spirits/evil spirits, magical mystical sacraments/New Age hippie make-believe. At my most conservative, I was afraid to open a box of Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom Healing Cards that I received as a gift, because didn’t the Bible forbid divination?

One of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs I follow, Caleigh Royer’s Profligate Truth, this year has chronicled her journey away from Christianity and her process of healing from child abuse while raising her baby son. We have a lot in common. In her most recent post, she disclosed her current intuitive attraction to Tarot. I heard that little “ping” inside myself that tells me when I’m onto a good idea in my writing. I remembered my fascination with Tarot in college before I converted to Christianity. The mysterious symbols and fairy-tale archetypes on the cards had inspired me to write an epic poem based on random (?) cards I drew from my Aquarian deck. (One was Temperance, below.)

My mind instantly threw up a cloud of objections. “You have no reason to believe this is ‘true’. Aren’t you just looking desperately for patterns in random events? That’s not a grown-up thing to do! How can you take seriously a religion without a complex philosophical foundation? Or a coffee hour?”

Look, I don’t know any of that, either. I just feel drawn to Tarot right now as a source of resonant images to spark my creativity and know myself better. As this xoJane article, “Tarot Reading for Skeptics, Cynics, Nonbelievers and Side-eyers”, explains:

Why use tarot cards?

Personally, I use them for focus and meditation. I don’t tell the future, I don’t see other people’s secrets, and I don’t think I’m communicating with the divine. (It’s cool if you do, though — I ain’t judging.) I find the archetypes and stories in tarot symbolism to be resonant and meaningful for understanding myself and my life. I do self-directed readings to give myself points to think about, or to reframe my perspective. For me it’s really just a self-help practice with pretty props.

Do you “believe” in tarot as a supernatural/occult/magic thing?

Personally, no. And in general I believe any sort of faith associated with tarot use is fully optional. People will probably argue with me on this point — as I would have done when I considered tarot reading a spiritual activity — but no, you can be a flat-out atheist and still get use out of tarot cards, if you want.

Rational (if not fully scientific) efforts at explaining the efficacy of tarot for some folks often use what Carl Jung — founder of analytical psychology — termed the “collective unconscious.” Jung believed that this was a separate psychological aspect from our personal unconscious, and was not dictated by our individual experience but by the breadth of human existence, taking shape as our shared ability to recognize a series of basic universal forms that he called archetypes.

Examples of archetypes are pretty familiar to human storytelling, and include our ideas of the hero, the mother, the self, the wise old person, the trickster, and so on — most of these broad archetypes can be found in myths and folklore throughout time and across diverse cultures. Thus, Jung argued that this collective unconscious passes from one generation to the next as an inherited understanding shared by all humans.

Tarot cards — especially those who take their symbolism from the Rider-Waite standard — often employ these so-called universal archetypes. Even if you think Jung is full of shit, much of the symbolism used, especially in more modern decks, comes from human experiences many of us can relate to on some level — heartbreak, joy, falling in love, achieving a goal, a fleeting moment of feeling in tune with the world around us — and so with practice they will speak to you in their own ways.

On Ash Wednesday, on my way to my Internal Landscapes lesson, I passed the Church of the Holy Innocents to check on service times. I sometimes attended Mass there in 2000-02 when I worked in an office nearby and needed a mid-week spiritual recharge. It’s everything a small Catholic church in Manhattan should be: shadowy, smoky, crammed with aging plaster statues and paintings of beautiful agonized saints. In true on-the-go New York fashion, they were offering round-the-clock imposition of ashes from 7 AM-7 PM in the basement chapel. Next to the prayer station was a makeshift gift shop with elderly ladies selling saints’ cards, rosaries, beaded bracelets with saints’ pictures, and devotional booklets.

I used to have a childlike faith in such items. I attributed protection to the Jesus lucky charm, rather than the relationship with God that it represented. And by “used to” I mean until 2009 or thereabouts, when traumatic aspects of the adoption process made me realize I was a child abuse survivor. I became cynical and bitter about looking for rescuers outside myself. I wanted to stop clinging to the illusion of control over external circumstances, and instead grow stronger by loving myself and seeing my situation clearly. Rituals and saints seemed like painful reminders of a helpless child’s imaginary friends.

I’m just beginning a new stage of my healing journey, focusing on body-mind integration and openness to God’s presence. With that orientation, and with John Ollom’s insights about the undivided energy of Eros, my view of religious tchotchkes shifted once more.

After my movement lesson on Wednesday, I took the subway down to Namaste Bookshop to buy a Tarot deck as a souvenir of my New York spiritual pilgrimage. The colorful, welcoming store is packed with books and trinkets reflecting just about every New Age, Eastern, and indigenous tradition you can imagine: Goddess cards, angel cards, wolf spirit totems, Ganesh statues, charm bracelet Buddha heads… Since New Yorkers are never too spiritual to call a lawyer, the cash register also sports this lovely disclaimer about the store’s fortune-telling services:

Namaste disclaimer

The religious smorgasbord before me brought out my cynical side at first. When all traditions are presented as equally valid and on sale for $14.99, doesn’t that encourage shallowness, cultural appropriation, or a superstitious dependence on any barely-understood totem that gives you a good feeling that day?

But that objection fell away when I understood that the whole world is already sacred, already “charged with the grandeur of God” that shines out from every material object, waiting for us to notice it. The Spirit is not something separate from daily life, which we must bring in by choosing the right set of rosary beads or tarot cards. Any of these objects could work as a point of connection to the life force, just as any of them could become an idol if used in the wrong frame of mind.

I’m not saying “all religions are the same”. Beliefs have consequences: some are conducive to justice and love, others hurtful and misleading. Symbols, on the other hand, exceed the boundaries of any single interpretation. Jesus has been claimed for many contradictory agendas. Does the Cross represent God’s solidarity with abuse survivors, or does it reinforce abuse by romanticizing the suffering of innocents? Does the Incarnation represent the complete reconciliation of human and divine, or does it imply that human beings other than Jesus lack the divine spark? My heart’s attraction to the Cross transcends arguments.

Don’t ask me where I’m going, but I’m having a good time.

Fear of the Daemon: Art, Faith, and Resistance to Inspiration

As my religious priorities shift, I’ve tentatively become more open to New Age concepts and practices that I used to fear were “anti-Christian”. One of my artistic mentors is someone who rejected his homophobic church upbringing and found body-soul integration through Wiccan and pagan beliefs. I’m not drawn to this path at the moment, but I crave a similar release from the eros-repression and psychological splitting that seem inherent in Biblical tradition. The anxiety and hypervigilance of my PTSD have become so tedious, and my impaired connection to Spirit is such a source of grief, that I’m willing to try anything safe and legal. Hypnosis, past-life regression, spirit guides, medical trials of magic mushrooms?

Yes, Cartman, but I’ll take it.

So that’s how I found myself surfing paranormal psychologist Dr. Charles T. Tart’s website about psychic powers. I followed a link from Trauma Information Pages, a useful site collecting scientific papers about the biology of PTSD and effective interventions.

I was drawn to an article called “Psychics’ Fears of Psychic Powers” because, well, fear is my thing. It’s incredibly hard for me to open up to the divine, however I conceptualize it, due to years of engulfment by an abusive parent. I found this article enlightening and reassuring, because the people interviewed did not necessarily have a trauma history, but still contended with all the same sources of resistance. I saw great similarities, not only to my faith struggle, but to the artist’s fear of inspiration. In all these scenarios, we hesitate before opening to unknown and potentially disruptive energies, yet long for the deeper truth that can only be accessed through them.

Some of the fears mentioned in the study:

“Who knows what you might be opening up to? It’s a loss of ego.”

“Once I get out there, will I be able to return?”

“In doing a reading you’re giving someone a large amount of power to validate or invalidate you. That’s scary!”

“Fear that if you do get through to [the] other side you will be unalterably changed.”

“…When you start to get into other realities, to make more profound changes in yourself, then what validates your reality? You can’t even trust the support of the people you’re with, that you love, because what differentiates that from a cult? You’re far from the realities of your culture! What feedback can you believe?”

“You may get so ‘high’ from psychic spaces that when you go out into the ordinary world you aren’t discriminating, you’re too accepting, and that can get you into trouble.”

“A fear that you won’t be able to express your experience.”

“A fear that you will be able to express it, but it won’t make sense to anybody.”

Those last two quotes particularly sound like the script that runs in my head when I’m writing fiction. (Not poetry, for some reason; maybe I don’t write my poems for anyone but myself, so I don’t care if they’re understood?) Overall, this paper helped normalize “psi” and other spiritual explorations for me. They’re part of the same psychological and energetic reality as creating art, which is something I have no choice but to do. So I guess my decision has been made.

Two Poems from Ellaraine Lockie’s “Where the Meadowlark Sings”

Widely published author Ellaraine Lockie is known for narrative poems that capture the unique character of a place and its people. In her eleventh chapbook, Where the Meadowlark Sings (Encircle Publications, 2015), she returns to her native Montana to honor the land that her parents and grandparents farmed. This prizewinning collection includes humorous character sketches, elegies for towns hollowed out by economic collapse, and love songs to the landscape that revives her spirit. In “After Montana”, a poem near the book’s end, she begins, “The guys in the California coffee shop/say I look like I’ve been with a new lover,” which prompts a tour de force of erotic descriptions of her communion with the prairie:

…I could tell them how annual equals cutting-edge new
When wind licks with different tongues each time
Runs a reborn hand over your hills and gullies
And a bee with black lingerie wings humps the blossom
of a Canadian thistle…

Lockie reveres but doesn’t sentimentalize her local history. In “Facing Family Tradition” she recalls her family’s racist slang for Brazil nuts, and suggests that although it was due to ignorance and inexperience rather than malice, it’s still a legacy she has to atone for. Several poems explore the isolation and hardship faced by prairie women, as well as their resourcefulness. She kindly shares two of these poems below.

Abandoned Garden

Lying on the long side of time
a partially buried Meissen vase
Crackled like paper crunched in the fist of an accident
Its mouth growing sweet peas and pansies
A pioneer woman’s attempt to civilize an untamed land
As though she were out gathering a bouquet
for a quilting bee in her homestead house
when some tragedy befell her

The house now as much a ghost as she
Yet she lingers in these immigrant flowers
that survive encroachment from native clover
blue flax, sage and morning glory
Butterflies that pollinate from one to the other
arbitrating the struggle
Like the diplomacy of a woman
caught between a hardcore German husband
and the America around them
Between their children and the razor strop
that hung on a toolshed door

She lives in the flames of poppies she planted
that have burned through a century
of hailed-out crops, drought and grasshoppers
Today the prairie breeze breathes the same scent
as her heirloom handkerchiefs
The sweet violet toilet water sacheted in drawers
and splashed on after a well water wash

She lives in the pressed purple yellow
pansies that look out from
a grandmother’s diary and recipe books
Butterflies, as they take flight
in the draft of turning pages

Winner of the Women’s National Book Association Poetry Competition, 2013

Seasons of Extreme

The husband tells her
she can buy the coat when an 8 fits
But her 14 can’t do the math
fast enough for this fashion season
She dreams of the hood’s faux fur trim
haloing the Very Berry lips
she wears to her women’s book club
When he thinks she’s visiting a rest home

He prefers the company of his old pickup truck anyway
Craves that control with the flex of one foot
But his hands, how they turn tender
at the touch of steering wheel
Unlike high octane’s stranglehold on the environment
which he considers liberal bullshit
Believes what his bar buddy said in the Mint
That cosmic rays from the stars cause global warming

He’s as out of touch as the antique tools he collects
Even the apple tree is budding in January
The cedar waxwings already mating
And the mountain bears haven’t yet hibernated
They all know without TV, newspapers
or computers that things are drying out
heating up, bubbling over

There could be Missouri River floods
County water rationing by summer
A winter wheat fire any day now
An ice storm in the bedroom

Winner of Chicagoland Social Conscience Award, 2013

Two Poems from Carmine Dandrea’s “In a Kept World”

Carmine Dandrea is a retired English professor, Korean War veteran, and world traveler whose diverse life experiences inform his award-winning poetry. The work he has published with us at Winning Writers spans a train ride across India, a pilgrimage along China’s historic Silk Road, and a child’s memories of an Italian-American family funeral.

In contrast to these world travels, his latest chapbook from Finishing Line Press, In a Kept World, takes the reader on an inner journey of introspection, grief, and hope. This 17-poem cycle is voiced by a solitary older man inside a house in Michigan in deep winter. As the “prime suspect” of his own examinations, he reflects on mortality and time wasted. Women from his past reappear as nameless sirens and ghosts, arousing both desire and regret that he did not value their intimacy enough. Despite the assaults of unforgiving weather and the temptation to succumb to darkness, he also finds moments of sensual joy and radiance in the ordinary furnishings of his monastic cell. The recurring image of the garden comes to represent not only the literal promise of spring but the “seeds of love” and “sureness of life” that he wants another chance to cultivate in his soul.

Carmine has kindly allowed me to reprint the two poems below.


Snow’s Role

A heavy wind is blowing
off Lake Michigan;
there is nothing but darkness
to stop it on its way;
it roams the corners of the house
like some fast beast of prey
unleashed until the break of day.

The wind has done strange things
with snow,
has made it go in ripples
through the field,
has molded it peculiarly,
fitting it like fleece
to the bark-dark trunks of trees.

Snow is a warfare for my mind.
It lies here,
a barrier to the world.
I want to close my mind to it,
to let it stay outside
the tight parameters of light
around my planted fields;
yet I know that snow
must have its role
in plotting gardens,
even though it slows
the heart that’s beating
in the summer sun.

But I must remember
that day has passed
into the night.

The snow has filled the ugly field
across the ugly street;
the railroad tracks beyond
are slick runners
disappearing out of sight.


Fire in the Cave

How cold the darts of winter rain
that cut up light—
points that pierce naked bone
and make the bone like stone,
sore with winter weather.

The sun shining through
persimmon curtains casts
that semblance
of the fire in the cave
where my mind,
intent on artifacts,
is ecstasized with little things:

the chaste silver catching light
upon a slender throat;
the slight uncertain gleam
seen in an eye half-closed;
the degree of pressure
in another’s touch;
a soft finger on the lip,
an eyelash trembling
on a cheek,
a slight lilac breath
caught in the ear’s conch.

New Poems by Conway: “Sleep Deprivation” and “City Elegy IX”

My prison pen pal “Conway“, who’s serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility, tells me that not much is new about the New Year. His early release petition hearing has been deferred yet again, till February. Keep him in your thoughts.

Meanwhile, he’s writing lots of poetry, and creating artwork for a book project commissioned by another reader of this blog. I’ll share full details when it’s published.

The poems below made me think about the normalization of torture. With 2.3 million Americans in prison, many suffering under conditions like these, can we call ourselves a free society?

Sleep Deprivation

It made no difference
how busy the hours had been, or
who I’d communicated to
through the unseen voices on this tier
while sipping a lukewarm cup of mud,
even if it took thirty minutes of pushing
the hot water button on the stainless toilet’s sink.

The only thing that made a difference
was that section door.
It opens so loudly, I had to wonder
if it hadn’t been devised on purpose
by some lousy crumb, to be that damn noisy.

It crashed open around midnight
reminding me with its rudeness
that I’m still locked in this concrete box.
By myself.
With no way to open this heart or door locks.

To remind me that I was alone.
The cop walked a flashlight
searching for eyes to shine in
as keys uselessly jangled songs
step up and down the stairs
then exit.

As the sounds of persistent doors
rattle away again
then, creeping silence forced its way back in.
I could only hope
that the return of the intruder
would find me safely wrapped
in slumber’s silent headlock.

Long enough
to be recovered before daylight
to be upright and shuffled
among the chained population.
Not that much of anything was happening.
But, if something did,
it’s best to be prepared for whatever.

The legacy of intrustions
of clinking clanking conclusions
schedules of the return
by someone I do not know
someone who would never say hello
but someone I swear I will not forget.
At least until I fall back asleep.

I was too much awake in lonely thought, in this empty cell, to surrender.
Or, to recover from the intrusion of lonesome desire.
So, I listened in to the section doors open and close
as time prowled around in this pen of lonely people…


City Elegy IX

The streets have been my cathedral
I stole through the nights, searched and crept
Trying to find a truth I could accept
In the streetlights’ dance, of taking a chance;
To be burned beneath the sidewalk of not.
This seemed to be all, that a living wage bought.

Now this soul’s been stripped naked for years…
Rewinding each skyless night
Counting myself alone
Stuffed into this squeeze of unknowns.
Enduring this endless crush of bones.
While gun towers cast their scorns
Sheltered beneath those barbed wire thorns
Flinging the sting, off the point
Of their meaning; A meaning I must endure.

So, now that I know the score,
I’ve lost any right to be more,
Than the rumbled crash, and groan
Of steel doors. As they rattle (in threat)
On every closing report. Exposing intent–
From a contempible court.
Like a jester unsprung, itching to finger someone.

This soul still recalls, all of its flaws…
My conscience remains true, above false.
Forged in this furnace, of doing hard time.
Refusing to drop, even one dime. That’s why–
These vents are still blowing in grit, as
I’m flat on my back, in this land of unfit.
And those amber lights. It should be no surprise,
They keep catching me spotting for spies.
But those yellow lights’ glare, man!
That’s always been there. I know better
Than to expect any slack. So–
I’m standing here staring right back.

If this truth contains proof…
Somewhere existing, at my vision’s edge.
Between the silence, as my voice fell out alone. (Or so I had thought.)
It wasn’t until your voice was hurled
In the wind at the top of the world.

So what, if everything’s changed. (Alright.)
Those memories shared, have still stayed the same.
They remain soft as the breeze–
In my city’s warm summer nights…