Poetry by Charlie Bondhus: “Becoming Baba Yaga”

Just out from Sundress Publications, Divining Bones is the third collection from award-winning poet Charlie Bondhus, who has kindly permitted me to reprint a sample poem here. This compelling book stakes its territory in the liminal spaces between male and female, fairy-tale and horror, the archetypal struggle in the psyche and the mundane (but no less dangerous) conflicts of domestic life. The presiding deity of this shadow realm is Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch of Eastern European folklore, who guides the narrator to embrace traits rejected by mainstream gay culture. Aging, emasculation, and the grotesque lose their stigma and become sources of transgressive power.

Becoming Baba Yaga

I was born an old woman,
I mutter through lather
as I scratch away the beginnings
of a beard, each stroke bringing me
a hair closer to alignment
with the female divine
curled and kicking inside, while I glare
at the little snub nose which belies the long,
crooked phantom pressing my skin
like an erection in the underwear I buy a size too small.

My dreams are full of chicken legs.
My thighs tingle for the swish
and stroke of a checkered peasant
skirt. Invisible handwoven blouses girdle
my imaginary breasts. I tug at my boy-short
hair and think about raspberry-colored headscarves.

There is no other way
to say this: I was meant to be a wise
and powerful Russian witch
rather than an unimpressive man,

a truth that makes me ambivalent
about the pretty young women
who come seeking transformation,
asking me to shave away the fat
a child left, straighten a nose
crooked as a kidney bean, plump
up breasts that are like the hard, rounded
nubs of an old cook’s pestle.

Like any witch I serve
the vanities of all who can afford
my fee, helping those who hate
their bodies in ways different
from how I hate mine. I study

the college photos they bring
of glamorous, uncomplicated youth,
remembering an old, lost book
and the engravings in which I recognized
myself—a fierce, bestial woman
as necessary as bone and just as unseen
in a world whose first language is skin.

Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
wild things
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
wet fire;
living skulls;
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.

 

Originally published in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts

Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

Revealing Self: Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel’s Multimedia Memoir

Visual artist Tom Taylor, a/k/a The Poet Spiel, is a creator of varied personae, with a 66-year career spanning genres from graphic design to mixed-media collage and installation art, poetry, and now memoir. His new book, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, is an impressionistic retrospective of his personal journey and the dramatic shifts in his style and materials over the decades.

Boldly colored reproductions of his artwork are interspersed with vignettes, aphorisms, dreamlike or nightmarish memories, and previously published poems reformatted as prose paragraphs. These written sections are set off in quotation marks, like tantalizing snippets of an overheard conversation, and formatted in a multi-hued script that creates the impression of an artist’s journal. (This font was admittedly a challenge to read in large amounts, but the necessity of slowing down may have helped me absorb more of the meaning.) Instead of traditional narrative transitions, third-person summaries of the action, in a more businesslike sans-serif font, serve as occasional signposts to situate the samples of his creative work within the chronology of his life and travels.

And what a life: Born in 1941, Spiel was a maverick from the start. He grew up on a Colorado farm on the Great Plains, a repressive environment for a gay artistic boy with migraines and manic-depressive tendencies. The early pages of his book speak candidly, in intense and hallucinatory flashbacks seared with humor, about the burden of his mother’s mental illness and her violation of his intimate boundaries. His bond with animals and nature kept his soul alive, a connection he would later channel into successful commercial posters and landscape paintings of wildlife, inspired by his travels in Zambia. In the 1990s his work took a surreal and expressionist turn, protesting social conformity and war. His life as a gay man in America has given him an outsider perspective on the hypocrisy of conventional mores, and a rage against the stifling of his authentic life force. These themes show up in his raw, satirical, unpretentious poems. Revealing Self invites the reader to experience Rimbaud’s maxim that “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.”

Spiel has kindly permitted me to reprint this poem, first published in his chapbook Human (Pudding House Press, 2003).

Rest in Power, Rev. Dr. James Cone

The Reverend Doctor James Hal Cone (1938-2018), the founder of the Black Liberation Theology movement, passed away last week at age 81. From the Liberation Theologies website:

The hermeneutic, or interpretive lens, for James Cone’s theology starts with the experience of African Americans, and the theological questions he brings from his own life. He incorporates the powerful role of the black church in his life, as well as racism experienced by African Americans.

Cone’s theology also received significant inspiration from a frustration with the black struggle for civil rights; he felt that black Christians in North America should not follow the “white Church”, on the grounds that it was a willing part of the system that had oppressed black people. Accordingly, his theology was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also an important influence; Cone describes King as a liberation theologian before the phrase existed.

Cone’s thought, along with Paul Tillich, stresses the idea that theology is not universal, but tied to specific historical contexts; he thus critiques the Western tradition of abstract theologizing, by examining its social context. Cone formulates a theology of liberation from within the context of the black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed, the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation.

Despite his associations with the Black Power movement, however, Cone was not entirely focused on ethnicity: “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”

Our Episcopal church’s small group studied his pioneering work, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), this past autumn. I’m not alone in wishing we had contacted Dr. Cone to tell him how his book challenged and inspired us. I think I was afraid of seeming like a would-be white ally in search of cookies. It’s a lesson not to let embarrassment stop us from reaching out to our heroes and prophets. After all, as Ijeoma Oluo says in her essential new book, So You Want to Talk About Race (Hachette Book Group, 2018), people of color don’t have the option to not deal with racial tension. White folks have to accept that we’ll screw up many of our interracial conversations, and just sit with the discomfort.

Below are some highlights from my analysis of the book for our small group curriculum. (If you would like to use the whole curriculum in your church, email me.) Text in quotes is by Cone, other text is my summary of his arguments. It’s quite sobering to see that many of the white counter-arguments he debunks are still deployed against contemporary civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter.

****

“Black Power” is a phrase that provokes strong reactions. Cone defines it as “black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship in American society.” In other words, black people acting as subjects instead of objects, creating a value system that centers their wellbeing and particular experiences in society—just as white people have always done.

Some Christians, black and white, see it as too radical a departure from Christ’s message of love and unity. However, for Cone it is “Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America.” Where else would Christ be, if not in the midst of our country’s most urgent social justice struggle?

Cone criticizes would-be allies who say they support racial equality but not “violence”, or who call for “objectivity”. There is no neutral position on our complicity with oppressive social structures. Theology can’t set feelings aside, because feelings—specifically the pain and anger of black people—are essential data about the moral issues involved. “Dispassionate, noncommitted debate” is the privilege of someone who has no stake in the matter.

Though it makes space for feelings of anger and even hatred toward the oppressor, Black Power is fundamentally not about hate. Black people are not trying to take something away from white people, but to force recognition of what all people—black, white, and other races—already have: human dignity and equality. “Therefore it is not the intention of the black man to repudiate his master’s human dignity, but only his status as master.”

Throughout the book, Cone develops parallels between the anti-racist liberation struggle and the sacrificial life of Christ and his followers. The true ally enters into the condition of the oppressed, to such an extent that their stigma also falls on him—just as Jesus did for sinful humanity. The true ally is willing to risk her life for black people’s freedom—because black people are already risking their lives. Protests, violent or nonviolent, may be a modern version of martyrdom for a spiritual ideal that is more important than life itself, namely that all people are created in God’s image.

The primary expression of love for our neighbor is to proclaim the gospel of freedom and to work against the powers that hold people captive.

Christian love is a motive, not a checklist of actions. The human condition is messy and uncertain. Neighbor-love sometimes looks like confrontation, because it’s loving to try to bring our neighbor back into right relationship with God and others. It is loving to insist on the God-given dignity of all people, which is poured out equally as a gift of grace.

With respect to the ideal of nonviolence in Christianity, how we define “violence” already says a lot about racial politics. We take it for granted that certain kinds of self-defensive or even aggressive violence are justified in a Christian society. When the disenfranchised rise up, we call that violence and ask how it’s consistent with Jesus, but we accept the authority of the police to use force against such uprisings, or the nation’s right to use violence in defense of its international interests.

“The attempt of some to measure love exclusively by specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect.” We act from Christian love when God is the essence of our lives, but because of our limited human understanding, the right choice in any given situation may be unclear. Loving action involves risk and ambiguity.

Being “born-again” occurs when a person becomes “repelled by suffering and death caused by the bigotry of others,” even to the point of being ready to die in solidarity with the oppressed, as Jesus did. And that person may not be explicitly “Christian”—it’s manifested in their actions, as in Matthew 25. Salvation is not a formula to win God’s approval. It’s an inner sense of being aligned with The Real.

“There are no rational tests to measure this quality of being grasped in the depths of one’s being. The experience is its own evidence, the ultimate datum. To seek for a higher evidence, a more objective proof—such as the Bible, the Fathers, or the Church—implies that such evidence is more real than the encounter itself.”

All theology is grounded in the life situation of the group that writes it. Their lives matter, and their experiences determine which questions are important and how to answer them.

Up till now, only white people have had this authority within Christianity—the power to make theology that centers their point of view and their wellbeing. “Black Theology” is not any less universal than the white Christianity we already have. Black people will not be completely free until they too claim the authority to do theology from their own standpoint, with their full humanity as the goal and underlying assumption.

White Christianity has spent a lot of time debating the ultimate source of religious authority. For instance: the Pope versus Martin Luther’s sola scriptura (Bible alone), or fundamentalists’ infallible Bible versus liberals’ appeals to reason. But these abstract debates often fail to have any impact on people’s daily lives.

For Black Theology, the core question of authority is: Does this doctrine free us or not?

Because the essence of Christ is his identification with the oppressed, this is still a Christocentric standard of authority.

“Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself… Concretely, this means that Black Theology is not prepared to accept any doctrine of God, man, Christ, or Scripture which contradicts the black demand for freedom now.”

Two Poems from Nancy Louise Lewis’ “Girl Flying Kite”

Nancy Louise Lewis is a retired journalist and college professor, and the founder of Legalities, Inc., a nonprofit that helps low-income litigants afford access to the court system. Her self-published debut poetry collection, Girl Flying Kite (2018), came across my desk via Winning Writers subscriber news, thanks to her diligent publicist at Author Marketing Ideas.

The subjects of this visionary, God-haunted book could not be further from the innocent quotidian scene suggested by the title. In fact, the title itself is our first clue to the menace and mystery Lewis finds beneath the surface of daily life, as it refers to a child victim of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the shadow of her last playful moments forever burned into the wall. Other poems draw inspiration from the author’s Appalachian childhood, stories of father-daughter incest, and enigmatic encounters with a divinity whose presence we can neither completely discount nor rely on. Lewis is most at home in the liminal space between belief and doubt, like the constantly eroding and re-forming shoreline of the ocean that appears in many of these works.

Lewis’ distinctive voice and ambitious metaphysical questioning are evidence that great talent exists outside the gatekeeping of traditional publishing. There were a couple of areas in which the book might have benefited from an outside editor. At times it felt overly lengthy and repetitive, and lacked a clear narrative movement or structural progression. A few poems were a little too enigmatic for me, but that’s true of a lot of work that comes out of university presses, too! Overall, this collection showed a maturity of thought that is unusual in a first book of poems. Read the mesmerizing selections below and see for yourself.

Moon

Like my mother’s eye,
its diameter is extreme, haunting—a certain
breadth that denotes coldness. And in its light

pollen and rabbits appear everywhere.
When I was ten, I looked out the window
and said to God, “If you are there

let a rabbit appear,” and one did.
But you can’t put any credence
in it. She just looked at me

and said, “Get the celery dish
out of the sideboard.” So many
things, you know, just dispel

rumor of the most awful kind as
remnants of humanity loom about
looking for reward…

I never expected it,
never asked for it. It was simply
the bag of grain given me at my birth.

Meanwhile, all expands toward a semblance
of what I thought. One yearns
to be the same no matter what

perspective one takes, disregarding
the angle of forethought
that looped one to it

in the first place. A boomerang!
I’d gone out on the rift
hoping for the barest glimmer

to open closed minds, a nectar of the
purest sort. But
there was never a hint

of a precept to follow, and I sensed
it was falsity. No matter where
one wanders, there is the odor

of permanence, the look of
a winking eye. And how
to end seepage? How

to look the thing straight
in the eye and say
it’s only geometry?

****

Ever Easter

The moon charts a course one can
believe in, a form
which offers hope
that an escape hatch exists: a hole
into some other universe of
knowing one merely intuits,
but senses bodily almost. I mean
to say that
if any circle can beckon one
with its promise of release,
then this full moon
is no less than
the epitome of guarantee: a resurrection
just out of sight
one can rely on every bit as certainly
as the curt edges
confronting one at this juncture.
But if reason
prolonged belief interminably, would
a requirement be this surfeit? Why
question? Why the mind’s constant
foreplay
when fulfillment is unobtainable, at least
here, now? Why torment oneself
with the tease that the unseen is
immutable, irrefutable,
when proof to the contrary is ever
present? Take, for instance
the way the tides humble
themselves
to its bidding,
forsaking a permanence of aspect
for this
ebb and flow,
putting faith on the line even
on a moonless night. Yet
why center the debate here,
when the proof is always
washing ashore somewhere, doubt
circling the globe
close behind, but never narrowing the gap
between mere speculation
and formal reconciliation, the worshipful
waves ever kneeling down, then
rising up with alleluias?

Two Poems from em jollie’s “A Field Guide to Falling”

Western Massachusetts writer em jollie’s new poetry collection A Field Guide to Falling (Human Error Publishing, 2017) is like a stained-glass cathedral window: even in scenes of suffering, the glorious colors give joy and uplift. Much of the book processes the aftermath of breaking up with a beloved woman, though at the end, the narrator seems to find a new beginning with another partner and a greater sense of herself as complete and sufficient. But this therapeutic summary can’t do justice to the mystical meaning of her journey. The speaker bravely walks up to the edge of everything we consider permanent, looks into the clouds swirling above the bottomless gulf, and finds a way to praise their ever-changing shapes. These poems imply that the value of falling–in love, out of love, out of Eden into a world of loss–is in how it challenges us to keep our hearts open, to say Yes despite it all.

Specificity keeps these classic themes fresh. A lesser poet would risk pathos with the extended metaphor of “How to Set a Firefly Free” as a farewell to a relationship where love exists but is not enough. This poem works because it is a real firefly first, a symbol second.

Firefly, suddenly setting aflame cut crystal hanging
from ceiling fan pull-chain. Greenish glow in each facet
while all night dogwood salts dark-wet sidewalk
flowers ripped gloriously open in rainpour.

Isn’t that a love poem all by itself? Those “flowers ripped gloriously open” already remind you of your own worthwhile heartbreak, whatever that was. The ending, which makes the personal connection explicit, only confirms what you felt it was about from the very first lines.

…If only
I didn’t know why lightning bugs blink.
If only I wasn’t so wise to the fact that your light
does not belong to me, will not ever.
If only I didn’t know that was right.

So naturally I just Googled why lightning bugs blink. Wikipedia says the trait originally evolved as a warning signal to predators that the bug was toxic to eat, but now its primary purpose is to communicate with potential mates. This dual meaning of sex and death confirms the speaker’s sad verdict on this love affair, which earlier in the poem she compared to the bond between a neighbor and his snarling dog: “[w]e said they were so mean they belonged together. Yet there/was something sweet about the belonging.”

jollie has one stylistic tic that I understand is common to the Smith College “school” of poetry, which is the occasional (and to my mind, random) omission of “a” and “the”. I’m sorry to say this is a pet peeve of mine. It creates a missing beat in the rhythm of a sentence, which distracts me. It’s fine to twist grammar to make a more compressed line, but I feel that this works best when the entire poem is written in an unusual voice, not when a single part of speech is excised from otherwise normal English.

jollie has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. It was hard to choose just two! Buy her book here.

Object Constancy

Sand can be grasped in a palm, yes. But wind
will take it eventually. Heart is body’s hourglass,
holding its own beginning
& end, its constant ticking tipping moment into
granular moment, for a while. You could take my skull
in your hands, but you will have to give it back
at some point. As will I.

Sure, Freud’s nephew came to understand
that Teddy Bear was just over edge of crib when it
disappeared from sight. But where is that Teddy now,
if not in some museum, curators desperately
fighting its inherent impermanence? Presence has to be
interrogative, doesn’t it, rather than declarative?
Dust is still dust. What I mean is: how
do I trust more than what I learned in the chaos
of childhood when since then I’ve been ingrained with loss
upon loss, like every human walking wings of light
through time?

Feather the paintbrush of my fingers across your jaw.
Feather the paintbrush of your fingers across my jaw.
We color each other for this moment. Just this one.
Then it’s done, days like hungry teeth devouring
endless could-have-beens into the finite sacred what-was.
I say: I love you (I have no choice)
What I mean to say: I let go (I have no choice)

****
A Few Desires, or How to Hunger

I want to be the malleable soap
your hands sculpt as you cleanse yourself,
as ordinary and as daily and as caressed as that.

I want to be the cutting board, that firm surface
you can lay edges against, that allows you
to divide roughage from nourishment.

I want to be the pillow case, containing all
the softness for resting your public face
and the slim canvas you play your private dreams onto.

Let me suds into joining the stream of water
down the drain, become the bamboo board
oiled so many times until finally, split, I am

placed on the compost pile. Let the laundry
tear my threads until, like the pillow case,
I cannot contain, but let every thriving thing seep out.

But in truth I can be none of these things,
just this tiny self loving you, accepting your gifts,
providing what sustenance I can in return.

In other words, use me up, until I am done with myself.

The Gospel According to Alice Miller: The Truth Will Set You Free

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a groundbreaking psychoanalyst and author of many books on childhood trauma as the root of personal and societal problems. Some of her work crosses over into theology, as she critiques how certain religious texts reflect and perpetuate toxic family dynamics through the generations. Concepts of original sin, forbidden knowledge, and child sacrifice take on new interpretations when we decide to stand on the side of the child, against parental violence. This hermeneutic has led me to part ways with Biblical Christianity as I once understood it. It was a surprise and consolation to find that Miller rescues the person of Jesus from this deconstruction, giving me a way to keep relating to him without going back into denial.

Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free (Basic Books, 2001) is a popularization of her theories for a general audience, focusing on the case against corporal punishment of children, rather than the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the family. Even the title is a quote from Jesus (John 8:32), though this may be the choice of the English translator. (The original German title was Evas Erwachen, which I think means “Eve Awaken” and refers to Eve eating the forbidden fruit.) This passage from the last chapter describes a Jesus I can believe in:

The figure of Jesus confounds all those principles of poisonous pedagogy still upheld by the christian churches, notably the use of punishment to make children obedient and the emotional blindness such treatment inevitably brings. Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial and all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. Did that make him selfish, arrogant, covetous, high-handed, or conceited? Quite the contrary.

Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. Yet to my knowledge no representative of the church has ever admitted the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge, and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts. Jesus, who in Joseph had just such a father, preached precisely those virtues. (pgs.190-91)

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of AlexandriaDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 09Working Date: 1648
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Poetry from Reena Ribalow’s “The Smoke of Dreams”

I first encountered Reena Ribalow’s accomplished poetry when she won the 2008 prize for traditional verse at Winning Writers. Born in New York City, she makes her home in Israel, and her work is strongly influenced by Jewish tradition. Her first full-length book, The Smoke of Dreams, was published last year by Neopoiesis Press. This stately, melancholy collection of poems is steeped in sensual memories of bittersweet love, be it for a holy city or a forbidden affair. Her roots are planted in Jerusalem, sacred and war-torn, harsh and captivating. Her more personal poems show the same mix of pleasure and pain in romantic relationships. One way or another, history is inescapable. Reena has kindly permitted me to reprint a poem from The Smoke of Dreams here.

Desert Light

Was it Cezanne who said, “God is light,”
and went South to paint?
Or was it someone else who did not know
that we can take only so much light,
without going crazy?
The slant of afternoon in a dim room,
the dazzle after a passing cloud,
a radiance through shifting leaves,
is all that we can bear.

Here people are mad with light,
their nerves raw with it,
their eyes irradiated;
they cannot see right.
Shadows disappear from streets
without dimension,
with nowhere to hide.
Light hunts us down,
relentless as the Law.

Some plants survive, some thrive,
some play dead by noon light,
wakening to moist life
in the seducing dark.

The light of Europe hints,
suggesting immanence.
Civility infuses light:
the safety of umbrellas, of cloudy parks,
of rooms that hold their breath,
gilded with motes of gold;
this is easy, this wears well.

The prophets were born to desert light,
crazed with it, dooming us
to a surfeit of holiness.

We endure, odd growths
on a sun-battered land.
Saints, madmen, artists
offer their strange and mutant fruit.
Eat of it, they plead,
and know in every cell
the terrible truth:
that God is everywhere.

Two Poems from Alan King’s “Point Blank”

My first poetry book recommendation of the year is Alan King’s Point Blank, published in 2016 by Silver Birch Press. A three-time Pushcart nominee, King is a Caribbean-American poet, the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago. His family roots give his poetry a robust and celebratory quality, whether he’s writing about the spices of home cooking, the seductive musical soundtrack of his parents’ marriage, or the father-son dynamic of power struggles and wordless affection. King appreciates women’s sensuality in a way that reminds me of the late great musician Prince, an unashamed desire that has enough reverence in it to avoid objectification. Yet certainly the life of a black man in America is far from idyllic, as King shows in his powerful narrative poems about racist microaggressions and police shakedowns. His relationships with his family and students sustain his life force in an environment that is ready to dehumanize all of them.

Point Blank is a pleasurable read that is also an important document of black American life today. He kindly shares two poems from the collection below. Visit his blog for poetry videos and essays on social issues.

Bound

On the bus in rush hour, he enters
with the brim of his baseball cap
over his left ear, where a snubbed out
Black & Mild sits like an aromatic
marker with its black tip exposed.

You checked the weather today.
Cloudy skies with a chance of rain.
Your boss called you into his office,
talked about the economy and running
a struggling paper, how he’s got to let you go.

Think of it as a paid vacation,
he said. You look up at the guy
with the Yankees cap and phone to his ear.
I’m on my way, babe.

His smile says his destination
is a garden hidden in a labyrinth,
where the sun slides its iridescent tongue
over a tamarind-colored woman,
oiling her skin while she sleeps
among orchids and birds of paradise.

You imagine that garden
on the other side of your front door,
where you’ll open like morning glories
when your wife
descends on you like dew.

****
Freeze

A man sits handcuffed on the curb
while his trunk and back seat are searched.

You watch from across the street,
heading to your car. His woman
was making a Malaysian chicken dish, sent him
to pick up coconut milk and curry.

It’s night. The sound of car tires
on wet street makes you think of paper
torn slow in long strips.

The officers, thorough in their search,
remind you of thieves you once saw.

You couldn’t say what you felt,
watching them take their time,
as if instead of searching for money and CDs
they were detailing the interior.

The man is every WANTED poster
you saw on TV, in the papers,
in post offices.

He is that night years ago.
When you followed your mom to return a rental,
and lost her in traffic, when the red and blue
flashes made you
a cornered cat.

You tense up when that moment
on the street gets just as close. Your keys
in one hand, sorbet and cookies in the other.

At the sight of what flashed in his mirror,
he knew he was tagged in a game older
than Jim Crow. Tonight, the sirens
and police lights say, Get off the street
unless you want trouble, too.

But the wind shoves you down the block,
muscling you back to your car
and to everything you love. You think
of the handcuffed brother
and his woman growing restless,
trying not to worry.

Book Notes: Queer Virtue

This fall, our church had the honor of hosting the Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, presenting her new book Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press, 2016). Edman is an Episcopal priest and political strategist and an out lesbian. She proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. The first half of the book argues for “the inherent queerness of Christianity”, using parallels from LGBTQ identity and community life to describe a faith centered on scandalous intimacy and countercultural family formation. The second half surveys virtues that LGBTQ people have had to cultivate for their survival–such as authenticity, hospitality, and healthy pride–and holds them up as an ethical role model for Christians.

I want to get my one disagreement with Queer Virtue out of the way first, because if unaddressed, it could overshadow the treasures otherwise to be found in this book. In my last post I discussed the fallacy of trying to prove that one’s preferred image of Jesus is the “real” Jesus. So I was disappointed that in a book devoted to barrier-breaking, nonbinary spirituality, Edman begins by drawing a distinction between “nominal” and “authentic” Christianity (pgs.xii-xiii). Nominal Christians are the broader group: any people or institutions that call themselves Christian. Authentic Christians are that subset who are following “a lived faith in keeping with the ancient tradition that has been handed down in the Western canon of scripture and from the early (especially pre-sixth-century) church.” Within that tradition, Edman says she will focus on the aspect of Christianity “as a spiritual journey that prioritizes the ancient Christian impulse to rupture simplistic binaries, especially those pertaining to the relationship between Self and Other.” (pg.xiii)

Okay, so that is the impulse that led me to become a Christian in the first place, and it was thrilling and validating to finally find another Christian who defined our core commitment this way! But… I have been involved with churches, small groups, and theology conferences for two decades, and this perspective that I share with Edman is very unusual. To be rather simplistic, conservatives adore binaries (holy/sinful, male/female, infallible/depraved, sovereign God/obedient subjects) while liberals fail to tap the nonbinary potential of the Trinity and Incarnation because of their skittishness about supernatural metaphysics.

I think Edman is begging the question that queer Jesus is the dominant strain in that ancient tradition. (If only that had been my experience!) That may be his chief significance for us, but casting shade on other Christians’ priorities will, I fear, only confirm non-affirming Christians’ anxiety that LGBTQ inclusion undermines doctrinal fundamentals beyond the one issue of sexuality. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, in my opinion, but let’s have the courage to say we’re putting our wine in new wineskins instead of overstating the historical record.

Now that’s over with, let’s move on to what is awesome about this book. Pronouns: Edman uses gender-neutral Ze/Hir for God, and alternates among male, female, and neutral pronouns for humans. I like this challenging reminder of God’s strangeness, Hir transcendence of human gender categories, even as we retain the well-loved Biblical metaphors of God as loving father, brooding mother hen, Son of Man, and so forth.

Another great development is the invitation to shift from defending homosexuality as an issue, to celebrating LGBTQ lives as spiritual role models. This person-centered, love-oriented approach seems in keeping with a religion founded on relationship with God-become-human. “Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us… In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.” (pg.9)

Indeed, for me, awareness of my sexual or gender identity feels like it uses the same faculties of perception as my experience of Spirit. It’s a sort of deep resonance in the heart that can’t be explained to everyone, but is the foundation of whatever else I know about myself. Both can require the same kind of trust in my intuition and body-knowledge, and the fierce self-love that resists intellectual gaslighting.

I wonder, though, does a vocational community formed around Christian faith permit as much respect for each other’s inner truths as a community formed around queerness? To walk the path of queer virtue, all I have to do is believe in my own experience and respect others’. To be a Christian, on the other hand, can I avoid passing judgment on my fellow Christians who are “doing it wrong”? Does the doctrinal or ethically prescriptive aspect of religious community always force us somewhat in the direction of conformity, in a way that’s not true of LGBTQ community?

Edman goes some way toward resisting religious conformity with her celebration of “scandal” as a virtue common to queers and followers of Jesus. LGBTQ people and other minorities face constant pressure from respectability politics, i.e. buying acceptance by assimilating to majority mores and judging other members of the minority group who don’t do the same. For instance, gays and lesbians in the church have mainly fought for inclusion within the ideal of monogamous marriage, rather than making a theological case for respecting the other forms of sexual relationship that their communities have developed. By contrast, Edman cites Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal for the ethical vision of not pretending to be above the indignity of bodies and their desires. In sex-soaked gay male culture, where there is the most flamboyance, the most carnal abjection, there may also be the greatest humility and openness to one another. Similarly, Jesus shocked even his followers by touching outcasts and submitting to all the vulnerabilities of the flesh, including being eaten–symbolically, or literally, depending on your view of the Eucharist! The word for Communion, koinonia, meant both “common” and “defiled” in the Greek of Jesus’s day. (pgs.80-82)

Perhaps the greatest scandal is the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which reverse our deepest notions about power and mortality. If I believe anything about Jesus, it’s this:

For Paul, this is a cosmic shattering of something that operates as a stranglehold on humanity: the idea that death is the most powerful thing we know. The scandal of the cross means that death and its affiliates–terror, torture, physical and spiritual agony–lose their potency as the ultimate stumbling block, the ultimate bait and trap, the ultimate outrage.

Paul sees clearly that this shattering opens up a horizon of ethical possibility, an ethical vision that in some ways parallels what Michael Warner sees in queer experience: the ability to learn the most from those you think are beneath you. (pgs.85-86)

The scandalous way of queer Christian virtue declares that shame has no power to suppress our true selves or separate us from God. That ethical path is not as simplistic and one-sided as casting off shame entirely, because people do sin and need prompting toward repentance. It’s a call to be careful and politically conscious about what we consider shameful and how we enforce it. (pgs.88-89)

These insights are picked up in Edman’s later chapter on the balance that LGBTQ Pride can bring to a Christian tradition that’s been focused on ego-resizing of the arrogant and privileged, at the expense of those whose self-worth needs shoring up.

In times like these when people are sensitive to the ways that words can do harm, it makes sense to lift up Christian disparagement of pride and ask churches to cut it out. We have no business asking queer people for whom Pride is a life-and-soul-saving concept to stand in a church and disparage the term. It would be useful if Christians could begin dismantling and rebuilding liturgical components such as prayers and hymns and replace the word “pride” with language that more accurately characterizes the problematic behavior… [such as] those who hoard power or who profit by appropriating resources from others….

…Imposing such a definition of sin [as pride] on human beings is one of the biggest hammers in the ideological toolbox of empire that Christianity was born to dismantle. This is ironic, because you’d think that defining pride as aggression and hubris would serve to contain imperialistic tendencies… But in practice, universalizing this definition of pride is one way the privileged Self absorbs and renders invisible all those less-privileged Others. Demonizing Pride is, in fact, one of the most effective ways that Christianity has ended up serving those who conquer and dominate, contributing to the disempowerment of people the world over. (pgs.114-15)

I’ll end with one last favorite passage in which Edman smartly dismisses accusations of moral relativism against queer liberation theology:

Because we have thrown off the moral absolutes that unequivocally condemn queer sexual behavior, the thinking goes, we have no real ethical grounding. Those who make these claims say that there isn’t anything we truly believe; our ethics blow with the prevailing wind.

This simply is not true. Queer people do not categorically reject absolute truth. We do view the concept of “absolute truth” warily, and we tend to take great care in our claims about truth. This caution is not a symptom of moral relativism, but is born of our awareness that callous, ill-informed appeals to “absolute truth” have caused vast suffering. It is true that we don’t usually get very deep into moral reasoning before someone asks, “How does this principle affect real people’s lives? Whose story does this take into account, or ignore?” We don’t do that because our morals are constantly in flux; we do it because we recognize that people’s lives are. Indeed, the impulse to take people’s real lives seriously is itself a moral absolute for many LGBTQ people. This impulse is an essential, characteristic strength of our ethical thinking. (pgs.126-27)

Let the church say Amen! The Jesus I see in the Gospels was always asking who benefits from a religious norm and who has the power to set these norms in the first place. (Jesus, the first deconstructionist!) All theology is standpoint-based. Queer Virtue demonstrates this in language that non-philosophers can understand. I am very grateful for this book.