Poems of Love and Loss by Helen Bar-Lev

Today I’m honored to share two poems by Israeli writer and artist Helen Bar-Lev, a longtime Winning Writers subscriber. Helen is the Overseas Connections Coordinator for Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, and winner of numerous awards including the International Senior Poet Laureate title from the Amy Kitchener Foundation. She has had over 100 exhibitions of her landscape paintings, 34 of which were one-woman shows. She lives in Metulla with her partner, Bernard Mann, author of the Biblical historical novel David & Avshalom: Life and Death in the Forest of Angels.

Now or Before or Soon

Now that you’re gone
and I have mourned long and deeply
now that the tears have ceased
except when we speak
from the mountain where I am
to below the level of the sea
where you now stay

This house has no echoes
save for the memory of yours
my footsteps are soundless
as though I walk on foam
and it seems at times
as though I too have disappeared
and am a ghost in my own home

On the radio
the Black Orpheus
plays a mournful tune

Now or before or soon,
we all must mourn

And be mourned…

****

Quickly

So quickly my darling
now three Springs have flown
since we declared our love
optimistic as buds and blossoms
and migrating storks

Reborn were we
and how many lifetimes
have we known?

There was an angel
in your coffee grinds
its wingspan more than half the cup

When you left
an ocean of irises bade you farewell
and the dove couple disappeared

And you metamorphosed into a shadow
the sun went out
and the you that was
disappeared into darkness

I surrender to that angel
I am numb

The Poet Spiel: “Weighing In”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has spent eight decades taking aim at warmongering, corruption, and bigotry. He depicts the pleasures and absurdities of our physical existence in blunt, earthy language. He’s kindly permitted me to reprint this ever-timely poem below. Sorry to say that WordPress formatting limitations have stripped out his line indents. Check out his 2018 retrospective collection, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, for more of his work.

Weighing In

Weigh a pint of the blood
of the homo soldier

splattered on his foe

also a hero
dying for his cause
his country
what he believes is right.

Weigh the blood of the hero foe.
Weigh the blood of the homo hero.
Weigh the blood of every proud soldier
downed by friendly fire
and the blood of every proud soldier
who fired upon him.

Tell all their kids
in pints, pounds, or buckets

the quantity of their loss.

Does a pint of the blood
of the homo at war

weigh less in a jar?

than a pint of blood
sapped from his foe?
or a pint of the stuff
from your average Joe?

Compare to a pint
of dirt or sand,
a pint of gold or a pint of lead.

Weigh a pint of the blood
of the homo soldier.

Phone his mother her son is dead.

Self-portrait by the author. Used with permission.

Two Poems by Spiel: “the procedure” and “mixed intentions”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has been sharing his outsider perspective on politics, sexuality, and disability for nearly 70 years in his raw poetry and passionate, psychedelic visual art. Read my review of his retrospective collection Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). As a child, he suffered from headaches and seizures that were treated with invasive medical procedures, such as the neuroencephalogram described in the first poem (TW for medical trauma).

the procedure

give me
catastrophe
give me
wailing
give me
bobbleheads
with hair on fire
and toothpicks
poked
into their eyes

i want
to make a scene
and paste it
to a table with
screaming wheels
i can drive back
to my youth

on the day
they shoved
that needle up
the base
of my spine
to extract
any trace
of comfort
from my brain

****

mixed intentions

from so far away, he’s left behind
(but not without concern)
in hands of others who may find the mystery of why he suffers so.
it may be something like a tumor on his brain;
it might be tangible.
and wouldn’t it be nice to find something seeable, just something one could grasp,
even if it’s something terrifying,
like a tumor on the brain of this child who’s shown such promise to become
the special child in the family of this farmer.

so the child is tendered
by the hands of nurse lola
who has hands of black, like hands
that never have touched him before.
lola comforts him.
she daily soothes his body with her lotions
and her humor and he wonders at her blackness —
how it is that she can be
so tender, be so comforting,
as all the doctors study him.

doctors do their tests and fill their clip boards with notes;
then, they confer while lola tenders him —
his headaches never hurting
while her black hands touch him,
while his mother and his father are so far away
(but not without concern)
and having left him in the hands of others
who, they pray, might find the mystery
of all his suffering.
but, in fact, they come to learn there is no tumor there
and further steps must be explored.

the steps will be drastic because
his doctors must remove the fluid
from around his brain
to visualize it better.
this will be painful for the child.

now, he must be moved to a private room
with new nurses at his side.
he is so sad to bid
his lola, tender lola, a goodbye.
he will cry in secret for her hands of black
with pearly lotions and her humor soothing down his suffering.

the procedure is a hideous one.
from somewhere at the base of this child’s spine,
they drain his brain of natural fluids
but with the outcome yielding not much at all —
yet, more pain than any pain
this child has known —
his brain now hanging, unprotected,
by its natural pillow of the liquid
that nature gave to balance it —
an unnatural state of being.

this is a crime against the nature of his body, now causing a level of pain
beyond the combine of all the pain he has ever known.
and what’s more, this crime has yielded next
to nothing in the search to learn the reason
for the suffering in the innocence of this special child of promise.

now, his father on his long distance visits from the farm,
must bear down upon his head,
his nurses pressing firmly at his feet each moment as he tries to cry,
because each movement of his body
causes movement of his brain
that no longer has a pillow of the fluid they have robbed.
so, when he sees someone has sent him a bouquet of pretty flowers and his tears
come out in gushes,
his entire body has to be restrained to prevent his brain
from banging in his head — unshielded there by nature.

and from far away, the place where he was born,
comes the preacher of the church his family attends,
and the preacher waits his turn
out in the hallway while nurses change his sheets and dose his medicines
to help him bear his grief.

and just then,
while the preacher waits,
so also comes from far away,
the mother of his dearest friend,
and she also is a dear friend of this child,
this woman who is not a preacher
but in practice of the christian science church.
the preacher and this woman sit out in the hall,
waiting to take their turn in speaking to the child,
his pain so great, he hardly knows his name —
let alone a reason to receive
these patient guests.
but come they have, and the preacher
is first to read his scriptures,
say his prayings,
dismiss attention to the nurses
holding down his head and feet,
shove a silly get-well card into his hands
with names of every person at the church
the day the card was signed;
and then be on his way.

the child is edgy. he feels confused
and wants to be alone.
wants things back the way they were
and hiding in his barn, back home, alone,
with no one knowing,
no one paying any mind at all,
just leaving him alone — in hiding.

but then, he tries to shift,
to change the way his body lies
and suddenly, a scream comes from his gut;
his brain bangs back against his skull.
he’s dumbfounded as his nurses grab his feet,
then press his head against his bed to steady him.
he’s come to think this trauma will not end —
that what the doctors robbed from him
will never be replaced
and he will spend his life in agony.

his best friend’s mother now steps in to visit him,
to speak of how one’s ills are understood
by means of spirit teaching, by believing.
but the only thing of meaning to the child
is that he’s always wished
that she was his mom,
that he could replace his own mother
with her and that he’s wished her son
could be his boyfriend
(though he’s too young to think this way and knows that this is wrong).

it is her son who is the only child
he’s had a bond so strong that it could make him wish to live and not to hide.

even now, within this torture,
he can think of how he wishes for the comfort of her son to come,
to hold him at his side.
she tells him that her son and others
at his school have gathered coins
so that when he comes back home,
he’ll have a record player all his own
so, when he burrows in his attic room,
he can play his favorite music at his will.
and this will be a gift, because
he has so many friends and they are praying,
just as she has come these many miles
to deliver her teachings and her gift of spirit.

some six months it takes for nature to replace
the cushion round his brain.
and through this time,
and even though the child is back
within his realm; he’s so careful as he walks.
he must take each step to sense the liquid round his brain
as it, by nature, fills the space the doctors vacated
and the crazy torture they have put him through,
yet finding nothing to report —
nothing
anyone
can touch
nor see.

but he’s left with thoughts of lola.
thoughts of friends he never knew he had,
who’d gathered money for a gift
that he can touch and see and hear.
now, he can choose what he hears.
but he holds harried thoughts within his brain,
that he will just remain a “something”
that cannot be repaired
and he will always hide away in the darkness of the corner of his barnplace,
where there are no windows, no one prying in.
where he slams the barn doors shut;
where the freak is hidden in a jar
that no one sees.

he tries, again, to think of lola,
tender lola,
her black hands,
same as the blackness
inside his barn.

Poetry by Garret Keizer: “Yosodhara”

This week we wrapped up a 6-month online course on masculine archetypes at the Temple of Witchcraft. Jumping off from our source text, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King Warrior Magician Lover (a somewhat dated but still intriguing “men’s movement” book from the 1990s), instructor JT Mouradian prompted us to match these archetypes to the deities, spiritual guides, or role models in our worship traditions. Compared to the Greek and European pagan gods, or the compassionate but remote and all-powerful Adonai of the Hebrew Bible, can we say that Jesus is unique in foregrounding the Lover energy–a path centered on healing, personal intimacy, engagement with the world of the senses, and prioritizing human relationships over abstract principles? Perhaps, said our teacher, this missing ingredient explains Christianity’s extraordinary rise to popularity in the ancient world.

A poet, political essayist, and retired Episcopal priest, Garret Keizer explores this question in his sonnet “Yosodhara”, published last fall at Rat’s Ass Review. (Scroll down the page to read all the poets in this issue in alphabetical order by last name.) He’s kindly permitted me to reprint it below. I’m married to a Buddhist, and have learned to appreciate many things about that tradition, particularly the ideal of non-attachment to views and concepts, which literalist Christians would do well to emulate. Yet I’m ultimately in the camp of poet Richard Wilbur when he says “Love calls us to the things of this world”.

YOSODHARA

The Buddha’s path attracts me, always will,
the rational compassion of his Noble Truths,
the higher heroism of the kind and still—
by the Bo Tree let us build three booths.
But God so loved the world and so have I
and found it worth the pain, and found it good,
and therefore find that I identify
most with the lover nailed to the world’s hard wood.
It’s not that I see merit in love’s hurt,
or none in non-attachment’s claimless claim;
it’s rather that, as roots take hold of dirt,
whenever love grips me, I do the same.
Won’t Yosodhara, Buddha’s wife, agree,
though weeping, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Chapbook Reviews in Brief: Holmes, Lisowski, and More

Have you ever entered a contest you didn’t win, received the winning book from the sponsor, and said to yourself, “Yeah, they’re right, I have to up my game”? That’s how I feel about Dead Year by Anne Cecelia Holmes, which was my reward for entering the Sixth Finch poetry chapbook prize. (Dead Year was published in 2016, so technically we weren’t competing head-to-head; grab your copy before it goes out of print, since it’s not listed on Amazon and the “excerpt” link goes to an error page.)

Every poem in this chapbook is also titled “Dead Year”, demonstrating how grief seems to stop time, trapping you in endless ruminations or numbness. This is confessional poetry without a confession: the trauma that has unmade the speaker is never specified. Early on, perhaps reading myself into the text, I thought of infertility or miscarriage (“Unbelievable how we stretch/in our skin day after day.//How I never say when I am/a mother into the mirror”).

However, the point of the book is not literal autobiography, which would enable us to distance ourselves from the agony by pretending it doesn’t apply to us. Holmes aims to dissect the process of unbecoming and remaking the self after any event that calls into question our whole way of living as a body among bodies–specifically, as a woman:

Since I am female

I am like a pet
and try to swallow a man.

Perhaps this makes me
a villain but think of it

more an act of devotion.

But this is not, after all, merely a story of stagnation. The speaker’s immobility, her refusal to be prematurely reassembled into legible personhood, reveals itself as an act of furious resistance that burns brighter as the book progresses. (“Okay/hurricane, make me/a skinless girl…/I shape my mouth/into a poison halo/and rain.”) The later poems more directly address a “you” who (we infer) is somehow culpable for the indescribable event. In the last poem, this anger seems to be propelling the speaker up and out of her sojourn in the underworld.

It is the end. I hope
you know that.

When I stick my
full self inside

the year nothing
but my fire ring

blasts through.

It takes chutzpah to dedicate a poetry chapbook about Lizzie Borden to your father. Zefyr Lisowski went all-in with Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), her unsettling re-creation of the much-debated murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother. The family home becomes a cursed jewel that the poet holds up to the light, examining each facet through different characters’ perspectives, but finding only distortions and sharp edges. It’s a claustrophobic setting worthy of Shirley Jackson, where the menacing tension mounts but is never resolved by exposure of its true source. Lisowski is less interested in solving the mystery (the book is bracketed by the poems “If I Did” and “If I Didn’t”) than in limning the many influences that press down on the characters like a coffin lid in Mr. Borden’s funeral home. As Lizzie’s sister Emma says bitterly, “I’m in constant//pain. The minister says, ‘God is all around us.’/Tell me. Who could require more proof than that.”

We subscribe to the monthly mini-magazine True Story from the journal Creative Nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring essayist, I recommend that you do too. Each chapbook-sized issue features one narrative essay, fact-checked by the editors. The pieces generally braid autobiographical reflections with larger cultural themes and a thumbnail history of a special topic suggested by the personal anecdote. This format would scale up quite well to a book-length memoir: a subscription to True Story gives you a useful series of case studies in nonfiction narrative structure.

Some of my favorite recent entries in the series:

Heather Sellers, Where Am I? (Issue 27) draws connections between her face blindness, “place blindness” (difficulty navigating even familiar locations), and growing up with a mentally ill mother. I saw so much of myself in this essay. It was validating to see common patterns and have a role model for struggles that my mother and I both faced. (My mother would need help getting back from the restroom to our table in a restaurant we visited every month, and the last time she drove a car was the day she got her license, sometime during the Nixon administration!)

Renata Golden, Bought and Sold (Issue 30) is subtitled “A history of lies and broken promises”, as exemplified by the boondoggle housing subdivision in the New Mexico desert that her father bought into in the 1960s. She describes how the US government, real estate speculators, and railroad companies wrested Western lands from Mexicans and Native Americans, then cheated working-class Americans with promises of cheap “uninhabited” land. This chapbook would be a good addition to a high school American history curriculum.

Ander Monson, My Monument (Issue 33) is a humorous and wistful tribute to the 15-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that he installed on the lawn of his suburban Arizona home. Monson, the editor of the avant-garde online journal DIAGRAM, riffs on impermanence, neighborly ties, the seven wonders of the ancient world and the modern wonders of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

Two Poems from Jeff Walt’s “Leave Smoke”

Gival Press, an established independent publisher with an interest in LGBTQ literature, has just released award-winning poet Jeff Walt‘s new full-length collection, Leave Smoke. Born into a rural Pennsylvania community of coal miners and bricklayers, Jeff is an editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual, with literary honors that include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a musical setting of his poems in concert at Carnegie Hall. Leave Smoke relentlessly probes the scars and longings of a life between two worlds, where midlife resembles Dante’s dark wood in the middle of the journey, and the family legacy of addiction and work-weariness pursues the narrator into his liberated middle-class gay life. Having too many choices is almost as bad as having too few, when one hasn’t had role models for choosing wisely. In this collection, moments of hope and tenderness–a brother’s latest stab at sobriety, breathing lessons with a Zen-like poetry instructor–are rare and shine like diamonds in coal.

Jeff has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below. It takes a talented poet to come up with a new metaphor for stars, let alone two as surprising and piercing as these.

Stars from My Bed

On the ceiling glow-
in-the-dark & behind my eyes
gnarling sparks. No, no wishes.
These stars are sharp
like a tin can lid’s slit throat.
They write blues songs
but not about me. I love you
back then
where I am
mostly. I give the stars juicy details.
Sometimes just to piss me off
they go on and on
with stupid jokes about my old
jittery friends looking to score dime bags
while their constant need scuffed
down the once
white carpet
to a mottled circle
round my coffee table.
The needle made us
happy. The stars spread
like disease.

****

The Magician

Sundays in the living room, before Disney
and our baths, he made our mother vanish
right before our eyes. His long, black cape shiny

as water pouring through the hands of summer.
I swaddled my sister
tight in my eight-year-old arms that trembled

with frightened joy. We held our breath and bit
our nails as he sawed her in half, pulled nickels
from her ears, instructed her to bark

with a quick snap of his fingers. Then
they left us for the Windmill Tavern. Alone together,
we sang and danced in her pink pumps.

Draped in his silky cape, we saved lives and killed
off all the villains using the gagdets
that possessed the glittery magic

until the dark, late hours–our games behind us–
when the shadows became spirits our magic sprouted:
falling ice the footsteps of men

surrounding the house; winter’s spiraling whine
moaned up from the gut of the furnace.
When he asked if he could be my father,

I said, yes, wanting whatever that meant. We fled to closets
when they fought, afraid a clap of his hands
might reduce us to dust. The day he packed his bag

of magic, she begged him to stay. I hid
his wand in my sock–because,
in the dark, on his lap, he had pulled me tight, whispered

that he had the power to turn rocks into chocolate,
little boys into goats.
The black stick held all his tricks.

Veterans’ Day Poems by Nick Stone

Nick Stone is the author of the poetry collection Fragments (Indie Author Books, 2017). I encountered his work through a mutual friend who, like me, is raising money for the Center for New Americans by writing 30 Poems in November. Nick has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems in honor of Veterans’ Day today.

Veterans’ Day 2019

Poets    we were soldiers    paid in blood
we see your world    it’s not for that we died

men shamed if they don’t look or pray like you
taunted for the gender of a spouse
monuments and homelands up for sale
vast wealth stolen by a privileged few
bullets slaughtering your kids at school
fleeing children turned back at a wall
captured    torn from parents’ arms and caged

a foreign power tilts your voting booths
endless distant wars consume your youth
your president consumed with self    allies betrayed

Poets    unsheathe your pens again
remind our leaders what they hold in trust
for yet our better angels hover near
we died for you    now summon them for us

********

Orange Lifetime
IN MEMORIAM
Jack Hayes, LTJG, USN
1932-1952

sunrise through his nursery window
cuddly tiger in his playpen
tiger lilies in the woodlands
oranges hand-squeezed by Nana
melting popsicles    Jersey summers
sticky tangerines al fresco
falling leaves    October maples
black and orange college banners

blazing sunset    carrier takeoff
his screaming F10 Skyknight’s rocket
finds the first MiG 15’s tailpipe
while a second climbs beneath him

orange tracers through the cockpit
left wing fuel tank    bursting fireball
the other when he hits the mountain

Poetry by Hank Rodgers: “Thorn Blossoms”

Longtime Winning Writers subscriber and Reiter’s Block reader Hank Rodgers sent me this moving poem whose orderly formal scheme offsets the chaos of a veteran’s PTSD. Written a few years ago, it remains timely as the US continues to wage costly and unnecessary wars around the world. For more of Hank’s work, check out “From the Album” and “Fishing” in the archives of the Winning Writers Critique Corner.

Thorn Blossoms

We Seals, in our wet, black suits,
Were going in, again.
Boots on the ground, these thorns have roots,
Our nurtured, prickly men.

Commandos were his avatars,
In his dark, locked bedroom.
Virtual man now, one of ours;

His mind a barbed-wire loom.

He turned on us, when we’d trained him—
Our enemy had gone.
Some other prize our eyes, again,
We sponsors focused on.

We knew his games, his nettled angst
Had made him strange; and thus
We could not have him in our ranks—
He turned our guns on us.

We had to keep them in the cloud,
To make them talk, or scream;
While you, with shoes off, heads well-bowed,
Found flying, safe, your dream.

We tried to bring our ‘normalcy’,
Our arms, and faith, to him;
Make real our failed reality,
False hopes abounded, then.

Our droning Doctor zoned us in;
We fought, with little fuss.
That’s how we got our bin Laden,
And how, then, he got us.

We count our dead, and all for what
Our hubris has denied;
We’ve earned, and wear, our thorn-crowns; but
Too many bled, and died.

The Poet Spiel: “birdchild” and “witness”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a/ the visual artist Tom Taylor, has had a long career of creating work that celebrates nature and sexuality while mocking militarism, conformity, and commercialism. His poetry often delves into sensitive topics like child abuse and homophobia. His most recent book is the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). In his author bio, he writes, “Amidst his 8th decade on earth, coping with losses associated with vascular dementia, art is the friend which has withstood the petty and the foolish, the graceful, the garish and the grand of a diverse career in the arts.”

Spiel says “birdchild”, below, is his favorite poem in his vast body of work. Out of the other strong poems he recently shared with me, I chose “witness”, which speaks of the wounds of mother-son abuse–a phenomenon too long denied or ignored even by early feminist writers who broached the taboo subject of incest.

birdchild

this child before you cannot
say a single word; he seems
as silent as a fallen bird.
his sad eyes follow you.
he is here but shows no sense
of knowing he has a right
to declare his presence—
as in making a sound—any sound.

you recall those few kind men
in your own childhood who,
when they called you by name,
touched your shoulders
or patted you on your head.
oh how you hugged their trousered legs
in gratitude, their warmth, the decency
of their hearts lifted you. even now
though most of them have passed
you hear their voices;
you still feel the touch of their hands.

those men were not poison
but you find yourself
living in a culture
where you are forbidden
to comfort such a child,
a child you do not know,
who does not know you—
as if your touch would be poison.

you find the films you watch
more than once are those where
a father re-unites with his son,
at last unashamed to embrace him,
or where a tearful child is comforted
by the seasoned hands of his grandfather.
you are especially moved by scenes of war
where a grief-stricken soldier softens
and sobs onto another’s shoulders.
and too, those films where two men
follow their hearts in caring,
touching, holding, supporting each other
for a lifetime—against the odds.

so you tempt the odds,
this time with the child
who is like a fallen bird.
you touch his hand, feel him
squeeze your thumb.
you say hello.

he draws your thumb down to his shoe;
he says can you untie me.
and when you hear him speak
you hear your own voice.
and as you stoop
to untie his knotted shoe
it is you who becomes the bird.
it is you who becomes whole again.

****

witness

in innocence
as you crayoned
on the floor
she emerged
from her dark closet
to reveal
what she knew were forbidden—
her petals of flesh

she planted a wanton glance
with nowhere else to settle
but upon you
her first born son
then your bewildered face
between her space
for her you were
a lily in her valley

your eyes aghast
replete with games repeated
over time
in a shame
you could not name
in crayon-speak
and your crayon days
were early done

now after all these years
you wonder
which hurts
the most

perhaps those vital tidbits
you can’t recall to reassemble
nor recant
or is it the reverberating odor
of the absolute volumes
you cannot forget

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.