Cyclamens and Swords Journal Launched, Another Novel Chapter Published

Israeli poets Johnmichael Simon and Helen Bar-Lev have just launched Cyclamens and Swords, a new online journal of poetry, prose and artwork. They are also offering a poetry contest with prizes up to $300, and a self-publishing service for poetry chapbooks.

The title of the press is taken from their poetry book published by Ibbetson Street Press in 2007. Read excerpts and ordering information here. The book is illustrated with Helen’s luminous watercolor landscapes of Israel, whose tranquility forms a counterpoint to the authors’ poignant explorations of their beloved country’s political strife.

The first issue of their thrice-yearly webzine includes work by Magdalena Ball, Doug Holder, Zvi Sesling, Rochelle Mass, Ellaraine Lockie, Susan Rosenberg, and many other writers from around the world. Among the fiction offerings is another chapter from my novel-in-progress. “Career” is a flash-fiction piece in which Julian recounts a formative childhood memory. Here’s the opening paragraph:

It was one of Daddy’s happy nights so he was driving too fast down the hill that came after the school but before the golf course, with me and Carter strapped in the back seat screaming like we were enjoying ourselves, because that was what we were supposed to do. The air in the car was bourbon, it was the heaviness of the clouds before rain. We opened the windows and let the wind slap our faces, we yelled out like dogs.

Read the rest here.

Mistakes in the Bible?

A deeply devout friend of mine raised a key question about gay Catholic theologian James Alison’s discussion of the stoning of Achan in Joshua 7, which I had quoted in this post. Alison takes the story as an example of the kind of scapegoating Jesus intended us to move beyond, yet the story implies that God Himself sanctioned Achan’s death as the means to remove the people’s guilt.

Thus, my friend asked, “Whenever the Old Testament attributes a command, or some other kind of word, to God, are we called TODAY to take it on faith that God did indeed speak that word? Or do we have the option of seeing in the text a case of misunderstanding on the part of the Israelites as to what God actually said or meant?” Needless to say, this possibility undermines our confidence that any part of the Bible can be trusted as revelation. 

She also suggested a less drastic option, which she attributed to Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. In his discussion of the “holy wars” in Joshua and Judges, which we find so troubling in our post-Crusades, post-Holocaust moral universe, McLaren reportedly says that God relates to us differently at different stages of human cultural evolution. As my friend summarizes this position, “God may command something that He knows is the only thing that will work in the present socio/spiritual/historical context, even though it is His desire and plan that His people will ultimately be able to transcend this way of being, as they find salvation and liberation in Jesus…just as the Old Testament law was not given to be permanent, but as a necessary tool for the people in that stage of their spiritual growth.” (Gal 3:24)

Thus we find ourselves once again between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of situation ethics! In my opinion, McLaren’s solution is not without its risks, but I’ll take it every time over trying to justify acts that would be clearly evil if performed in our own day. Is it possible that not every action in the Bible is there for us to pass judgment upon? That God’s command to obliterate the Amalekites is not an occasion to debate “Go thou and do likewise: pro or con” but rather to practice the humility commended to us in Romans 14:4? “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.”

Where the self-styled orthodox are afraid we will go with this is the naive progressivism of some liberal defenders of gay rights, who uncritically assume that contemporary political values are the standard against which to judge the Bible. It was to such people that G.K. Chesterton addressed his great aphorism that tradition was the democracy of the dead. (Read the passage in context here.)

However, I do think that we have made progress beyond the mores of the Vikings in many ways, if not all, and that the Bible itself recognizes the idea of evolving standards, such that practices and concepts appropriate for one generation need not be defended for all time. “The Law was our schoolmaster until Christ came.” There is a way to recognize the superiority of your cultural moment on a particular issue, IN LIGHT OF the Christian standard. In other words, not because it is contemporary but because it actually lines up better with the values of the Bible itself. 

So, to answer my friend’s original question, I think one can accept everything James Alison says without having to believe that the Bible inaccurately records what God said to THOSE people at THAT time.

Yet we also don’t have to believe, contra certain conservatives/evangelicals, that all the mores and circumstances that pertained during a particular episode of revelation should be replicated by all future generations. E.g. if St. Paul mentions in passing, in service of a wholly different point, the assumption that certain same-sex practices are immoral, we are free to reopen the question based on new information about what those practices actually are and whether that understanding of morality brings people closer or further away from love of God and neighbor.

Book Notes: Orpheus in the Bronx

In poet and critic Reginald Shepherd’s new book, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, I find it telling that the comma in the title is placed after “identity”, deliberately severing the phrase “identity politics”, just as these lyrical essays make it their mission to champion a poetic imagination that is not subordinate to the politics of race, class, and sexual orientation.

Whereas critics may chide him for not embracing certain subjects or modes of diction that are recognizably “black” or “gay”, Shepherd questions the assumption that those tropes always represent the authentic self. Without denying his experience of poverty, racism or homophobia, he suggests that he should not be obligated to build his poetic identity on the unchosen conditions of his oppression. Otherwise we lose the main hope that literature offers us, a space uncolonized by the powers that be.

The identity card school of poetry is very popular in our current era, when rhetorical fantasies of democracy and equality in cultural life have become tin-pot substitutes for the real things in social, political, and economic life. But literature is one of the few areas of life in which I do not feel oppressed, in which I have experienced true freedom. In the literary realm one is not bound by social constructions of identity, or required to flash one’s assigned identity card: one can be anyone, everyone, or no one at all. This is one of literature’s most precious qualities, the access it allows us to otherness (including our otherness to ourselves), and it is one of the things that I cherish most about poetry.

…I have written poems that directly address identifiably “black” subject matters, and it is disproportionately those poems that tend to be reprinted and to be discussed, those poems for which audiences perk up at readings. But I am just as much a black person when I write about spring snow or narcissus blossoms as when I write about the South Bronx or the slave trade, and I am just as much not. (Though the same black lesbian performance poet who implied that literacy was oppressive also asserted that poems about spring or snow had no relevance to black people or to poor people or to HIV positive people. Presumably in this view black people, poor people, HIV positive people have no experiences other than being black, being poor, being HIV positive, are nothing but their social labels, and thus they don’t experience spring or snow. I hardly need point out what a reductive and even dehumanizing perspective this represents.)
(“The Other’s Other”, pp.51-52)

We also deceive ourselves that politically correct poetry is a substitute for actually improving the conditions of oppressed groups. (Thus he refuses to join the other camp of the academic culture wars, the naively color-blind conservatives.) This dovetails with another of Shepherd’s major themes–that art is not the world, and that its value lies in making visible the creative tension between representation and reality.

Poetry is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In this sense, the drive to make poetry “relevant” is a concession or a surrender to instrumental values, to the imperative of use and functionality: poetry had better be good for something. And poetry simply isn’t politically efficacious; as Auden so perceptively noted, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The conflation of the existence of social, political, and economic elites with muddled notions of intellectual or aesthetic “elitism” is sheer obfuscation. The power elite in this country care nothing for art or culture; they care about money and power and the means to acquire and retain them. Art is not among those means.

…Poetry’s preservation of mystery is its preservation of a space not colonized by capitalism’s totalizing impulse. This is also the preservation of a space not colonized by instrumental reason. The poem embodies this space in its specificity as an event in language: a good poem is not simply a recounting or reenactment of an extralinguistic event, but an occasion of its own. The poem is a new thing in the world (or better: it is a new event), not simply a copy or an account of an already existing thing: it cannot be reduced to its “meaning” or its “content.” Part of what poetry does is remind us that things and events, including language, including ourselves, aren’t as accessible or as apprehensible as we think they are. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky described art as a mode of defamiliarization, making the familiar strange, or perhaps revealing it to have been strange all along when not seen through the smudged and blurred lens of habit and routine.
(“The Other’s Other”, pp.53-54)

Though I don’t think Shepherd is religious, his worldview here could be described as sacramental. Substitute “the Eucharist” for “poetry” in the last paragraph above and you get something pretty close to the Catholic position. I began to believe in the presence of God in the sacraments one day when I held up the wafer and realized all matter is mysterious. The Eucharist just names that fact openly, and calls us to rejoice about it. It is not a case of turning something comprehensible into something alien, as the rationalist objection to our “mumbo-jumbo” has it. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson wrote, putting her finger on the reason why poetry is not inferior to prose.

Other offerings in this eclectic book range from an autobiographical essay to a defense of beauty and critical analyses of authors such as Jorie Graham, Alvin Feinman, and Jean Genet. I may write follow-up posts on these sections after I finish the book, but meanwhile, Shepherd’s defense of the boundary between art and life has cleared a way forward for me to understand some serious problems with my own creative process.

Never inclined to enmesh art with politics, I was unaware until about four days ago that I was enmeshing art with therapy, and also with evangelism, in a way that turned each objective into a pale simulacrum. Repeat after me: Solving problems in your novel is not the same as solving them in your life. And what is perhaps the corollary: If you cannot convince yourself that your characters can find love, hope, forgiveness or purpose, you may just be traumatized and need a week off to play with your Barbie dolls.

What seems like a plot problem (how can I rescue my characters?), or, God help us, a metaphysical problem (there is no help for anyone), may be as simple as personal burnout. I was indulging in a sort of indiscriminate “authenticity” as a reaction against feelings of shame and fear about early traumatic experiences, which through God’s grace I am moving beyond. However, as Shepherd’s essays reminded me, art necessarily involves manipulation, distancing, a smokescreen, a defense. A fruitful distortion and transposition of your raw emotions and uninterpreted facts. It’s art. Artifice. Clothing. And that’s as it should be. Go ahead and put on the gospel armor, but if you’re going to Iraq, you also need a Kevlar vest.

For someone who supposedly believes she is saved by grace alone, I have been treating my novel less like a work of art with an independent internal logic, and more like a self-administered version of the Rorschach Test. Oh no, Prue is taking her clothes off and Ada is smoking crack–what an insane person I must be, to think this up! I had better stay home and shut up before I spread my inescapable cloud of melancholy over all these poor souls who need a book with a happy ending to lead them to Jesus.

If art is not therapy, neither is it the gospel. The Jesus in my novel is not the real Jesus, and any characters who may (despite their best efforts) get saved are not real people. Their salvation or lack thereof has no bearing on my own. To the extent that I forgot this, I began to fear that I would never see God face to face, because I was looking for Him in a place where only His shadow is visible. Contra Marianne Moore, there are no imaginary gardens with real toads in them. However, there are real gardens.

What is left, then, of my vocation to be a Christian artist? To treat art more like the other activities in my life, like baking cookies or updating the Winning Writers database. It’s something I do while being a Christian, but it’s not the arena in which my spiritual fitness is proved or disproved. As the gospel song says, “The old account was settled long ago.” The challenge I must take on is not how to preach through my art, but how to let my art be itself. Just itself, not a substitute for prayer, evangelism, self-worth, or confronting actual sources of suffering that I learned to palliate with imaginative escape when I lacked the power to change my circumstances.

Nancy K. Pearson: “Thought Thinking Itself”

Nancy K. Pearson’s first collection of poetry, Two Minutes of Light, is the latest winner of the Perugia Press Intro Award. She has kindly permitted me to reprint a poem from her book below. Read more of her work and buy the book here.

Thought Thinking Itself

Suddenly, all the things I do not understand
discreetly twinkle below a surface.

A gristle of duckweed gleams through a thick chop of ice.
The green wafer of a fish drifts up through a pudding of eelgrass.

For 10 years, I lived mostly on psych wards & nothing burnished 
than my overestimated connection to grief.

One year, my roommate consumed small amounts of arsenic 
    for a week.
Everyday, she stirred it through her warm brown soup.

Three blood transfusions later, she lit two portable charcoal grills
in the back seat of her Subaru & died.

We reassemble our lives & discover nothing.
Just under the skin, a tiny wick of green ignites a garlic clove.

In the early 1990’s, something went terribly wrong.
All around me, young women were diagnosed & diagnosed.

After a month on a psych ward, doctors discovered I had fifteen 
I was twenty. I made them all up. This is a true story.

If I could live my twenties again, I would not sever to untangle—
flight is a single ligament balanced between two forces.

In the snow, the geese link chains & I follow their past.
There is nothing at the end to unravel.

Dan Bellm: “Practice”

Dan Bellm is the author of the poetry collections One Hand on the Wheel (Roundhouse Press, 1999), Buried Treasure (Cleveland State University Press, 1999), and Practice: A book of midrash (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2008). His work has appeared in several anthologies, including Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry (Talisman House Publications, 2000) and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). He has kindly given me permission to reprint the title poem from his new book below. I discovered Bellm through Image Update, the e-newsletter of the literary journal Image, which has an excellent review of Practice here.


Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.
Deuteronomy 15:1
How simple it ought to be, to practice compassion
on someone gone, even love him, long as he’s not
right there in front of me, for I turned to address him,
as I do, and saw that no one’s lived in that spot
for quite some time. O turner-away of prayer—
not much of a God, but he was never meant to be.
For the seventh time I light him a candle; an entire
evening and morning it burns; not a light to see
by, more a reminder of light, a remainder, in a glass
with a prayer on the label and a bar code from the store.
How can he go on? He can’t. Then let him pass
away; he gave what light he could. What more
will I claim, what debt of grace he doesn’t owe?
If I forgive him, he is free to go.

Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:16–16:17

Read more of Dan Bellm’s poetry online at

Recent Publications: “Leaving Olympus” and “Poem Written on a Dirty Stove”

My poem “Leaving Olympus” has just been published in the new issue of Conte: A Journal of Narrative Writing. This handsomely designed webzine also includes great work by David Wright, Eliza Kelley, John N. Miller and others I have yet to explore. “Leaving Olympus” is a poem about Julian, or possibly by him. He’s not telling.

In other news, my poem “Poem Written on a Dirty Stove” appears in the Summer 2008 issue of Heartlodge: Honoring the House of the Poet, a quarterly journal edited by award-winning writers Cheryl Loetscher, Leta Grace McDonald and Andrea L. Watson. As the issue is not available online, I’m reprinting the poem below.

Poem Written on a Dirty Stove

With the last cherries crushed on his tongue,
he says the pie reminds him
of autumn at Welch Lake, the eye-watering tang
of consummation in the air.
My spoon scrapes the dish like an oar
stuttering in unexpected sand. It’s slipped his memory
it wasn’t me he laid down in those reeds.

Later, the stars rise like a thousand cranes
and water babbles over soiled plates.
So much longer in the planning than the baking,
longer the baking than the savor.
The furniture we invited in
now rubs up against us, insistent as stray cats.
Only position differentiates the pinhole stars.

My eyes would hoard the spear of every darkening tree,
each faultline of needles in the snow,
green stitches the next day’s weather will unpick.
Vertigo to realize he is speaking,
a voice too familiar to notice,
like your own limb before it’s wounded.

Our bodies twined, like gorgeous bread egg-slick,
we feed and disappear. A case of manna.
Where are joys stored? I want only
to see what I see.
Darling, it was so good I never
need to do this again.
One star, one meal, one night – till dawn
dissolves the sky like lemon ice,
and kind amnesia brings our hunger back.

Book Notes: Undergoing God

A rarity among Christian apologists, gay Catholic theologian James Alison combines intellectual sophistication with personal vulnerability and sincerity, leaving the reader with the impression that he has truly staked his life on the beliefs he expounds. 

Alison is one of those authors whose writings all spring from a central idea. In his case, the idea is that we fallen human beings try to shore up our selfhood by defining ourselves against a scapegoated group, but Christ voluntarily took on the scapegoat role we are all trying to avoid, and thereby gave us a new identity as the people whom God loves. All comparisons among ourselves are revealed as idolatrous and insubstantial compared to our universal sinfulness vis-a-vis Christ, whose love gives us the courage to face this reality and not be undone by it.

In Undergoing God, a collection of Alison’s recent essays and lectures, he applies this paradigm to the controversy over gays and the church. A few of these essays are available on his website.

Below are some quotes from one of my favorites, “Wrath and the gay question: on not being afraid, and its ecclesial shape”. This piece, not included in the book, is a good introduction to his thought. Alison argues that both liberal and fundamentalist Christians wrongly pride themselves on their attitude toward the gay and lesbian “difference”. The truly Christian response would be to recognize our common humanity and deconstruct all conceptual schemes that make our goodness dependent on the creation of an Other, whether we affirm that Other or condemn him.

…I would like to trace with you the way in which there is both no violence in Christ, and yet the result of his coming includes violence. To trace the process by which “the wrath of God”, something literally attributed to the divinity in parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, becomes the anthropological reality known to Paul as “wrath”, and can even be referred to as “the wrath of the Lamb”.

Let me give you some background: in a classic lynch murder, such as that described in Joshua 7, where “All Israel” gathers against Achan and “stones him with stones”, the wrath of God is simply, and straightforwardly associated with the group’s loss of morale, and the subsequent build up to anger which turns them into a lynch mob. First the anger of God is detected in the collapse of morale, the melting hearts, of the sons of Israel who have just undergone a minor military defeat. So God provides Joshua with a lottery to determine at whose door responsibility for the defeat should be laid. When the lottery achieves its purpose of finding a suitable culprit, all Israel discharges stones, murdering Achan. In their very act of ganging up together, unanimously, against poor Achan, of whose guilt they convince themselves through the liturgical mechanism of the lottery, they create peace among themselves. And in that very moment when their stones are all discharged, then “the Lord turned from his burning anger” (Joshua 7, 26). Of course he did: the shifting patterns of fear and mutual recrimination which had riven the people have been overcome by their triumphant and enthusiastic unanimity. From their perspective it feels as though “peace has been given them”. This is, in fact, peace, in the way the world gives it, the peace which comes from unanimity in righteous hatred of an evildoer. But it is misperceived by the participants as peace flowing from the divinity thanks to the right sacrifice having been offered.

The power of this experience is very real, and can still be detected when human lynching has found its substitute in animal sacrifice. It appears that the role of the priest in early forms of atonement sacrifice was to cover the participants with the blood of the animal so as to protect people from the wrath. It was as though the blood sprinkled over them wove a huge protective covering against wrath. The Hebrew letters כפר from which we get “Yom Kippur” and our word “atonement” designate a form of covering. It does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to see that the freedom from wrath which came with the successful production of unanimity in the murdering of a victim, and which probably involved the participants being splattered with blood, could then be reproduced liturgically. The priest slaughters the animal, sacrificing it to the divinity, and then sprinkles the blood over the people, unanimously gathered to receive the fruits of the sacrifice. In the liturgical unanimity that occurs under the cover of the blood, the assuaging of the wrath is remembered and made newly present.

Interestingly, Israel does not seem to have stuck only with this model of sacrifice, but also had the very special Day of Atonement sacrifice where it was YHWH himself, through the High Priest, acting “in personam Yahveh”, who offered his own blood, symbolized by a lamb, for the people, who were then covered with it, this blood being taken to restore creation from the various forms of ensnarlments with which humans had distorted it. Here we begin to glimpse the notion of the victim performing the sacrifice for the people which will be brought to fulfilment in the New Testament….


…[Jesus] gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.

Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient world’s views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. This is not the way we saw with Achan, where the temporary freedom from wrath comes with the outbreak of unanimous violence which creates singleness of heart among the group. What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of “wrath” which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.

So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.

The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being “run” by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldn’t possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again.

Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no lo
nger be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus’ coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes, the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you.


…[O]ne of the symptoms of “wrath” in our world, and it is indeed only one of the symptoms, and a comparatively unimportant one at that, is the emergence in the midst of all of our societies, whether we like it or not, of the gay question.

It is also obvious that one of the ways of dealing with this is to attempt to come up with some such formula as “look, we’re discovering that people we used to regard as weird and even evil are just different. But since they are functional to the way modern society works, just as we are, let us learn to live with our difference”. The key phrase here is “they are functional to the way modern society works, just as we are”. And this means that it is modern society, its structures of desire and survival, which get to run the show, because it is modern social structures, and their financial and corporate systems which get to determine what “likeness” is. And this means the “living with difference” isn’t really living with difference at all. It is really living with a sameness which is dictated by certain patterns of desire. And part of the way we protect ourselves against having to take seriously whether these patterns of desire really come from God, or are the pomps and splendours of this world, is by having decorative “difference” in the midst of all this sameness, and feeling proud of ourselves for being so broad-minded.

Well, I want to say: No! I am not at all interested in being given a post-modern identity which is in fact merely functional to the particular shape of wrath in our time. I am interested in becoming a son and heir to the whole of creation through the arduous discovery of my likeness with my sisters and brothers. I understand how it is one of the delusions of wrath that it is able to point to the growing visibility and public and legal acceptability of gay people and their lives and relationships and see this as an attack on the “family” and the “divinely given order of society”. But it is a delusion of wrath, like that of the Venetians against Shylock, because all it does is disguise from all of us quite how much the unleashing of desire which continues apace in our world, our capitalist, globalizing, technological world, does in fact subvert from within and change every form of relationship, including family relationships. It disguises from us how much we are all already run by these things, and how arduous it is for any of us to receive holiness of life, of desire, and of relationships in the midst of all this. And it sets things up for us to fight about this, rather than to help each other out of the hole.


…[W]hat Jesus is doing is very especially occupying the place of shame, and of wrath. And he is doing so in such a way as to detoxify it for ever. When he pronounces himself the Gate of the Sheep, he is referring to the gate by which sheep were led into the temple for slaughter. He indicates that the Good Shepherd does what the shepherds of Israel never did: he goes in as a sheep with the sheep into the sacrificial space. They are not frightened of him since they recognise that he is the same as them. The Shepherd is thus able to lead the sheep in and out to find pasture, something previously impossible. No one ever led sheep out from the Temple abattoir. It was as one-way a track as the railway line to Treblinka. Only one who was not affected by death could lead sheep in and out of the place of shame, wrath and sacrifice, so as to find pasture. So by himself becoming the abattoir door, the Shepherd makes the sacrificial space no longer a dead end, no longer a trap. He even points out how different this is from the thieves and hirelings, easily recognisable ways of referring to the religious and political leaders who ran the Temple and the system of goodness. Such leaders never went into the Temple through the abattoir door, but rather through another way, and then from above, they took the sheep for sacrificial slaughter (θύσῃ, John 10,10). But when there was any real religious crisis, whenever wrath threatened, or the wolf came, they could be guaranteed not to stand up for their sheep, not to dare to go through the same door as they insisted the sheep go, but rather to flee and leave the sheep to be scattered and the prey of every wild beast. And this of course is true of any system of goodness to this day, such as the ones which give sustenance to those of us who are “religious professionals”.

Well it seems to me that what Jesus is doing in “going to his Father”, “going to Death”, “occupying the space of shame and of wrath”, being both Shepherd and Abattoir door, is making the place of shame, of wrath, and of sacrifice into a pasture. And that means a place where we can be nourished, find wholeness, health and story to live by. The giving to us of the Holy Spirit is then the giving to us of the whole dynamic, the whole power, by which Jesus was able to occupy this place of annihilation, shame and wrath without being run by it. And this does seem to me something very powerful for gay and lesbian people. I wonder whether our ability to be able to sing one of Sion’s songs, to find that in our hearts are the highways to Zion (Psalm 84, 5) does not at the moment pass through our ability to be able to occupy the place of shame without being run by it.

This is a difficult notion, since shame produces flight. To be able to live in the midst of shame, by which I mean of course the space of shame which has for so long been so toxic, without being run by it may turn out to be a hugely positive feat. This is the space where, because one no longer has anything to lose, is no longer frightened, knows that the only thing left that they can take away is your life, and that is already in the hands of Another, because of all this, one can develop a tender regard for those who are like one, and a tender regard leads to a creative imagination, and a playful generosity of heart.

This is where I suspect that the Holy Spirit may be beginning to produce gay and lesbian stories which will turn out to be irrefutably Christian. Where Jesus has made us not ashamed and not frightened of occupying the space of shame. Where he has enabled us no longer to be run by the wrath which has so defined us in past generations, there we will be able to discover our likeness with those others who have needed us to occupy that position because it is the only way they think they can keep wrath at bay.

You see, I’m not sure that anything, any power at all can resist shame held delicately in tenderness. And I’m not sure that anyone can predict what creativity, gifts and life will emerge from such a peaceful place.

Jeff Walt: “The Life You Want”

Award-winning poet Jeff Walt has been published in many well-regarded journals such as New Millennium Writings, Runes, Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry & Prose, The Comstock Review, and The Ledge, plus several anthologies. The poem below is reprinted from his website with his permission. Read more of his work on the NMW and Gival Press websites (the latter uses frames, so no direct link is available; click on “Authors” in left-hand sidebar).

The Life You Want

Everywhere you look you see it
thriving: running by every morning in Spandex,
resting in a hammock sipping tea

most afternoons. The songs you adore rush
mellifluous from someone else’s mouth.
A Humvee, a log cabin in Montana, and a body

that would make you feel
complete cut from chic magazines.
Your sorrows grow faster than your garden.

The flowers understand serenity better—that’s why
you resent their beauty, their quiet knowledge.
Anxiety a dog that always needs walking. Envy

a hive in your head. So, again
you read the self-help books, repeat
the angelic affirmations. You forget it all

standing in line at Wal-Mart, wanting to kill
the clerk because she’s slow, hating
the guy in front of you for buying so much stuff, pissed

because they haven’t discovered a way
to squeeze enlightenment into your shampoo;
because you can’t order it off a drive-thru menu, get it

SuperSized. You’ve seen the life you want
pulling fruit from its orchard, losing weight
and making friends, humming sweetly

on the other side of the hedge—giving freely
what you can’t understand. How? and Why not me?
rotting like bruised apples inside your head.

Stacey Waite: “XY” and “Finding My Voice”

Continuing this week’s Trans Pride theme, below are two poems from Stacey Waite’s chapbook love poem to androgyny, winner of the 2006 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest. Thanks to M. Scott Douglass at MSR for permission to reprint. Stacey has just won another prestigious award, the Tupelo Press Snowbound Series, for her forthcoming chapbook the lake has no saint. Put it on your Amazon wishlist today.


The doctor, who speaks slowly, after spending
quite a few moments to himself in his gray office,
says there is a strong possibility I am “chromosomally
mismatched,” which cannot be determined now
unless I pay for the test, because according to
my coverage, the test is not necessary due
to the fact that I am “out of the danger zone.”

The danger zone is puberty, when, he says,
“women like me” are at risk for developing
genital abnormalities. I look back at myself at 13,
staring at my body. And I think it might have
all made sense to me somehow, if my clitoris grew
like a wild flower and hung its petals between my thighs,
which were plumping up in that adult woman way.

The doctor is careful with me, knowing how my being XY
makes me a bad example of a woman, an XY woman
is an ex-woman, whose blood has been infected by Y.
The testosterone rising like a fire in her blood.
The doctor looks mostly at his chart, he wants me to disappear,
to put back, in order, his faith in the system of things.
He wants me to react correctly, to be ashamed.

I sit nervously in the paper robe, which covers only
the front of my naked body, the cold laboratory air
drifting up through the gown, my nipples hardening
like the heads of screws. He doesn’t know he’s given
me a second chance at my body. I think about the man
I could have been. I make a list of names and settle
on “Michael” after my father, who did not love me.

I imagine the girls in my high school I would have
been able to love. Michael could have saved me
from all of this, from the sound of my voice,
from the years of wearing someone else’s skin
in the form of a church dress. Michael
is the easier version of me.

When the doctor leaves me to dress myself,
I shove his crumpled up paper gown in the crotch
of my briefs. I cover my chest with the eye chart
and try to look for Michael. But he is not able
to be seen. He is out emptying the trash at the curb.
He is in me in the way that a man is in a woman.


Finding My Voice

When Dr. Rosen says he can “fix my voice,” he means
he will give me shots of estrogen that will surge through
my body like electric shocks, sending the hair on my chin
and stomach running for cover. He doesn’t want me to be warm.

He doesn’t want to listen to my large truck voice
fill his office like his soy milk
bursting up from his coffee’s deep bottom.
He wants to imagine me as an affirmation.

He wants me perched upon his plastic table
with my smooth naked legs, singing hymns
in the voice of a woman who needs him
in order to recover some piece of herself

that has been swallowed by the jaws of testosterone,
opening and closing hard like the doors of angry lovers.
He doesn’t exactly know that he hates me,
the feeling is more like gender indigestion,

how the sound of my voice keeps rising
up in his throat and he can’t rid himself
of the image of my lover who stretches out
nude in the dark bed, presses her hand
above my chest saying,

“talk to me, please, talk.”

New England Transgender Pride March: Photos and Reflections

The first-ever New England Transgender Pride March took place this weekend in Northampton, and I was there with my “Episcopal Church Welcomes You” rainbow tank top and a digital camera to capture the pageantry. I was hoping to blend into the MassEquality contingent, but they were scattered around other groups this time, so I just milled around looking like I knew what I was doing, and took lots of pictures. Next thing I knew, someone had handed me a bunch of purple and white balloons, and I was marching behind the lead banner, shouting “Trans Pride Now”.  

Without either of my moms this time, I felt anxious that I didn’t have the right to be there. Straight allies are important, but on the other hand, was I co-opting someone else’s oppressed subculture? (I had a Native American Studies professor in college who was apoplectic about this.) The fact is, when you’re genuinely weird, and view all human social categories as potential idols to be deconstructed, the pleasures of communal solidarity are hard to come by. I have, at various times in my life, been a semi-kosher Jew and a Christian, a Republican and a Democrat, and worst of all, a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan. I’ve argued for the Trinity to radical feminists and argued for gay marriage in my conservative prayer group. I genuinely want to be part of something with more than three members–heck, I even persuaded myself to get teary at John Kerry’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech–but until I can find the Island of Misfit Toys on GoogleMaps, that kind of surrogate family may never be mine.

So as I carried my balloons down Main Street in the blazing heat, past neighbors who undoubtedly knew I was not transgender, I felt slightly idiotic and very conspicuous. That is, until I began to imagine that actual trans people must feel this way a lot of the time, their daily lives a constant round of puzzlement and hostility from a society that doesn’t know how to categorize them. I couldn’t be trans, but I could offer up a few minutes of solidarity with their experience of social exclusion, an experience that I as a straight white woman have the privilege of avoiding if I so choose.

Whereas the main Northampton Pride March in May had a family-oriented, carnival atmosphere, Trans Pride was more bohemian and political. From their placards and speeches, it sounded like many trans folks felt they’d been sold out by the mainstream gay and lesbian activist groups, particularly the Human Rights Campaign’s decision to support the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act even though protections for gender identity and expression had been eliminated. Some speakers seemed concerned that groups like HRC were selling a more sanitized, bourgeois image of gay and lesbian life that ignored the poor, prisoners, people of color, and those whose sexuality and gender identity defied easy labeling. Maybe I was in the right place after all.

Is being queer a state of mind? Is queerness, like Protestantism, inherently self-fragmenting, as the need for a perfectly authentic personal identity clashes with the equally real need for affinity groups? The more precisely you draw your doctrinal statement (or define your gender), the closer you get to becoming an army of one.

I noticed that a volunteer legal services group had representatives on hand to take down the names and contact information of anyone photographing or videotaping the march, so they could find eyewitnesses if there were any incidents of violence or harassment. This awareness of danger was another point of difference from the Gay Pride march. I don’t know what the hate-crime statistics are for transgender people as compared with gays and lesbians, but perhaps transgenderism feels especially threatening to people whose sense of self and social position is based on masculine versus feminine (a/k/a strength versus weakness). Gays and lesbians, for the most part, just want to be added to the list of acceptable categories, whereas trans people are undermining the categories themselves, in a very visible way. I find some support for this project in Galatians 3:28.

The photos below were taken with permission. More videos and pictures will be posted on the TransPrideMarch website in the coming days.

Above: MassEquality volunteer Gunner Scott (in the yellow shirt) with fellow members of the MTPC.

Above: Northampton’s versatile and entertaining antiwar chorus, the Raging Grannies, and other groups from the parade.

Some get the message across with words…

And some, just by being fabulous.

Above: Jackie Matts, one of the TransPrideMarch organizers.

This boy was so proud of his transgender mom…

…I had to capture the back of his shirt too.

Gotta wonder what that cop is thinking.