Ellery Akers: “The Word That Is a Prayer”

Debates about the Word of God can preoccupy us so much, we forget that Christ’s real message, compassion, is much simpler but far from easy. That’s why I like this poem, reprinted here by permission from American Life in Poetry, a project of the Poetry Foundation.

American Life in Poetry: Column 312

Ellery Akers is a California poet who here brings all of us under a banner with one simple word on it.

The Word That Is a Prayer

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1997 by Ellery Akers, whose most recent book of poetry is Knocking on the Earth, Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Reprinted from The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010, by permission of Ellery Akers and the publishers. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Murder Ballad Monday: Johnny Cash, “I Hung My Head”

Crime stories fascinate us because they give voice to our anxiety that a single rash misstep can irrevocably alter our fate. My prison pen pals’ letters give ample proof of this, as does this week’s musical selection, one of the Man in Black’s many haunting ballads about lives wasted through violence. You can find it on the last and greatest album he released during his lifetime, American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around.

Poems on Death Row

Last month I shared part of a letter from my prison pen pal “Jon”, in which he talked about the crucial role of books and libraries in rehabilitating criminals. Jon and his co-defendant have just been convicted of a double homicide during a burglary, and now he is waiting for the jury to decide whether to sentence him to life without parole or the death penalty. He writes about his trial:

“The hardest parts were when family members of the departed testified. Then when some of my ex-girlfriends and family I haven’t seen in years testified on my behalf, I was shocked to hear all the good they had to say, but it did hurt a lot as well. I know I’ll likely never get out, but it makes it harder to see and be reminded of all the harm I caused to others, and of all the opportunities I had at having a happy life.”

It’s a sad commentary on the brutality of prison life that Jon, age 30, says he’d actually prefer the death sentence:

“I do not want to die, of course, but on death row I can live in solitude and peace. With life without, I will be forced to have a cellie, and be around others. That is a very negative environment for me, and I don’t believe I can handle it. I cannot focus around others at all. Also considering I walked away from the racist prison politics in my past, it can be rough for me, and I would likely be forced to violence, or not be able to contain myself. I suppose the best way to explain my feelings is to pose a question. Would you choose to live for twenty years in peace and then die, or would you choose to live 50-70 years in torture?”

Given that it’s taken the state of California seven years to bring Jon’s case to trial, his estimate of 20 years to execution may be close to the truth.

Meanwhile, here are some poems he’s been writing while he waits to learn what his future holds.


With bare walls of graffiti,
cut and carved, etched and written.
Halls of hallowed curses,
and purses held on paper.
Smitten with the photos,
of foes and scarlet maidens.
Lost souls, cups for bowls,
salvation becomes the answer.
Animals are cockroaches,
or perhaps the spider that can eat them.
Rats are thieves, swift in the night,
taking crumbs, and leaving their stench.
Light comes through the cracks,
on benches made of stone.
Whispers travel dreamily in silence,
in an alliance of shujin prayers.
Listening closely to the air,
a gentle remedy, defeats the dark.



Clanging chains and rattling hopes
awaiting an outcome
that should surely come to death
there’s no gray lines
no more right and wrong
just have patience
the verdict might come soon
Were they so surprised
that I told the truth
and was it such a shock
when I explained pro-death
waiting for results
to see what they’ll decide
will they understand true justice
or will they cower down inside


When the Sun Goes Down

There was a sunset in the sky
and a fabrication in the stars
it’s falling into darkness
never near nor far
the coldness will come soon
consuming all the warmths
of all the temples’ stones–
What is left will be a shell
of just another shattered youth

Murder Ballad Monday: Lyle Lovett, “L.A. County”

This beautifully understated ballad of a jilted lover moves relentlessly toward its deadly conclusion. You need to listen closely to understand that a murder has occurred, because it’s not gory or passionate, but rather described with a sociopathic calm.

This version comes from A&E’s Live By Request. The song is originally off his “Pontiac” album.

The Erotic Christ: Jesus in Love Blog Interviews Hunter Flournoy

This month on the Jesus in Love Blog, a resource for queer spirituality and the arts, Kittredge Cherry interviews Hunter Flournoy, a psychotherapist and shamanic healer who teaches “Erotic Body of Christ” workshops to help gay and bisexual men make a mystic, sensual connection with the divine. Here’s an excerpt. I was struck by the commonalities with Buddhism: the idea that the root of suffering is separation not only from God but from one another, and that we can attain transcendence by embracing the suffering of the world, not as self-punishment but as compassionate participation.

KC: Many LGBT people have been wounded by the false teaching that homosexuality is a sin. What message does the erotic Christ have for them?

HF: Our sexual energy is the most powerful tool we have to shatter the illusion of separation, which is what the original Christians meant by “sin.” The essential question we must ask ourselves is, am I using sex to bring myself alive, to overcome separation and incarnate the divine, or am I using it to medicate or avoid my own experience of being alive? This was the original understanding of chastity: it calls us to the highest possible relationship with our own sexual energy. All sexual experience can break down the boundaries and defenses we use to separate ourselves from each other and from God – we become one body, one being. Sex can also teach us how to give ourselves totally (kenosis) to each other, how to receive each other completely (plerosis), and how to surrender to the transfiguring power of our own erotic experience. As LGBT people, we also have an innate understanding that our erotic experience, our pleasure, desire, ecstasy, and union, can serve a purpose other than reproduction. Our erotic joy is a source of profound creativity, deep empathy, and a wild ecstasy that can take us out of who we are into a far greater sense of being.

KC: As you say, the idea of “suffering as Christ suffered” has been abused in legalistic religious systems. But gay bashing and other forms of “crucifixion” continue. How can the erotic Christ help in situations of real human suffering?

HF: There is nothing inherently spiritual or useful in suffering; it is useless to suffer as Jesus suffered. Nor did Jesus advocate cooperating with abuse and injustice. What he advocated and demonstrated – what really matters – is loving as he loved, embracing everything and everyone, including suffering, as Jesus embraced it. Instead of rejecting our suffering, trying to medicate, numb, get rid of it or distract ourselves from it, we learn how to embrace it, without indulging it or running from it. We let our suffering shatter our sense of self, our sense of control, and our need to make sense of the world. This is what the Christian mystics called katharsis. Second, our embrace transforms suffering into a searingly powerful erotic experience . . . it is like a fire that fills our whole being, a great trembling ache that breaks into the profound peace the mystics called theoria. Finally, we discover through this embrace that we are welcoming not only our own suffering, but the world’s suffering . . . we begin to experience ourselves as the world, as Christ’s body, and ultimately as God, in the mystery of theosis.

Read the whole interview here. Visit the Erotic Body of Christ website to learn more.

AWP Report (Part 2): This One’s For the Grrls

Continuing my reflections on the AWP 2011 literary conference last month…

Two of the most memorable panels I attended addressed issues of gender and literature. I have never had much use for the head-counting strain of liberalism that correlates diversity with simple demographics. Is there such a thing as a (or worse, THE) “female perspective” and what’s wrong with me if I don’t have it? Thus, I was happy to discover that “The Great Indoors”, Thursday’s panel on women’s under-representation in major magazines and book reviews, also took aim at our assumptions about “women’s subjects” versus “universal subjects” in literature. The panelists were Cate Marvin, Patti Horvath, Mary Cappello, and moderator Randall Mann.

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts was founded in 2009 by award-winning poets Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding women’s work as well as the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture. Their most high-profile project is “The Count”, an annual compilation of statistics comparing the percentages of men and women published in top journals like Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. The ratio is usually one-quarter to one-third women. (Even I have noticed that The Atlantic scarcely ever has women as contributors, except for the lifestyle articles about why the sexual revolution has failed.)

Marvin said that since most of the work in these journals is solicited by the editors, it’s possible they are not working hard enough to reach outside their circle of friends. Women also tend to be less proactive about sending out work. We don’t take ourselves seriously enough as professional writers.

The gender imbalance is even more pronounced in the critics’ reception of women’s work. According to VIDA’s stats, fewer than 25% of the books reviewed in the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books are by women. Since the majority of book buyers are female, why isn’t there more perceived demand for women’s books?

Horvath suggested that critics assume that typically male subject matter (e.g. physical adventures in far-off lands) is universal, more impressive and important, while typically female subject matter (relationships) is special-interest. What makes one topic male and another female? This is where essentialist feminists usually lose my vote, with their sentimental division of the world into gendered skill sets.

But instead, Horvath contended, with great wit and passion, that constraints on women’s physical safety in a patriarchal society steer us towards some topics and away from others. She recalled the time, early in her studies, when a creative writing professor told her that to be a great author, she had to hop on a boxcar and tour the country, hobo-style. Yeah, good luck with that, hope it’s a boxcar full of mace… More recently, she was walking through New York at night with a male friend who pointed out winsome architectural details that she’d never noticed. How had she, a writer, not been more observant? Because, when a woman (but not a man) is walking alone through the city at night, a large share of her attention is devoted to threat perception. She keeps her head down and moves quickly.

As someone whose lifestyle is much closer to Emily Dickinson’s than Jack Kerouac’s, I found this quite validating.

The other panel that made a big impression on me was “Don’t Call Me Mother”, Friday’s panel on women writers who were child-free by choice. For me, being at AWP was a refreshing break from the endlessly frustrating and surreal process of looking for a child to adopt. I was surrounded by women whose identity and community were not dependent on motherhood, whether or not they had children. I saw models for how a woman could still be creative and connected to past and future generations, even in a distinctly female way (if she wanted to be), but outside the family unit. This is important to me because (1) I may never succeed at having children and (2) I never, ever want to put that pressure on my imaginary future scion to be the fulfillment of my life story instead of the protagonist of his/her/hir own.

The organizers of “Don’t Call Me Mother” were pleasantly surprised at the response to this topic. At least 50 women were packed into this small and hard-to-find seminar room in the remotest corner of the hotel. Many were asking for submission guidelines for their proposed anthology, which didn’t even have a website yet. Clearly they’ve touched a nerve.

Panel moderator Ellen Placey Wadey talked about the taboo in our society against women saying they don’t want children. It’s seen as unnatural, perhaps cold-hearted, perhaps threatening to our need to believe in mother-love without regrets. Both motherhood and non-motherhood have costs. All of the women on the panel (Wadey, Miki Howald, Geeta Kothari) decided that their writing and their other interests meant more to them than parenting. There’s not enough energy to “do it all”. On the other hand, how does it impact your own aging, your sense of legacy, when you know there is no next generation to care for you?

This is the ambivalence that I, too, live with. It’s taken me several years of infertility and adoption losses–years that were also outstandingly productive for my growth as a writer–to affirm myself as good enough to be a mother notwithstanding that ambivalence (or maybe even because of it).

Panelists and participants alike expressed frustration at the frequent second-guessing of their choices. As writers, we find it insulting to be told that an important area of human experience will be beyond our understanding unless we personally live through it. But this is what child-free women often hear from doctors, relatives, or friends who are concerned that they’ll have regrets after their biological clock runs out of batteries.

Howald reported that her mother asked, “How will you know how much I love you if you don’t have children of your own?” and “Aren’t you afraid of being alone when you’re old?” However, Howald noted, we are all capable of being abandoned–children grow up and move away, disappoint their parents, die young, etc. In parenting as in writing, every decision forecloses others. We need to have faith and not fear the consequences of following the path that feels true for ourselves.

Both Howald and Kothari observed that parenthood seemed encumbering to their own mothers. Kothari read an excerpt from her nonfiction book-in-progress about her mother, a girl from a traditional Hindu family who left India at 22 to become a U.N. translator in the 1950s, thereby becoming wholly foreign to her family’s culture of early marriage and housewifery. Kothari’s parents’ marriage was difficult, and she wrote about feeling guilty for trapping her mother in a situation she would have left if not for the children.

I can’t imagine a panel like this about non-fatherhood by choice. For these women, and probably many others, the decision against children is not entirely about the children themselves, but about rejecting this role of “mother” which still entails unequal sacrifices based on gender.

Without children to transmit our stories, we have to get creative about our legacy. Who will know or care about the unique memories embedded in the objects we leave behind? Inspired by Sotheby’s auction of Jackie O’s possessions, Wadey is creating an auction of her own: Contact her, get to know her, explain why you’re the right person to have her grandmother’s embroidered tea towels (for example), and she’ll leave them to you in her will. She brought a few of her legacy objects to the reading, including the tea towels, which were decorated with girls doing chores and the names of the days of the week (though a couple of days were missing). The presentation was memorable, amusing, and somewhat sad, at least to me, however much the panel was about putting a bold face on childlessness.

That said…someone who collects Barbies is going to be very happy when I die. (Other people will be happy for other reasons.)

Wadey also read poetry by Jan Beatty , who was scheduled to be on the panel but couldn’t make it. Beatty’s powerful, raw poems delved into the traumas of being an adoptee–the unwanted result of a one-night stand–and losing her uterus to cancer. In place of the power to create new life, her work finds a darker power, the strength of a woman who has survived rejection and incompleteness and lives with those wounds. We are indeed all vulnerable to aging, death, and abandonment, but childless women have to face the truth sooner and
with fewer illusions–which is also the writer’s prophetic burden. As Beatty wrote, “What is a woman without a uterus?…She is the night coming into view.”

Read more reflections on this theme on the Wunderkammer Poetry blog, where Wadey curated a week of “Don’t Call Me Mother” essays in 2009.