Murder Ballad Monday: Baby Jesus Edition

I recently finished Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a superb historical mystery by Wesley Stace about British composers and music critics in the World War I era. The main characters are aficionados of folk ballads, traveling the countryside in the manner of the Brothers Grimm to record the “pure” versions of these oral traditions before the advance of modern technological culture sweeps them away. I’ve enjoyed combing YouTube and Spotify for recordings of some of the songs referenced in the novel.

One quirky and somewhat seasonal example is “The Bitter Withy”, which imagines young Jesus as rather a discipline problem for his longsuffering mother. You can read a plot summary, historical notes, and several versions of the lyrics at the Mainly Norfolk folk music site, a source that I expect to be mining for future posts. I like this performance by Lisa Knapp.

Our Lady of Milk

One nice thing about the Christmas season is the visibility of the divine feminine in the person of the Virgin Mary, in contrast to the entirely male or abstract representations of the sacred during the rest of the liturgical year. Perhaps this partly explains why even non-Christians feel moved and comforted by the imagery of this season.

Feminists have mixed feelings about Mary nowadays, the criticism being that a woman shouldn’t have to be asexual to be holy. But the Holy Mother was not always portrayed in such a bloodless fashion. Medieval and folk art include luscious representations of her breastfeeding the baby Jesus, a sweet reminder that ours is an incarnational faith. The artwork below is one of 20 such images collected at the blog St. Peter’s List. Read additional reflections on this topic at Jesus in Love.

If my astute readers know of any Christmas carols or hymns that reference the Virgin Mary breastfeeding, please share them in the comments.

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Feliz Navidad”

Longtime Reiter’s Block reader Donal Mahoney returns with this simple but profound poem about the kind of person we often overlook in our consumerist Christmas frenzy. It made me think of Pope Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, who is re-emphasizing the church’s commitment to economic justice.

Feliz Navidad

Pedro swings a mop all night
on the 30th floor of Castle Towers
just off Michigan Avenue
not far from the foaming Lake.
The floor is his, all his,
to swab and wax till dawn.

The sun comes up and Pedro’s
on the subway snoring,
roaring home to a plate
of huevos rancheros,
six eggs swimming
in a lake of salsa verde,
hot tortillas stacked
beside them.

After breakfast,
Pedro writes a poem
for Esperanza,
the wife who waits
in Nuevo Leon.
He mails the poem
that night, going back
to his bucket and mop.

Pedro’s proud
of three small sons,
soccer stars
in the making.
On Christmas Eve
the boys wait up
in Nuevo Leon
and peek out the window.
Papa’s coming home
for Christmas!

Pedro arrives at midnight
on a neighbor’s donkey,
laughing beneath
a giant sombrero.
He has a red serape
over his shoulder,
and he’s juggling
sacks of gifts.

When the donkey stops,
the boys dash out and clap
and dance in circles.
Esperanza stands
in the doorway
and sings
Feliz Navidad.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2013

It’s time once again for our annual roundup of the books, blog posts, and discoveries that made the most impact on me this year. Thanks for your loyal readership. Feel free to share your own favorite reads and revelations from 2013 in the comments. Books need not have been published in the current year.

Most Self-Esteem You Can Buy for $25:

Right now, it’s only a Halloween wig, but it’s inspiring me to fulfill a lifelong dream. Go ginger in 2014!

Strangest Discovery at a Church Tag Sale:

My astute husband spotted this planter at the Christmas fair at First Churches in Northampton, which was Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards’s church during the First Great Awakening. Edwards was kicked out of the pulpit eventually because he made too much fuss about teen boys reading dirty books. One can only imagine how he’d feel about this porcelain beauty, who has succulents growing out of her pelvis and right breast. My friends who remember pre-feminist kitsch have informed me that she was originally an ashtray: the matches go in the boob-hole and the cigarettes go, uh, down there. Which is even more disturbing.

Runner-up for Previous Award:

My church is nothing if not broad-minded. Thanks, St. John’s Christmas Fair. I’m looking forward to learning all about the Holy Foreskin.

Best Poetry Books:

So many this year, I can’t pick just one.

Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012)
With furious beauty and Promethean boldness, Diaz rewrites our cultural myths to speak her truth as a Mojave woman, a lover, an activist, and a sister bereaved by addiction.

Minnie Bruce Pratt, Crime Against Nature (2013)
This groundbreaking book recounts how the author lost custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian, then forged a beautifully honest relationship with them later in life. First published in 1989, it was reissued this year by A Midsummer Night’s Press in collaboration with the journal Sinister Wisdom.
Read my full review and excerpt here.

Jamaal May, Hum (2013)
This electric debut collection explores what it means to be an African-American man in Detroit, finding beauty in the ruins of the machine age. Read my full review and excerpt here.

Best Novel:

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree (2013)
Set in Western Massachusetts in the 18th century, during the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening, this luminous novel re-creates the domestic life and spiritual development of the theologian Jonathan Edwards. Stinson allows the complexity of the Puritan worldview to speak for itself, setting Edwards’s mystical delight in nature and his deep compassion alongside his severe views of God’s judgment and his defense of slave-owning.

Best Nonfiction Book/Best Parenting Book:

Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries (1991)
With bracing clarity, this maverick psychoanalyst explains how all kinds of cruelty, from child abuse to genocide, has its roots in traumatic and oppressive child-rearing practices. The child had to identify with the perpetrator’s perspective in order to survive, but is then at risk for revisiting this pain on the next generation. Healing comes when you finally stand on the side of the child you once were, validating her innocent needs and feelings, instead of continuing to internalize the judgments your parents projected onto you. Warning: this book may expose many of your religious beliefs as denial mechanisms…but that’s a subject for another post.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and “Selfishness”
I’ve come to believe that mothers trigger perceptions of “selfishness” in so many people, regardless of which choices the mother is making, because people are unconsciously angry about their own unmet childhood needs. Someone who had distant and unfeeling parents may view working mothers harshly, while someone who had smothering and needy parents may have a similar disdain for stay-at-home mothers.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal
I don’t know how you’d put this on a flag, but my version of awareness would be more radical. It would emphasize what survivors have in common–with each other, across different kinds of abuse, and with everyone who breathes in abuse-enabling myths in the air of our culture. We may not all be in a position to identify abused children and find services for them, but we can all ask ourselves: What do I believe–about God, power, knowledge, sexuality–that contributes to the silencing and minimizing of abuse? What might I be telling myself to silence myself?

Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church
Overreacting against fundamentalist divisiveness, our churches minimize genuine distinctions of culpability and power within the community we are creating. If inclusion is our only defining value, where is the conversation about accountability and transformation?

Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church
What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can’t accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God’s will for ourselves.

And finally, the most important award of them all…

World’s Best Toddler:

Happy New Year from Shane!

Two Poems from Jamaal May’s “Hum”

Winner of the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, Jamaal May’s electric debut collection Hum embodies the vitality and struggle of becoming a man. The word “elegy” is not entirely right for such energetic, muscular poems, but there is mourning here for May’s native Detroit and the men of his family who were scarred by addiction, war, and racism. The speaker of these poems fights back with beauty, noticing the shine of the handcuffs while enduring police harassment, or the inspiring message on the plastic bag that holds his relative’s ashes “in a Chinese takeout box”. In the age of e-readers, AJB’s elegant book design makes a case for the pleasures of print. Poems titled after various phobias are interspersed through the book on black paper with white type, creating moments of visual “hush” amid the “hum” of text.

Jamaal has kindly given me permission to reprint the following two poems, which first appeared in Poetry Magazine and Blackbird, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @JamaalMay.

Hum for the Bolt

It could of course be silk. Fifty yards or so
of the next closest thing to water to the touch,
or it could just as easily be a shaft of  wood

crumpling a man struck between spaulder and helm.
But now, with the rain making a noisy erasure
of this town, it is the flash that arrives

and leaves at nearly the same moment. It’s what I want
to be in this moment, in this doorway,
because much as I’d love to be the silk-shimmer

against the curve of anyone’s arm,
as brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
from a crossbow with a whistle and have a man

switch off upon my arrival, it is nothing
compared to that moment when I eat the dark,
draw shadows in quick strokes across wall

and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.


Man Matching Description

Because the silk scarf could have cradled
a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet,
but was instead used in last night’s strangling,
it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs.

Because I can imagine handcuffs,
pummeled by stones until shimmering,
the flashlight that sears my eyes
is too perfect to look away.

Because a flashlight has more power
on a southern roadside than my name and blood
combined and there is no power in the very human
frequency range of my voice and my name is dead
in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license
I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—
Because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises, twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again—I want to
say, Swan! I am only a swan.

Poetry by Lauren Schmidt: “The Waiting Room of Past Lives”

In Lauren Schmidt’s earthy, revelatory poetry collection Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing (Main Street Rag, 2013), bodies eat, sweat, climax, and die. Some of them are stuffed. All are handled with reverence. Comical or embarrassing moments open up suddenly into a vision of fellowship that levels social distinctions.

Schmidt shows why humor, humility, and humane have a common root. Many of her poem titles sound like premises for a stand-up comedy sketch: “Why I Am Not a Taxidermist“; “My Grandfather’s Balls”; “Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus“. Each time, however, the poem takes a surprising turn, reversing the typical use of disgust to create distance and superiority, and instead breaking down the pretensions that alienate us.

Lauren and Main Street Rag have kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below, which first appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review. For more about her work, enjoy this interview on the Splinter Generation blog.

The Waiting Room of Past Lives

No one likes it here. You can tell
by our bodies: this one chews
his cuticles; that one pretends
to read. A woman fingers the drag
in her stockings. A man watches
from across the room, blowing steam
from his third cup of sludge.
He’s used up all the stirrers.
The girl behind the blurred glass
snaps her gum, watches the clock
for five. On the wall, CNN

bleats something about this
or that. The war here or there.
There seems to be only one channel,
but nobody bothers to check. We wait
in the glow of the red numbers. Now
Serving, the sign says. We pinch our slips
as if waiting for lunchmeat.

It gets harder and harder to do this.
They put a note in my file. It explains
the crutches, the bandage on my brow.
I was eighty then, collapsed in the hedges
racking my brain for the line that came
before the dish ran away with the spoon.
When you’re eighty you don’t always
remember. The last time I was eighty,
I left notes on my front door
should a visitor happen by: Be right back,
in the bathroom,
scrawled by my shaky hand,

letters like the eyelashes I pulled out
with my fingers and arranged
in my notebook during Physics
in the life before that. I loved
to watch them scatter in one full
breath, didn’t care much that girls
stared at my nest of hair or laughed
at my penchant for saying silly things.
I chose my words carefully,
spelled them with my lashes.

By senior year, I had no brows
left either: two bleached seams
arched above my eyes, an eternity
of expressing horrified surprise.
My mother made them draw brows
so I wouldn’t look strange
in the casket. The irony, too much
for the man I shared it with here,
in the waiting room, a man
whose laughter made his jaw click,
like the snap of my infant neck
in the life I had that didn’t last very long.
My memory went only as far
as the garden of my mother’s
hair when she hovered above my crib

to kiss me. In the life where I learned
what it meant to be a father,
I put my nose to the rose of my son’s
lips, waited for breath, contented
just to watch his infant chest rise
and fall. I recall the feel of my own

stuttered breast as I lay in my mess
of wings in the middle of the street.
After the windshield, I remembered
the boy, the rock, the way he lifted
it above his head. Its shadow trembled
above me, dilating as it broke over me
like a dark corsage before the lights
went out and I was back in line again.
The rock was something like mercy,
but do we really have the words
for the magician’s hat of how

our lives are made and taken? We’re rabbits
blinking in stiff confusion, some big hand
fisted around the ears, feet, kicking, pendulous,
and marking time. Sometimes we’re a flurry
of doves in a round of applause. I have been
the rabbit, would be the rabbit again
because there simply is no lover
more eager to be in the world.
I have been the boy with his pellet gun, too,
a piece of wheat in my teeth and nothing to do
but wonder what a tuft of hair looks like
when it erupts with blood, wonder the sound
flesh makes when it’s pulled from fur
which isn’t anything like the sound
of denim ripping as you might think.

On CNN there is a man on his knees.
Dirty shirt, holes in his jeans.
Another man grips his hair, dark tufts
sprout between his fingers. In the other fist,
the flash of a murky blade. The man’s eyes
are lurched wide from his pulled hairline.
The shadow of the blade breaks over

a shaking face. This one stops chewing
his cuticles. That one stops pretending
to read. The woman leaves her stockings
alone and the man stops watching her.
All eyes gaze at the TV screen. We don’t see
the rest, but everybody knows what happens
next. With any luck, the man on his knees
will wake up praying near a bed
in a room he somehow knows is his.

Image Journal’s Gregory Wolfe on Change and Eternity in Art

The literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, prompting some insightful reflections by founding editor Gregory Wolfe on the magazine’s Good Letters blog. Image publishes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and contemporary artwork that engage with the great Western religious traditions in fresh and authentic ways. I appreciate how Wolfe harmonizes the aspects of art and religion that in my life have sometimes been at odds: the creative journey into the unknown, versus the safeguarding of revealed truths. He writes:

Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging.

In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience. Yes, of course, that’s how the world is. I knew that. But I’d forgotten. I will return to the true way, the way I’d strayed from. I won’t forget again.

Artistic styles change when they fail to reveal something new.

A rounded arch speaks of eternity, solidity, and stability. A pointed arch speaks of aspiration, a hunger for light, and matter’s permeation by spirit.

Both arches speak the truth. The newness isn’t necessarily an improvement. The newness is, in part, in the contrast itself, the revelation that there is always more to see. Reality is fractal that way.

In the early church, Jesus was depicted as the Good Shepherd. Then he became the Pantocrator, emperor of the cosmos. Then he was shown on the cross and became the Suffering Servant. In a postmodern context he may perhaps be present by way of his absence; felt rather than seen. Who knows? There are a thousand options.

When religious faith isn’t made new, it becomes ideology, detached from reality. It either becomes toxic or it simply ceases to be credible.

Read the whole essay, subscribe, and donate to their annual appeal.