Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Woman with Crows”

Of the numerous poetry books I’ve read this year, Ruth Thompson’s Woman with Crows (Saddle Road Press, 2013) is the most personally meaningful to me. I just turned 42, undeniably middle-aged, and my son starts preschool this fall. All around me, it seems, are warnings and laments that youth is fleeting, and we must cling to each moment lest it pass us by unnoticed. Woman with Crows is an antidote to fear.

This poetry collection, earthy yet mythical, celebrates the spiritual wisdom of the Crone, the woman with crows (and crows’ feet). Because of her conscious kinship with nature, the speaker of these poems embraces the changes that our artificial culture has taught us to dread. Fatness recurs as a revolutionary symbol of joy: a woman’s body is not her enemy, and scarcity is not the deepest truth. For her, the unraveling of memory and the shedding of possessions are not a story of decline but a fairy tale of transformation. One could say that, like Peter Pan, she expects that death will be a very big adventure!

If this all sounds terribly sentimental and “uplifting”, don’t worry. She’s not a sweet, neutered old granny. There are fireworks here, and snakes, and “ooze shining and blooming and with sex in it.”

Ruth has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. “Fat Time” was first published in New Millennium Writings as the winner of their 2007 poetry prize. Visit her website for more great work.

Fat Time

Under purest ultramarine the raised
goblets of trees overrun with gold.
We should be reeling drunk and portly as groundhogs
through these windfalls of russet, citron, bronze, chartreuse.

Everywhere color pools like butter, like oil of ripe nuts,
like piles of oranges under a striped tent.

Oh, let us be greedy of eyeball,
pigs scuffling in this gorgeous swill!
Let us cud this day
and spend the winter ruminant.

Let us write fat poems, and be careless.

Let us go bumbling about in wonder, legs
coated with goldenrod and smelling of acorns.

Let us be unctuous with scarlet and marigold,
larder them here, behind our foreheads
to glow in the brain’s lamps
in the time of need.

Each tree a sun!
Let us throw away caution,
emblazon our retinas
with the flare and flame of it

so that in the unleavened winter
this vermilion spill, this skyfall,
these oils of tangerine, smears of ochre and maroon
will heat a spare poem, dazzle the eye’s window,
feed us like holy deer on the blank canvas of snow.


Travel Instructions for Elmwood Avenue

You leave the sepia light of the tea restaurant,
lapsang and peony, earth and green twig,
continuo of quiet human voices.

Outside is rain, fat frying, damp exhaust, sputum,
spit of tires on a wet street, brakes tuned
to the pulse of streetlights: green, amber, red, green.

You blunder, glasses fringed with rainbows,
until your own hands swim out before you—
greeny in the headlights, strange as ectoplasm.

Light laps from shattered planes of reflection,
emerges and re-emerges from sheeting brilliance.
Dimension becomes dimension, a turned fan.

Now darkness hums like a bowed string,
anchored somewhere you cannot see,
one end floating here in the spinning world

and what has always sung from around the corner
is no longer apart from you—
it is here, upon you—that blaze of tenderness!

Religious Rights and the Common Good

I grew up in a high-rise on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The dominant group in our micro-neighborhood were Orthodox Jews, though there were also numerous Hispanic families and some Irish, Asian, and liberal Jewish folks (like my family). Our building had 20 floors with seven or eight apartments each. Many modern Orthodox Jews interpret the prohibition on lighting a fire on Shabbat to forbid activating electrical devices. You may have heard of the tradition of the “Sabbath goy”, the non-Jewish person who helps his Jewish neighbor by turning on her light switch or oven on Friday night. In our building, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, one of our two elevators was set to run continuously, stopping at every floor on the way up and the way down, so that observant Jews wouldn’t have to push the buttons.

This arrangement irritated me, perhaps unreasonably. It’s hard to separate my judgment from my general feeling that the Orthodox in our neighborhood acted superior and unfriendly to those outside their tribe. (See, for instance, the recent New York Times exposé on how Rep. Sheldon Silver and his Orthodox supporters blocked low-income housing for Hispanic families for 40 years.)

The Sabbath goy routine, legal fiction though it be, potentially builds interfaith friendships. It might foster gratitude for the kindness of strangers, and awareness of one’s dependence on the goodwill of others. The Sabbath elevator imposed that role on all of us without asking. The impact on the environment could be considered selfish as well, though maybe they offset their carbon footprint by not driving cars on Shabbat. A longer wait for the elevator on Friday night is a relatively minor imposition, but symbolically, it felt like a statement that some people thought they were more important than their neighbors.

On the other hand, every accommodation of someone’s rights may come at a cost to someone else. My church is undertaking a major capital campaign to make the building handicapped-accessible. We also hire a sign language interpreter for every 10 AM service. A skeptic could say that’s money being taken from “the rest of us” to benefit “a few”. However, we recognize that the space and priorities that we may have considered normal are designed to benefit the majority and ignore others, and that’s not acceptable for a community whose motto is “Given to Hospitality”. The Orthodox in my old building may have felt marginalized and handicapped in the wider society, where they had to work hard every day to maintain their purity boundaries. They wanted one place where they would have the privilege of not thinking about how to get from point A to point B.

The complex power dynamics of the Sabbath elevator are on my mind because of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling on religious exemptions for employers, which I blogged about in my last post. We’ve reached a peculiar juncture in Free Exercise Clause law, where the right to do something religious has morphed into the right to make someone else do something, for religious reasons. That is to say, at what point are you offloading so much of the burden of your religiously motivated behavior that it is no longer “your” free exercise?

The many Sabbath observance rules, adapted for modern times, stem from the central directive to let yourself, your servants, and your animals rest and honor God. But if you’re causing another human being to work on Shabbat, isn’t that worse than making a machine work? Or does he matter less than a machine because he’s a goy?

Classic case law on the free exercise of religion involved personal choices that were at odds with bureaucratic uniformity. No third parties were being burdened by the observance. Even then, religion didn’t always win. In Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), the Court said the Air Force could forbid an Orthodox Jewish officer from wearing his yarmulke while in uniform. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court said the government could ban sacramental peyote use under the generally applicable drug laws, notwithstanding the Free Exercise Clause. While these specific outcomes seem too harsh and rigid to me, they stand for a principle that today’s Court has all but forgotten: Sometimes you have to play by the rules of the wider society and eat the cost of your difference, because civil society would become ungovernable if every law were vulnerable to a thousand individual carve-outs.

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to restore a more generous standard of review for Free Exercise claims than the court had applied in Smith. RFRA affirms that Free Exercise challenges apply not only to laws deliberately targeting religious practices, but also to neutral laws that incidentally burden a person’s exercise of religion. Hobby Lobby brought its objection to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate as a RFRA claim.

RFRA expanded the class of laws to which Free Exercise objections could be made. Meanwhile, this Court has been stretching the definition of religious practices to encompass virtually any behavior that is religiously motivated. Together, these trends exacerbate social inequality and fragmentation.

How is it “your” freedom of religion to fire disabled workers, or prevent your employees from unionizing, or impede women’s access to healthcare? Why should the state help you shift the cost of your religious preferences onto nonbelievers? This takes Free Exercise too far beyond the personal acts of worship or ritual observance that the Founders likely envisioned. The logic of the Hobby Lobby exemption is the logic of theocracy, where there is no legitimately secular realm of human action. Maybe that’s your sincere religious worldview, but it’s not the worldview behind our system of government. The Constitution is meant to preserve a separation between church and state. It’s bad faith, in every sense of the word, to exploit the Bill of Rights to reach a result hostile to its values.

Hobby Lobby’s Questionable Theology

Last month, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the US Supreme Court issued the controversial ruling that Christian owners of closely held for-profit corporations had a religious liberty right to deny contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Hobby Lobby and two other companies had sought exemptions from the section of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) that required birth control coverage at no extra charge to the employee. The company owners claimed that they believed life begins at conception, and therefore it would violate their beliefs to facilitate the use of birth control methods that sometimes prevent implantation of an embryo. The Court ruled in favor of the employers, holding that corporations are “persons” for purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a statute that prohibits government from indirectly burdening the free exercise of religion).

I am 42 years old, apparently infertile, happy with my current number of children (one), politically pro-choice but morally troubled by abortion. I depend on birth control to manage a reproductive health condition that would otherwise be severely disabling. This court case reminds me how privileged I am to work for a nondiscriminatory employer (myself) and to have enough money to pay for birth control out of pocket. I don’t have to be afraid of having more kids than I can support, or of losing my job because of disability-related absences. That’s precisely why Hobby Lobby angers and frightens me, as a woman and a Christian. The gospels tell us that basic security shouldn’t be the privilege of the few.

Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that abortion and contraception are sinful. Is it theologically appropriate for Christian business owners to leverage the power of the state, and the economic power of employer over employee, to avoid being tainted by participation in these sins? I don’t believe so.

Note that the plaintiffs were not arguing that their exemption would actually result in fewer women using birth control (although this is clearly what they want). The Court assumed that the Obamacare mandate was valid and a compelling government interest. They were just dickering over whether there was a way to implement it while allowing Hobby Lobby’s owners to keep their hands clean.

Jesus denounced the Pharisees for obsessing over personal religious purity at the expense of socioeconomic equality. After Hobby Lobby, who is going to have the most difficulty accessing the medications they need? Women who are too poor to pay out of pocket, who have fewer job skills and opportunities to find a different employer. The Hobby Lobby exemption is a private-sector version of the Hyde Amendment prohibiting Medicaid funding for abortions; both create one law for the rich and another for the poor.

I don’t believe Christians should take advantage of economic inequality to enforce what we believe to be God’s will. Coercive shortcuts reveal our lack of faith. We’re not willing to make personal sacrifices to bring about the outcome we desire, like the Pharisees who laid heavy burdens on others that they didn’t bear themselves. Instead of cutting off their employees’ family-planning options, Christian-owned corporations should go out of their way to ensure that their employees have adequate childcare and wages to support a family.

Jesus portrayed the kingdom of heaven (on earth) as a place where everyone has food, shelter, health, and safety, not because some more powerful person thinks they deserve it, but because everyone is a child of God. That kingdom is far from our current reality. Workers depend on employers for basic survival needs. That power gap is evidence of our fallen world, not something to be exploited and widened in the name of “Christian values”.

Poetry by Helen Leslie Sokolsky: “Friday’s Dress”

Helen Leslie Sokolsky’s distinctive new poetry chapbook, Two Sides of a Ticket (Finishing Line Press, 2014), contains a portrait gallery of urban characters. Their alienation is healed, momentarily, by the author’s mature and compassionate re-imagining of the lives she glimpses in passing. These narratives show us recognizable scenes made fresh by Sokolsky’s original metaphors. I first discovered her work when she won third prize in our 2012 Tom Howard Poetry Contest at Winning Writers for “The Coat“. I’m happy to share a poem from Two Sides of a Ticket below. “Friday’s Dress” was selected for publication by Mary Oliver when she was on the editorial board of Poet Lore.

Friday’s Dress

One day I put on
Friday’s dress ( but you not liking the
color asked me to leave)
saying I could strut the streets.
I left my shoes behind to be mended
drew the shades on books face down
and frosted glass
taking with me
the child who was; soaking my feet in
untouched soil I have learned
to live on flowers
my hair grown wild slathered
with sea. Each day I go
and gather
berries, climbing later
with them and my dreams
to touch and toast the sunset
(not content to live on hills you
know I had to look for mountains).
They tell me that my shoes are mending
and you are holding them
turning them over. Should you
want to bring them with you, it may
be hard for you to find me
for I am always barefoot now.
Try to look back and see if you can,
a child running loose
her arms open wide
with the stain of ripe berries
smearing her hands.

Reiter’s Block Reloaded and New Poems: “Polish Joke”, “Mis Numeros”

Welcome back, patient readers, to my redesigned blog! Goodbye GoDaddy, hello WordPress. Kudos to web designer Derek Allard at Tunnel 7 and programmer Ryan Askew.

What’s new: Social media sharing buttons on each post. Wider columns for proper formatting of reprinted poems. Color scheme upgraded from “Colonel Mustard in the library” to “Expensive box of chocolates”.

Plus, I now have a Contact form. Please use it if you’d like to send me a private message, or have a question that isn’t directly related to the discussion in the blog post comments. Normal rules of right speech apply.

Regular posting will resume this week on the usual topics of poetry, Christianity, abuse survivor activism, gay male romance, prison reform, and toddlers.

My poems “Mis Numeros” and “Polish Joke”, which address at least three of the above topics, were recently published in the anthology Tic Toc from Kind of a Hurricane Press. Enjoy, comment, share!


Polish Joke
This circus has been in our family
forty years, no,
round it up to a hundred—
from the days of us bundled and stowed
out of the old country faster than horses,
lucky as a round number,
one skinny papa with two zero eyes.
You wouldn’t have believed to look at us
that we were carrying a circus.
Back then, it was just fleas.

But what gets you across the ocean
except a conjurer who pulls
scarves of red battles, blue hills and yellow butter
out of his memory hat
for weeks in the seasick dark?
Who charms fat rabbits
out of an empty cupboard
except a dame hard enough
to tango with pythons
and disappear a sword down her throat?

Later, when we had enough eggs to juggle,
we added some new members
you might recognize:
The girl who jumps from high places,
that versatile girl
who is not really sawed in half,
who is not really rising asleep from her bed
snagged on invisible wires.
The bickering family with flapping shoes
and greasepaint smiles red as borscht,
honking up in their tiny car
through the middle of somebody else’s ballet,
laughter sticking to them like flypaper.
The young fellow with eyes black as magnets
who combs out golden manes,
leads tawny bodies through caged tricks,
but makes the anxious ladies wet their handkerchiefs
by sticking his head for a moment
in the whipped animal’s jaws.

Our greatest addition was the strongman:
Even forty years,
no, call it a hundred
since he’s been gone,
his sausage-armed sons
and their sons after them
are still pounding that mallet
against the target at their feet,
sweating to make that same bell ring
loud enough to shatter
the old man’s perfect score.


Mis Numeros

Una lagartija, one
spun in the vernal womb, you turn
on my lap to gum this page,
dos hojas, two
leaves like your double tree
of names, mothers, she
(me) who waited and she who grew
you, the reason we learn
to try these words on our tongues
like the wet fruit you mash in your fist,
tres fresas, three
strawberries, why is death the color of kisses,
quatros corazones, four
hearts that never banged
against baby ribs like the good ringing
of your spoon on wood,
cinco zanahorias, five
carrots sunrise splattered, scattered
brothers in a fairy tale,
your other father’s sons
baptized in Colombian rain—
him salamander again, gone to ground
to work without a name,
paperless, surviving in the cracks, as
seis serpientes, six
snakes of my lean years whispered praise
for quiet rooms, bare cellars, battle-rest
that you laugh at each dawn, silver
rattle crash that shakes
siete estrellas, seven
stars from the sky over two nations,
four ancestors, unnumbered questions
you will bellow, my April ram,
when these words become yours.


[Inspired by the bilingual picture book “Mis Numeros” by Rebecca Emberley]