Poetry

Poetry

Salzburg, Republic of Austria, July 2006


In order not to repeat history, it is not enough to know it,
we must know ourselves, and our complicity.
                            —Schilling

Some days you have to take what you can
get, and that day my mother was too sick
to find yet one more crowded pavement café

and the worst of it was, sitting there in
my habit, I had to see it all unfold: the tired
couple with their small child, the empty table

and the promise of refreshment, and then
the waiter descending in a blaze of jeers,
scathing looks and torrid gestures, and watch

the husband and wife gather their dignity
and leave, unwelcome only for the offense
of resembling too much the enemy du jour

and I had nowhere to go to, nowhere to
hide my shame, no means of protest when
the waiter returned and served us sweetly,

set the coffee before me, and the only way
I could ask is a veil any better than a chador?
was to say, simply, Dankeschön

Questions for God

Why does the moon seem so intent to cry,
and yet it is your tears that give us dew?
Why do the flags grasp silently at wind?
Why does the sun refuse to let me stare,
and yet it is your hand upon my face
that burns? Why does my mother die
without remembering my name, while she
still sings in church? Why does the IV bag
float like my prayer does in this emptiness?
Where was it that I lost my way? Why do
I see the cross in window panes, in two
downed branches broken in the road, in shirts
hung out to dry? Why does the mystery
of faith sustain us when we keep on asking
such questions? Why must we ask such questions?

Lot’s wife

Where else could she look, but back?
Though not in mourning, as some have told it,
Counting milestones, naming joys. Or even from a lack
Of obedience, as if she had called out, “Hold it.
I am Lot’s wife, that must count for something.”
Maybe once she would have staked her life on such a claim,
But now she’s heard the bargaining
And wonders how she missed it all these years. Nameless
This grief that overtakes her and slows her swift
Legs to a halt. She is Lot’s wife, no more than chattel
To do with as the need arises and he sees fit.
Humbled, she turns around, away from that.

A pillar of salt! It doesn’t surprise her,
This slow dissolving into tears.

What shall we say?

A triptych for Thomas G. Long
teacher, preacher, presbyter
(on the occasion of his retirement from Candler School of Theology)

I

The etymology is perilous:
pulpit from pulpitum, meaning scaffold,
by which we come, at length, to catafalque
those f’s and a’s, like tongue and groove boards,
like rope enough to hang, or hoist, or let
a corpse down to its permanent repose.
One platform’s raised; one frames a coffin’s rest.
So, first the elocution, then the wake?
Like lamentations or the case of Job—
that vexing, god-awful, comfortless book.
And yet we rise to the occasion,
Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
A bit of scripture, a psalm or poem,
something that happened in the week just past;
we try to weave them all together as
if to say a loving God’s in charge.
As if we were certain of a loving God.
We see by faith. We live in hope. We love.
Or play the odds, as Pascal did. We fall.
Sometimes it all seems quite impossible.
And yet we rise again and walk the plank,
and sing into oblivion good news:
Unto God the glory, all praise, all thanks!
while nodding congregants loll in their pews.


II

Imagine Tom out on the fire escape,
between the world at large and inner life,
edging the proscenium, downstage right.
whilst curios and characters and shades

unveil themselves as dancing beauties do.
I have tricks in my pocket, things up my sleeve!
Upstage, sheer curtains rise, transparencies:
Truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.

Like John on Patmos, John the Harbinger—
voices crying out of the wilderness—
Make straight ye the Lord’s way! quoth Isaiah.
Eschatology and Apocalypse:

Think Esmeralda in the cathedral,
Jim Hawkins in the rigging, chased by Hands
or Ishmael, just flotsam at the end,
alone, before God and all these people.

Or Montaigne in his tower library:
“the whole of Man’s estate in every man.”
Or Yeats pacing the boards at Ballylee:
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Thus, exegetes and preachers on their own
hold forth, against a never-ceasing din
of second-guessing, out there on their limbs:
Have faith! Behold, the mystery! Behold!


III

That fresco of the Sermon on the Mount
by Fra Angelico (dear brother John)
shows Jesus semi-circled by his men,
gilt-haloed Galileans, but for one,
who will betray him later with a kiss.
Atop their sandstone tuffets, rapt, engaged,
he’s going on about beatitudes,
fulfillments of the law, the words to pray.
Outside the frame, unseen, a multitude
leans in to listen to the hermeneutics,
which are not without some challenges, to wit:
though we be smitten, turn the other cheek,
go the second mile, love our enemies;
while we’re forgiven only so much as
we forgive those who trespass against us.
A certain eye-for-eyeness to that scheme,
a tooth-for-toothedness. A quid pro quo?
As if, to finally get, we must let go?
Sometimes it’s so, sometimes it isn’t? So,
what shall we say to these things? Who’s to know?
Say who abides in love abides in God.
Say God is love. Love God. Love one another.
Say grace is undeserved and plentiful.
Say if we’re saved, it’s mostly from ourselves.

Spit and dirt, said the blind man

when he left Christ’s side
himself no more a blind man
since Christ gave him sight.

Men who looked like trees
the first sight he saw.
Only a former blind man
could see us as we are

recognize how rare
specify how far
apart our being
and our seeming are.

What could he do but stare,
blink away the spit and dirt,
watch Christ wipe his hands
on his blinding white shirt?