Writing Poetry

A charming shop front in St. Malo, France when I visited in 2009.

For a long time, I admired poets and felt they breathed rare air. I had the words and the emotions they had, but felt that if I’d write poetry, I’d shatter. 

Then in the summer of 2020, my friend in England killed herself. During the next ten days, there was another suicide, a teenage cancer diagnosis, a mom with brain cancer, an adoption process stopped, all connected to people very close to me. The sad bad tragic news felt relentless, and I spiraled down into a blackness that lasted for about a year and a half.

That initial spate of summer tragedies fell right during the time that I was taking a five-week Creating Writing course. Every day, we were assigned to produce two writing projects, and the next day we’d share one of those projects to the class for their critique. That class was the most wonderful narcotic in my devastated, awful season. Every day I’d walk into the classroom and for ninety minutes I was in a parallel universe that felt light and airy and delightful. We played with words, read beautiful lines, gave suggestions to improve words. We laughed and cried and sometimes we still talk about Jonny’s “polysyllabic flamingo” because his flamboyant phrase, created in that class, will never die.

I started writing poetry because it was an assignment. I thought the textbook looked boring. I might be justified for feeling this way:

But the book was fascinating, accessible, and gave me endless ideas. Then I surprised myself and enjoyed the challenge of writing poetry and liked some of my lines. I was told I need to keep writing poetry. And instead of shattering me as I’d feared, writing poems started healing me, started bringing back pinpricks of light.

I’ll never be a great poet because I’m too impatient to work long and hard at it. But what’s greatness? The point of poetry is to communicate in a specific, concise form, and while most of my pieces are pathetic and will never be public, I feel more whole and at rest when I let a poem dribble itself onto the page—especially when I’m troubled, sad, or mad. I’m not proud of this, but I can be very articulate when I’m angry.

Early one morning last month I scratched down sad, angry lines and felt better all day for it. Maybe it was a seed of hope planted. Maybe it was part of self-regulating. Maybe it was only inked long-hand scrawled on every other line that will never see daylight.

Poetry is a viable outlet for lament, I’ve found. Lament is hope, and to lament in poetry on a page embodies, for me, my answer to the mysterious, alluring call of hope. 

Poetry also lends itself to exuberance. Think of Miriam, Hannah, Elizabeth, and the forms their joy took in dramatic declarations and vivid word pictures. 

My poetry hasn’t become exuberant yet. It tends toward lament, abstraction, or reflection, which is what this last blog post was. Incidentally, that poem was from an assignment in the class that introduced me to writing poetry, and the idea of an abstract poem came from that boring-looking book.

More lines may or may not appear here on the blog in the future. Don’t hold your breath, but don’t be surprised.

People of the Dash

I came home last night after two weeks of volunteering with Anabaptist Refugee Committee at an army base in Wisconsin. The base housed 13,000 Afghan refugees in August. Many have resettled, and approximately 6,000 are left and hoping to be resettled in their new homes by the end of February.

It was a wonderful two-week stint, spending time with these beautiful, brave people who have lived through more devastation than anyone should have to, and who are attempting to start a new life in a new country. I lost my heart to the children and teens, so lively, so bright, eager to learn, respectful. I wonder what schools they’ll land in, how much support they’ll get, and if they’ll come to love this new world.

If you or someone you know can spare two weeks between now and the end of February, and can comply with the newly-mandated vaccination needed to work with refugees, consider applying now with ARC!

I wrote this poem months ago when I first heard the term “people of the dash” but I feel it more deeply now. This post has no pictures because it’s illegal to share them publicly. But I saw people who looked like relatives of the sad, beautiful Afghani girl in famous National Geographic cover photo. Their effortless beauty and liveliness took my breath away.

People of the Dash

Iraqi-Yezidi.

Ukranian-Polish.

Afghani-American.

People-of-Care from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar.

People of the dash

Live between worlds,

A hyphen of time without home.

 

Stories of full lives behind

And hope for life ahead

Are the only sure things they own.

They exist on the cramped short line

Between empires with tapestries of legends and lore and

Today’s mercy (or none)

Of authorities who speak a new language:

Food line. Documents. Tent. Blanket. Permission. Quiet. Stop.

Their sleep cracks with violence and staggering loss.

 

O Jesus, Man between worlds

Who also had no pillow,

How long until the crescent wave of your justice

Washes this groaning globe

And ushers your beautiful, broken people of the dash

To their long home, carrying their spangled splendor?

 

How long, dear Jesus,

Once homeless God-Man,

How long can you wait?

Advent Jewels

This gentle turning of the season into gray and cold and sometimes snow has been lightened now with words and music and berry trees. I want to share the wealth, be the town crier, tell you about the gems that sparkle for me. If they don’t shine for you, it’s ok. Words, and songs, like books, are for seasons that are not always now.

Poetry
These mornings, I’m paging through Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson: a book of blessings for the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Epiphany. I find the verses thoughtful, infused with Jan’s experience of deep grief and hope.

I come back again and again to this favorite from Malcolm Guite: “O Emmanuel.” Guite plays with words and allusions with holy playfulness. The layered meanings of each word and line slows me down and fills me with awe at his skill. My favorite line is the second line: O long-sought With-ness for a world without. I love hearing artists talk about their work, and this podcast on Spotify has the author reading all seven of his Advent poems and some of the backstory of each. Go to 30:00 to hear him read this one:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Music
While I love all the carols of the season, (not the chintzy songs about chestnuts or holly!) Advent songs meet me right now like nothing else. I’d like to sing #121 in the Mennonite Hymnal every Sunday: “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People.” For the glory of the Lord now on earth is shed abroad/And all flesh shall see the token that His word is never broken.

Two pieces on repeat these days:

  1. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Voces 8.
    LIsten to the long, plaintive first “O,” how the tenor voices shimmer throughout the song, and the strong, desperate quality of the voices calling.
  2. “O Radiant Dawn” by The Sixteen
    I heard this live twice last week, and each time, I couldn’t stop the tears. It’s raw, longs for light and justice, and calls COME because there’s nothing else to say.

Art
A friend gave me this card, a painting by Liz Hess, because she knew I’d like it. I keep it on my desk because so much love how the kings of the earth are bringing their glory to the lion and the lamb at the manger.

Last year pastor John showed me what he was making for his daughters and I was cheeky enough to say I’d love one too. Soon one morning, I found this on my desk and of course I cried. I love its simplicity and these days, Mary’s arms are empty.

Blog post
Every year about this time, I reread and share this blog post by Lanier Ivester. I found it years ago during an especially dark season, and it gave me hope and light and a giant shift in perspective.

The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness. It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one.

The blog post also introduced me to the beautiful words attributed to Fra Giovanni in 1513: There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

Advent is a season of waiting, watching, preparing. We light pink and purple and white Advent candles every week, and we wait for many things but I often think we know nothing of waiting like the Jews did for their Messiah and deliverance, or like refugees wait for their papers. But we still wait. The whole earth waits, weeping for justice and goodness and beauty.

This year, more than I could last year, I can enter into the season of hope in waiting. I’m ready for light to seep up from the horizon, ready for smiles to grow strong and confident, ready for faith to become sight. Ready.

Filters & Personas

Photo by Teigan Rodger on Unsplash

I wonder why

People cry for authenticity

Honesty, transparency

But use

A million filters

In their stories.

This glow,

That persona,

Woke lingo.

I reach for clarity

Tempered with grace,

Steel and velvet

In their place.

Glory and agony,

Diamonds and shards.

Real. Liminal. True.

The best

And highest moments

Never reach IG

Because they sparkle IRL,

Real-time, not reels where

The expanse of reality

Stays screen-flat,

A likeness, not life.

But dopamine hits

And the scrolling thumb

Is running from—

From stab and throb?

From pine and pungent mist and moon?

From laughter, questions gone soon?

Be still, the poet said.

Ask the pulse

Its hunger,

How the drug of choice

Lifts higher than this moment:

That leaf’s blaze,

This shimmering chord,

Those dimpled grins.

Be still.

Be here.

Silence seeps

Its sweet tang.

Pleiades stills

A raucous brain.

Flicker, flame,

Shine, tune

Sigh, pine.

Vast sky expands,

Woos, implants

A yen for more

And grants it.

Snow Globe

This morning marks seven years that I woke up in the hospital after the worst day of my life. This morning, I saw the same light, the same cold, but everything is different. My brokenness then was physical and emotional and He is still healing me and I can never say how grateful I am. Today’s shaken globe reveals other kinds of brokenness in all of us. Different ways, different places, different aches. But I believe with all my heart that He walks with us, weeps with us, and leads us to wholeness and this keeps me from despair when the world shakes and breaks.

This is the light

And this is the ice

And this is the years

He heals me.

*

That morning,

She came in from the ice

And held me soft and

Snow glittered on her black wool.

*

Inside, looking out,

The snow globe, steady,

Turned and turned,

These seven seasoned years.

*

This morning,

I see light and ice,

Feel cheeks wet with stupendous

Overwhelm.

The gentle healer shakes the snow globe

Again

But never drops it.

*

This is the light and

This is the life

His wondrous hands

Poured into mine.