>The Imperfect Peace

>April is National Poetry Month. My cup overflows, so strap yourself down for a long post. If you’d like to read a poem a day in April, click here. Poetic Asides (a blog sponsored by Writers Digest) suggests that we each write a poem a day during April. My friends who are actually poets may be up to the task, but I have only managed to squeak out one short poem, which will serve as my offering for the entire month. I’ll open with it, and by so doing, will save the best stuff for later in the post.

The Imperfect Peace

©Susan Cushman 2008

O’Connor said it was Christ-haunted,
My home, the South.
Maybe that’s why
I can’t escape His hold on me,
Like Jacob, who wrestled with the Angel.

Sometimes I want to run away,
From my roots,
From my God,
But neither will let me go,
And for that I am, at long last, grateful.

The angry child tries to escape
His father’s embrace,
And fights against
His mother’s love
Until, exhausted, he collapses in her bosom.

That’s where I find myself today,
At rest in the arms
Of Christ and the South,
Having at long last
Buried the sword and accepted the imperfect peace.

Madeleine L’Engle, writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction prose, understood the power of poets, and writers in general. Listen to her essay, “The Danger of Artists,” from Madeleine L’Engle, Herself:

The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it. Artists are dangerous people because they are called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul. So to protect itself, society has had to pretend that either art is unimportant or that it is simple…. It is the artist who dared to help us try to be human—to be, though many artists might not put it so, to be saints. We have been given a model in Jesus and we must be brave enough not to kill the Christ in ourselves or to let it be killed as people tried to kill Christ 2000 years ago. It is not the secular humanists who are doing the killing of Christ, but we who call ourselves Christians….We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are, to see through plastic sham to living, breathing reality, and to break down our defenses of self-protection in order to be free and to receive and give love.

And with those words of introduction, I’ll begin my poetry posts with one of L’Engle’s poems, from her book, The Weather of the Heart:

Within This Strange and Quickened Dust

O God, within this strange an quickened dust
The beating heart controls the coursing blood
In discipline that holds in check the flood
But cannot stem corrosion and dark rust.
In flesh’s solitude I count it blest
That only you, my Lord, can see my heart
With passion’s darkness tearing it apart
With storms of self, and tempests of unrest.
But your love breaks through blackness, bursts with light;
We separate ourselves, but you rebind
In Dayspring all our fragments; body, mind,
And spirit join, unite against the night.
Healed by your love, corruption and decay
Are turned, and whole, we greet the light of day.

While I’m still on a spiritual note, I’ll take a moment to mention a liturgical poetic style known in the Orthodox Church as the Akathist. On Friday nights during Great Lent, a portion of the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God is sung. Tonight, at least at St. John Orthodox here in Memphis, the entire canon is sung. You can read an excellent explanation of it by Frederica Mathewes-Green here. Or listen to her read from it here and here. It’s beautiful beyond words. Now back to the poetry posts.

My favorite contemporary poet, Beth Ann Fennelly, who teaches writing at Ole Miss, will be reading from her new book, Unmentionables, at Square Books in Oxford on April 18, and at Burke’s Books in Memphis on May 1. I’m hoping to make both readings. Her readings are amazing performances, actually. So, if you’re in either vicinity, try to get there! If not, pick up one of her books. Here’s a sample, from Tender Hooks:

I Need To Be More French.
Or Japanese.

By Beth Ann Fennelly

Then I wouldn’t prefer the California wine,
its big sugar, big fruit rolling down my tongue,
a cornucopia spilled across a tacky tablecloth.
I’d prefer the French, its smoke and rot.
Said Cezanne: Le monde—c’est terrible!
Which means, The world—it bites the big weenie.
People sound smarter in French.
The Japanese prefer the crescent moon to the full,
prefer the rose before it blooms.
Oh, I have been to the temples of Kyoto,
I have stood on the Pont Neuf, and my eyes,
they drank it in, but my taste buds
shuffled along in the beer line at Wrigley Field.
It was the day they gave out foam fingers.
I hereby pledge to wear more gray, less yellow
of the beaks of baby mockingbirds,
that huge yellow yawping open on wobbly necks,
trusting something yummy will be dropped inside,
soon. I hereby pledge to be reserved.
When the French designer learned
I didn’t like her mock-ups for my book cover,
she sniffed, They’re not for everyone. They’re
subtle. What area code is 662 anyway? I said,
Mississippi, sweetheart. Bet you couldn’t find it
with a map. OK: I didn’t really. But so what
if I’m subtle as May in Mississippi, my nose
in the wine bowl of this magnolia bloom, so what
if I’m mellow as the punch-drunk bee.
If I were Japanese I’d writ ea tone poem
about magnolias in March, each bud long as a pencil,
sheathed in celedon suide, jutting from a cluster
of glossy leaves. I’d end the poem before anything
bloomed, end with rain swelling the buds
and the sheaths bursting, then falling to the grass
like a fairy’s cast-off slippers, like candy wrappers,
like spent firecrackers. Yes, my poem
would end there, spent firecrackers.
If I were French, I’d capture post-peak, in July,
the petals floppy, creased brown with age,
the stamens naked, stripped of yellow filaments.
The bees lazy now, bungling the ballet, thinking
for the first time about October. If I were French,
I’d prefer this, end wit the red-tipped filaments
scattered on the scorched brown grass,
and my poem would incite the sophisticated,
the French and the Japanese readers—
because the filaments look like matchsticks,
and it’s matchsticks, we all know, that start the fire.

I’ll end my poetry post with one from Mary Waters, a poet I discovered while shopping in the Heights, my favorite area of Little Rock, a few years ago. I bought one of her chap books, Other Stars Waiting, and later my friend who lives in Little Rock picked up two more: Private Rooms and Thoughts From a Vast Right-Brain Conspiracy. The poem I want to end with today inspires me on several levels. I had dinner with a friend last night, and one of the many things we talked about was how messy life is when we choose to be true to ourselves. My young friend is learning things at thirty that I’m just now grasping. So, this one’s for you, Sally Anna.

Accommodation (from Other Stars Waiting)

By Mary N. Waters

When I first began to write,
I thought that nothing much
would change;
one more activity,
added to my days.
I would accommodate it;
the writing,
give it
the extra bedroom.
But I was wrong.
This was my lover,
wearing muddy boots
upon the neatly
polished floor, and sleeping
where he pleased.
So all those other things
began to change, to
give him space;
and since he didn’t fit
the me I was,
I chose to be
transformed,
in ways I can not name.
And here I am,
a writer of poetry,
and those who thought
they knew me,
wonder,
and sometimes,
so do I.

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