What Is a Prophet?

My first thought: Whatever they are, we could use a few now.

The word itself is derived from the Greek: pro (for) combined with phanai (speak), so presumably a person who speaks on behalf of another, with the authority, veracity and wisdom of the source, in times past, usually God.

My second thought: Ah, Walter Brueggeman’s Prophetic Imagination, all of us called to be prophets in the sense of resisting the values of our culture and re-envisioning communities in which Biblical values are the abiding norm.

How’s that working out for us? Hogwash is a Middle English derivative, its original meaning being food past its prime and of dubious nutritional value.

Yet every age, especially one as tumultuous as ours, has its prophets, probably going, as Jesus noticed, without honor in their hometowns, which, given the global age, means pretty much everywhere. Time will sort out the truest, although Jesus’ words are still an accurate touchstone. Certainly, Teresa of Avila remains a solid and enduring prophetic voice, notable both for her soul wisdom and her engagement with the world.

The Cresset: A Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs published my poem, “Ode to 1577,” in its Easter 2019 issue. In reading and taking comfort in Teresa’s words, I was struck by the topsy-turviness of her times. Everything changing. Centrifugal forces ripping to shreds formerly-held verities. One researched bit led to another (thank you, Internet). And, I won’t further explain the poem, which is available here online. My thanks to poetry editor Marci Rae Johnson for choosing the poem and to editor Heather Grennan Gary for her support.

Can You Give It a Rest?

Yes, and no. But let’s listen to our man of the month, William Butler Yeats who is all over the Internet as saying, We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. I will have to read more to find out where he said or wrote this, but I can say that I’m intrigued with the gist of the statement. Certainly not everything, but many things!

So, while in recent posts, I have been sharing my distress over what I regard as church hypocrisy- treachery - whatever (I won’t get going again), this is not the whole of my religious and spiritual experience. I have been writing Responsorials to the Psalms for a long time, as part of my prayer practice. Little by little, many of them (after a lot of non-prayerful editing!) have been printed in publications whose editors I am most grateful to. But it was always my hope that I could publish a collection of them. They make more sense, when they can be seen as a whole and can play off one another.

I finally have a publisher willing to put out a collection of them titled Rocking Like It’s All Intermezzo: 21st Century Psalm Responsorials. Resource Publications of Wipf and Stock. I have the contract and all the marketing questionnaires etc. etc. It is a daunting new step. But I am happy and, did I mention, a wee bit scared? Something inside of me will soon have a corresponding something outside.

Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad? Part II

And Old Women. Thank you, kindred spirit Yeats!

As I thought more about the Sean Reynold - Dobie Moser analysis of participant reaction to the ongoing church crisis, "How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” which appeared online in America Magazine (see my April 9 blogpost), I realized that my poem, “Excommunicate,” published February 4, 2019 in TalkingWriting, describes the flight of the Absolute Doubters from a somewhat despairing can’t we see what’s going on vantage point?

While we are on the subject of “Excommunicate,” it contains an etymological leap that I didn’t address in the poem, or elsewhere. If you studied properly for your SATs, you know that the Latin word for wall is murus. Mun can only mean wall through the verb munio, to fortify or protect with a wall. As happens in every language, the root expanded with prefixes in Latin, with the result that English dictionaries take a short cut and use communis, meaning common as in sharing a wall, as the source for excommunicate. Whew! Believe it or not, I actually try to explain the convoluted historical evolution of some words in the etymological series of poems I’ve been writing. I bet you’ll believe this— it doesn’t work. When I reread the more accurate, easy to defend from a linguistic point of view poems, I get lost, think, what are you talking about? Worse, and why are you talking about that? So I cut to the chase with ‘excommunicate’ and have always hoped for an opportunity to explain. Done.

At least the poem is available online. “Apology” is not available, other than in the print version of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019). If I'm going to stand by the poem in its double Yeatsian madness, it is only right that I make the poem available to anyone who wants to read it. Almost done. (The formatting was a challenge.)

Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology

Long history, that one. Greek, ye olde -log, word,

with apo-, away from. Think Socrates, charged

with not believing in the right gods. Fending off

the accusation, with a little help from his friends. 

Plato. A po LO gi a. How cool does that sound. 

Followed by centuries of let’s-call-them-erstwhile 

Christian apologists, defending the newly-right-God 

against any objections. Using evidence, hard and fast 

like they like, and a long line of each other. 

If you’re catching my drift, you’re noticing that word 

changing horse midstream more than once. Check

out Shakespeare, where good apologies started


to depend on regret, till now when apologizers and

apologists have fully parted ways. Although really,

don’t they still need each other? Our newly sainted

John Paul got on a roll. Apologies: Come one 

and all, you we burned at the stake, sacked with

our Crusades, sold into slavery, stole with legislation,


converted, persecuted, ignored when you needed

us most. We’re sorry. Mistakes have been made.

Are we missing anyone? Oh, them. Of course.

Papal apologies come to town regularly on their 

honking-big camels, struggling for breath through gagging 

halters, nose pegs, buckling under saddles, weighted 


down with bags of gold and Renaissance art. Not as 

much as you might think. The apologists are there to help 

them pass through the eye of an excruciating needle.



Is That You Spewing Invective?



If you are referring to the publication of “Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology” in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, then unfortunately, yes, that is my poem. I never thought I would be a voice of outrage in and toward an institution that I have loved my whole life and from which I have gained so much, the Catholic Church. But so it is. This poem is not the only one I’ve published lately which looks, shall we say, askance at the church, but it is the best. 



America Magazine published an insightful article online, April 8, 2019, “How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” Its authors, Sean Reynolds and Dobie Moser, cofounders of Mustard Seed Consultants, facilitate group workshops about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. They use the work of George Wilson S.J. to examine levels of doubt among the participants. I regretfully see that I fall into the category of Ethical Doubt, which is one remove from Absolute Doubt, people for whom the Church has proven permanently and deeply corrupt and basically irrelevant. This article helped me identify and categorize my own intensity, but also it is helping me understand why I get so annoyed with conversations that try to deal with the issue on the level of behavioral or procedural fixes. I look around at my Catholic kinspeople and wonder, What are we thinking? Can this possibly be okay with us?



We need women priests, married priests— yes, but we need more than that. We need institutional reform, apologies, restitution—yes, but still more. And deeper. We need metanoia, a complete transformation. We need prayer, humility, corporate and individual penance. A whole new presence in the world. We need God. 



Back to the poem: I’m grateful to Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019) editor Mary Ann Miller for choosing to publish this poem in a venue for readers and writers interested in Catholic poetry and, presumably, Catholicism. For whatever reason, I have felt morally obligated to get into print these jeremiads. I hope I’m done.

Anything Else?

Yes, Talking Writing will publish another from the etymology-based series for the Women and Faith issue, “Ellipses.” At its core, another climate change poem.

For those of us who believe the dire warnings of scientists and who agonize over ongoing weather disasters, this is a surreal period. The Nero-fiddled- while-Rome-burned syndrome. It is especially difficult for scientists involved in climate research, who are supposed to remain objective and emotionally detached, yet they, more than anyone, understand the weighty import of their research results. A couple years ago, Esquire published an article about the existential angst experienced by climate scientists with the provocative title, “When the End of Civilization Is Your Day Job.”

Throughout this period, the number of climate change deniers mysteriously grows. Researchers have uncovered a scary paradox: that the more definitive the scientific research, the less concerned the public in most Western countries become. How can this be? I submit that this denial then contributes to the feelings of powerlessness and advancing doom that non-deniers experience, and so the vicious cycle proceeds.

Eco-anxiety, pretty much as the word suggests, an anxiety disorder focused on climate issues, is a recently recognized psychological disorder. A field of professionals is emerging to help— eco-therapists who work with clients trying to restore a lost connection with the earth and its systems. In my June 1, 2016 post, I wrote about a climate poem I had written that veered on the sentimental, “Go Ahead.” That poem will soon be reprinted in an anthology of poems, all of which reinforce the value of that essential connection.

I don’t know if I could write that poem today. “Ellipses” is darker and resonates more deeply with me at the moment.

Here is the backstory. I attended a panel discussion which included Clark Strand just prior to the publication of his book, Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age (2015). I found him so insightful. He opened up how holy the darkness can be and how terrible its loss has been in our light-obsessed world. But that’s not what made me order his book. He also talked about a Mary figure who visited him, analogous to Black Madonna who has always fascinated me, and a prayer she communicated to him. Although reluctant, he said he’d share the prayer at the conclusion of the panel. When the time came to read it, he refused. Seemed it was too sacred and/or too personal to be read at this gathering of very lovely, open-minded people.

Aha! This was a prayer I wanted to know about. I ordered his book, read the prayer, and let me hide behind a cliché: my hair stood on end. I copied the prayer and say it most mornings. And if this Mary has ever met Mother Earth, what shall we say? They are of one mind about climate change. Like the old commercial said, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Words from this prayer flit in and out of my mind frequently. Ellipses is one such word, ellipses, ellipses, and then came the rest of the poem.

Have You Moved On?

In a way, yes. As I previously mentioned, the widespread and worsening political, economic and environmental realities have rendered me disgusted, heartsick, mute and overcome with powerlessness. I’m still dealing with the powerlessness, but the muteness has abated. While I’m more heartsick than anything else, disgust is easier to articulate.

The best antidote to powerlessness, which dehumanizes and creates exponentially more problems, is positive action. Developing and using whatever talents you have. Doing something and sharing it. Yes, I’m getting all preachy here, because the main person I’m trying to convince is myself. Writing matters. I can readily believe that writing helps the writer herself. When I’m not writing, I feel even more unmoored. But it is harder to believe that it helps the world, that the product has use beyond the process. Who is going to read yet another poem, or care? But I stick with my two-pronged program, whenever possible: do the work and share it.

Which leads me to “Excommunicate,” my soon-to-be-published poem online at Talking Writing, as part of their series on Writing and Faith. According to the definition provided at Wikipedia, excommunication is “an institutional act of religious censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or to restrict certain rights within it, in particular receiving of the sacraments.”

Yes, excommunication still happens today in the Catholic Church, and if my views were to be closely examined, I, an entirely observant cradle Catholic, would be in danger of being excommunicated. And, believe it or not, I would care deeply. But most people would not care; in fact, the Church tribunal’s decision arriving in their mailbox would garner as little interest as a fundraising solicitation or a piece of junk mail. (This juxtaposition fuels the poem, another from the etymology-based series.)

Things change, with time and patience. (How many years have I been saying that?)

I read, with pleasure, of this week’s canonization of El Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was gunned down in 1980 for his solidarity with the poor, while saying Mass. It reminded me of a September day in 1998 when I attended a talk by the former Jesuit Marxist Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal and thought any vestige of Liberation Theology was dead. And now we have Saint Óscar Romero. (Note: Atlantic has made available online Paul Elie’s excellent piece, What Óscar Romero’s Canonization Says About Pope Francis. Worth finding and reading.)

Change is always possible.

It also reminded me that theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson retired this past spring from her teaching position at Fordham University. I attended a talk she gave shortly after the publication of She Who Is, well before the time in 2011 when the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine discovered her book The Quest for the Living God (2007) strayed too far from traditional Catholic teaching. Fortunately, like Teilhard de Chardin, another of my heroes, she was able to allay their suspicions.

Change can be swift or painfully incremental.

Did I mention that Pope Paul VI, author of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the church’s opposition to the use of artificial birth control, was canonized on the same day as Saint Óscar Romero?

Are You Enjoying Spring?

You know it. Especially when the days fill with the flowers of my youth. Not the gasping-against-the-elements little bulb tulips that the hungry deer are waiting for. I like the wild, weedier, more indigenous flowers that blossom maybe from the selfsame plants of my youth, or their offspring. And are fragrant in a way that is missing in so many otherwise beautiful gardens. 

It’s the smells I like. Walking along and unawares, them surprising you. Slightly past now, the season of lilies of the valley, closely followed by lilacs, both of which formed the core of my May Mary bouquets. How pleased I’d be to plunk a bunch of them in front of the ceramic statue in my bedroom. Then the peonies, which I can never see or smell without remembering the ants crawling in and out of the blossoms around my grandmother’s foundation. And my grandmother. Next come the wild bridal wreath spirea…and their sweet, sweet breath.

Which will soon be gone. Because much as I love flowers, it’s their transitoriness that haunts me. Not exactly an original thought, this over-used trope in English poetry, and probably most other poetic traditions. The Bible got there first. Think of the Psalmist singing, the life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Psalm 103. 15-16). The brief bloom time of the most long-lived flower is, without a doubt, the perfect metaphor for any human life.

So when your dear, dear friend brings you a flowering plant on the same day she is sharing dire medical news, you know this is the season of watching and waiting. You don’t know how it will end, either her life or the necessary poem whose lines are thrumming in your head for months, until the day of her funeral. When saying goodbye, the assembled mourners take their leave and a flower to remember her by. Then you know, and it is not Thy will be done, o Lord

The resulting poem, “When Blooms Are Brief, and Friends, One Fewer,” has been published in the recent (2018) issue of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. After it was accepted, I asked the editor, Mary Ann Miller, if she thought the poem would be stronger if we removed the last stanza, which embodied the rookie last stanza error, hammering home the point of the poem in one loud summary statement. Yes, she agreed, let’s end on an image. So we did, and the poem is the better for it.

But I still want to shout out the last stanza for Lisa, and for everyone in my life, and everyone in your life, who has died too young.

To stand up on behalf
of the living and dead, bawl no, 
neit, não, nein, yo no tengo. No!

Do You Speak with One Voice?

Usually.

Sometimes.

Depends.

Voice is hard to describe, but a poem can rise or fall because of it. Flying without a net here, but let me try to expand on the topic. Voice is not synonymous with the poet; it is more the mask she or he assumes to speak the poem. The Latin word is persona for mask, and the persona of a poem needs to work always in service of and in tandem with other elements of the poem. 

How about a cooking analogy?  What can I liken to voice? Salt? Without it, the poem and comparable dish might be insipid. Too much salt, and what else you might taste or hear in the dish/poem is lost, destroyed, overwhelmed. You need just the right amount for any given recipe to achieve a pleasing result. So it is with poetry. 

Of course, not all poems are as voice-driven as others. You might even need a series of poems for the voice to become obvious and effective. Or, an entire oeuvre, if you’re actually a successful poet, with a consistent body of work. And reading tastes vary, as an individual’s tolerance for salt does. I personally like salty, voice-heavy poems. And memoirs and first-person novels.

Probably because I’ve kept journals and diaries most of my life, I’m comfortable with first person riffs. The voice that I adopt in these blog entries is some hybrid amalgam of the way I talk and think, neither one nor the other. It is a private persona, not my public one. 

Poetry is obviously more difficult, but I’ve had one delightful experience— a voice that worked, one I understood, but didn’t identify with, a voice that demanded to be locked down into a particular form (prose poem) and to build with clichés, euphemisms, hyperbole, contrast, irony. She knew her themes equally well. She knew that the only response to life’s vicissitudes is, as she does, to “put the egg on the mantle and dance.”

That voice is gone, but I remember her fondly. When she first arrived, I was embarrassed to share her without telling my writing friends, “she’s not me.” I think I’ve become more her, as time has gone on, but she has said all she wanted to. I have tried to honor her two-year sojourn with me by publishing the poems that resulted. With the recent publication of five of them in Vine Leaves Literary Journal: a collection of vignettes from across the globe, edited by Jessica Bell (Melbourne, Australia, 2017), most of them have seen the light of day. I’ve mentioned them in this blog, as they were published, but those days are officially over. I have one more that I’m especially fond of, and a couple more that I don’t fully identify with, or endorse. And then, the big question—should I try (or try harder) to publish them as a collection? 

Noticed Any Random Acts of Kindness Lately?


Back in the ‘80s, when AIDS was a whispered mystery in my part of the world, my aunt had “gentlemen friend” neighbors. One of them, we knew, was very sick. The other one dutifully walked their dog and often stopped to chat with my aunt. She noticed that he wore a suit and tie to walk the dog, even on the weekends. He explained that he dressed up every day for his friend, who found solace in the sight and probably in the spirit which underlay the effort. 

Hearing the story from my aunt, I was moved by the kindness and dignity of the gesture. When all hope is gone, to have the fortitude to continue tending to the smallest detail— heart-breaking and heart-warming. I wrote a poem about it at the time, and when many years later, I saw a call for poems about kindness, I submitted that poem. “Heroics” won Honorable Mention and has been published in the anthology, The Best of Kindness 2017, Jan & Kevin Keough, Editors, Origami Poems Project. Mary Ann Mayer judged.

In his 2015 collection of biographical essays and commentary, The Road to Character, David Brooks calls for widespread moral renewal. Anybody hear Plutarch, writing his Parallel Lives at the beginning of the 2nd Century A.D., snicker: “Good luck with that!” Anyhow, Brooks uses Google Books Ngram Viewer (which I had never heard of before, but check it out. It searches and measures the usage of any word of your choosing over the course of decades). Accordingly, Brooks notes a big increase in the vocabulary of business, economics and personal “I” words and a decrease in the language of morality. We are not seeing bravery, gratitude, humbleness, and you guessed it, kindness, as much as we used to. 

Which makes Jan and Kevin’s efforts to publish this anthology all the more heroic! And makes the likelihood I will find a market for my etymology poem, with the unimaginative title “Kindness,” any time soon!

Who Said “Poetry Is about Grief?"

Probably half of all initiates who’ve taken up the poetic pen, but today we’ll give the credit to Robert Frost, who reportedly said in 1962, “poetry is about grief, and politics is about grievance.” Have the twain now met?, I’d like to ask him. But seriously, there is great satisfaction in a poem that takes raw grief and remakes it, however sausage-factory-like it is behind the scenes.

This past summer, a very dear friend passed away. Six months prior to that, we spent the day together, discussing her decision to continue chemotherapy, but to refuse a probably necessary stem cell transplant. She noticed a handwritten sign on my desk, “If justice be the law of the universe, Lord, I pray for mercy” and loved it. We shared an affinity for the quirky, and this prayer of snarky faithfulness, which I’d written in a moment of contained fury, seemed to resonate for her, in her precarious health situation. I wrote out another copy for her, on the spot, and a flicker of her future might have passed between us.  

She appears only glancingly in “Revelation.” How many times can I rail directly at loss? But she is at the heart of it, she who died at 61, still in her prime. I’m happy to say that this poem concluding with “our prayer” has just been published in The Windhover 21.1, 2017. “Revelation” affirms my belief, that no matter what happens in poetry, politics, in life itself, that Love is at the heart of all creation. 

I am grateful, once again, to Nate Hansen, editor of The Windhover, for choosing to publish this poem and for placing it between Paul Willis’ and Richard Spilman’s excellent poems, in meaningful conversation. That’s what good editors do, I guess, and as I’ve already written in this blog, Nate is doing great work. 

Privately, reading the poem again, I say, “This one’s for you, April! May you live always in the eternal heart of Love.”

What Does It Mean When My Crowd Is Bigger than Yours?

Obviously, that I am a better, more deserving person than you. Or maybe that, unbeknownst to myself,  I am a narcissist, which, using a standard definition, means I partake of an “inflated sense of (my) own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others.” Because of my “fragile self esteem,” I am likely to wreak terrible, self-aggrandizing havoc everywhere I go. 

Several years ago, in my brief, but exciting academic life, I published an article in Psychoanalytic Review, “A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Ovid’s Myth of Narcissus and Echo” (Winter 1992). I had no practical  knowledge of or investment in narcissistic personality disorders per se, but I felt strongly that Narcissus got a bad rap and that Freud was to blame.  I wrote a paper detailing an aetiology of the disorder based on a correct reading of the Narcissus - Echo encounter. Which I won’t get into here, but in effect, it excused Narcissus from his behavior, or at least called for another look at the possible roots of the disorder. 

I never expected the paper to be other than a curiosity. It wasn’t based on case studies or even a strong sense that narcissism was misunderstood, misdiagnosed or inappropriately treated. It was all about Freud playing fast and loose with Ovid! Misappropriating myths. Cheap tags. Anyhow, I was not at all surprised that the paper plunged into the churning moil of everybody else’s pet ideas. 

Until, as happens with churning moils, it reappeared recently. And here’s where I have to ‘fess up to my own card-carrying narcissism. My habit of googling myself, that is. The more specific the search, the better the results.

And what do you know? Me and Narcissism—it’s a go. 

The Societá amici del pensiero Sigmund Freud (The Society of Friends of the Theories of Sigmund Freud, I assume) held a three-day conference, December 2014, in Urbino, Italy (where was I when they needed me???) to discuss NARCISSUS BETWEEN MYTH AND PSYCHOPATHOLOGY - THE FREUDIAN CORRECTION. And, a substantial section of my paper was offered in the Introduction. I’m not kidding. Check it out yourself.

Yup. Another imagine my surprise experience. Which fed into another of my cherished mantras—just do the work, get it out somewhere, somehow. Trust in time. Believe your efforts will bear fruit, or they won’t, and either outcome is fine.  Meaning also, don’t be googling yourself. Let it go… Let everything go. 


Postscript: Knowing what I know now—and even what I knew then, I would never try my tiny hand at rehabilitating narcissistic personality disorder. It's a ticking time…

 

How Was Christmas?

Wonderful, full of wonder. Wondered and full. My favorite time of year, even though all that fullness and wondering do get in the way of writing. But something writing-wonderful did happen, some personal righting. 

Probably my best poem, or my most prestigious publication, or the poem most publically available, or whatever metric I would use, celebrates my first husband: “To My Husband, Who 33 Years Ago Died at the Age of 33.” Published in print Rattle #41, Fall 2013, it became available on the Rattle site, with audio, on March 25, 2014, which was ironically the 32nd anniversary of my wedding to my second husband. 

Potentially awkward, unless you have a very understanding husband or a husband who isn’t big into poetry. Fortunately, my husband qualifies on both counts, although he graciously read and congratulated me on a publication which meant so much to me. The poem, as the title indicated, was written in one blessed burst, on the day in question, while I was grappling with the failure of memory to keep anyone, no matter how deeply loved, alive. The dead keep dying. 

The transition from committed-to-death-and-the-past widow to okay-I’ll-try-and-move-on was not an easy one for me. In fact, I don’t think I could ever have moved out of my determined exile from life, were it not for the dazzling light my current husband shone on it. And so I opened up to a wonderful new life. And the drama of that time, with our joint decision to throw our lots together, is etched deeply in my core. 

Of course, falling in love again might sound like the stuff of poetry, but trust me—it’s not. Unlike loss, death, loneliness, the failure of memory, all of which have an eager readership. But I tried. Over and over, trying to catch the magic of a time, when clearly, you had to be there to understand how miraculous it all was.

This Christmas, success. I was able to give my husband a copy of the beautiful Australian journal, Rabbit 19: a journal of non-fiction poetry, Prose Poem issue, containing the publication of my poem, “Romance by Number.” I am so grateful to have balance somewhat restored. 

With this poem’s publication or maybe even more compelling, as a result of the changed political landscape, I feel my long foray into personal poetry is ending. I/we’ve got to find our way into other arenas. Or not. Stay tuned.

 

Are the Old Ways Passing?

In many ways, yes. Granted, the problems (might or will- take your pick) always be with us, to paraphrase Jesus, in John’s Gospel. Perennial problems of freedom, justice, equality. Over the centuries, individual cultures approach these universal biggies in the language and images of their particular time and place. Not to belabor the obvious, but cultures change, and ours has changed mightily in my lifetime. 

As I’ve said here previously, I think in categories I learned decades ago, while my mind was eager and impressionable. These categories stuck because they made sense to me at the time (they were certainly better than anything else I’d heard) and because in subsequent reading, I sought out writers who think using similar terminology. A rarer and rarer breed. 

I’m not complaining. Really. If I casually inject a classical allusion into a poem, especially one which, to my mind, works on multiple levels, I must be willing to live without the readers who feel shut out of that poem. It’s a big world with lots of readers and lots of writers. Fine. The only lesson to be drawn is that with the erosion of mythological, historical, Western Civ-type allusions and their ability to blast open huge philosophical and age-old moral quandaries, political poetry has lost a major tool.

Preaching over. Now, a what-on-earth-are-you-talking-about example. My gratitude to Lori Desrosiers, editor of Naugatuck River Review, for recently publishing “Take with a Grain of Salt— cum grano salis.” Lori does an outstanding job curating narrative poems, many of which begin in a moment, of equal narratable and surreal potential. 

For example, on a recent visit, my dear sister-in-law Kathy (wife of Phil Casey of Scuppernongaree fame—Like them on Facebook) asked a simple-on-the-face-of-it question, where did I keep my salt. Since the dedicated salt cellar location in my kitchen had not yet been established, this question set the universe spinning. On a bad day, I’d berate myself, “What kind of an idiot doesn’t know where her salt belongs?” On a good day, I’d quickly pronounce, “Here,” and point to any old vacant spot. But on a truly excellent day, I’d take a mental sidetrip and realize how incredibly interesting and multi-layered a question that was—and how telling that yet another domestic event led to questioning morality in the public sphere. 

Take with a Grain of Salt
    cum grano salis

After frying her morning egg
the Turkish way—rolled cigar-like,
my sister-in-law cleans my counter,

Where do you keep your salt? 
Oh, I answer, stick it anywhere.
My mother kept her salt

next to the cinnamon she’d mix
with sugar for special-day toast,
far in front of the summer salad

paprika. My grandmother kept
hers on the counter, next to the gas
stove where she browned Sunday’s 

pot roast. I don’t know if my great-
grandmother had a special place for salt, 
but according to all accounts, 

she herself was salt of the earth. 
I have one daughter whose salt
never wanders and another whose

salt floats free.  Women in our family
are worth their salt in the kitchen. 
Roman soldiers were paid in salt

from which we get salary, necessary
perks and lucre. None of the above for
Cincinnatus. Our George Washington 

thinks that’s cool. Back to the farm after war. 
No, to power, to dictatorship. No to salt, 
not even to rub in an enemy’s wounds. 

 

Is Everything Blear, Smear and Toil?

No. “The Importance of Feeling Special” appeared on the *82, issue 4.3 earlier this month. One of my favorites from the prose poem series, so it is gratifying to see it out there. Star 82, or as above *82, edited by Alisa Golden, is available online and in a print edition. The website is clean and attractive. Altogether satisfying. 

Contributors can purchase a print version of the issue at a reduced rate. Of course, I missed the window of opportunity in which to exercise this option, so needed to order it from Amazon like a non-special person. No problem. I’m interested in these proliferating models of publication. *82 is published by Create Space, an on-demand publishing platform affiliated with Amazon. From the looks of the online version, the publication contains quite a bit of visual art, so I look forward to seeing the print version.

Weirdly enough, the graphics on the site are similar to the Hopkins cover on the August 28 blog. Which emboldens me to ask the question posed in this last set of blogs: Is this a Catholic poem, despite its wacky persona and lack of theological references? Well, it was written by a cradle Catholic, one who was educated in Catholic schools at a time when the nuts and bolts of the faith were minutely examined, in a way that I doubt happens much today. If the truth be told, I’d have to have a lobotomy to excise my Catholicness. Am I then writing ipso facto Catholic poems? By Dana Goia’s definition, in The Catholic Writer Today (see August 15 blog), I am. One of his starting points: “Surprisingly little Catholic imaginative literature is explicitly religious… What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview.” 

Shouldn’t any classically trained Catholic, worth his or her salt, be able to identify Catholic themes in almost any piece of literature? Because aren’t these universal human struggles? So, for an easy bit of cherry-theme-picking, I see in “The Importance of Feeling Special” the longing for intimacy and validation (Isaiah’s God who calls us by name) and those analogically rain-challenged sacramental azaleas. And as women’s humor, however formulated, must be based on inner confidence, rather than self-deprecation, so Catholic writing is challenged to walk a similarly thin line between fullness and lack.

Who is the Greatest Religious Poet of the English Language?

I admit to phrasing this question for maximum annoyance. I want the fun of saying, unequivocally, that the correct answer is Gerard Manley Hopkins. I still have the 1961 Penguin Poets selections of his poems and prose, much the worse for wear, which blew me away (before those words entered the lexicon) while I was in high school. And provided my first authentic experience of poetry. (This is not fair to Emily, who actually was my first love, but Hopkins out-sprung and out-alliterated her.) 

In that mythical afterlife where we get to meet the dearly departed, I hope Hopkins shows up in my neighborhood. I know he can’t possibly live next door to me, but maybe he could pass through my circle and we could catch up a bit. I’d tell him how much we had in common and hope for his forebearance, how I too taught Latin and tried my hand at ancient Greek and studied Chaucer and Beowulf, how none of it took in my own poetry, but at least it primed me to recognize a guy who rocked. The word play and alliteration, I’d tell him I know they come from a strangling bottom. And the distillation of all that angst and spiritual ambition, the dribble into the world of the best, the purest. 

He’d be very nice to me. I have no doubt. Despite the fact that I’ve stalked him for years, writing inane comments in the margins of books since those high school days. Next to a passage in W. H. Gardner’s Introduction, expatiating on the difference between Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus’ haecceitas and humanitas, I wrote “It seems odd that the Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus had such an influence on a Jesuit priest.” Really now? I ask that naively rounded hand of yesterday. 

I pontificated on many other issues that could easily be used to self-satire, but my overwhelming feeling is gratitude that Hopkins as a person, as a scholar and as a poet engaged me so deeply. Yet I wonder with his obscure references and diction, if his stature as a poet, the best and greatest designation that I’m so eager to award him, will decrease with time.

Well, worry no more! Entering bookshelves everywhere The World Is Charged: Poetic Engagements with Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Daniel Westover and William Wright, published by Clemson University Press (2016). What an amazing testament to the influence that Hopkins has had on contemporary poets! It is a beautiful book, filled with gorgeous poetry, carefully edited, and strikingly similar to the aesthetics of my first Hopkins anthology. Believe me when I say that I am thrilled that my poem “Strife” was chosen to be published in this anthology. Pull up a chair, I’ll tell Father Hopkins when he stops by, and I’ll read it to you.

Not Being Rumi, Did You Say Anything?

Of course. Call it a throwback to adolescence. Call it a Faustian ploy. Call it reappropriation from the pew. Whatever the reason, I was too deeply rankled to let a previously mentioned comment by an editor (“You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi”)  go unexamined. Maybe no one, certainly not me, has the street creds to claim transcendence or, worse, to parlay any fleeting experience. But since William James, shouldn’t we sometimes try?

The poem I wrote in response appropriated the words of spiritual masters, Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, John Donne, G. M. Hopkins, in collage-like rebuttal. A little self-mockery, mixed with a serious purpose. And that poem was published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature, edited by Dr. Nathaniel Hansen, an English professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In the same neck of the woods as Alan Jacobs (see August 15 blog).

According to the publication’s site, Windhover, a beautifully produced annual, is gearing up to publish two issues a year. Good news. In the submission guidelines, Windhover describes itself as “dedicated to promoting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction that considers Christian perspectives and spiritual themes.” Excuse me for saying that this seems a low bar to meet, if we believe along with Paul to the Romans, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.” Do editors of avowedly Christian publications have a difficult job, deciding when poetry and orthodoxy part ways, which one wins? But even more fundamental is recognizing this Christian perspective, when it’s out of its Sunday best. Hansen is gently trying to steer his publication away from what he calls “the didactic, the melodramatic, the trite, the obvious,” and hoping that poetry wins.  

Sofia Starnes, a powerful Catholic poet in her own right, has helped raise the profile of poetry at Anglican Theological Review, where she is poetry editor. In the Summer 2016 newsletter, Roger Ferlo, President, ATR Board of Trustees, praised the journal’s unfolding commitment to the “rapprochement between theologians and imaginative writers.” In the same newsletter, Starnes explains succinctly, “Whenever I read a poem I seek to be taken to a place that would be inaccessible through prose.”

There are many other excellent religious-art-interested journals out there. I mention these two publications only because I am familiar with them and their dedicated editors whose work is bearing increased fruit. 

Who’s Laughing Now?

I, for one. My poem, “Inter-Subjective Affect,” has been published in Oxford Poetry XVI.i. As in the Oxford University, Magdalen College, poetry journal. It doesn’t get much better than that, certainly not on these shores. I’ve had lightning strike three times in the UK, Stand Magazine and Magma, as well as this latest. All three poems share – what would you call it? – a poignant snideness. Am I British in my core?

Maybe. Biologically, through my father’s line; intellectually, by virtue of being educated as an English major in the ‘60s when American literature was an elective; and comedically, by means of suppression and survival. Anyhow, how much would I like to share the news of this victory with some forbearers? For instance, my grandmother and her father, John Reese, born in 1870 in Staffordshire, England, a bit more than 100 miles from Oxford. Or one hour and forty three minutes away, if I left now, according to Google. Assuming I was in one or the other place. 

At the age of fourteen, Great-Grandad arrived with his mother and siblings in New York, aboard the good ship Egypt, carrying a pair of Staffordshire dogs. Which my father admired so much as a “young lad” that he inherited them. As a young mother, I lived in terror that my kids would bump against one of them, positioned on the floor next to a bench in my parents’ foyer where we all kicked off our boots and shoes. My angst and acute regard for “the dogs” apparently impressed my daughter so much that she wanted nothing less than the dogs as a family heirloom. A shout-out, no, a standing ovation, to my brother Phil Casey of Scuppernongaree fame (Like them on Facebook) for agreeing to let the dogs bypass him and reside with my daughter and her family. 

Where we now puzzle over their significance. What did they mean to Great-Grandad? Maybe he was helping out his mother and had no interest in them. I doubt that because, according to my father, Great-Grandad took pride in claiming he carried them, as a young boy, and still honored them decades later. Maybe they represented to him a bit of home, having been manufactured locally in Staffordshire. Maybe considering them the most beautiful items he had ever seen, he commited early on to beauty. Think Aeneas, carrying his father along with the Lares and Penates out of burning Troy.

I remember Great-Grandad vividly, with no specifics. If that is possible. He died at 85. I was seven years old. My cousins remember him smoking a cigar. True, but I remember more his presence. If he had a touch of the British humor, he sure didn’t share it with me. Nor did my beloved Grandma. A gentle humor, quiet laughs, desire for the facts of the matter, commitment to family. And undoubtedly, a belief that simple objects could become invested with history and meaning. That some things were worth carrying into the unknown. Maybe even poems.

Staffordshire pottery dogs come from the many pottery companies located in the County of Staffordshire, England, which produced them to sell to working class families to decorate their homes. While they produced dog figures from 1720 to1900, the peak of interest and, therefore, production came towards the end of the 19th century. 

                Thank you, Great- Grandad!

                Thank you, Great- Grandad!

Does "A Rose Is a Rose" Ever Bloom?

For June Cotner, who has edited over 30 anthologies of inspirational prose and poetry, the answer is yes. In her latest, Earth’s Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations, published by Viva Press, she chose “pieces that authentically speak to the earth and to the intricate ties that bind us to it.” Three of my poems, “Doxology,” “Go Ahead,” and “Says Mother Earth,” are included, and in the foreword material, June graciously mentions me and several other poets whose work has appeared in her previous anthologies: “we go back for two decades!” How sweet is that!

And how sentimental! William S. Burroughs purportedly said, “In deep sadness, there is no place for sentimentality.” While I’d consider myself deeply sad about climate risks, I must not have hit bottom. I must still be hoping for significant reversals in current trends or for climate change deniers to be vindicated after all. In fact, I’m full-out in favor of bringing sentiment to bear on the topic. 

Haven’t we all had some of our best moments in nature, unbidden? Not an orchestrated moment, but a sudden feeling of intense presence. A surrealness to the real. Awareness of existence extending beyond our petty concerns. These moments, remembered and cherished, can continue to guide us.


Go Ahead

Imagine a baby, mother and father.
Have them sit together on a bench
in dappled sunlight, or lie, playing
on a blanket. Let them hear birdsong.
Let them breathe loamy earth,
the wafting scent of pine.
The day is coming to an end.

Don’t discard the sentimental
image. It won’t hurt you.
It may even cast its lightness
on you. Befriend beauty
and innocence and simplicity. 
We owe it to ourselves; 
we owe it to that baby.

 (from Earth’s Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations)


    

What Else Did I Say to Myself?

If you think this blog is nauseatingly self-referential, you’d be right. Nearly self-reverential. A shameless mind selfie!

What are we humans to do with all this feeling, all these emotions that we keep to ourselves, or share with the special few who have signed on with us for the long haul? “Too full of self” does not work in poetry. Nor does any emotion, served thick and visible to the naked eye. I’m willing to bet most of us are awash in emotion, what with one darn thing or another. And not always the noblest kind.  

Beyond the embargo on emotional excess, poems about life, death, love, faith, motherhood are nearly verboten in an ironic culture. Yet these are the poems I want to read and write, the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart. Those last few words would be tracked cliché! by any decent editor. I once had an editor tell me, “You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi.” I get the point, that what has already been said must be re-envisioned into a new-and-improved version of itself before it has merit, beyond personal satisfaction. Original: good. Sentimental: bad. Although maybe the pendulum is swinging again. The New Sincerity. All the post-post-ironies. 

In the meantime, I’m trying to render personal experiences and feeling/s on the big topics with words as perfectly suited as I can. Sometimes sentimental, sometimes ironic, whatever an individual poem demands and my personal skill set allows. A long way from Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” but not less satisfying when All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood posted my poem, “Coming of Age in Lesbos,” on  its site  May 9, 2016. An anthology of the same name has just been published by Sage Hill Press. The poems on the website are not included in the anthology, although I was told by the editors that there may be a second volume. 

People want to read poems affirming and lamenting the trajectory of generations through time:  separation is good, it’s natural, it’s painful. At least I do. What epitomizes this necessary transition better than the coming of age of a daughter? And how nice to step back and contextualize any personal experience in the gorgeous-sounding words of Sappho’s fragment. I fell in love with those words, oi moi, alas! right around the time my own daughters were leaving home. Yet I hope the poem moves the experience through Sappho’s mother’s mind and heart, part of the universal river of mothers and daughters.

 

How Do You Say Anthology?

 

I say aunt hō lō gee a, equal stress on all syllables.  Only in my head, of course, where things fanciful and apocryphal pass for normal.

I do love anthologies, though. And their long history. The first one compiled by Meleager of Gadara in 60 B.C., a collection entitled Garland. And the nailed-it! etymology of anthology: a logos (story, collection, study, all-purpose word) of anthos (flowers). Hence, the Garland translation. As a side note, Latin coined a parallel term, florilegium, based on the same metaphor, but anthology became time’s victor.

I love reading anthologies, especially themed ones, to relish the fecundity of human imagination, in thought and aesthetic. So much variety, no matter how narrow the theme.  I love having my work included in anthologies, to be in the midst of the play. Which is why I report, with great pride, that my poem, “Eureka! Corner Drugstore, Slushy March Afternoon,” has been published in The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology, edited by Jerry Bradley and Ulf Kirchdorfer, from Lamar University Literary Press. 

What kind of flowers be these, you might ask. Brash, upright ones, with here and there a thorn. Sheltering among the many stand-outs in this anthology is a great privilege. At the risk of being ungrateful, though, I regret that the press did not send author proofs before publishing the book. Some of my poem’s formatting was lost in transmission, but most importantly, “Eureka!” was previously published in minnesota review and that fact was not acknowledged. Hereby acknowledged, with apologies to the minnesota review, such a terrific journal, which is published out of Virginia Tech, with only a historical relationship to Minnesota.

I sense a poem in that incongruity. And that’s the energy of  The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology: poets drawn to  unmask discrepancies between presented reality and perceived truths. In the book’s introduction, the editors write, “The wise ass poet holds his own court and exerts whatever influence he or she has on the page, both animated and frozen at the same time” (p. 2). While this can be said of most poetry, it is true, that the angrier I become, the more I turn to humor. As one of the first satirists wrote, difficile est saturam non scribere. It is difficult not to write satire, given the current provocations. Thank you, Juvenal.