Writing and the Sacred – a short essay by Stephen Kingsnorth

In my understanding, how writing and the sacred are connected

I can speak with hindsight only in relation to my own pilgrimage and companionship, as one won over by the gospel witness statements to Jesus of Nazareth. He himself of course was highly critical of the interpretation, exclusivity and practise of his own tradition by its elders, and praised numerous practitioners of other faiths. He did not intend to found a new religion, but breathe life into fresh understanding of life’s purpose, pose questions as to how our humanity might best be fulfilled. Those with insight of other faiths may empathise with aspects of my manifesto, though promote other emphases, or even demur from my core sensibilities. So be it. I remain confident in my uncertainty.

Poets seek to express, with the tools of their craft, questions drawn from their perception of where their humanity mixes with the divine in that thin atmosphere offered in the sacred moment. The mix pervades everything, whether recognised or not. The moments occur repeatedly. Whether that glimpse is grasped, briefly, or passes by unnoticed is, like the wind – a murmur, breeze, gust or gale – beyond our control, yet more readily to be realised in the common round of life – a given for all, and celebrated by divine creation – rather than the presumptuously religious.

But as I search to re-set gospel, release its forged boundaries, limited by my own hinterland, I explore more freely the communities of Galilee and Jerusalem, and on to the ends of the earth, and maybe beyond. When I remove, as far as I am able, the theologies imposed upon them, I see more clearly The Man and his questions. I re-type The Type. When I recognise that searching for the historical Jesus is as one staring down a well and seeing a reflection of themselves, then I am better prepared to discover fresh images. Am I prepared to excise assumed models? Have I the courage to dismantle the framework buttressing my assumptions? Do I risk the declined permissions of others who thus far tolerate my idiosyncrasies? I am after all, in good company, following the way of one despised by leaders of religious orthodoxy.

So, in the face of humanity, individuals and community; in the interactions of living things within its scenery; in possibility and despair; in these I find the yeast for reflective poetry.

All I would welcome, posing questions to myself, is to have others looking over my shoulders, those who might themselves further my enquiry through their own probing, interrogations, examinations. What ‘eroteme’ marks will I permit to hang over each conclusion that I thought I had reached, journalist of life? Am I ready to be disciple – learner, in companionship – sharing bread, with my fellow pilgrims?

The good news I read relates to a second sight, a grace of blindness replaced by insight. However poorly that light filters, though we may need a second touch, and countless further ministrations, we may seek to record through pulse, breath, sound, economy of codes, seams mined at different levels, the rhythms and revelations pumped into our blood.

Stephen Kingsnorth, retired to Wales from ministry in the Methodist Church, has had pieces accepted by a dozen on-line poetry sites, including Amethyst Review, and Gold Dust, The Seventh Quarry, The Dawntreader & Foxtrot Uniform Poetry Magazines. https://poetrykingsnorth.wordpress.com/

This essay is part of an occasional series in which contributors reflect on connections between writing and the sacred. Please send in your thoughts if you would like to contribute a short piece, I would love to hear them!

Constancy – a poem by Margaret Krell

Constancy

It happened again this year
on the shortest day
when the temperature rose
above freezing and the adhering snow
made everything Christmas:
Two pussy willow catkins slipped
through their husks. But there were just those
teasing few.
The next weeks saw glimpses of more light –
and by March, enough,
until finally this evening,
I saw what looked like strung pearls
lighting the willow’s branches.
And I remembered.
It is in the days after
this doubling of light begins
that catkins must emerge,
seeming to know
what we should know, too:
That it takes a constant light,
rather than what dazzles us
on a single blinding winter’s day,
to push aside what holds us contained.


Margaret Krell
lives in suburban Boston, and on occasion still  teaches privately. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Providence Journal and The Boston Globe.  Her most recent publication was an essay in the anthology, Family Stories from the Attic

The Meaning of – a poem by David Chorlton

The Meaning of

New Year’s Eve: the last clouds burning
down behind South
Mountain; traffic on the freeway
already slowing toward midnight
and a neighbor asks
about meaning at the end of a year with low crimes
in high places. Time to reflect
on a night in Agrigento, when Alfonso, a local
man with bad teeth,
threw a bottle full of wishes
from the church steps into
the future and the future
became glass and stars with just enough
regret to give the moment poignancy. Alfonso
wasn’t the type to care
about philosophers. He wouldn’t share
Prosecco, only toast friends of the moment
with a glass of Sicilian air, glad for a second chance
in his only life. From then
to now a long journey, and the Curve-billed
thrashers are working
at the cactus in front of the house, with much
to do before springtime. It’s been
a year to separate
those for from those
against, and meaning doesn’t take
a theory. It takes last week’s rainfall
that made a dry river flow. It takes
a sign at the door to a bar that says
Militia not welcome here.
As for religion
even the gods are undecided
over which of them is real. The javelinas
who came down the street last week
knew they were real, the soul
that wakes up at two am
and worries its way to six
is real, and the flinching back
from TV morning news
is real. Then there was Keats
proclaiming beauty as truth, though
the truths currently circulating
are anything but. The stony, winding path
through the universe
leads to the next sunrise. A glow rippling
westward. The blue ring
around a Mourning dove’s eye. The water
left out in the desert
for someone crossing to a better life. The stamp
in a passport that allows
a spirit to go
where the body is forbidden. Even as
we contemplate the mysteries
men are drafting laws
to make them insignificant, evangelists
select chapter and verse
to justify their love for money
and the military budget’s been in orbit
so long nobody
can bring it back down. But a dollar
is still a dollar to the homeless,
tempest-tost who are tired, poor
and huddled who never read Nietzsche
or Schopenhauer. Australia
is on fire tonight while they are cold.
A voice comes from the sky
to say There’s nothing you can do, as
another one leaves its place in the mind or
heart or wherever in the body it rests
to ask Did you ever hear
that Leonard Cohen song? You know, the one
about Democracy in which
he says he’s junk but still is holding up
this little wild bouquet.

 

David Chorlton was born in Austria, grew up in Manchester, England, and lived in Vienna before moving to Phoenix in 1978. The Bitter Oleander Press published Shatter the Bell in my Ear, translations of poems by Austrian poet Christine Lavant, and a long poem, Speech Scroll comes from Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library.

The Same Privacy – a poem by Phoebe Marrall

The Same Privacy

These I saw: small onions laid
with their root discs punctuating
the longitude poles. Polar caps,
yes, navels to the earth where
their buried unions still hold.

That space along the stalls,
unpeopled on this damp morning,
stops me (for it insists), with the
white parking lines leaping
to the distant edge of gray asphalt,
and to the gray and black
of my mind’s caverns.
There is beauty and there is
the comfort of isolation,
desolation remembered.
Why (I ask myself)
should I crave this comfort,
which would seem black, dead?

I walk in this same privacy
where the dead black
chicken house vibrates in the stink
of manure, and winds from the west,
and the dead black of a remembered
gas tank rising by the road?
Does the pensive void pull me
to the empty, and therefore personal,
paving, begetting a sage
from my wilderness to give life
to the vacancy?

 

Phoebe Marrall, orphaned at the age of nine, was a survivor of The Depression and of a grueling childhood. When she died in 2017 at the age of eighty-four, her daughters Jane Hendrickson and Camille Komine inherited hundreds of poems she had written. They remained unpublished during her lifetime, but it is the intention of her daughters that a collection be compiled for readers to appreciate. Relief, Have You a Name? is currently a work in progress, being edited by Gayle Jansen Beede.

When December Runs Off with the Light – a poem by Carl Mayfield

When December Runs Off with the Light

We sense the passion is seasonal, that life
doesn’t move in only one direction, even though
these sawed-off days are hard to sing about.

The afternoon dissolves at four, making us
wonder what we did with our summer wages.
Our summer wages wonder about that too.
No matter. As long as we’re warm to the touch
a chance remains, we can love the light as it
passes through us, pulling us along to solstice
when the sun remembers to pivot, climbing
slowly higher in the sky, carrying good news
in outstretched arms we’re too blind to see.

Carl Mayfield has recent work in Miramar, Wales Haiku Journal, and Slipstream. His most recent chapbook is I Would Also Like To Mention Biscuits & Gravy.

The Better Reflection – a short story by William R. Stoddart

The Better Reflection

I looked over the rusted railing to the dark water swirling around the bridge pylons–my hands began to tremble. I had a passing urge to do a sailor dive into the river. I wanted a Xanax and a beer or two to level me off. “This was a mistake coming here. I should have come alone, not burden you.”

The state highway bled tar like ribbons of black licorice. The oily smell was gone once my girlfriend Liz and I got to the dirt road that snaked along the river. We passed through mayfly swarms that moved like mist from the water. The insects were like a prickly gauze over our eyes. We came to a sharp bend in the road and heard the sound of singing and clapping hands off in the distance. As we walked further the singing got louder and we could finally see people along

the riverbank in white robes. In a clearing there was a flat area with parked cars. Some from the group were wet from the immersions, their white robes stained by the swirling mud and grit. The newly minted baptized carried the smell of the river like a halo.
“How many washed souls today?” I asked the man with a clerical collar.
“Six souls, washed in the water of the Jordan. Hallelujah, Brother!” The preacher dabbed his forehead with a red handkerchief — an earthy, mineral smell rose from his drying clothes.
“I used to come here as a kid. The town had a concession stand, lifeguards and there were two wooden rafts anchored in the river,” I said to the preacher.
“You actually swam in this?” Liz asked, shielding her blue eyes from the July sun. She walked to the edge of the river and reached her hand into the water. “Cold as cucumbers. I wouldn’t go in there on a bet.” She pulled a flat stone from the water and skipped it over the smooth dark surface. She counted three skips. “Not on a bet! If this was such a great place to swim, why was the beach closed?” Liz asked.
“The town ran out of money to keep it going. The liability insurance got too expensive. A place like this could fix alot of kids. A place to hangout, that’s what they need. This cold water could fix anything,” I said.

My hands trembled as the preacher spoke about redemption and forgiveness. We talked about my older brother who died twenty-five years ago. He drowned here in the river and I stood in the shallow water and watched. My mother said I was a coward. She never let me forget it.

The preacher says the water’s just a symbol, but it heals like nothing else if we let it. He lifted me out of the water into the calm light of day. The darkness rolled off me like soft rain from a child’s face. It seemed like an eternity before I opened my eyes. I focused on the shimmering light as it danced around the broken surface of water, slowly revealing the better reflection of a new day.


William R. Stoddart
is a poet and short fiction writer who lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Neologism Poetry Journal, Adirondack Review, Ruminate Magazine, Pedestal Magazine, Every Day Fiction and other publications.

 

The Unfolding Earth – a poem by Marilyn McCabe

The Unfolding Earth

Wind attracts wind,

sound comes along,

with seeds and a different dirt,

as the sea drags anything loose,

plants it where it has never belonged,

strange slate, a plant desperate for land.

Life wants itself. Will pay any price.

Are we the only species that mulls the past

incessently, invest futures of jewels and virgins,

of heavenly hosts singing

beyond this land under our terrible feet?

We’re dying to get there, love.

::

Wind

              and

   the sea

                               desperate for land

                         Will

incessently invest                jewels and

    heavenly           singing

                                      , love

;;

                                                      land

incessantly

                              singing

                                       love

Marilyn McCabe‘s work has garnered her an Orlando Prize from A Room of Her Own, the Hilary Tham Capital Collection contest award from The Word Works resulting in publication of her book of poems Perpetual Motion, and two artist grants from the New York State Council on the Arts. Her second book of poems, Glass Factory, was published in 2016. Her poems and videopoetry have been published in a variety of print and online literary magazines. She blogs about writing and reading at Owrite:marilynonaroll.wordpress.com.

Holocene – a poem by Robert Ford

Holocene

The shoreline has no recollection of the ice;
only the genetic memory of suffocation, smothering,

of cold, silent fingers playing at the clay of the Earth,
sundering rocks. There are only echoes, hearsay,

the whisper of older waters – receded, replenished –
forests, hills, a whole continent swallowed below.

Becoming a pixel in the image, a word of the story,
I press footmarks through a knotted dunescape

to arrive, human, upon it, eyes finally registering
only in the present tense, shouldering my own tide.

 

Robert Ford‘s poetry has appeared in print and online publications in the UK, US and elsewhere, including The Interpreter’s House, Brittle Star, Butcher’s Dog and San Pedro River Review. More of his work can be found at https://wezzlehead.wordpress.com/

Parthenogenesis – a poem by Ray Ball and Caroline Streff

Parthenogenesis

She crept beneath the leaves, her body a shadow of running water.
Calling on Saint Anne she manifested her own miracle.
Her lashing muscles smoothed the earth, her waters crisped the hanging air.
………………..The hovel, remade in her image, became a bower.
She tasted the fire from the kiln between her rows of teeth.
Her blood upon the earth called for heaven’s reply,
………………..and the moon descended.
The watery orb burst upon her tongue and three hatchlings fell,
………………..spasming,
into the cradle of heaped up stones.
One of her children — one of her selves —
………………..did not survive. And she lamented.
But the world exhaled a celebratory prayer:
one fewer heav(enl)y body with distinctive marks
to twine around a stranger’s leg.
One fewer set of sharpened teeth
to sink themselves into a stranger’s heel.

 

 

Caroline Streff is a recent graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage. She has been pursuing poetry in earnest for the past year and a half, investigating themes of family, ecology, and space. Her work has recently appeared in Alaska Women Speak, Anchorage Press, and Human/Kind Journal. She has been nominated for Best of the Net.

Ray Ball grew up in a house full of snakes. She is a history professor and an editor at Alaska Women Speak. Her chapbook Tithe of Salt came out with Louisiana Literature Press in the spring of 2019, and she has received nominations for Pushcart and Best of the Net. Ray has recent publications in descant, Gingerbread House, and Psaltery & Lyre. You can find her in the classroom, in the archives, or on Twitter @ProfessorBall.

The Dreamers Anthology – review by Sarah Law

Image result for The Dreamers Anthology schafer

 

The Dreamers Anthology: Writing Inspired by the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Anne Frank Edited by Janette Schafer, Cedric Rudolph and Matthew Ussia, Social Justice Anthologies, Publication affiliate of Beautiful Cadaver Project, Pittsburgh.

Review by Sarah Law

I was sent this anthology, of primarily but not exclusively poetry, over the course of last year and it’s a really strong one with a striking premise. Civil rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King Jr and diarist Anne Frank were both born in 1929. The book, published last year, commemorates what would have been the 90th birthday of both. On finding this out, Janette Schafer comments in her introduction, ‘My first thought was, what would these two have to say to each other had they the opportunity to meet?’ Their ideas, their resilience, and their dreams meet and are celebrated here. Contributions are not bound specifically to explore the lives of either Luther King or Frank, although many do in ways that are poignant and lyrical. But all the pieces reflect in some ways on human talent and bravery in the face of persecution. Some have a confessional tone or are memoirs in miniature, others are more objective and innovatively written.

The anthology is structured, quite loosely, into five sections, each acknowledging notable dates for either Frank or Luther King – the first, ‘Voices’, June 14th 1942, for example, is the date Anne Frank begins her diary. ‘Darkness’, is prefaced by April 15th, 1945, the date British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Its stated theme is, again, treated both specifically and more tangentially. The horror of the Holocaust is something that (as Matthew Ussia notes in ‘The Morning after Antwon Rose was Murdered by a White Police Officer’) the philosopher Adorno suggested should put an end to poetry. But here are many unflinching examples of the difficult poetry of imagined witness and of elegy. Resonant detail and thoughtful phrasing are the keys to several powerful pieces, such as ‘fetters of silence’ in Nina Pick’s ‘Photo of the Deportation’.

Subsequent sections, ‘Resistance’, ‘Liberation’ and ‘Legacy’ broaden the anthology’s themes and tone. Imprisonment takes many forms – repression is an intersectional experience and can be political and gendered as well as racially oppressive – and the poems acknowledge this in their variety (Wendy Paff’s ‘Deep Creek MD in the Era of Trump’; Arlene Gay Levine’s ‘I am a Woman’). While there are striking threads right through the anthology which trace the lives, deaths and legacies of the two titular figures (for example the adjacent ‘Flight’ by Carrie Albert, and ‘Independence Day’ by Matt Kohut), many other voices and dramatic fragments are evoked by the end, a rising chorus of voices, in fact, demanding poetic respect as well as some serious soul-searching on the part of the reader. Some present contemporary injustices as a clear echo of past atrocities, such as ‘”Nation of Immigrants” Removed from Mission Statement’ by Daniella Buccilli, a hard-hitting poem which opens with: ‘Expired paperwork is a violation beyond redemption in times of nationalism.’

Just in terms of skill and craft, this anthology has an impressive poetic reach. I particularly liked Devon Balwit’s ‘Abcedarian’ poems – the first starts:

Antennae – not horns – are what Jews have, the
better to test the prevailing winds, for the
careless, the cocksure, go down. it
doesn’t matter the century, the decade. …

and Nancy Flynn’s extraordinary found/erasure poem, ‘Still Birmingham’, based on Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ on April 16, 1963:

‘Your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your daughter why, see ominous clouds of inferiority form in her mental sky./ Concoct an answer for a son who is asking: “why do white people treat colored people so mean?”‘

It was also good to see some longer poems in here, such as Maureen Doallas’s ‘Anne’; a multi-page poem, intercalating some of Frank’s own writing, that gives its subject room to breathe. Here’s the start:

Goodness happens
even when it does not.

A diary begins on the day
it is written and everything
goes so fast.

The breakfast dishes are left on the table
and a cat gets the only goodbye.

To be 13 when the world is
on fire and it is pouring rain
and your sister, 16, is summoned means

We shall disappear of our own
accord and not wait until they come
and fetch us.

There are also some beautifully pared-down poems, such as Schafer’s own ‘Things that are not Dogs’ and Amanda Woomer’s ‘the holiest’. Woomer’s poem makes explicit what is implicit throughout the anthology; namely that all human life is valuable and sacred, intrinsically worthy of respect and remembrance: ‘we live/ we love/ we die/ the holiest’, a sentiment echoed in the letter-poem by Karen Poppy that concludes the book: ‘she [Frank] would have noted…the miracle of each of our lives, that we exist at all…’

I don’t want to neglect the prose in this anthology however. There is a fiercely thought-provoking essay by Mark Blickley on the ‘recruitment’ ethos of Arlington Cemetery (described as ‘the theme-park brainchild of the Pentagon’), and a great one-woman playscript celebrating American lawyer and social activist Bella Abzug, ‘Playing House’ by Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger.

Creative writing necessarily involves a certain amount of imaginative vision, of dreaming. Martin Luther King’s famous speech is of course predicated on his dream of social justice. This anthology honours our present day dreamers as well as those so important in the past, but it is not willing to accept that freedom and justice are only ‘a dream deferred’ (to use Langston Hughes’ phrase); the pieces here challenge privilege, and call out the slowness to change of those who have the most privilege. Not least, this anthology is a call to action. Racial hate crime and antisemitism are both still shockingly present in the world, and must be decried and defeated by both words and deeds. Reading The Dreamers Anthology is an inspiring place to start.

Sarah Law