Friday, November 30, 2012

Starting points

I can't help it.

I'm postmodern.

It's an inescapable fact of location, as profound and mundane as my roots in the deserts of Arizona, my SoCal sojournings, and my current residence in the semi-urban jungles of North Houston.

I'm postmodern.

It doesn't mean I don't believe in truth. It doesn't even mean that I don't believe in certainty and knowledge. It just means that I live in the year 2012, and the jig is up for modernism.

That's okay. It never was a very good foundation anyway.

But Jesus is the same in every age, and his truth stands above the lies, confusions, and blind spots of every generation.

And I'm so glad for the ancient witness of people like St. Augustine, who can help us understand what it means be earnest truth-seekers and disciples of Jesus... even though we can't be modern.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Neither to the right nor to the left

'Breithorn path' photo (c) 2006, Martin F - license:
The slope is slick on either side,
and leaves no feeble hope to hide;
you ever, always must decide,
        or fall.

For hard and narrow is the way,
and on each side the wide wastes lay;
at times the climb is just to stay
        at all.

There is no safety over there;
truth stands exposed in the mountain air,
and always, if you don't take care,
        you fall.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Robert Frost: Not to Keep

"Genuine poetry communicates before it is understood." --T. S. Elliot

Of course, Elliot was talking about the reader's experience over multiple readings, but that idea is actually embedded in the structure of this Frost poem.

First he gives us an experience; only then, and only slowly, does he tell us what he's talking about.

He doesn't just tell us about the bewilderment. He forces us to become bewildered as well. That way, whether or not the rest of our life experience prepares us to empathize with the characters, we can actually share in this one little aspect of their emotions.

We know what it feels like not to understand. Because we have read this poem.

Not to Keep
by Robert Frost

They sent him back to her.  The letter came
Saying. . . . And she could have him.  And before
She could be sure there was no hidden ill
Under the formal writing, he was there,
Living.  They gave him back to her alive--
How else?  They are not known to send the dead.--
And not disfigured visibly.  His face?
His hands?  She had to look, to look and ask,
"What is it, dear?"  And she had given all
And still she had all--they had--they the lucky!
Wasn't she glad now?  Everything seemed won,
And all the rest for them permissible ease.
She had to ask, "What was it, dear?"
Yet not enough.  A bullet through and through,
High in the breast.  Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest, and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again."  The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How it was with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


You are her daughters,
adorned in lamblike silence.
Let God be the judge.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Not as the gentiles: with you the last is first;
with you no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free,
and even heaven's angels are accurst
if they would preach salvation differently.

For faith, by hearing, enters like a child,
here where the poor and hungry are the blessed,
delighting in the joys of the reviled;
here honor's in the marks of the oppressed.

So not of soaring visions, but the boards,
splintered and broken from the ruined ship
to which you clung—boast; and of the cords
that bound and lashed, the crowning thorns that rip
your flesh, the sword that wounds your side;
boast in Christ's shame, and in his glory hide.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Christina Rossetti: Windflowers

There is something very courageous about Christina Rossetti's unflinchingly whimsical innocence. Her poetry is wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove, and somehow even when she is not dealing with explicitly sacred subjects, I see the spirit of Christ in her poetic sensibilities. 

by Christina Rossetti

Twist me a crown of wind-flowers;
That I may fly away
To hear the singers at their song,
And players at their play.
Put on your crown of wind-flowers:
But whither would you go?
Beyond the surging of the sea
And the storms that blow.
Alas! your crown of wind-flowers
Can never make you fly:
I twist them in a crown to-day,
And to-night they die. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Beer Lahai Roi

Understand, dear child, that to be understood
is good, but rare; beware, it could
if you care, lead you wild through the desolate wood,
and there lies the way of despair.

As sunlight grows the glistening green
leaves, and leaves the space between,
be content but to be seen
by the one who sees, and who is, good.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Haiku: Burnt

Smoke of jasmine rice
like incense wafts through the house.
Fragrance will not feed.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

John Donne: Witchcraft by a Picture

I fix mine eye on thine, and there
    Pity my picture burning in thine eye,
My picture drowned in a transparent tear,
    When I look lower I espy;
        Hadst thou the wicked skill
By pictures made and marred, to kill,
How many ways mightst thou perform thy will?

But now I have drunk thy sweet salt tears,
    And though thou pour more I'll depart;
My picture vanished, vanish fears,
    That I can be endamaged by that art;
        Though thou retain of me
One picture more, yet that will be,
Being in thine own heart, from all malice free.


I love how Donne seems always to be in perfect control of the force of his words.

The first stanza is like a hammer.  The unrelenting rhythms drive home the meaning, reinforced by intense internal word play.  It's compellingly creepy, and reminds me a bit of Poe.

But then those last lines completely fall flat. The rhythm is off, the rhymes are trite, the grammar is strained, ambiguous, and redundant.

I don't believe him, and I don't think he does either.

But of course that's the whole point.

Maybe its true, maybe it isn't... who cares?  He's gone.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Goldiblox and the 30th Spenserian Sonnet

I was reading some of Spenser's Amoretti this morning. But first a lovely little something I just saw on facebook.

I know. I'm distractible. But it relates... really.

Last night, as I folded the mountain of laundry, I listened to a lecture from my alma mater on the difficulty of communicating absolute truth in a media-saturated age.

 Images, you see, are more about feelings than about truth. You can't argue with an image.

Actually, you can argue with an image... it just takes work. A lot of work.

(Our family makes a hobby of analyzing billboard imagery as we drive around. I highly recommend the practice, both for entertainment value, and the opportunities to discuss important stuff. But I digress from my digression.)

Surrounded by powerful images, we've become a culture driven by emotions divorced from reason, and that has led to all sorts of appalling troubles.

But here's the weird thing: I could have very easily flipped over to another section of the archives, and listened to a lecture on scientism, and the way in which our culture has become obsessed with reason divorced from any overarching story.  That's true, too, and it's contributed to the exact same problems.

Our trouble isn't too much emotion or too much reason. Our trouble is that reason and emotion are no longer on speaking terms.

That's why I care so much about poetry. Thinking hard about feelings, feeling deeply about ideas: this matters. It matters a lot.

So I press on with my sonnets, hoping to contribute my own tiny scrap of thread toward the patching of this gaping tear. Goldie Blox is a stitch of a completely different sort, and I'm so very happy to see it.

And now for the Spenser sonnet that I was intending to share in the first place. The moment Spenser describes is perhaps nearly universal, but as he points out, it is really rather strange and unnatural. It's also (hopefully) brief. Opposites really do attract... but it's so that they can moderate one another. Otherwise, it's very, very miserable--and fodder for good poetry, of course.

That's the other reason why poetry matters. There's no experience so miserable that it can't be turned to good use in a poem. =)

(I hope you don't mind, but I've taken the liberty of updating the spelling a little bit. I do realize that Spenser wanted to be archaic... but I think that by this point he's probably old enough to be archaic without even trying.)

Sonnet XXX
by Edmund Spenser

My love is like to ice, and I to fire;
    how comes it then that this her cold so great
    is not dissolv'd through my so hot desire,
    but harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
    is not delayed by her heart frozen cold:
    but that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
    and feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told
   that fire which all thing melts, should harden ice:
   and ice which is congealed with senseless cold,
   should kindle fire by wonderful device?
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
   that it can alter all the course of kind.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sonnet for Baby Elizabeth

For a time, the swing will replace the overlapping
rhythms of her mother's breath and blood.
In time, her own rhythmic breath, her own heart's tapping
will be enough, unfolding as the bud
of rosy lips expands, contracts to hold
the words to frame the undulating dawn,
the wavelike rhythmic seasons, and the cold
salt-drenched tides of the moon. When her mother is gone,
these maternal rhythms will comfort her still,
soothing her asleep, awake, in turn
cradling her tenderly until
blinking and reborn at last, she'll learn
that the world itself's a small, reflective thing,
with the fleeting, surrogate sweetness of an infant's swing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Scarecrows

'There Are No Scarecrows Down This Lane' photo (c) 2012, Tim Green - license: of the most famously deceptive rhetorical moves is known as the straw man argument. You know the drill: misquote your opponent as saying something really silly, and then debunk the silly idea that nobody ever believed in the first place.

If allowed to stand, straw man arguments can quickly turn any discussion sour and unproductive, so it's a good thing that people tend to be on guard against them.

But this can lead to a bizarre dilemma.

Sometimes people really do say silly things.

Sometimes people try to say perfectly sensible things, but end up saying silly things anyway. (I do this one all the time!)

And sometimes people say things that sound perfectly sensible and even obvious in one context, but start to sound pretty silly when you put them in a different context.

All of these situations deserve (demand!) serious dialogue. Silliness needs to be refuted, misunderstandings need to be cleared up, and ideas need to be examined in all their relevant contexts.

But in each of these cases, anything you say can be instantly dismissed as a straw man argument. And that's a problem.

Mary Kassian's review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is a good case in point. Kassian laughs at the selection of books from which Evans quotes, but whether or not she happens to agree with them, each of those books has been very influential. Not all of the books cited were silly or extreme, either. It's been a long time, but I seem to remember getting a lot of good encouragement and insight out of The Hidden Art of Homemaking. Agree with her or disagree with her, Edith Schaeffer is not made of straw. She is a real woman, and her work has had an important influence on today's complementarian thinkers.

I think that Evans' selection of source material is quite defensible, but be that as it may, the book did not depend upon those particular choices. She could have written her (sweet, winsome, and uproarously funny) chapter on domesticity just fine without quoting from anyone but Mary Kassian.

Of course not all complementarians believe the ideas that Evans plays with.  It's quite possible to affirm every word of the True Woman Manifesto without believing that "God gave women a unique responsibility to create and maintain a welcoming, nurturing home environment."

But Mary Kassian does believe that. She doesn't hold to the more extreme views, but that much she does affirm.

And Rachel Held Evans disagrees with her.

So let's pull out our Bibles and examine the issues carefully, diligently seeking after truth. And leave the straw (wo)men out in the cornfields where they belong.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On taking Genesis seriously

I'm not sure why (the Platypus might know), but for some reason that's probably traceable back to some German philosopher a few hundred years ago, we have a habit of using the words "seriously" and "literally" as thought they were interchangeable. It's a bad habit, because we desperately need both words for their own separate and important purposes. It's annoying enough in sloppy casual conversation, but my head doesn't literally explode until we start talking about Biblical interpretation. That's where this problem can cause some serious confusion.

Sometimes we can get so worked up over whether or not to take the Bible literally, we forget to ask ourselves whether or not we're taking it seriously.

I like young-earth creationism. I think that would be pretty cool, and I'm firmly convinced that when God makes stuff, He does so with maximal awesomeness. As for the scientific evidence, I really haven't studied it enough to say one way or another. I admire those who inquire, but I have duties and vocations enough of my own, so for now I'm just going to have to withhold judgment. After all, "smart people say so" may be a sound basis for practical decision-making, but it certainly isn't a very scientific attitude.

But the whole debate feels a little bit like speculating about whether or not John is still sitting on the Island of Patmos, growing a very long beard while he awaits the second coming. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn't. The only thing we really know for sure is that the very question misses the point. 

Maybe creation unfolded in seven 24-hour days. That would be cool. But I'm utterly convinced that the Bible isn't trying to tell us one way or another.

Why? Because I believe that Genesis is the inspired Word of God. If these are the words that the Holy Spirit wanted to use to communicate with us, then it follows that these words must be exactly the right words to convey their intended meaning.

But if God wanted us to know the details of natural history, these are confusing words. If He wanted us to know the time-table on which he made the heavens and the earth, I'm not sure why He gives us the story twice, but with different sequences. Of course it's quite possible that some complicated scenario might account for both chronologies... but I just can't shake the sense that if that was the point, I probably could have come up with a better way of communicating it.

Whatever else it may or may not do, though, the Genesis creation account provides us with unimaginably rich and powerful insight into the nature of God and His creatures. It tells us what it means to be human, and it does so with better words than anyone else has ever come up with for the purpose.

And even just on a practical level, the (very clear and powerful) poetry matters a whole lot more than the (fuzzy and confusing) literal chronology. I don't really need to know when exactly it was that God created the sea monsters, or how long it took. But the fact that God made them changes everything. Every agent of chaos in my life is God's creature, and is under His sovereign control, possessing only as much power as He chooses to grant them. That's something that changes the way I live.

I don't need to know how many hours there were in the days of that first creation, but I desperately need to remember that there is evening and there is morning, and that God created them both. He separated them and named them and said that it was good. The dark night of the soul is not hidden from God. It is part of His distinctive workmanship, and even the blindness of my perplexity is for his glory, as the one who created me makes me anew.

God creates with the Word, effortless and instantaneous. The progressive stages of God's work are not the result of difficulty, but are rather an integral part of His revelation. Time itself and the fullness thereof was created to be an image of God's eternal rest. Man is the pinnacle of creation, but he is not the point. The whole poem revolves around the seventh day, around God's holiness and rest.

Over and over, God creates and separates, gathers and fulfills, and this beautiful and profound poem contains the template both for the grand sweep of salvation history, and for the unfolding of God's work in individual hearts. So law came through Moses, grace and truth through Jesus Christ. We see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face, in that day beyond time when we enter into rest.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Veterans Day Links

'lest ...' photo (c) 2010, jenny downing - license: poetry on NPR.  Good stuff.

I like Malcom Guite.  A lot.  This sonnet is haunting.

Sarah Bessey's words work their way into your soul, wounding and healing and singing.  This essay is no exception.

More good stuff from the Poetry Foundation


'Oak and Mustard' photo (c) 2012, John Morgan - license:

The ears to hear, unfolding ripe with grain,
emerge now from the green and tender blade.
The mustard seed, grown rich with leafy shade,
shelters those who, faithful through the pain
of want and hunger, waited for the rain
and sun in season, as seeds die unafraid,
silent in the ground where they were laid;
so abide, and truth will be made plain.

The search for wisdom, wisdom's choicest fruit,
without its final end cannot begin.
What is shall be, and vastly multipled,
as spreading branch and penetrating root
unfold now from the life unseen within
with power to reveal and power to hide.

Friday, November 9, 2012

On books and their covers

After all the provocative marketing, the book finally came out.  You know--the one about the lady who took the Bible literally for a year to make fun of its teachings to women.  Predictably, the internet is all in a tizzy.

When I read the book, though, I was in for a huge surprise.  As a matter of fact, there was such a big difference between the marketing and the actual product that I might have been tempted to ask for my money back, if the book itself hadn't been so unexpectedly lovely.

I'd been led to expect a book in which Rachel Held Evans deconstructed the Bible.  Instead, I found a chronicle of the year in which the Bible deconstructed Rachel Held Evans.  I also found a bracing challenge to let the Bible reinterpret my own soul.  To take it seriously, even when it says hard and scary things.  To trust it enough to really listen.

From the introduction and conclusion, it looks like she really did intend to write the book as it was marketed... but that the writing of it changed her.

Good writing always does.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Sometimes the afternoon light
pours its balm into my soul
like the orange that yields its fragrant, sharp vitality:
tiny jewels that burst between my teeth
as joy flows down my throat.

I rise, refreshed, and gather up the peels,
inhaling their still-pungent savor.
With a sigh, I drink the fading scraps of light,
all that remains of the day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

John Milton: Psalm 136

Whether this morning finds you joyful or sorrowing, Jesus is Lord.  He alone can protect us from our enemies and provide for our needs.

May God grant President Obama great wisdom as he leads our nation over the next four years.

And may God grant us all the grace to trust only in His mercy.


Let us blaze his name abroad,
For of gods he is the God;
    For his mercies ay endure,
    Ever faithful, ever sure.

All living creatures he doth feed,
And with full hand supplies their need.
   For his mercies ay endure,
   Ever faithful, ever sure.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


At the dawn of time, there was the Word,
the life which was the breaking light of day.
His voice we've seen, his very flesh we've heard,
he makes the shattered shadows break away.

God have mercy on us all, a man
was born: not the light, and yet a light,
not the Word, and yet a voice,
drenching and drenched in the desert streams
to prepare the path of dawn.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Pied Beauty

'to shout' photo (c) 2009, andy li - license: part of his dream teaching lineup this year, Andrew has been going through Augustine's Confessions with his advanced Latin students.  As a result, we've been having a lot of great discussions about philosophy of time--mostly in the kitchen, while Andrew does something productive, and I . . . attempt to do something productive.  My attempts at multi-tasking never go quite as well as I hope, mostly because I can't talk without using my hands any more than my father ever could, and so dinner ends up being rather late. There's nothing like talking about time to make you lose all track of it.

I love how Augustine's philosophy of time is all shot through with aesthetic wonder, and bursts forth in worship.  But while Augustine lays out his theory of time in a frenzy of sophisticated mental motion, Hopkins presents his in the serene stillness of a few homely images.  This is either profoundly ironic or profoundly fitting--I'm not sure which.  In any case, I'm intrigued by the idea that dappled-ness is something that can be displayed in either space or time.  In this model, change is not a property of time, but rather a property of "fickle, freckled" things--opening up all sorts of possibilities for God's relationship to space-time.

This poem leaves me wildly euphoric at the prospect of all the thinking that there is to be done, but at the same time calmly joyous in the certainty that right now, it's time to close up the laptop and go make some bread.  It's the sort of thinking about time that inspires me to want to learn to live well and contentedly within the rhythms of my changingness.

It's just the sort of thing a girl like me needs.

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things--
  For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
            Praise him.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Leonardo, Lady Antebellum, and the power of ambiguity

True confession: I get unreasonably happy every time Lady Antebellum's pop/country hit 'Need You Now' comes on the radio.  There isn't a whole lot to the song, but it's utterly perfect for what it is.

It's a narrative song, or at least an implied narrative, but all the particularities have been stripped away, leaving nothing but the painfully common situation of a late-night phone call to an ex.  Not everyone has actually been in that situation, but I think that most of us at least know somebody who's been there.  The song allows space for the listener to flesh out the characters from their own experience, and it doesn't supply any details that could contradict whatever faces or personalities come to mind.

As a matter of fact, the details are even more universal than the storyline:

"Picture perfect memories scattered all around the floor..."

"It's a quarter after one, and I'm all alone..."

"I wonder if I ever cross your mind..."

Instead of specifying the unique characteristics of this particular situation, the song fleshes out the universal human experience of time, memory, and loneliness.  The universally shared nature of these experiences is what forges a re-connection between the two estranged lovers; it also forges a connection with the listener.

As for the specifics, when they are supplied by the imagination, they're actually alive.

I enjoy the song for its own sake, but what makes me positively giddy is the reminder that poetry, too, can participate in the techniques that Leonardo used to make the Mona Lisa so compelling.

Every time you look at her famously mysterious smile, she seems to have a different expression.  This is because in this richly detailed portrait, Leonardo very carefully painted the corners of her eyes and mouth shadowy and ambiguous.  The viewer's mind must supply her precise expression.  Hence, the image that we see is always changing, and always strikes a deep chord.  She looks alive, because we're really seeing a projection of our own living souls.  Leonardo's genius was in compelling the viewer to see much more than he actually painted; much more than it would be possible to paint.

I tried to play with this effect in my poem about leaving the hospital.  My goal was to leave enough ambiguous space for the reader to fill in the specifics, while providing enough detail to make the total picture as vivid as possible.

The concept initially came to me while praying for a friend, upon hearing that she was at the hospital with an unexpectedly dying loved one.  While there's no such thing as an easy time for a tragedy, it struck me as particularly awful that this would happen at a time so full of other transitions.  As I prayed for peace amid all the painful changes, an image came to my mind of her walking out of the hospital.

I thought of the disequilibrium that I experience every time I leave a hospital. Whether I have been ill, or have had a baby, whether I am visiting a loved one, or one who I wish that I had loved better, walking out of the hospital is always the same experience, and it always leaves me feeling a little bit dizzy.  Always, I am alive, and always, that fact is suddenly bewildering.

So I wanted to write a poem that was not about any one particular hospital-leaving experience, but which could evoke memories of all sorts of different such experiences.  And I wanted to do it with nitty-gritty sensory experiences, rather than with philosophical abstractions.

As it turns out, that was much easier said than done.  As I tested it out on friends and family, I discovered that a lot of the details that I'd picked out weren't really universal at all.  Green vinyl plays a big role in my hospital memories, but that didn't strike chord with anyone else.  However, as my mother pointed out, every hospital really ought to have sleek white floors... and that image has more poetic possibilities, anyway.  =)  This poem ended up requiring more editing than any other I've ever written--and I may go back and rewrite yet again, based on your feedback.

In any case, whether or not this poem ever achieves its intended effect, the writing process itself was very much worthwhile.  It allowed me to redeem all sorts of intense experiences, and also to clarify my poetic vocation.  By painting the universal while leaving space for ambiguity, poetry can make empathy possible for the reader, and safe for the writer.

And that's something that's worth a lifetime of rewrites.