“the tombstone for loneliness is mother-of-pearl and September”

 “The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

1. The tombstone for loneliness is mother-of-pearl and September
2. Vaulted ignorance, feigned mortality held by the hands of introverts
3. Tender spaces brimming with our man-made constellations
4. And we never found the word to encapsulate the thing

6. Wo ist die Heimat? Die Heimat ist immer hier[1]
7. The homeland can never be found in contained places
8. Within the limits of language distancing us from the concept
9. The quiet of childhood, of uncertainty that is beautiful
10. Keat’s negative capability — that is all the gateway holds

12. We believed in time once. In past redeemed and future hope
13. Eliot’s Four Quartets wasn’t a poem then but an unabstracted truth
14. Written as an epitaph for our solicited graves
15. It takes more than metaphors now to move us
16. Remember, re-member, walk down lanes, cobblestone
17. The pitter patter of shoes on extroverted surfaces

19. In walks along abandoned coasts the sea never quite looks the same
20. In mirrors along forsaken homes our bodies never quite look the same
21. It takes more than the truth to convince us of something – it takes
22. Imagination, wearing a crown of thorns, reinventing what it means to live
23. While outside you, someone flips a page and you go back to being dust.

[1] “Where is the homeland? The homeland is always here”

“these fragments i have shored against my ruins”

In Libya on a south Mediterranean coast
they took the heads of twenty-one made imago Dei.
And somewhere between the salt and the sea I strive to believe
Your blood can somehow make theirs beautiful.

In Nairobi, Kenya, the twilight glow of candles burns in an attempt
to hold back the violent deluge of darkness, 147 bodies strong.
Prayer, made naked in its grief, illuminated by flicker and flame,
blindly pushes its way out of the swollen belly of loss.

“The tears of God are the meaning of history.” We have heard it said before,
but it is something else to have the courage to hold the words in our hands,
trust in their gentleness as an epitaph, their firmness as an epigraph.
Somehow in Jesus are held safe the martyrs of the Egyptian church,
the students of a Kenyan university, my own fear, the taste of my unbelief.

Somewhere in a respectable, affluent suburb of Illinois,
I sit in an English lecture and try to make these faces real to me.
But I am here, not there, and the reality of those places is fragmented,
comes in broken images through the pixels of my laptop. I am god.
The power to “minimize,” to skim, to close one window and open a new “browser” –
My gift as a middle-class American is to browse,
to window-shop which tragedy I want to care about….
Two Novembers ago as a freshman in a prestigious Christian college,
the daughter of beloved Dr. Rim found herself in the psychiatric ward of a hospital.
Laceless shoes, lockless doors, plastic knives that had to be approved before tossed;
faceless doctors, speaking to she who was also faceless, face-stolen;
fear like grapes bursting in our lungs as sour wine,
overripe, conversations full to flooding, the communion of the dammed, damned —
and Quentin’s suicide more than a fictional scene in a novel.

Out there, out there is martyrdom, the cold, fogged glass of a world
I cannot see clearly into, but in here is only a troubled mind, a healing heart,
memories like food too rich for digestion.
They call me a poet, but my words are always absence before they are presence.
Somehow I have to believe up there (and in here) (and so close) is another Poet,
one whose words are eucatastrophe, hope without deconstruction,
the true poetry beneath my need.

a poem for the high and lifted one

You entered in, terra firma.
Solid ground beneath your feet, and Jerusalem’s dust
riding like the coattails of some more exalted King.
The olive trees in the garden lost their fragrance that night
As you fell to your knees and prayed, “Not my will but Thine.”

Play-act a sinner, I’ll play-act a Savior
Stage made of wooden beams, the carpenter knows the irony
Of hammer and nails, props he used to hold. When all is told,
perhaps the kiss of childhood splinters eased his loneliness.
He’s a boy again, doing what his Father asked of him.

The hours never felt so long
As you recited scraps of David’s poetry beneath shades of darkness.
Blood and water flowed to make a watercolor on wooden canvas;
Red like atonement and wine, the crushed fruit of the vine-
Dresser who drank the cup of wrath that was mine.

Light like brightness, light like feather,
Light like sunrise and Son-rise, you stood up with the dawn
And defeated the dark by illuminating our souls. The stone
Rolled way for the Rock, the high and solid ground,
It still amazes me how you entered in, terra firma. 

the theology of a 20 year old poet

We dreamed of Answers, as though they’d appease the appetite.
“I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread,” we borrowed from Langston Hughes,
and frantically we searched for morsels underneath our pillows.

The Answer came in conglomerate rock, in frozen lakes framed by peaks and valleys,
in Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 in D minor and Rilke’s Duino Elegies,
but we had our hands so full of the question
we had no more room for anything else.

God said, “In the beginning was the Word,” but we thought
He meant, “In the beginning was the Question Mark.”
We molded our inquiries out of down feathers and waking nightmares
(“Why?” “How long?” “Don’t You care?”)
and released them into wind and sand and grass for some kind of reverberation.
Meanwhile it took all of the strength of our watches
to injure our sense of time enough for stories ending with,
“They lived happily ever after,” as if happiness could make eternity enjoyable.
In the beginning was the Word, the Statement, the Answer,
cosmic beauty in the trails beneath our feet and the laughter waltzing from our lips,
the taste of springs and the hospitality of strangers.
And after He created the Answer He challenged us
to form a Question that could possibly equate to such goodness.
But we never found it. Our hands closed around the wrong end of divine dialogue,
traded the problem of good for the problem of evil,
and created a Rosetta Stone for the skeptic.

a poem inspired by Edith Wharton and my English professor

“Presently [Archer] rose and approached the case before which [Ellen] stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects – hardly recognizable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles – made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.

 ‘It seems cruel,’ she said, ‘that after a while nothing matters any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: ‘Use unknown.’’”

 -Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, p.175

We will have museums for as long as we have churches.
Before altars and crosses tired of being beheld for beholder’s sake,
We confess our longing to be forgotten.
“Eat and remember,” which we interpret as, “your sins will not unbalance the already entropic universe,”
and we receive the elements of our anonymity with great thanks.
But when the church bells finish their tolling for repentance,
It is in the museums we begin part two of Sunday service.

The artifacts on dusty shelves preach better sermons than the preachers.
Never before, and with such startling clarity, did we see the facelessness
Of our own past, with its inability to read its own eulogy.
We gaze quietly at the remnants of a time too archaic to understand,
Holding our bibles in one hand and our cameras in the other,
And wage civil war while artifacts behind darkened glass keep score.

Yet somehow, in the sacred silence of our hearts,
We cannot shake off “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
A God who stepped into means a reordering of cosmic scenes,
But such a tearing of cosmic cloth comes at the cost
Of mortal coil lost to immortal toil. A foil to our foul comes down, slips through sinning space
And makes incarnation not once but continuous, throughout, self.
“The tears of God are the meaning of history,” writes one philosopher,
And we find it is almost worth our own tears to wrap our prayers around that one metaphysical truth.

a quote from the teacher

…Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

to the ones who are invisible (a poem)

The premise is this: you have never been alone.
Loneliness itself is a metaphor,
a bridge between “In the beginning” and
“He will make all things new.”
Our lonely is a reminder of how inverted our shadows become
when we forget we are plotline and platform.

The promise is this: you will never be alone.
Your fear forgets to wait, to trust,
to write long poems in spiral notebooks and reflect
over the years – and that fear is prologue.
You will look upon the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
There will be no more metaphors; the grapes you carry out of Canaan
on your back will burst with climactic sweetness,
and baptism will be rich and wine and resolution.

Tomorrow comes with bruises. Purple, like grapes,
but also like the memory of a gentle night
and good conversation, how it slips into your subconscious
like a mother’s hand tucking you in at night.
I once read a Word that left me wounded,
scarred by runes of yearning so deep they wrote themselves into rhymes,
and I have spent the rest of my life trying to translate the bleeding
into an alphabet I can understand.

” i can feel the armor underneath my fur” (a borrowed line and a poem)

My ribcage is the source of all beginnings. It is the place
that first, fatal bite landed after the Fall fell into Eve’s open lips;
my ribcage is someone else’s holding cell,
holding their memories in check, mystery too Edenic to be safe.

My hands are Echo and Narcissus,
self and other, sin and salvation,
every dream I have ever clung to and every shame I have ever
tried desperately to shed.

My mouth is the David upon which thousands of eyes peer
for a glimpse of the heroic and come away with a feeling of marble
too muddled to be sculpted. “There is nothing so mute as a God’s mouth,”
writes Rilke, and I think someone once told me that I was made in His image.

My eyes are the heavier-than-you-remembered door that you open
into a home that is at once startlingly familiar and heartbreakingly foreign.
They are the carpet well worn beneath your feet, the cold air filtering through
your poorly made window, the squeaky hinges
you always told yourself you would oil.

My veins are roadmaps to a self easier to understand than my own.
They are signpost and highway, the exit you should have taken but that the darkness
kept you from seeing. They are the Mississippi river
upon which sail Samuel Clemens’ and all of our doubt
drifting the wrong way to freedom.

Please, God.

I am exhausted and afraid and Beloved and Wounded and I do not know. I do not know. I do not know.

You care. I am clinging to a truth I cannot feel and maybe cannot fully believe. But I cling to it because what else have I to cling to? The care of people is well-intended but so weak, so inconsistent, so tremulous a thing. Yours is the only care that goes deep into the soul of who I am and speaks life into my desert. And I need You. Jesus, I need You.

Sometimes courage is having nothing and trusting that you have everything. Sometimes courage is feeling everything and trusting that none of it is true. That it is real in the sense that you are feeling it, but that it is not true, that it is not grounded in reality, that it is not possible when Jesus is real and good and beautiful.

Sometimes courage is the “Yes” when you do not know what the word means.

i want to limp like jacob (word to myself)

You said it yourself, Rachel. Yesterday, while you were talking to a friend. She asked you the biggest thing you were learning and you told her the quote. You know which quote, Rachel?

“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering just how painful that best will turn out to be.” – C.S. Lewis

And you told her that you didn’t understand those words when you were younger. They just didn’t make sense to you. But now, somewhere around ten years and a mountain of experiences later, now you are beginning to understand. You know that God will do the best for you. That is promised in Scripture, you have tasted His goodness in your life, and you know you can trust Him to do for you what He desires. You are wondering, however, just how hard and how painful His will is going to turn out to be. Because you have learned that anesthesia was never part of the promise. He does not desire you to feel pain, but neither does He remove it from your life.

You have felt enough of the hurt to be wary. To be slow to trust, to clench your fists in your pocket and only occasionally hold them out in front of you as open palms.

But perhaps you have also felt enough of the hurt to be weaned. To be carefully lifted out of your tiny world that is measured solely by how much discomfort something causes and to be placed into the much larger and richer world that is measured more by how much of Christ you taste in your experiences. Through every bruise you have felt, every cut, you have also felt the care of a God who never let you go.

And so here you are again, Rachel, not for the first time and not for the last, being called to trust God. Not to trust Him that life will be easy. Not to trust even necessarily that He will meet all of your needs, though that is true. And not to trust Him with the precondition that your life will take a certain expected form and shape. But to trust Him that He is enough, and to trust Him not because you are “supposed” to but because you truly believe He is that good. And because you know that the poverty of this life – the weakness and the loneliness and the exile that sometimes comes with following Christ – is worth the richness of the next.

You don’t know what God will call you to, Rachel. You do not know what He wants to do with you, how He wants to mold you, what He wants to use your life to do. But that is not the point. The point is to be able to see His beauty in a way where You trust Him for whatever will come. And whatever may be exactly what you imagine for yourself, or it may be something completely different. Either way, you want Christ to be your treasure – and if you have Him, you can follow wherever He leads.

At the moment, you have no idea how you will ever reach this point of trust. And you have learned that promising yourself and committing to things for the rest of your life is not always the best way to act. Instead of saying, “God I trust You forever,” maybe you can start with the simple, “I don’t know if I will always trust You, but for now, I do. For now, I believe You are enough. For now, I believe You are that good.” Tomorrow it may be different, but that does not nullify today’s faithfulness, and each day is a wrestling unto itself. There is a saying, Rachel, that says, “Do not borrow tomorrow’s troubles.” I think it also means, “Do not borrow tomorrow’s wrestling.” You wrestle with what God has placed before you today. Tomorrow is not even guaranteed. We take it one day at a time. That is all we know how to do.

One more thing to note, Rachel. You hear people say things like, “Pray that you will have a faith like Moses.” Or, “Pray that you will have integrity like Joseph.” Or, “Try to have the courage of Daniel.” There is even a song made completely out of those kinds of lyrics. But never once have you heard anyone say, “Pray that you will have a limp like Jacob.” But this is what you want, Rachel – of all the holy examples in Scripture, maybe this is the one most relevant to your life. Pray that you will have a limp like Jacob. Because when you limp, you lean on something. Lean on Christ. And as you limp your way into Heaven, you will know Christ because you will have clung to Him for every step. And He will know you – by the familiar gait of your walk, by the sound of your voice, by the shape of your tears, by the trust you have wrestled for and offered up to HIm. Rest in that. You will not just know Him. He will know you.