Tuesday, December 26, 2017

'What Kind of World"

All of the editorial comments with which I could surround this poem are so obvious, upon reading it, that silence serves us best. Only this:  Almost 50 years ago this poem was published in The National Catholic Reporter.  The triple evils of materialism, racism and militarism, enumerated by Martin Luther King, Jr., still feed the fears of this country, and continue to define so very much of its drive to dominate, destroy and silence most of the world. But that was true in the days when the decree of Caesar Augustus went forth, that all might be subject to a census...and it is true now, when far too many are not counted at all.

what kind of world
is it indeed that forces
christmas to our winter
and some poor ragged jesus
to stumble over starved dead
rotting in the jungles
to steel himself against
shouts of men behind
stone walls and take upon himself
a cold world and fall again
in his still fruitless coming

we have never fully
understood what kind of world
it is indeed
                     we have
in our land this winter
a famine of simplicity:
magnificent hallelujahs
for a hundred resurrections
and a thousand births
but no straw
no animals
no shepherds struck
dumb with fear and wonder
no virgins
no silent and adoring kings

no not this year    i
do  not want a savior’s coming
our nights are neither quiet
calm   nor bright   we have
everything to keep us living
and go about collecting
scraps of mute despair
to stuff in window cracks
and under doors to keep away
our loneliness
this biting awful cold
what kind of world
is it indeed

wait awhile   sweet
jesus   just a year
to give us time
just a year    to give
us time
               but  you will come
i  know:   you must
you will come now
in this dead
and barren world
and stumble
and be cold
and grow more ragged
and more poor until
gasping blood   you spit
your anguish into the dry earth
and cry to be delivered

and you will
and we will
and they who come
after us will

this winter waiting
is our ritual
it must be carried out
even though we
no longer keep the mystery
of our fathers

give us time

perhaps a year

will bring us mysteries
and we may beg
a savior’s coming
                                     -- Luke        (1969)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Come I Said, Be Warm"

No   I was told
                           to say
If you do not see their
              if they have only
small belongings
                                  tell them
          But his eyes cut
into my throat   and I could
not breathe
                         or look away
then I would have had to stare
at her skin   her hands   her
eyes    even more commanding

The old man who had told us
stories every evening after evening
spoke in my mind
                                         It could be
you    it has been    us
                                          All is still

I was the only one in the door

Come   I said   you can at least
(and then the air swirled and I knew
the dream in his eyes was my hunger
long denied)
                            Come    I said

Be warm
                     Your child shall
not be

8 December 2017

[Even though very many of the eyes that scan this place have looked at these words, in other sendings, the poem is persistent. So it is here. And so are we. And so is the Child in us all. Nothing of grace can be denied.]

Monday, August 28, 2017

My Lord, What a Morning

Oh, give me little time to pray: Jesus, Lay Your Head in the Window

“The wind blows east and the wind blows west, it blows like judgement day, and every soul that ever did pray will be glad to pray that day...”

In the very last minutes of a mighty day of remembrance and, I am afraid, not the last minutes of a viral cloud passing over our horizon, we should pause and think of the sacrifice of the thousands who marched for “jobs and freedom,” long ago, on August 28, 1963. As we are called to note about that great gittin-up morning, the assembly was met with the news that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois had died the previous evening in his destination home in Ghana. And we still ponder the promissory note waved in the face of the powers of the land by Martin.  But as only a few of us will know or find in many ways emblematic, the Roman Catholic community honors on this day the great life and genius of Augustine of Hippo. Three of the most brilliant people ever to be blessed with the designation of African. (Because I said so.)

We must remember them, call on them, and feel their presence in our lives today, in this time, when the world is being subjected to viral, toxic winds that are blowing from every direction, truly making our time feel like the Judgement Day.

Too many people declare themselves to be shocked or stunned or overwhelmed by the anger and venom spilling forth in every part of this planet. How could we be surprised or bewildered or undone by the violence, the addictive hatred that marches in our streets?  The sound of hatred on the march is the oldest rhythm of this country, devoted to equality and liberty and justice and fairness and decency – and greed; sexual coercion and domination; ego-driven assaults on the vulnerable and the marginalized; and the sexualized pleasure of public murders. As Martin Luther King said to us all, we should be concerned about the victim lying beaten and bruised on the Jericho Road, but we must be even more concentrated on why there are robbers on that road, and why there are so many who walk blindly by. The blindness is self-inflicted, the deafness is self-determined.  “But that is not the way most of ......are. We are better than this. We have moved beyond mouths dripping with venom and guns pointed at those who have the courage to stand and resist and say, “No,” to anger and threat and chaos.” Believe that, wish that, at our peril and the collapse of all we thought we knew. 

But there is a judgement day, for each of us. No matter how well-prepared we, some of us, thought we were, the death of each child; each young woman who thought that she was one of the free and unbound, each young man who believed that he had a right to dance to the rhythm of his heart and imagination; each sister, brother, aunt, cousin, father or infant – each death was enough to arrest our breath and pause the beating of our hearts. But none of these deaths could stop the determination of those who believed in their right to kill those who were defined as “them.”

What do we do? We do what the songs have told us over and over. My Lord, what a morning. But, more, this time, let our eyes hear the echo of the truth, “My Lord, what a mourning...” For we must stop and reckon with the devastation. As Audre Lorde told us, “we were never meant to survive.”  Of course we will mourn ourselves for our fear. And we will of course mourn the death of all hope in the souls of those who seek to destroy all they cannot embrace. We will mourn the disappearance of our hope when the hurricanes drown Houston and Corpus Christi, and Ferguson and westside Chicago, and Liberty Village and Grenada and Cairo. And all of Puerto Rico and the islands in that seas.
We will mourn.

And then we will say, Oh, no. Ain’t no grave can hold my body down. If those women could push past their fear and the near certainty of their own deaths and seek the tomb of the blessed son, only to find the stone already rolled away, then we can draw in our collective breath and do what our first fierce ancestors did in the bottom of those imprisoning ships when they woke from dreaming of their homes and found themselves still chained, still smeared in their own filth, still hungry and dehydrated. We can do no less.

They sent out a song that was nothing more and nothing less than a storm of truth. No. Yes. Never. Always.

We will stay on the battlefield.

Let us be attentive to Sweet Honey in the Rock and Sonia Sanchez as they remind us that we are obligated to see the horizon beyond the nightmarish cloud. A total eclipse lasts no more than a few minutes.  This darkness shall not prevail.

It never has.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

"I'm On My Way..."

On April 14, 1978, while teaching at Creighton University, I wrote this poem for the Creighton University African American Student Association’s “Recognition Night.”  As I prepare to do a blessing for the Southern Illinois Black Pre-Commencement Ceremony this spring (May 6, 2017), I find that this poem still has some strength to share.  And the time is always appropriate to hear Mahalia Jackson declare, “I’m falling and rising, but I’m on my way....”

Mark the eternally
Redeeming fact
the shadow suffocates
your hope
past the lightning terror
of the demon days
unremembered passage
from home to hell
mute of drum
fashioning banquets from
glacial wrongs
                            Eden was
redeemed in songs

an arthritic alien
hungering greed    ripped
families apart
                            the soul
was mastered by the shadow’s
to deny    and    shatter
to garble and grind
truth into ashes
the verdict of death:
make them blind
the blanket of the crime
to the shaking shoulders
of the bent and broken
let the shadow haunt   and   terrify
let all decency be deprived

until   freedom   spoke   in
the raining of a gun

the delusion of the shadow
was seen as fog
stinging fear     retreated
and the sweat-tasting hymn
of jubilee
                   caught the rhythm
of the drum

in spite of death
still we come
                           we choose
to shed the curse laid
on our back
                        and when
the shadow threatens

Friday, April 28, 2017

On My Journey Now

[Federal District Judge J. Phil Gilbert invited me to provide an Invocation for the Naturalization Ceremony that he conducted at the Lesar Law School on April 27, 2017.  Judge Gilbert is also a member of the SIU Board of Trustees. I find that Invocations are tricky performances, and never more so than at a Naturalization ceremony during which 49 people from about 20 countries pronounced the Oath of Naturalization.  It has frustrated me for a very long time that many who are called to pronounce an Invocation are either unable or unwilling to be truly ecumenical in their prayers, expressing, sometimes, a denominationalism that might be exclusionary more than it is inviting. Each presenter must be allowed the benefit of their sincerity, their desire to give witness to their faith. And I find myself being tolerant, even when I cannot be personally engaged in the sentiment being offered to the assembly.  What follows is my effort to be embracing of the moment and the community. The ceremony touched my heart in unexpected ways, and the power of the joy radiated in all directions. I was proud to be a part of this ceremony. And I am grateful that the ceremony will now be a part of me.  The quoted passages from Martin Luther King, Jr., are taken from Strength to Love – a book that is the subject of an early entry of The Sankofa Muse.]

From the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr., we are told that “fear is mastered by faith.”

And so it is. 

Fear of the hunger that steals the lives of our children and breaks the bones of our elders.

Fear that causes the oceans to swell and drown the innocent and that causes bombs to rain down
on the just and unjust, alike.

Fear is mastered by faith.

Out of the darkness, there is a light. And we were told this in the soothing whispers that blessed us at our birth.

Out of the screaming chaos of the midnight nightmares, there is a song that only the heart has ever heard.

Faith. What have we held onto, in darkness, storm and doubt?  That the horizon is defined by God,

and by God alone. 

That our ancestors, who dreamed of us in their fevered times, knew that we would complete the journey that they could never make.

They told us, “Call upon the light. The light, the light that will guide you. From here, to everywhere. Seek and find, and know that seeking the light itself  is where faith takes root. You must believe in light,” they said.

King also tell us: “We are consoled that God has two lights:  a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light to guide us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls.”

And I call upon light. I name us, “Light bearers.” Let us rejoice that we are here. Each bringing his and her light; each murmuring a “yes” to be part of the song of faith. Let us continue to be the light that others hunger for. 

Let us be the beginning that we have long sought, the beginning that will make this world forever new.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Say Yes, and Say, Now

[A student asked for a favor. Could I find a poem that he could read at his aunt’s wedding? I looked. And then I listened.  And then I wrote. Something about the miracle of remaking the earth with our imaginations, which is the behavior that God requires of us as our part of the work of creation. Nothing is ugly if we choose to truly see. That’s something Ignatius of Loyola managed to pass down to us, through these centuries]

Look at that nasty field
weeds everywhere    you look
and see  thorn bushes  wasps and
kudzu vines
               looking away and up you
can still smell the clotted earth   wet
from days of rain     ain’t nothing
to see  no
                   where you look matters

But   (he said)    I will gather  just a few rocks
that seem to have veins of glitter and shine
and stack them pretty
                            And I (she said)
will bend into the overgrowth   and find lonesome
flowers struggling  to fight the wind  and
be beautiful
                    Just for me (she said)
make the stones stand one atop another
til they mark this place   as   ours
       I will  (laughing in my heart)
root a flower  here  and there
somebody walking by someday in the
early evening  
                 will say  “My, two pairs
of hands and eyes and more than one
singing heart

          here to make us
        how  Pretty can rise up
anywhere  you
                  choose to look”

See Yes
         and say   Now
and flowers and twinkling stones
     show us who you

        -- 4 April 2017