Friday, April 16, 2010

April 15: Blessed Cesar de Bus

It never fails to amaze me that on Manly Man Poetry Night, the patrons always have some indirect or direct connection to art, writing, or poetry. I made no attempt to include Cesar de Bus in the poem I wrote tonight, and yet, when I read his biography, it says, "After his war service he wrote poetry, tried his hand at painting, and led a worldly life in Paris for three years." I have no idea what leading a worldly life encompasses, but I would assume it involves a good amount of alcohol and indiscriminate sex. That the book lumps writing poetry with being a drunk and a man whore I find a little insulting, but I can live with that. The thing I appreciate about Cesar is that not only did he write verse, but, after he became a priest, he also established religious orders of priests and nuns whose primary jobs were to be teachers. Teacher. Poet. Drunk. Man whore. I love this guy.

Currently, in one of my classes, I'm teaching a section on poetry. It's my favorite part of this semester. I wish I could say the same for my students. When I start getting excited by a Richard Wilbur poem, my students' faces take on the expression my nine-year-old daughter reserves for a PBS documentary on the effects of New Zealand oceanic paramecium on global warming--a mixture of boredom and dread. We were finishing up our second week of poetry today, and I found myself scanning a Shakespearean sonnet for rhythm and rhyme and rhetoric. It was great fun, and by the time I had finished, several students had their heads on their desks and were drooling. "There goes teacher of the year again," I thought.

Then one of my students raised his hand and said, "I googled your name last night."

"Okay," I said slowly.

"I found your book on Amazon," he said.

People started perking up. They had no idea their instructor had an actual life outside of the walls of the classroom, let alone done something as interesting as publish a book.

"Okay," I repeated even more slowly.

"Why didn't you make us buy your book for this class?" my student said.

I considered my answer. I could have made a joke about being rich enough already. I could have said that the book was old, and I'd written much better. But I told the truth, which has to do with ego. "Because," I said, "that would be like Robert Deniro teaching a class on the best movies of Robert Deniro." I received blank stares. "My ego is already the size of Alaska, minus Sarah Palin," I added. No response. Finally, I said, "I just don't do that."

I have a feeling that even if I had used my book, my students would still be hating poetry. Poetry these days is associated with college classrooms, wine and cheese events, and textbooks that students sell back to the college bookstore as soon as they can. Poetry is no longer Cesar's domain of drunks, man whores, and dissolute soldiers. Too bad.

Anyway, my friend and I celebrated Manly Man Poetry Night, and I have a poem to share. As I said before, I did not include Cesar de Bus in it. I do mention Saint John, and I'm sure that Cesar read John's gospel. So there is a tangential connection, but that's it. That's all I have. The onion rings were good, as usual; the Diet Pepsi flowed freely; and by the end of the evening, I had the poem that follows. It's decent, I think, but I doubt it would wake up any student of mine. Short of getting drunk, stripping, and dancing to "Telephone" by Lady Gaga, nothing is going to tear them away from texting and Facebook. However, I still have faith that some of you, my readers, aren't drooling asleep or already moving on with your blog stalking. Some of you still look for miracles in everyday life. That gives me hope.

Shepherds Watching

In Detroit, my brother raised angelfish.
The 40-gallon tank bubbled
In our bedroom, all night, all day.
At least nine or ten creatures
Filled the tropical water, some
The size of my eight-year-old hand.
They hovered, delicate, quiet,
Striped spirits, placid guardians
Of pillow, blanket, sheet,
Dirty underwear, balled socks,
Jethro Tull on the eight track.

One morning, a man snatched
Maggie, a neighbor girl,
In the alley behind our house.
A couple years older than me,
She was the blond star
At Assumption Grotto School,
Everyone's sister or virgin daughter.
When the nuns heard the news,
They made us stop reciting
The Apostles Creed, get on our knees,
Pray for Maggie's deliverance.

Police searched all the houses
In the neighborhood, from attic
To basement. When the two officers
Got to our bedroom, they stood
In front of the aquarium, stared
At the fish as if witnessing
Gabriel appearing to Mary
Or hosts singing "Gloria in excelsis."
When they left the room, one cop
Said, "Those are big fish,"
In a way that sounded
Like he was quoting Saint John:
"In the beginning..."

I sat on my bed, watched
The angelfish drift, glide.
I thought about Maggie,
Hoped she was some place safe,
That she felt something watching
Over her. Something big. Floating.
Something beautiful.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 2: Saint John Payne

First off, my apologies to any reader who tried to access my blog during the last couple of days. I discovered there was a problem yesterday morning and had the good people at working on it all day. In fact, even as I'm writing this post in my journal, I'm not sure I'll even have a forum on which to share it. My fear is that my entire blog has somehow been deleted, which I would attribute to a satanic cult or the Tea Party (I can't tell the difference between the two). But I am going to finish writing this entry in good faith that will quickly exorcise whatever demon (Sarah Palin-inspired or not) has taken control of my computer.

Second, I am going to move backward in time because I want to finish discussing Easter weekend. I feel like I somehow dropped the ball by not writing about Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday yet. That's sort of like playing for the Yankees and missing the first three games of the World Series. (You have now heard the extent of my sports analogy skills, so you better bookmark this page.) Hence, hop into the Wayne's World time machine with me, start waving your fingers in front of your face, and repeat after me: Do-do-do-doooo, do-do-do-dooo, do-do-do-dooo.

I took the day off work on Good Friday. I had two church services to attend, grocery and candy shopping to do, and banking to complete. One church service fell smack dab in the middle of the day--noon (that was the Catholic one). The second service took place at 7 p.m. (that was ecumenical, involving four or five different churches). As I said in my post about Palm Sunday, I find the services of Holy Week emotionally draining, especially the ones on Good Friday.

I don't know why I always find myself so invested in the passion narratives every Easter. This year, with my 40-day crash course in forgiveness, I was overwhelmed when I listened to Christ's words on the cross, begging forgiveness for his killers. That made little, petty me feel like a puppy that had just taken a dump on Jesus' carpet. He was rubbing my nose in it. Basically, the entire week, I couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting some reminder of the necessity of forgiveness. It got so bad that I felt like throwing up my hands and yelling, "Enough already. I get it. Grudges bad. Forgiveness good."

I wished I could claim to be different because of my 40 days of prayer. I wished I could be like Saint John Payne, the English priest who was martyred in 1582. A convert, John was eventually arrested and thrown in the Tower of London. He was tortured for nine months before being hanged and drawn and quartered. If you don't know what that means: he was dragged to his place of execution by a horse--drawn; strung up for a short while by his neck--hanged; and then beheaded and sliced into four pieces--quartered. John Payne suffered horribly for his beliefs, but he never abandoned them. He held onto his faith in love and forgiveness. He understood what Good Friday was all about.

I, on the other hand, was struggling. I was still praying for my list of the unforgiven. The list, I'm happy to report, had shrunk to about four or five offenders. Considering that I started with a football stadium full of assholes, dicks, bitches, and bastards, this was a vast improvement. I don't recall when I started releasing my anger, but one day about a week before Good Friday, I found myself praying for the same two people, over and over. I can't really pat myself on the back for this fact, however, because I still harbored enough anger toward these individuals to make up for all the other bad juju I'd already released during Lent. In fact, I would say I didn't let go of anything. I simply transferred it to these two persons who've hurt me so much that the very thought of forgiving them seems akin to petitioning the state of Israel to declare Adolf Eichmann's birthday a national holiday.

By this comparison, you can probably tell that I wasn't going to forgive these remaining people very easily. As Dana Carvey, doing George Bush Sr., would say, "Not gonna happen. Wouldn't be prudent." I could tell myself that I would make that leap of love by Easter, but I would have been lying to myself. It would be sort of like expecting a one-pound, solid Godiva bunny in your basket and getting a two-dollar, hollow Palmer bunny. When you bite the head of the Palmer rabbit, it crumbles to pieces and leaves a shitty taste in your mouth.

I knew I was headed for a Palmer Easter.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April 8: Saint Agabus

For those of my readers who've been wondering what has happened to Manly Man Poetry Night, it went on hiatus for a couple of weeks. On the fourth Thursday of every month, I host a book club at my house, and the Thursday after that was Maunday Thursday. Needless to say, my pastor friend was otherwise engaged that evening, and so was I. But, never fear, loyal and faithful poetry fans (there has to be at least two of you out there). Manly Man Poetry Night has reconvened, and all is right with the world. The muses are at work, and the onion rings are on the plate.

So, this Thursday, my pastor friend and I met for dinner. Now, for those of you that think dinner refers to lunch, let me correct you. You're wrong. Lunch is lunch, and dinner refers to the third meal of the day, generally eaten after 5 p.m. We met at Big Boy at 6:30 p.m., and, since neither of us had time to eat, we both ordered meals.

I ordered a great farmer's omelet with ham and cheese and onions and peppers. It was served on a bed of hash browns with a side of rye toast. My friend ordered the club sandwich, I believe, with a side of onion rings (of course), plus the soup and salad bar. After we sat for a while and complained about the snowstorm shaking the windows of the restaurant, we moved on to our poetry for the night.

We used the same tabloid exercise that we used at our previous meeting a few weeks before. (For those of you that missed that posting, check out March 18 on Saint Alexander. Also, try to keep up better.) Now, as before, I tried to kill two birds with one poem. I wrote about both the tabloid headline and the saint for the day.

If you couldn't tell by my recent entry that made use of Star Wars, I will confess to you right now that I am a bit of a science fiction geek. When the original Star Wars was released in theaters, I saw it 27 times. (I'm not talking about the bastardized version Lucas released prior to ruining the series with Jar Jar Binks. I'm talking Alec Guinness as a flesh-and-blood Obi wan, and the kiss between Luke and Leia before it became yucky and incestuous.) So, it should come as no surprise that the headline I chose to base my poem on was "Martians Monitor Middle East Violence," which has echoes of War of the Worlds (both Spielberg's and George Pal's versions) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original with Michael Rennie, not the dumb Keanu Reeves remake with locust clouds of alien fleas).

The saint for the day was Agabus, a contemporary of the twelve apostles and probably one of the 72 disciples. Agabus's story is pretty much like the stories of all the disciples. He wandered the deserts and towns, spreading the ideas and words of Jesus, working a few miracles along the way to keep people talking. Agabus had the gift of prophecy. He foretold the coming of a famine in the Roman Empire, which took place in 42 to 44 A.D. He also prophesied the imprisonment of Paul, which is referred to in Acts 21.

So, I have a New Testament prophet, Martians, and the Middle East. Add some onion rings, a few Diet Pepsis, and a weekend of revisions, and you get the following poem:

Martians Monitor Middle East Violence

Pile-8 met Agabus in a desert
In Palestine, came down in a wheel
From the stars, came from the blood planet
On a quest for truth about Earth's children.
Agabus, fresh from Roman famine,
Called Pile-8 an angel, a winged
Servant of God, waited for the visitor
To deliver a message from the one
Agabus called peace's prince.
Pile-8 blinked his olive black eyes,
Kept silent, wings folded, waited
For a sign to unleash death's ray
Upon the hairless, sand ape.

Agabus filled Pile-8's eight ears
With words of love and forgiveness,
Words of a son of the universe,
Whipped, torn, spiked, speared.
Agabus talked of this son
Rising, shaking off the tentacles
Of death like a great, blue whale,
Flooding the world with oceans of light.
Pile-8's stomachs quivered into fists
When the ape called the one who rose
The lord. The savior. The way. The truth.

Like his cousin did for Ezekiel, Pile-8
Took Agabus into his wheel, probed
The grey matter of his skull
For fragments, pictures of this truth
Giver. All he found were dreams
Of deep wells filled with sun,
Cups pressed to thirsty lips,
Baskets spilling thousands of silver
Fish into dry, empty lake beds.
And bread. Bread steaming. Bread white.
Bread dark. Bread yellow as honey.
Bread red as Pile-8's home.
After days and days of this bread,
Pile-8 returned Agabus to the sand,
Then ascended back to sky, to stars,
To black space, to his planet of war.

Pile-8 couldn't rest after that time,
Always felt hollow. He watched
Earth for two thousand solar cycles,
Watched as the brothers and sisters
Of Agabus whipped, tore, spiked,
Speared each other, over and over,
Acted as hungry, thirsty as famine, drought.
More than once, Pile-8 aimed his fire
At the deserts, almost rained apocalypse
On the warring children of this world.
But, always, the dreams of Agabus
Stopped him, filled his four bellies
With a need he couldn't name,
A need for more than the cold, killing
Rocks of Mars. A need for wells
Full of light. Bottomless cups.
Fish multiplying exponentially
From baskets. And bread.
White as polar caps. Dark as mud.
Yellow as citric fruit. Red
As his mother's deep womb.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April 1: Saint Mary of Egypt, Holy Thursday

There seems to be a lot of conflicting details about the life of Mary of Egypt. Now, her story either comes from Saint Cyriacus or a man named Zosimus. One of them found Mary living in a Palestinian desert. By the time she was discovered, she'd been living as a hermit for nearly 50 years. According to my book, Mary went to Alexandria at the age of thirteen and worked as an actress for almost 20 years. Now, I don't know what being "an actress" in Egypt in the 5thcentury entailed, but it obviously wasn't good. Think Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls insisting, "I'm not a stripper. I'm a dancer." Eventually, Mary realized her sins and fled to the desert to do penance. A half-century of penance. Even Elizabeth Berkley didn't deserve that much time for being in Showgirls. A year after Mary was found in the desert by Cyriacus or Zosimus, one or the other returned to her cave and found her dead. Her legend was born.

I wonder how bad Mary's sin was to drive her into the wilderness for so long. If I've learned one thing this Lent it's that we often punish ourselves for our wrongdoings a lot more harshly than other people would. I would imagine a saint has a more highly developed conscience than the rest of us. For example, driving to work last summer, I hit a deer and totaled my car. Mary of Egypt would tell that story a different way. She's probably say that she was driving to work and murdered an innocent animal with her oxcart. Then she would disappear into the woods and flog herself with birch branches for about ten years. When the police officer asked me if I killed the deer, I was so pissed about the damage to my Sable that I said, "If I didn't, could you run over it a couple more times with your squad car to make sure it suffers?" It was a joke, but the trooper looked at me like I'd just confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa. I'm not cut from the same cloth as a saint.

Last night when I crawled into bed, I noticed that the covers smelled funny. It was a strong scent that I sort of recognized. When my wife joined me, I asked her if she noticed the odor. She told me she'd found a bed spray that our daughter had gotten for Christmas and had used it on our covers. For the normal person, that explanation would be the end of it. Question asked. Answer given. Done. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not normal.

Because of my experiences with my wife's mental illness and sexual addictions, anything out of the routine sets off klaxons and sirens in my head. If my wife washes the sheets and blankets from our bed, an alarm goes off. If she goes to the local library to use the Internet, alarm. If she isn't exhausted at night as usual because of her medications, alarm. If she can't fall asleep at nap or bed time, alarm. If there's a hangup on our answering machine, alarm. If I see a strange car parked by our house, alarm. It isn't fun living in my head.

I think all of this is understandable, considering my past experiences, but it certainly doesn't make me a joy to be around at times. Since the night before, I had been obsessing about those sprayed bed covers, wondering if I was under- or over-reacting, getting crazier and crazier all day long. I started inflating the story, imagining the worst. By the end of work, I was almost in full-blown panic mode, which is never a pretty sight.

It was Holy Thursday, so I didn't have a lot of time between wolfing down my dinner and getting to choir practice and worship service. As I've said in a previous posting, Holy Week is always an emotional drain on me. I could feel myself becoming overwhelmed with suspicion, anger, guilt, sadness as I headed to church. Basically, I was in a really shitty mood.

As I sat in my spot among the tenors, I listened to my pastor friend talk about doing things as Jesus would have done them. It wasn't a suggestion Christ made at the last supper. He didn't say, "If you feel like following My way today, as long as it doesn't cause you any inconvenience..." No, He pretty much commanded us to follow His example of love and forgiveness. Listening to my friend's sermon, I started to feel remorse over all the dark thoughts I'd been thinking in the past 24 hours.

And then, to seal the deal, we celebrated communion. I thought about Mary of Egypt, how she fled to the desert because of her guilt. Then, I meditated on Judas, sitting in that upper room with Jesus, listening to Him talk about friendship and truth. I may be wrong, but I think Judas had a worse Holy Thursday experience than I was having. I've always felt a sort of kinship with Judas, always felt sorry for him. I mean, in the whole Jesus narrative, Judas played a necessary part. If Judas didn't betray Jesus, then Jesus wouldn't have been arrested. If Jesus wasn't arrested, he wouldn't be crucified. If He wasn't crucified, He wouldn't die. If He didn't die, He wouldn't rise. And if Jesus didn't rise, we're all screwed. Judas just represents all that is broken in the world. He represents Mary of Egypt in her desert brokenness. He represents me in my paranoid, angry, melancholic brokenness.

I thought about the legend of Judas as I stood in line for communion. We all know he went out and hanged himself after betraying Jesus. Another part of the legend says that when he hanged himself, his body split in two, and his bowels spilled onto the ground at his feet. Legend always begins with a kernel of truth (Beth sprayed our bed with some scent from a can) and blossoms into a large, crow-filled cornfield (Beth has relapsed in her sexual addiction). Funny thing, it doesn't take that long for legend to take on the air of truth in our fractured world.

By the end of communion, which I took part in guiltily, I was pretty much feeling even worse than ever, scouting around for some sandy wilderness to disappear into. I know you, dear reader, were thinking that I was going to eat the bread, drink the juice, experience some kind of soul-changing revelation, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.


I walked away from church carrying the same stones I walked in with. I went home and thought about Judas, about Mary of Egypt. I thought about upper rooms and deserts. I thought about truth. I thought about legend.

I listened to a murder of crows cawing in a corn patch.

Monday, April 5, 2010

March 31: Blessed Joan of Toulouse

AN APOLOGY: First, let me apologize for not posting for so long. Easter week is a busy time for anyone involved in church ministries. After services, masses, practices, and rehearsals, it has been pretty exhausting. My other excuse is the subject of this blog, so I will let it speak for itself.

Currently, I have found writing to be a struggle. I'm at that point in the semester where I have more work than time. I'm buried in ungraded essays and reports, and, by the time I get my children to bed, lunches made, and my clothes set out for the next day, I'm lucky if I have the energy to turn on American Idol and watch Simon insult a few contestants. I often wish I could be as brutally honest as Simon when I grade papers. Then I could write comments like, "I hated it. I've read tubes of toothpaste with more personality." With a British accent, it would sound charming and funny.

However, this is more than just not having the time to put pen to paper. This is a struggle to string together words in complete sentences that communicate a coherent idea. (I just experienced one of those struggles. I couldn't think of the word "communicate" and sat on the couch for a few minutes coming up with sound-alikes and near synonyms: elucidate, postulate, commiserate, copulate, stipulate, amputate.) I've been through similar writing droughts before. I once had a poetry instructor tell me in a graduate-level writing workshop that my poems showed "no sense of line break." I didn't write another poem for about two years. The only cure I've found for this problem is to keep writing, no matter what kind of shit I generate. Consider yourself duly warned. What you are about to read will be uninspired, self-centered, and possibly bitchy.

This is not where I wanted to be at this point in the Lenten season. First, I wanted to be in the process of moving into a bigger home. (After, literally, a couple of showings a week for almost two or three months, we have received no offers. My coworker, on the other hand, sold her house and is moving into a nice three-bedroom by a lake in a about a week. I'm so happy for her.) Next, I wanted to be almost done with this whole exercise in forgiveness. (I've learned anger and pain don't dry up and blow away. They sort of mutate into resentment and avoidance. Considering my track record these past 40 days, I should have stuck with avoidance. It's much easier to maintain. As the old saying goes, out of sight, out of being a pain in the ass. Or something like that.) Finally, I wanted this blog to make a difference in my life or somebody else's. (Being a writer, I am prone to egomania, to believing that, through language, I can change things, win friends, influence people, gain a little fame, make some money. At the very least, I wanted to know that I was being read, that people would miss me if I stopped. Right now, I think that even my wife and best friends are tired of me.) Here I sit, at the end of Lent, pretty much a loser on all three counts.

Maybe that's why writing is so difficult for me at the moment. I feel a little lost, when I wanted to be found. (Yes, I stole that one from "Amazing Grace." I'm even stooping to plagiarism.) I've lost my sense of purpose, maybe even a little hope. Things just haven't happened the way they were supposed to happen. Maybe I do have readers I don't know about. Maybe there's somebody out there who's been wondering when I'm going to post something again. Maybe not. Hope and inspiration, for me, are about as difficult to sustain as rare, tropical orchids.

Maybe what I need to do is invent a fan for myself. Maybe that will rekindle my enthusiasm and inspire me to continue writing. I'm going to call my fan Claire because I like the name. (I've also have a thing for actress Claire Danes. My wife knows about my fixation and even bought me the complete series of My So-Called Life for my last birthday. That's true love.) Let's give Claire red hair and a penchant for falling in love easily and being hurt frequently. She has reached a point in her life where she thinks nobody really cares about her. She's maybe in her late twenties or early thirties and has experienced some hardships. She got pregnant in her teens and now lives with her nine-year-old son in a one-bedroom apartment which she can barely afford on her salary from Wal-Mart.

Then, one night, she discovers my blog by accident, and, for some reason, Claire connects with my posts. Each day she checks to see if I've written anything, and, on the days nothing new appears from me, she goes back to old posts and rereads them. Claire is my number one fan who I don't know, but not in the Stephen King, Kathy Bates, Misery kind of way. What I write simply matters to her, the way certain writers mean a great deal to me--Anne Lamott, Flannery O'Connor, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, etc. (As an English major, I've fallen in love with many authors.) I'm Claire's friend at a time in her life when she's pretty much alone. I, and what I write, matter to her.

So, I dedicate this posting to you, my unknown reader, Claire. In a lot of ways, you have a great deal in common with Joan of Toulouse, the blessed for today. She was discovered by Saint Simon Stock, who granted her permission to be "affiliated" with the Order of Carmelites. Those seem to be the only known, verifiable facts about Joan. She lived a life of deprivation, service to the poor and sick, and instruction in faith and holiness. That's it. Other than that, she pretty much labored in humility and anonymity. She could be the patron of my faceless reader Claire, who struggles every day to take care of her son, Duncan (another name I like), pay her bills, keep her head above water, and maintain her sense of hope.

There's that word again: hope. Coming up on Easter weekend, hope is what I should be focusing on. It's what we've been headed to for 40 days. It's what being a follower of Jesus is all about. If I can't find inspiration and hope in His sacrifice and forgiveness, I might as well turn in my Christian membership card. So I will keep writing, keep hoping that something good will come out of it. That's all I can do right now. (There we go. Uninspired, self-centered, and a little bitchy--I warned you.) Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, we all have to struggle at times, Claire.

That's our so-called lives.