A Father’s Day Poem

The Gardener
for my father

I have loved roses
since the earliest days,
when they spilled
like flames over our garden
walls, and you’d bring
them, fresh cut,
into the house,
where they’d dwell like
living embers singly
or together
and fill our mornings
with the perfume
of their song.

I have loved them
as you tended
the slowly growing
vine that twined
itself around the spirals
of our Jordanian
windows — an act
of faith, coaxing flowers
from the desert,
their color proclaiming
God’s faithfulness
as surely as any
burning bush
or shrub.

And I love them still,
seven thousand miles
from where you
spend your evenings
watering jasmine and
daisies, your garden a riot
of color and song,
as I tend my own
small miracle of green —
not quite eight inches
high, she grows
without knowledge
of her diminutive
size (as I gently check
each leaf for mites),
a single, unfurling
bud waving at the sky.

–Karith Amel © 2019

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When Death Comes: The Legacy of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver died today. The poet was 83 years old, and while she lived she reminded us of the miracle inherent in the everyday details of our world: the white heron taking to the sky, sleepy cats dozing in the sun, a grasshopper perched on an open palm.  She taught me to see the links between poetry and prayer, between attention, gratitude, and worship. She instructed my heart “over and over / in joy / and acclamation” — in “the prayers that are made / out of grass.”

She was a soul fully awake to life, and she welcomed her readers into that wakefulness — into a fearless embrace of the present moment. She was, indeed, “a bride married to amazement.” And I hope that I, too, can declare, when the end comes, that I wasn’t just a visitor to this place.

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” –Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer

Eucharist

Calvary Episcopal Church, Santa Cruz
Sunday, 28 October 2018

The priest wore red
today, as he held his hands
aloft over bread and wine.
The color of martyrs and
remembrance, Christ’s passion
leaking from instep and
palms, blinked rapidly
from stinging eyes (oh, God,
were there flies? I’ve never thought
about the flies — the agony
of a body so taut, it can’t
even twitch to drive away
the swarms which gather,
like clouds without rain, or
so much dust in the desert,
to feast upon the bleeding flesh
of the too-soon dead),

yet today was not meant
to be a day for red.

Eleven are dead,
yet they never asked
to be martyrs (do any ask
to be martyrs?), as they
gathered to worship, to
celebrate, to pray, “on a quiet
drizzly morning,” just another
Saturday. Just another
sunrise, just another breakfast,
just another day
until it wasn’t.

We kneel at the altar,
my unpierced palms open
to receive the dry and tasteless
wafer, the wine smooth and
sweet (no hint of vinegar or gall)
on chapped and broken lips. We say
the “Our Father,” the offered
bread still heavy on my tongue,
and ask deliverance
from evil

— but whether his
or mine is left unspoken
as the music swells and the cross
processes down the nave,
and through the open door into
the sunshine of an ordinary
street, an ordinary day.
Pater dimitte illis: dare we
follow in its wake?

Written following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Thoughts While My Students Write

As September marches on, and I prepare myself for what I hope will be a year of words — while wrestling with the implications of having given up my classroom (and all that was both lost and gained with that choice) — here are some thoughts composed while my students worked.  

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

What is poetry?
It is the muscle and sinew
of words:
The leaping
and the dancing,
The burning and
the breaking,
The place where
truth and beauty meet
with no veil between —

no place to run and hide
from the blazing
brightening face of God.

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

The sun on this grass,
these leaves,
a thousand shades of
brightness — of dancing
gold. My students
in the world,
thinking, writing.
And I want to gift
them this — wholeness,
wonder. “Pictures that shimmer.”
The world grown deep
and clear,
mysterious and living.

If we chase this brightness
always, will we find that we
have long pursued
the very face
of God?

Can we drink this cup?
Dare we? And what if I —
if we — find ourselves
too frail a vessel
for this gift?

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.

The Waterfall Pools

Ngare Ndare Forest, 18 Feb. 2018

The specks of color flutter
by us, as each step we take raises
a small cloud from the dry
earth, almost as if the dust
were breathing

and I wonder if it were
on such a day, in such a place,
that the hands of God first
formed us from the ground.

The water, when we reach
it, has gathered into
pools of cloudy blue,
and as I watch the shadows
uncertainly for snakes, I wonder
if the serpent ever swam
with the woman and her
mate.

Dust we may be,
and to dust we may return —
here like grass
today and gone upon the morrow —

but isn’t it a lovely thing
to be alive?

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Resurrection

The cross on the wall
of every church
I’ve ever called
my home (evangelical
gypsy that I am)
has been empty,
harmless.

Nothing but the sheen
of polished wood,
a finish so smooth
I want to rest my cheek
against its softness —
a pillow, like Jacob’s rock,
on which to dream
of promised blessing.

Nothing to hint
at blood
or guts or the stench
of remembered
pain.

After all,
it is the ending of this story
that we love.

And so we skip ahead —
an empty tomb,
a bloodless cross,
a king triumphant
on his clouds.

So quick to preach
of heaven, where every
tear, like water in the desert,
shall turn to mist and be
no more, we forget
it was the world — this broken,
bloody thing, where thorns
grow wild and snakes
can bite one’s heel —
that he loved enough
to die for.

In a Jesuit chapel
on the outskirts of Nairobi,
I stare at the pierced and broken
body of the king I claim
to know. The crucifix a heavy,
holy reminder that to be human
is to break. That neither
love nor life will ever burst
into being on this globe
without the mother’s share
of suffering and pain. That on
the very morning we sing
“hosanna” and call the battle
won, the victory proclaimed,
Mary is weeping in the garden,
cursing an empty tomb,
a missing body, and our walk
to Emmaus has just begun,
tired travelers with blistered
feet, bereft and heavy
hearts.

Our hope upon the road:
that one day we may turn
to the stranger
at our side and recognize —
in the sound of our name
on their chapped lips or the broken
bread in their work-roughed hands —
that Life has pitched its
tent among us

(and today
is the day of resurrection).

A Juxtaposed Reality

On a Wednesday that is both Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Lent, here is a poem that points towards the costly nature of love. Our culture idolizes a version of romance rooted in consumerism and instant gratification. In feeling good, looking good, and getting what we can for ourselves. But Ash Wednesday points towards a different paradigm, a different narrative and reality. It reminds us of our brokenness to remind us of the face love truly bears: the face of one who joined us in that brokenness, that darkness, that loneliness, so we might be healed.

May you have a blessed Valentine’s Day. A blessed Ash Wednesday. A blessed Lent.

May you know yourself truly loved.

Quarantine
by Eavan Boland

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Eavan Boland is an Irish poet, born in 1944. Her memoir/treatise Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time was one of my all-time favorite university reads, and I’d highly recommend her work for anyone interested in issues related to poetry, gender, or displacement.

22 January 2018

Not so much a poem as a prayer. Not so much a prayer as a whispered thanks. Inspired by Reid Carpenter’s “9 October 2017.”

I started today with a strip of sun against a dark sky.

I started with the sound of thudding feet, the tingle-cold of a Kenyan dawn, the huffing breath of a mile run.

I started with a cat in my kitchen, languidly bumping its nose against my leg, submitting to a pat, a scratch, a pet — always hopeful for a tasty snack.

I started with matcha and overnight oats, filled to bursting with chia seeds, toasted coconut flakes, slivers of almonds.

I started with the words of Paul and Nouwen and the misty morning light, snuggled beneath a blue shuka on a large porch.

I started with my nephew cooing from the confines of a small screen, his smile sudden and bright and too beautiful to bear.

I started the day with grace. May I walk forward in that promise.