Thursday, March 29, 2012

Where Once Laughter Roared.

The little house of your heart
Is shade-drawn and shuttered
The doors are dead bolted
The damper closed 
The chimney cold
Where once laughter roared
Flashed out
Floated up
There is only a great gray silence
That settles like a sickly fog
Pallid and lonely across the lawn
And even the garden gate 
Latched and locked
Says you are not welcome
To a lonesome traveler
Who used to be
Someone you wanted
Someone you longed for
To stop by unannounced
Someone who now 
Needn’t ever even knock

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Songs In The Night. A Duet.

Dark earthy Haitian coffee. Reading Billy Collins. Listening to the rain on the roof sing a duet with the restless waves. Everyone else escaped to their tents and left me and Mr. Collins alone by the sea. Everyone except the wind who is rushing about frantically looking for something lost or stolen. Overturning every paper, every leaf. Shaking every would be thief of a tree for a confession. But thoughtfully now and then, still remembers to play his little part upon the chimes, hanging like strange angular grapes from a Moringa tree. Sea glass and rusty nails in a plucky pizzicato tinktanktunk rhythm. Then the crescent moon breaks through, a Cheshire cat grin. Smiling down on that Mad as a Hatter wind. 

Two lines capture me tonight. In one poem Collins, while contemplating the immanency of death, gets caught up in the minutia of his garden where "bits of leaf [are] like flakes off a fresco". In another he describes a sudden snow flurry as "krill fleeing the maw of an advancing whale". Wow. Wish those lines were mine. 

The rain stops. Only the sea still sings. In low whispers and great hushes. I am fighting back sleep. Beating it back with the cold dark dregs of tonight's last half a cup of coffee. I am contemplating my muse. I find myself absentmindedly humming a tune. Muddy Hymnal by Iron and Wine. The saddest and loveliest of lines (which too I wish were mine!). "We found you sleeping by your lover's stone/ A ream of paper and a telephone/ A broken bow/ Across a long lost violin." 

My mind wanders to a passage in Job. "Men cry out under a load of oppression; they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful. But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night." 

To be honest, I love that scripture dearly, though I know it seems such small consolation to someone subjugated and abused by the wicked it does still gives me comfort to think of God giving us songs to sing amidst our suffering. But there is another scripture that I love even more. That in that oppression, under such great weight of sorrow, scripture promises us that "[t]he LORD your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, AND He himself will rejoice over you with singing (too!)."

Now that's a duet.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Like Shining From Shook Foil.

Tonight the moon is a feather floating over the Haitian sea. The chatter round the dinner table has long since ceased, only a conversation in Creole from the shadows of the courtyard remains. And of course the waves, the ever rolling, soul soothing tidal wash. I am nursing a cup of Haitian coffee, dark and black and strong. I am letting each sip linger a little longer than the last. My thoughts are far away, in my childhood. A country whose borders I seldom cross. But instead of going home I feel like a museum patron, wandering halls and scrutinizing strange objects that seem to me should seem familiar. 

For no reason at all I do remember clearly that when I was fourteen I got glasses. It was like someone opened a window. A wind worn, rain weary, dirt blurred window. I could see! The colors, the lines, the sharpness and the contrast. It felt as though my mind had been re-booted or at the very least re-tuned. Smells were more pungent, tastes more distinct. My other senses rose to the occasion. Or so it seemed to me, at fourteen. Around that time I started writing too, perhaps in part a result of my newly resurrected faculties. It was this escape into that incredible possible world of the imagination that was the perfect antidote to the droll and drivel of Jr. high. I would lay awake at night and write entire novels in my mind. The bookshelves of which were filled with lifetimes of adventures, no deed was too chivalrous, heroes after all are as self-sacrificing as they are fearless. And the wayward world was never short of damsels in distress.

Then there was music!

Several friends got guitars and my passion became lyrics. I would write every night, sometimes all night. And when I wasn't writing I was reading every CD sleeve for lyrics to inspire me (still do). My weeks went this way: Thursday nights were always an all-nighter because Friday was kinda a throw away day at school and the adrenalin from the excitement of the coming weekend would get me through. I would write about every sort of thing that a fourteen year old had never experienced. Love lost or at least love unrequited, those were my default setting (and I suppose still are). High school came and all my dreams were rock and roll and notebooks full of restless railings and angst-infused phrases begging to be sung, or screamed as it were. Then one Christmas break, far from my rock and roll friends, cloistered away for a week at my grandparents in small-town Alabama, surrounded by farmland and open sky I wrote a poem. Oh the wonder of it! The autonomy mingled with ecstasy. I felt a discharge of my soul that gave me such a buzz, one I still crave daily. 

That first poem was about Father Jeremiah, a wizard bearded Greek Orthodox priest and his moon-eyed dog. A clunky poem I later cannibalized and re-incarnated into an earlier post. My second poem was a rather unflattering depiction of a certain high school English teacher with an obsessive and clinical infatuation with grammar...

Her neck ejaculated her face into conversation
All nouns and no verbs
Her eyes are things a cat can do to a fence
Prepositionally speaking of course
Her ears, parenthesis, close parenthesis
Around an independent thought of a nose interjected
Her mouth, list; thirty-two teeth, two lips, one tongue, 
And a voice arbitrary as grammar ever was
And dangling twice as participle boring comma

Oh dear. But I was hooked! My senior year my textbooks never left my locker, instead, everyday, all day, I carried around one rather voluptuous volume of poetry, the complete works of e.e. cummings, terminally and perpetually truant from the Hattiesburg public library. 

I read and re-read every poem in that collection a hundred times. His masterful precision mixed with a sacrosanct anarchy. Love poems that took love so seriously and yet remained playful and unapologetically romantic. And an anti-establishment undercurrent that gave every institution from science to government a good tongue lashing while all the while elevating those rebukes to high art. Lines that tied my stomachs in knots with beauty, lines to fall in love to, lines like:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

and one of my very favorite poems from him...

i am a beggar always
who begs in your mind

(slightly smiling, patient, unspeaking
with a sign on his
BLIND)yes i

am this person of whom somehow
you are never wholly rid(and who

does not ask for more than
just enough dreams to
live on)
after all, kid

you might as well
toss him a few thoughts

a little love preferably,
anything which you can't
pass off on other people: for
instance a
plugged promise-

the he will maybe (hearing something
fall into his hat)go wandering
after it with fingers;till having

what was thrown away
taptaptaps out of your brain, hopes, life
to(carefully turning a
corner)never bother you any more

I never got over my love for Mr. cummings. I probably fashioned most of my romantic notions about relationships while contemplating his poetry instead of say, Algebra II. But something else happened to me when I was fourteen. While I was fumbling toward first kisses and tripping rather than falling in love, the eyes of my soul were opened too. I had always believed the good news of Jesus, always loved God the best I could, even in my youngest years tried to do what my conscience told me was right. But then came fourteen and struggling with fitting in or whether to fit in at all. Then came fourteen and dabbling into the little rebellions that dirty the heart and hands. Then came fourteen and feeling out of sorts, at odds with both heaven and earth, it was then that God proved to me that He loved me. And so I had a new lens, those brand new eyes to see myself and to see the world through. And once again all my other spiritual senses were enlivened too, rescued from the futility of self doubt and empowered by His unconditional, unfaltering, unbelievable! completely undeserved love for me!! 

As I got older I have at times, as much as I desired to, struggled somewhat with writing "sacred" poetry. My lyrics and subsequently my poems failing miserably to express my faith, and in particular the greatness of God. It seemed to me anyway, that at least in part, any art (or loose approximation there of) should, for the Christian be sacred, be worship or praise. That is our art should at times be about Him, the lover of our soul, the Perfect priceless One. But how to use human words, finite sentiments to describe the eternal, boundless, mind-blowing God? Like describing the ocean as wet, so my words for God are artlessly obvious, deconstructed and restrained by the reality that even language gets all of its significance from the maker of tongues, the giver of breath, the progenitor of reason.

But tonight, staring at the moon, listening to the lullaby of the Caribbean and drinking in the salty sweet cocktail of sea spray I realized that all beauty points to the One who created it. The moon, the sea just being the moon and the sea, are graced with the brushstrokes of God. And that for us the act of creating alone may be one of the best most sacred homages we can offer the Creator. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then just as He poured the light of the Word into the formless void, into this often cruel, callous, and ugly world we should pour beauty through our words. Or try our very darndest to do so. 

Art is sacred then, not because it captures the infinite (for to capture it is to cage it and to cage it is to try and tame it), but because when finite creatures bend toward infinity, when they mimic their God, they too point to Who made them. It follows then I think, that a heart immersed in His love, stammering out its bravest poetry, its sincerest prose is one of the closest things we may ever get on this side of eternity's veil to a wholly sacred proclamation. So then, until death rends that veil forever, let's keep scribbling down our biggest most beautiful thoughts. About the moon, or the ocean, of love lost and especially love longed for. 

One more poem before I go. My very favorite of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who himself struggled to describe God and wrote mostly about the glory of His fingerprint in Nature. 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Growing frustrated with my infantile Creole, Donell searches for the words in English. Finally, voice cracking he says "I am just f--king tired. Something must change."

We are standing in City Soleil, the largest, densest slum in the western hemisphere and by far the most dangerous. I put my hand on his shoulder. There is nothing to say, not in any language. He pulls a worn New Testament out of his pocket. A picture of his best girl and his baby sister tucked safely into the gospel of John. On the page facing Jesus tells His disciples "don't let your hearts be troubled". I want to tell Donell the same but again language fails. 

We are covered in mud. His tent city has flooded due to early rains and a very clogged drainage canal. It has taken us three days but the water flows freely now and the muddy slum begins to dry out. 

Marciell, Evonne and Donell working so hard. The drainage canal was full to six inches below the rim with  tires, tarps, cables and every sort of garbage and plant mass. 3 days of intense work with our bodies shoulder deep in sludge and the canal is clean! 

On our lunch break Donell takes me to his 'house'. It is no bigger than a closet, it is tarps and dirt and a cinder block platform covered in cardboard that is his bed. The water was six inches above the cardboard which is still wet. He doesn't ask me to take a picture. He is a singer. This place does not define him. He will make it out one day. He has to. 

But Donell is the exception, everyone else it seems wants me to chronicle the flood, their squalor, the disintegrating tarps and canvas. The mud. 150+ tents, 1,500+ people, covered.

The next tent is worse than the last and the deeper into the camp you go the deeper the mud, the frustration. These people are refugees in their own city. The are desperate to be heard but feel like no one listens. The camera listens, if only for a second, and so they each tell their stories into its unblinking eye.

But soon they forget the camera. Soon they begin speaking to me as if I understand. The elderly especially, holding nothing back. Their eyes betray their fear, their hopelessness.

The couple above wave their arms wildly, both simultaneously telling their story. The man motions where the water from the downpour came in through the holes in their tent while his wife tells how the flood waters ruined all they had, went two feet up the tent walls. She seems like she is going to breakdown but then draws from some inner strength, perhaps the sobering responsibility of taking care of her blind husband. 

But where the elderly are wrecked with worry, the children, as children do, remain carefree and defiantly joyful.

The reality is that April starts the rainy season and with it malaria and the dreadful horror of cholera. With no latrines or fresh water, feces mixes with mud and enters open sores especially on bare feet. Enters little mouths by way of sucked thumbs and soiled playthings. Cholera is easily treated if caught immediately but with little education and the incessant reality of diarrhea due to any number of dietary and health factors many times people wait too long for treatment.  

What struck me with the deepest sense of awe, maybe even more than the indefatigable joy of the kids, was the dignity of these amazing people. Their resilience, their grace, their unconquered beauty. In a slum of half a million with rampant gang violence and a suffocating quality that is palpable even to outsiders, they soldier on. They love their children, they work so very hard, and they share with each other. Given the smallest chance I know they would thrive. 


There is a Haitian proverb that goes: Deye mon, gen monBeyond the mountains, more mountains. It captures the fatalism and tragedy of the Haitian life so perfectly, that even if the Haitian people overcome one struggle there is another struggle waiting to sucker-punch them. And they have come to accept it. Several times this week Haitians have said without a hint of irony or self-pity, "Ain't nothing easy."  But yet they don't give up. They hold on to something. Perhaps like Donell, a dream.

I ask him what kind of music he sings. It would have been quicker to ask him which kinds he doesn't sing. Donell's smile widens as the list goes on. He only smiles when he talks of singing. He reminds me President Martelly was a singer. As if to say, "See? Anything's possible." The Haitian leader smiles down in agreement from a billboard that marks the entrance to City Soleil. 


Dreams are powerful because they tap into that invisible reservoir of hope. But dreams usually don't come true. Dreams disintegrate, are ground to grit by the daily grind and with them the heart too is crushed. So what then can sustain a desperate soul? What can resurrect a heart killed by sorrow and then heal it forever? From where comes everlasting hope?

I believe it is in Christ alone. That it is in Him we can have "the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before time began." It will not come from money, nor politicians. Neither will stem the tide of suffering and despair. It will not be found in the rote of religion or the prestige of power. Neither will break chains or unlock cages. Peter wrote "For it wasn't with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ....through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead, and so your faith and hope are in God."

This is my prayer tonight for City Soleil, for Donell. That the God of all hope floods them with all joy and all peace as they trust in Jesus, so that they may overflow with that precious hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Oh Lord please let it be so. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Something Else.

There was always
A certain look
In your eyes
That I mistook 
For something else

The way the ash
Of a great fire
Lifted by heat and
Scattered by the wind
Can be mistaken for snow

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tonight, The Slow Rain...

Tonight, the slow rain
On this low roof, 
Sounds like fire
Crackling in cut wood
Like the needle in the dead wax
Long after the last song-
The far off applause

Or like the locust’s dark swarm
In a field of dry ripe corn 
The hiss hum static
Of an old AM radio
The dusty flutter 
Of the turning pages 
Of a thousand blood colored hymnals