This is one of many poems I wrote during my experience as a chaplain’s intern at Duke Hospital. I haven’t really known what to do with them–they just contain these little snapshots of the hopelessness, but also the grace, that is found in trying to minister to the sick and the dying.
the patient was eighty-nine years old
I bet on Sunday he is an usher in a big old church
with a grey suit and pocket square
but not tonight
tonight he was groaning, blind
ready to meet Jesus
a dying Ray Charles who’d lost his voice
they phoned the chaplain
because the man might “hurt himself”
I could see why
his wrinkles tremored with the knowledge of pain
stretched across his crisscrossed
black skin, weathered by decades of memory
hardened by the near-misses and nearness of death
I sat and held his trembling hand
as he moaned like sandpaper:
I can’t keep on like this
I don’t want to keep on like this
I just I don’t I can’t anymore
Prea—cher? he sang in a deep baritone
Prea—cher? What do I do?
my infant tongue flew up and stuck
to the roof of my mouth
the question shot within me
and bounded like an old-fashioned bullet
the kind that doesn’t go straight through
even as I write this now, the shrapnel
of his words cut and bounce under my thick skin
with a strange, piercing echo:
What do I do?
Cold rain, the blue noise
beats upon us weary men;
Green corn, opening,
your life breath moving, cooling;
the Spirit reigns, flies.
In dark terror, I
cling to firm cliffs, solid land,
your words affirming.
Holy holy Lord,
the forests sway, erupt, shout
this Sanctus solstice.
My great Messiah
soars through rushing waters, that
The fallen oak stands
up: life gushes from God’s Lamb
a green, breathing world!
These ashes feel silly, black strips of cracked grease
smeared on my forehead, like a child’s paint
Am I not a man with days ahead?
Am I not a god until I’m dead?
O Lord, these ashes are flung to the dusk
forgotten and hated specks of mud
hurled at the sun, in spite and scattered
and where are you? and does that matter?
if these ashes are winning, I am sunk in death
my breath damp-dry, my cough unending
weighed and buried in long black robes:
the rocks and bones my clothes
And yet I hope to turn again
from this dead soil to greener patch
still me now and at the ceasing of my breath
and resurrect these ashes from their death
As Christians prepare to begin the season of Lent, I thought I would post this poem I wrote recently about the scramble all of us take to find the narrow road of faith and salvation, and how often we miss where our focus should really be:
Here we come, bursting from the desert
reds and browns, the sand-dunes to the skies
rushing to be counted on the highway
desperate for the road that leads to Zion.
I am one of them, and they of me
but we feel alone under the heat
bowed before relentless scorching winds
hands pushed forward, shouts of sinful men—
Who knew narrowness could feel so wide?
That holiness was thin yet vast inside?
We scrambled to be counted on the road
we counted, but forgot the sand and stars.
And yet who’s hanging off-road on that tree?
Who counts the Son of God? Or me?
Lawnmowers buzz and whir gently
underneath the calls of my neighbors
who laugh to one another
in the blue morning
cool before the blistering
summer sun breaks through
I hear a few children giggling
out of sight
a man sing-calling out
to his fellow-man
who he must love
as I love them both
what hopes stir in these men
sweating upon the earth this early
toward a more beautiful home?
what light reflects on their unseen faces
up on that half-finished roof
dreaming up the new day?
who am I to sit here in such peace,
among a people as fine
and as true as these
and what words of mine could ever match
their God-given voices
or the music of their swinging hammers?
I know that it’s not really spring yet, but it feels like it, and I am also still in the Valentine’s Day mood. So here’s a sonnet I wrote last spring for my wife. Enjoy:
Spring, A Porch Sonnet (8-26-16)
The strawberries are flush with red my love
and sunlight feeds them, soil homes their roots,
the air is light, speaks new words off-the-cuff
about the plants, their yellows, pinks, and blues.
I feel the whole earth swinging back and forth
a happy child kicking off his shoes.
I do not know which season moves you most
which passing stars or colors you find best,
but you are Spring in every shade and song,
you are the thrush’s swoop, the hammock’s rest,
the lazy rocking chair, the open window,
our front porch newly found, newly swept.
Who are you woman, by me like this fan
making me feel wonderful again?
You woke up last night, 4 AM or so
and busied till the sun hopped on in.
I love your busyness, for I am slow,
you’ve crossed the finish line when I begin.
If I’m the turtle hoping for a win
you’re the hare a couple miles ahead—
I’m now distracted by the violin
a tree is playing from the meadow bed.
You double back and lay where I have fled
to nestle with me in the mossy field,
the race long over, your victory unsaid.
Your trophy is not gold, but is revealed
between our speeds, a dawning compromise.
Come back to bed my love, and claim your prize.
You are a yard a few porch steps
a doorway away
from a small bit of dried pork
a warm house
your favorite pillow bed
but you do not come when I call
your snout burrowed in the bottom
of the chain-link fence, nose
pushing up against its loose tie
with the dirt aching forward
digging to slip out
beyond this confined patch
or in the rabble—free
but no freedom is out there
the night is coming
with its chilling winds
howls of coyotes contained
under the moon’s brutal apathy
What god could speak this truth to you?
What language is more seductive
than those hidden grasses?
What limits could match
the night’s low roar?