"Detroit Ghost City" (The last line is important.)

DETROIT GHOST CITY

In what has become characteristic fashion, the reporter’s irony is founded on the still more ironic (if unself-conscious) assumption that a city so overfilled with human misery can be written about as if it were empty.
— Jerry Herron, AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History

Your emptiness
takes up so much space!
It casts a shadow longer than your history,
broader than anyone’s field of vision.
Your inscrutable landscape
is missing any hint of a horizon, you
pink noise, static screen,
white-washed palimpsest.
Even the fissures in your outermost skin
are hard to discern; your scars
only disguise your still-raw wounds.
You are a book left in the rain,
a headstone eroded and sunk beneath the grass. 
 
This is no nothing—
no blank page, nor fresh canvas,
no return to unspoiled nature,
no pristine innocence.
No raw materials remain.
Full of treasures, refined and reified,
you are disassembled, left to rust. 
 
Your inhabitants
are all but invisible, eluding
all scripted identity. 
 
It is said of you

 

that no human is found in your streets—only
curious beasts: pheasants, foxes,
cryptids, chimeras, criminals. 
 
None of which is true.
 
 
–1 April 2013
 
Everyone who knows me here in California knows I am chronically homesick for Detroit. This poem is a response to all the media reports about my home town, as well as the research and reading I’ve been doing. The last line is the key. 
 
Some of the poem is true, however: Detroit is full of treasures; it isn’t empty; it is decidedly not a blank slate for outsiders to write on. 
 
I’m not a fan of the native/outsider divide, however, any more than I am of the city/suburb divide. I’m a fan of Detroit, and whatever really promotes the city’s health ought to be welcome. Detroit Future City seems to be a particularly exciting project, because it opposes gentrification and seeks to create a “just city” first for the residents that have stayed in the Detroit, as well as for newcomers.
 
Don’t look for Detroit to “come back”—that’s backwards thinking. Look for Detroit to slowly emerge as a fresh possibility of what a city can be, constructed by grass-roots efforts by ordinary people and devoted experts for whom this work is a labor of love. Detroit’s supposed “glory days” were a bubble, and one with a very ugly underbelly. We don’t want that again.
 
As Jerry Herron also writes (in the same book quoted above),

Detroit is the most representative city in America. Detroit used to stand for success, and now it stands for failure. In that sense, the city is not just a physical location; it is also a project, a projection of imaginary fears and desires. This is the place where bad times get sent to make them belong to somebody else; thus, it seems easy to agree about Detroit because the city embodies everything the rest of the country wants to get over. [AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History, p. 9]

 If that’s the case, and I agree that it is, then the rest of the country continues to have a vested interest in Detroit, and should join its citizens as “we hope for better.”

Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus –Detroit city motto
[Translation: We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.]


(The quote at the beginning of the poem is found on p. 83 of Dr. Herron’s excellent book.)

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A story of Detroit as told by its street maps.

 Satellite view of Detroit and Windsor, showing Lake Erie (bottom) and Lake St. Clair
Detroit’s street map has often been described as a palimpsest. I’ve called it the broken hub of a wheel dumped beside the river (which isn’t really a river; it’s a strait), but my metaphor actually leaves out most of the streets. How the map came to look as it does today is a story of…well, palimpsest, really: the occasional plan, destruction, expediency, and economic interests. (Neglect and decay affect the look of the map on Google Street View, but so far don’t seem to play a huge role in altering the map itself.)
 
Detroit lies on the northern side of the Detroit River, a strait (in French, un détroit) running between Lake Erie (a Great Lake) and Lake St. Clair (a Still-Decent Lake). It’s the only city in the US where you head south to get to Canada. That means that Canada is beneath us. On a map, anyway.
Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit was founded in 1701 by a rather colorful character, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, whose achievements also include (in no particular order) inventing a fake noble lineage (the “de la Mothe Cadillac part)—complete with a fake family crest, a simplification of which you can see today on the Cadillac next to you in the parking lot; losing his entire fortune (reputedly by ignoring a fortune teller’s admonition to not do anything foolish like poke the Nain Rouge with a stick); and moving to Detroit’s younger, more popular sister, New Orleans. Couldn’t stay put, that Antoine. Physical and social mobility, and reinventing yourself were things you could do quite easily in the “New World” where no one knew you. They became popular hobbies in Detroit, where people came for opportunity and left when it dried up, often reinventing themselves in the process.
 
 A statue of Cadillac in Hart Plaza. On the right, he stakes his claim on a Lexus.
I took these photos in 2008, I’m not too proud to admit..
 
The city’s original white settlers brought with them from their native Normandy a method of divvying up land. That method was to lay out “ribbon farms”: very thin, long strips of land that gave each farmer his own access to the river. The oldest roads in Detroit mostly reflect the locations of the ribbon farms and/or are named for their owners. That’s why so many of Detroit’s streets have funny French spellings, despite no one pronouncing them in French anymore.
 
Ribbon farms: Notice they did the same thing on the other side of the river, too.

 

Fast forward about a century, and in 1805, Detroit stakes its claim as a city by doing what all cities do at some point in their history: burning to the ground. (Just ask Chicago. Or San Francisco. Or London. It’s a cliché, really.) Two major Detroit tropes occur with that fire: (1) the Nain Rouge is seen dancing in the flames, the bastard; and (2) Father Gabriel Richard, co-founder of the Catholepistemiad (later sensibly re-named the University of Michigan) and priest at Ste. Anne de Détroit Church, said something along the lines of “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus,” which, being translated, means, “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” Whatever language he actually said or wrote it in, it was such a great line it was eventually made into the city’s motto, and has been kept ever-relevant by generation after generation of Detroit pyromaniacs (the bastards).
 
Detroit city flag, incorporating the motto and the 1805 fire, as well as the three national flags that have flown over the city.
 
In 1806, Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory Augustus Woodward produced a plan for rebuilding the city. He laid out broad avenues in interlocking hexagonal patterns with parks or plazas at the intersection points. The plan was supposed to have been expandable with the city’s future growth: just add more hexagons! (W. Hawkins Ferry calls the plan so French in its geometric precision.”) Woodward’s plan inscribed a new pattern over the surviving traces of the old ribbon farms. Residents hated it at the time, because they no longer recognized their hometown.
 
The Woodward Plan. Grand Circus Park makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
 
Someone drew up this image of what the interlocking hexagons would have looked like,
had Woodward’s plan been expanded.
 
Woodward’s plan was never expanded, though, despite the city’s growth. Through the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was taking place throughout the U.S., and Detroit was no exception. Thanks to its location in the Great Lakes system, Detroit became known for ship building, making stoves, and doing all manner of things that involved bending or shaping metal. (That eventually proved useful when the automobile came along.) As the city expanded, thanks to industry, it did so according to the demands of economic interests. Detroit was not alone in this. There was a growing sense throughout the U.S. that its booming industrial cities were dirty and unpleasant, organized as they were around industry rather than civic life. In Detroit, for example, the river front was crowded with shipping yards, with no public recreational access to the river.
 
 
In the 19th century, most U.S. architects trained only by apprenticeship. The few that did pursue academic study had to go to Europe to do so. Even then, most of them didn’t bother to finish their programs; a diploma was simply not necessary to their practice back home.  The fashionable place to study was the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which urged a return to classical architecture, and other things you can read about on Wikipedia.
 
But something happened at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair’s Director of Works Daniel H. Burnham saw an opportunity to showcase his ideas about making Chicago the sort of place people might want to live in, so that the Midwest’s nouveau-riche might settle there (i.e., spend their money there) rather than just pass through on business trips. So he assembled a team of artists, architects, and landscape artists and had them apply the Beaux-Arts aesthetic and ideals to the fair’s site on Chicago’s lakefront. With this project, Chicago’s lakefront was beautified and reclaimed, Chicago’s reputation for its architecture began, and the City Beautiful movement spread like a cliché through the nation (but one that renewed rather than destroying cities).
 
The Beaux-Arts style prefers to give its buildings and statues a great deal of “look space.”
 
Today you can drive (or ride a train) from Chicago to Detroit in about 5 hours. Apparently it took the City Beautiful movement nearly two decades to make the trip around the turn of the 20th century. In 1910, Detroit’s mayor, Philip Breitmeyer, founded a City Plan Commission, which immediately set about bringing Daniel H. Burnham and his similarly-middle-initialed associate, Edward H. Bennett, to Detroit to do some much-neglected city planning. Nothing much had been done since the Woodward plan (which was designed for a population of 50,000; Detroit had reached 700,000 by the time of the Burnham and Bennett plan) other than Michigan Governor Lewis Cass’ 1830 development of old “Indian trails” into military roads radiating out, outstate even, from the city’s center: Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Woodward Avenue, and Gratiot Avenue. (Poor Fort Street, only a street…) 
 
 I can’t find any images of the Burnham street plan, so instead, enjoy this photo of Daniel Burnham, left, and Lewis Cass, right. Burnham’s eyes look so sincere, but surely he’s hiding something under that moustache. Cass is either reaching for his wallet or having chest pains.
 

The Burnham plan, completed in 1915, emphasized parks and public spaces, much as Woodward’s had done. Detroit’s Cultural Center, which boasts the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, the main branch of the Public Library, and the Detroit Science Center (and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul) is credited to the Burnham plan. Not much of his plan actually was implemented, though. For example, Burnham planned two major avenues radiating river-ward from the Cultural Center: one leading to Belle Isle, and the other to the then-new Michigan Central Station (completed in 1913, abandoned in 1988, and currently being stabilized, finally). 
 

 
 I took this photo in October, 2012.
 
By the early 20th century, Detroit had an extensive and efficient streetcar (trolley) system—at its peak, in some locations, streetcars arrived every sixty seconds! But with the popularity of the automobile and the even greater popularity of moving to the suburbs, the streetcar system fell into disuse and was closed in 1956. It is rumored the streetcars still operate in Mexico City, which purchased them from Detroit. (No, San Francisco, which has the hobby of collecting other cities’ steetcars, doesn’t have them.)
 
 >sigh<
 
Also with the rise of the auto industry, the need for efficient freight transit into, out of, and across the city led to freeway building. As with many other projects, from the Michigan Central Station to general “slum-clearing” (read: corralling non-white people and poor white people to less desirable locations), the freeways saw the city exercise “eminent domain,” condemning buildings and displacing many people from their homes, and disrupting or effacing historic neighborhoods.  I-75 famously had to go right where Paradise Valley, the Black cultural center of the city, was, destroying world-famous jazz and blues clubs among other important sites. Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, was widely razed for the Michigan Central Station and its Beaux-Arts requisite of a really big park in front of it to set it off. Freeways also disrupted Corktown and neighboring Mexicantown, the latter of which has also had to put up with the Ambassador Bridge dumping ¼ of the commercial traffic between the U.S. and Canada right into its residential areas. But thankfully, both neighborhoods are seeing renewal in recent years.
Children enjoying the fountain by the Ren Cen on the Riverfront on a hot and muggy summer day, 2008.
So, as with any city, the street map will continue to change, as will the landmarks and features on that map. Happily, in recent years, the riverfront has been transformed into delightful public space, where children play in fountains or ride the carousel, and people of all ages bike, walk, take lunch breaks, just hang out, or even fish in the Detroit River. All while looking down on Canada.

 

We’re watching you, Windsor.

(Actually, I have nothing at all against Canada. Vive la Windsor!)



  
 


Sources for this post include:
  • Having lived in Detroit
  • Ferry, W. Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History.Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
  • Historic Detroit
  • Herron, Jerry. AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • and various websites, newspaper articles, and other sources absorbed over the years – especially regarding the city’s early history.
  • Ferry, Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History. Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
I’ve linked to wikipedia often here for convenience. The interested reader is welcome to google other sources.
 

 

"The Sound" and the "Source": Thoughts on finding your voice

THE SOUND

Forty days and forty nights among the elements –
earth and water, wind,
and spirit’s fire –
After my ears have calibrated to this silence,
a polyrhythmic solitude
retrains my ear
To discern deep in the white noise of my loneliness
a holy voice,
its wild modulations crafting a new language
out of my words and its own.


This poem is from To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000). I thought it would make a good namesake for this blog. 

So while I’m revealing the source of my blog title, I might as well share this poem, from 1997’s Deciphering Scars:

SOURCE
 
I’m making notes by candle light.
Thoughts drip slow and hours hum,
unmoving, like this halo-glow
that barely aids my tired eyesight.
All this could change should morning light come.
Words, whose timbres sing through charged ozone
are clay that oozes sensuously
through jittery hands that cannot say
what they mean. The clay intones
this small flame’s simple melody.



So these are a couple poems about finding your voice. I’ve had to do that several times. I think anyone working in any art form can attest to the fact that you have to keep re-learning your craft from time to time, either to avoid stagnation or in response to changing circumstances. This blog so far is a place for me to re-publish my old material; in the meantime, I’ve been through that re-learning process yet again. It makes you re-assess your older material, too. This blog certainly will not contain the old material I no longer like! 

With the possible exception of this one. I still like it, but recognize that it’s not the best poem I’ve ever written. But it has a story:


PRAYER IN THE DOWN-TIME

Memories encoded in scars,
carved into this tender flesh by sharp-shooting stars;
Vision painstakingly sculpted by blind hope;
Eyes caress the boundaries that fingers grope,
and I wait for you
To call forth nothing from my masochistic ploys
   and to breathe life into my empty, fledgling voice.

 
Poetry for me had always been an art brut, sort of the equivalent of your typical teenager picking up a guitar and starting a garage band. I didn’t have a guitar or a garage, but I had pen and paper. First things first: I poured my feelings into all kinds of verse, realizing I didn’t have much to say, but that I needed to learn how to say what little there was. That would be the “clay that oozes sensuously through jittery hands that cannot say what they mean.” For a long time, my writing was driven by mood. Images and words would follow, and I would sculpt them. It was a technique that came to work for me, but it didn’t allow me to begin with an idea.
 
“Prayer in the Down-Time” precedes that particular technique, though. I hadn’t been writing for a few years, following a friend’s comment that “no one wants to listen to you whine.” Fair enough. But if I wasn’t going to “whine,” though, I had no clay to work with. 
 
One afternoon in my Lansing-area apartment, I was listening to Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s album, Ashes in the Brittle Air. For whatever reason, some words in the song, “The Scar of a Poet,” seemed to smack me upside the head and say, “The only voice you have is your own. Use it.” (The actual lyrics include the phrase I had tattooed on my arm a couple years later: “Revel in your gift”.)
 
I’d found a dollar bill in my possession that had “AABBDCC” scrawled on it. “That looks like a rhyme scheme,” I thought. So I decided to try it out. “Prayer in the Down-Time” is my response to “The Scar of the Poet,” using that dollar-bill rhyme scheme. What resulted was renewed experimentation with my poetic craft. I hope time proves that to have been a good thing.
 

What is your art form? (Even life is an art form, really.) How have you had to redefine or re-attune your voice? What are your experiences in the ongoing process of learning and re-learning your craft?

Prayer without words (when there’s nothing to say)

PRAYER WITHOUT WORDS

Amid white noise of day
that protects this frail solitude
I tatter soil-edged pages
of my prayer book
opening to empty places
praying word-for-word the silence
 
 


At work this weekend, I was replacing empty votive candles in the church when a couple women came to light a candle. They didn’t understand how to use the orange-wood lighting stick, so I showed them. “And then you say a prayer, right?” asked one of the women.

“Yes,” I said, “Or lighting the candle can be your prayer. Prayer can take many forms — a song, a gesture, even silence.”

When I don’t have the words, I often simply cross myself, or make the sign of the Cross on a photograph (perhaps on my computer screen) of a person I want to pray for. Sometimes, after receiving Communion, for example, my mind may be wandering and I can’t focus enough to pray any words worth addressing to God (although really, God is pleased to accept whatever words we offer). I simply kneel in silence and let my posture be my prayer. Many people have similar practices, such as bowing, fingering prayer beads, genuflecting, yoga, taking a walk in nature, or sitting quietly with open hands. Remember that we are always all in God’s presence and in the embrace of God’s love.

Tonight, I suspect many people are struggling to find the words they want to pray. Written or memorized prayers, such as the Our Father (the Lord’s Prayer) can be especially helpful. But whatever you are honestly feeling is a great start, even if no words are involved.

To close, I would like to offer this beloved prayer from the BCP (the link will take you to the full text of the service of Evening Prayer). You’ve probably seen this posted in many places tonight.

For the injured, wounded, grieving, and aid workers in Boston tonight, we pray:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, orweep this night, and give your angels charge over those whosleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary,blessthe dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield thejoyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.


Amen.


(Note on the poem: Some may know this one as “In-Between Rite.” I just tried to find which book it was in, and it turns out it’s not in any of them…so this is its first publication, it seems. So I should add this bit that’s true of all my writing here: ©Elaine Elizabeth Belz.)
 

A little trilogy of poems

Tonight brings three poems from Deciphering Scars (1997). I’ve always thought of them as a sort of trilogy, even though they’re separated in the book. Maybe it’s because I wrote them around the same time (sometime between late ’95 and early ’97), or maybe it’s the sing-songy rhymes. More on that later; I don’t want to color your reading of the poems.

WARNING: May be triggering for people who wrestle with self-harm or eating disorders—especially the second poem. Proceed with care.


Here are the poems; some discussion follows.

NIGHTCAP

I’ve turned the dead-bolt and fastened the chain
to lock the night outside; but in my brain,
the night’s expanse and quiet amplify each sentiment—
then each sentiment drizzles down and freezes on the pavement,
While the moon, all secure in her impenetrable halo
keeps watch by the light of her cold, holy glow.


I’ve switched on all the lights and put on soothing music
to chase away this odd feeling. But by some trick,
the light obscures my vision, and silence shrouds the song,
which leaves me nothing in this waking sleep to move the night along.
So the moon rolls over, stretches out her silvery beams
in a shimmering yawn, and bids me pleasant dreams.

Too tired to even think of dreaming, I reply with a blank stare
and almost feel the melancholy borne in on clean night air
that urges me to yield to its Socratic care-of-soul…
But, true to habit, I deny that I could ever become whole.
Now the moon has wrapped herself again inside her light,
covered herself with a cloud, and left me to my night.


WORLDVIEW

Once back inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I start to pull off all the layers of today’s disguise,
trying to ignore the shadow that mocks my boorish movement,

and blinking back the day’s events into my tired eyes.

The Madonna on the wall looks coolly down on me.
She must be wondering why I don’t reach out with both my arms,

take hold of you, and commit this brutal loneliness to history—
But I revert to empty habits that only bring familiar harm.

So it might be such a self-destructive act, but all the same,
I’ve purged, and I’ve fasted, and could swallow you whole!
When I catch the slightest glimpse of you, or simply hear your name,
I want to draw the universe into my tiny soul.

But trapped inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I put a knife to my ambitions, and carve out mere routines,

sigh over a late dinner, wondering where the hours went,
and hope at least to spend a moment with you in my dreams.


DE PROFUNDIS

I’ve wandered off alone at night
and don’t mind that I’m hopelessly
lost, with no pay-phone in sight—


Lord, have mercy.

I’ve bruised myself inside and out
for no apparent reason.
I pray, neither from faith, nor doubt:

Kyrie eleison.

My ambitions dwindle to redundancy,
but I just can’t bring myself to care.

Christ, in your relentless mercy,
hear my prayer.


As I mentioned, these were written while I was living in the Lansing, Michigan area, sometime between late ’95 and early ’97. At the time, I was writing long lines—lines that, when hand-written, ran across a page of lined 8-1/2 x 11 paper —with a very simple rhyme scheme, for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with what I was reading, or the music I was listening to…but I think it had to do with wanting these poems to sound a bit stilted and awkward, as they do from cramming uneven amounts of syllables into the lines and forcing a rhyme or near rhyme at the end.

The first, “Nightcap,” was written one night after I came home from work at the TV station (my shift ended at 4 a.m.). There was freezing rain, and the moon had the sort of halo it does when it’s drizzly outside. I would never go straight to bed after work; I usually went to bed when the sun started rising. So I really did turn the deadbolt, and put on music. I can’t remember whether my friend Shawna pointed it out to me, or whether it was an older joke and I pointed it out to her, but the brief mention of “Socratic care-of-soul” quickly became proof that I had used my BA in philosophy! 

I don’t remember much around writing “Worldview.” I do know that the “you” in the poem is a personification of that elusive sense of belonging and purpose in life whose absence (or, my imagining its absence) was making me quite restless at the time. That I was still undiagnosed and untreated for my bipolar illness certainly didn’t help. The Madonna on the wall was based on a college friend’s room—he was converting to Roman Catholicism, and had hung a picture of the Madonna and Child on his wall. Now, I have a whole lot of them myself—reproductions of icons, in my case. But I don’t feel the kind of gaze from her (any of her) that this poem expresses. Even if I don’t remember much about its composition, I’ve always loved this poem.

De Profundis” came from the same place, that restlessness. I was also reading a lot of Dorothy Parker at the time (both her works—poetry and stories—and a biography of her), and while this poem doesn’t sound like her style, it sounds (to me, anyway) more like her style than anything else I’ve written (that’s survived). I remember one professor in a radio or TV class (I was also a Communications major in college) recommending that in order to find your style, if you wanted to be an on-air personality, you should start by imitating someone whose work you respect. His reasoning was that since the imitation would still be coming out of you, it wouldn’t be exactly an impression, and eventually you’d find your own voice. I found that the same principle worked with poetry—writing out poems you like by other authors, in your own hand, so that you feel the lines flowing as if from your own heart as your hand is connected to your heart by your pulse, that great rhythm-maker. Anyway, I don’t remember copying Parker’s poems, but I raise this because if I feel like a piece of my own work reflects her style, others may not notice it at all. I had also started going to a truly liturgical church—Peoples Church in East Lansing, a multi-denominational church—and one of the Psalms the cantor sang was a de profundis, and the phrase stuck with me and simmered until it came out in this poem. For those who don’t know, it means “out of the depths.” The Latin titles of Psalms are generally the first line, or part of it. I don’t recall off-hand if there is more than one called De profundis. I had also just been introduced at that church to the Kyrie

Peoples Church in East Lansing had been originally founded by 4 members of different denominations cooperating to create a Protestant church for the Michigan State University community. When I was there, it was still a member of four denominations—Presbyterian USA, American Baptist, United Methodist, and UCC. (I was told at the time the church had been founded by 11 different denominations, but most of them subsequently founded their own churches in the area and pulled out. However, their website says it was always just the four denominations.) I became a member, because I didn’t know how long I’d remain in the area and I was searching for some form of belonging. I had visited many different churches in the area, and enjoyed all the visiting, but I liked the ecumenism inherent in Peoples Church. I wasn’t able to get very involved there before I did leave (other than once delivering altar flowers to three shut-ins, none of whom were home), but I have a couple fond memories of the place: First, there was a city-run recycling center (well, unattended recycling dumpsters) just behind the church, so I took my recycling with me on Sundays. It felt like a spiritual practice, going to church and then unloading my recycling! Second, and best of all, I was a voting member, and voted yes, when we decided to purchase the McDonald’s next door, raze it, and make it into a parking lot. That a church would level a McDonald’s for a parking lot just seemed like a beautiful thing.

The Odd One Out

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  [John 20:24-25, NRSV]


As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare. My sisters and cousin (my usual playmates) were just outside our grandparents’ farm house, and I was a ways off, swinging on the swingset near the edge of the lawn, my back toward the large, disused field now overgrown with weeds and wild raspberries and criss-crossed by animals’ trails. In the dream, suddenly, everyone would go inside, and I was left out in the yard alone. I would leap off the swing, and start running to catch up — but, as childhood nightmares go, some terrifying monster I couldn’t even see had leapt out from those weeds and wild berries behind the barbed-wire fence, and was right on my heels as I found myself running but gaining no ground. And, apparently, I wasn’t missed by anyone.

As the baby of the family, I always hated being the odd one out or the one left behind; hence the recurring nightmare. I guess that’s my lens for yet another reading of this rich story of “Doubting Thomas.” I feel like he’s been maligned — at least in some circles — as if any of us would have just taken the other disciples’ word and can criticize St. Thomas for his “doubt.” (Especially in our scientifically-minded world, where empirical evidence is everything!) But put yourself in Thomas’ shoes: The risen Christ, who apparently can walk through a locked door, somehow can’t calculate when all his friends would be assembled together, and appear to them all? He had to pick the moment when Thomas was out?

Of course, I don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the others, and the text doesn’t tell us. But maybe Thomas isn’t so much a skeptic here as a member of the group who feels slighted and wants to be included in this wonderful experience everybody else got to have except him. Did no one say to Jesus, “Hang on, Thomas isn’t here”?

Thomas isn’t actually chided for a lack of faith. Rather, Jesus honors his request. And that’s where we’re drawn into the story, because, well, we weren’t there either, were we? As he honors Thomas’ demand for a personal experience of the risen Christ, Jesus adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [v. 29] Perhaps, with those words, Jesus is inviting us to demand of him our own “proof.” Be forewarned: the proof is an up-close and intimate inspection of his wounds. But as St. Ignatius of Loyola would remind us, that is a very safe place to be:

Within your wounds hide me; never let me be separated from you.


Don’t ever be afraid to make such demands of Jesus.






I wasn’t going to include a poem of my own with this meditation, but between the two themes of nightmares and scars, I can’t not share this one. The title, hopefully (a friend gave me the Latin all those years ago), means, “Remember to live,” or a reminder that you will live. It’s a play on momento mori, a reminder of death. From my 1998 book, When Midnight Comes Around:

MEMENTO VIVERE

The imprint of your eyes
has stained this thick, rough skin with shadow:
jewel-toned memories
bled out of my emptiness
toward the epicenter of your touch.

This after-image of your presence
lingers: damage to my flesh;
but in my dream of you,
all pain dissolves in comfort;

And waking with a scar
means everything.

 

Happy Second Sunday of Easter!
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"Social Contract"

Here’s a prose poem, from Deciphering Scars (1997). 
 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

 
Under the ethereal haze of fluorescent tube lighting fermenting in a liquid base of cigarette smoke and stagnant air that has become the shared content of all our lungs

dizzying scenes of human interaction and boredom and distraction and countless miscellaneous encoded expressions combine to form an isolating wall of Plexiglas
 
too transparent to allow me to ignore the world it separates me from
 
too blurred to let me understand
 
this random mess imposed on a framework of assumed order, these loose elements somehow unified, by noise, or by action, or perhaps by mere proximity
 
while all apparent contact terminates on surfaces of skin, of eyes, of the barriers that shape us
 
into individuals, define us by what we are not. This too we share in common, we
 
flickering bits of smoldering ash still huddling for warmth around the chaos lingering in the afterglow
 
of the Big Bang.
 
 


 
When I was in college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, I loved shopping at the original Borders…and when they moved into the old Jacobson’s building across the street—which, it turns out, was when the Borders brothers sold the store to Kmart who made a chain out of it, but I didn’t know that at the time. In both locations, I liked to stop by their “untranslated foreign literature” section and browse the plays and novels by French existentialists. I’ve gotten over that phase, as you do. But it’s probably pretty evident in this poem, written a few years out of college. In fact, I remember writing it while sitting at xhedos in Ferndale (directly north of Detroit), most likely enjoying an Italian soda and live music and the company of my good friends. Not at all the scene in the poem, but it sets the date of this poem to 1997.
 
In Ionesco’s novel, Le solitaire (The Hermit), there’s a scene in a restaurant where the main character finds he can no longer understand the language everyone around him is speaking, and feels isolated from them. To be honest, I don’t recall whether he feels he’s behind glass, and my copy of the novel is packed away right now. That’s where the Plexiglas® image comes from. 
 
We all know what “social contract” theory is about: in really broad strokes, that human beings are atomistic individuals who relate to other human beings only through social contracts which can be broken at will. I could never figure out how one is supposed to have entered into such a contract with one’s mother (and other family members), but I’m probably ignorant of some deep intricacy in the theory. But I’m of the belief that “I am because we are.” Just in case you didn’t pick that up in the poem.
 
I suppose if we root around in this metaphor, the “shared content of all our lungs” is a clue to our basic unity as humans; breath has long represented spirit, or essential nature—from ruach in the Hebrew Scriptures to pneuma in the Christian Scriptures to spiritus in later Church tradition, the word for “spirit” is, essentially, “breath.” In an environment where humans believe they’ve created themselves and don’t need each other, that shared breath has become toxic and suffocating.
 
Metaphors are interesting, aren’t they? I suppose it’s because I’m a poet, but I’m convinced that metaphors are useful not just for expressing thoughts, but also for thinking them. Once you find a metaphor for something, by investigating the metaphor, you can often learn about the thing it stands for. For example, in a paper I wrote for a seminar on creativity last spring, I investigated the metaphor of houses, or architecture, for systems of thought. By thinking about houses (I proposed), you can discover truths about thought systems.
 
I think that’s a huge piece of the revelatory power of art. Even non-verbal art forms serve as metaphors. A few years ago I was in a class where Peter Selz, a well-known art historian and curator, now Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, was asked how he decides what artworks to include in an exhibition—in other words, what makes for “good” art? He thought about it for a week, and came back with this response: “Good” art is “a visual metaphor for significant human experience.” Notice he said nothing about beauty or novelty or even technical expertise. And, of course, you can replace the word “visual” for other art forms. 
 
Isn’t that a brilliant definition?
 
So works of art take on a life of their own, beyond what the artist herself or himself even intended. A good work of art will continue to speak to its audiences/viewers; and as a metaphor, it serves as a sort of template for various human experiences. That metaphor allows us to gain insight about the human condition, precisely because it relates to our experience.
 
I don’t know whether this or any of my poems stand up to such high standards. But we can all think of works of art that do.
 
PS— Peter Selz referenced that question and his response in the biography by Paul J. Karlstrom, but he misquotes himself. Somewhere I have the paper where I (like my fellow students) immediately wrote down exactly what he said, but I committed it to memory right away. “A visual metaphor for significant human experience…” That’s the revelatory power of an experienced art historian!