On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

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Being lost for the fun of it. A blog post as meandering as it sounds.

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Streets keep turning up where they shouldn’t—unless my map’s the wrong way ’round. It’s useless anyway: the streets here are unlabled. Daylight’s quickly drifting off in no discernible direction.

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My viewfinder has led me here, although I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly. Traces of something…but how would I recognize it? Here, old and new run together, and, as anywhere new meets old, it tends to gobble it up. Few of these buildings seem to want to share the stories they so clearly have to tell. They collude with unsigned streets to maintain anonymity.

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“LITTLE PETER STREET!” one non-compliant edifice shouts, placing me back on the map. Now I must feign being lost. I turn my lens toward the railroad tracks, whose massive Victorian arches I follow. Red bricks, blackened with damp, and green with lichen and moss, recount lifetimes of industry, dereliction, reuse—whatever my eye will read into them. Surely there was a history here. Mundane as a train schedule, unrelenting as rain, ubiquitous as cotton thread, or: unrelenting as trains, ubiquitous as rain, mundane as cotton. No matter. Ponderous and decayed but lasting as the capitalist’s monument to himself.

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I’m no archaeologist, nor historian, nor even a photographer. I’m merely recording memories, impressions. Memories may congeal around photographs, but in the end, they are more painterly. My feet ache, my body stiffens, the light is all but gone, and I can’t stop taking pictures.

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A month ago, I was in Manchester, UK, where I presented a paper (“A Wounded Presence: The Virgin of Vladimir Icon”) at a conference (“Images, Icons, and Idols”) at the University of Manchester. I had a couple days free to wander around City Centre, which resulted in what you’ve just read above. These are also some of the photos I took. They’re dreadful photos, and heavily reworked in Photoshop. But they’re all I’ve got. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll spend some time learning how to use a camera once the weather turns nice again here in Detroit (and the daylight sticks around longer). You know, June. May, if we’re lucky.

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Here’s another photo from my Manchester trip, of “the Wheel” in Piccadilly Gardens, which is less of a garden and more of a public square with civic statues, this big Rerris wheel (which is for seeing the vista, like the London Eye), and the convergence of Manchester’s utterly chaotic bus lines. Seriously, the buses will make you want to walk even if you don’t happen to love walking to begin with.


So, this is a blog about “Poetry, God, and Detroit, in no particular order.” The above italicized musings don’t quite amount to a poem, I admit. My trip was God-related, since I was there for a theological conference. But I’ve also always wanted to go to Manchester, in part because some of my favorite music has come out of that city, but even more so because it’s often (been) compared to Detroit. Both cities are northern (in their respective countries), and both have an industrial past, complete with all the building projects wealthy industrialists like to engage in (as they’re a socially acceptable sort of pissing contest), and the ensuing economic depression from their respective industries’ inevitable declines. Both have offered their industrial ruins to photographers’ lenses. Both have working-class populations who take an inordinate pride in their cities—here’s mine; as I always say, I have a “chosen delusion” ( <–right there, I admit it’s a delusion) that when I mention I’m from Detroit, people will be jealous. And, of course, both cities have given the world plenty to dance to.

I take issue with this.

Poster on the exterior of the former Factory Records headquarters, now a nightclub called Fac51.

The sign pictured above says: “FACT: Statistically there are more rock stars per capita of population from Manchester than any other city in the world. …” Leaving aside the redundant wording, I think the facticity of this claim depends on how you define “rock star,” “city,” and “from.” There’s no need, really, to point out that in Detroit, we invented punk, and techno, which, incidentally, featured on the dance floor even in “Madchester.” Oh, and there was that record label a factory worker started out of his house on Grand Boulevard. But it’s not my intention to start a pond war or anything. There’s been some nice cross-pollination between the two scenes.

Manchester’s seen a revitalization, though, in the past couple of decades. John Gallagher includes it among the cities he compares to the D in his book, Revolution Detroit. I made a point of getting a copy of the book before my trip in order to read the section on Manchester while on the plane over. Beginning in the late ’90s, I remember hearing and reading the opinion that the music scene essentially brought about the city’s transformation, but I never could believe that would be the whole story. In Gallagher’s book, he reports a more sensible assessment: that it was thanks to creative, sustained, hard work on the part of various city leaders. And then there was that other factor…

…which my friend, who picked me up from the airport, also mentioned. “But we’re not supposed to talk about that,” he quickly added. This was something I’d never heard of till I read it in Gallagher’s book, so, well done, Mancunians. But it’s not really quite a secret, just because I was unaware. I was living in Holt, MI and working at a TV station in Lansing in 1996…how could I have possibly heard of something so newsworthy?

Don't mention it!

Polite circumlocution in the Manchester Cathedral

What that plaque is not quite saying is that the IRA bombed City Centre (very near the cathedral, I’m told) in 1996. Following that attack, naturally, people rallied to rebuild whatever was damaged, and it mobilized a lot of good energy, it seems.

I’m not qualified to really analyze all that after one week in the city all these years later. But I can report on this little bit I’ve seen, heard, and read. In my not-so-qualified opinion, despite all their similarities, Detroit and Manchester have very different stories, especially from their lowest points on up. The cities have, have had, and will have very different paths, and quite possibly the only thing Detroit can learn from Manchester’s success is that such things are possible, and they take a lot of work, and a lot of civic-mindedness.

Crap. We don’t really have that in Southeastern Michigan. We have a toxic city-suburb divide, which is largely our own circumlocution to bypass actually talking about race and class. (Except that we’re always talking about race and class, just not productively.)

The Metro Times (Southeast Michigan’s alternative newsweekly) recently published a blog post anyone fascinated with Detroit should read, titled, “Please, please, please: Stop ‘saving’ Detroit.” Just as Manchester wasn’t “saved” by a single factor (or, ahem, Factory), Detroit won’t be either. Detroit’s already a great city, just as it’s been for a long time (by American standards, that is), and it will continue to be. The good news is that the good things happening here are piece-meal, grass-roots, and idiosyncratic, just as you’d want them to be. You might not want to get lost in our streets just yet…but there’s a lot to explore here. And a lot of creative, sustained, hard work to do. Just as you’d want it to be.

You’ve made it to the end of this post. Enjoy a couple more photos from my trip!

streetscene

My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo was taken on January 10, 2015.

My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo of a street artist at work (with chalks) was taken on January 10, 2015 in Manchester City Centre.

Closing in on Christmas (an Advent poem)

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
CLOSING IN ON CHRISTMAS

I do not come bearing gifts like the magi,
or introduced by angels like the shepherds.
I have mistimed and miscalculated and misunderstood,
and the Christ I seek

is still a fetus, still developing the fingers he used
to form the world, the eyes that surveyed it,
perceiving it as “Good.”

Mary, you grow this human God inside you.
Eternity now bears your DNA.
Here, at the navel of the cosmos,
you prepare a place for him.

Holy Mary, Gestator of God,
I can only wait with you.
But tell me:

is the kicking I feel inside me
also Life? Is the emptiness around me
at work to make him room?

Your presence is the Lord’s coming.
Let me linger here and learn from you;
for soon you will be wearied with new motherhood,

and all the world will come to suckle
at your breast.

Wherein the poet casts herself in the role of the Gerasene Demoniac.

I’ve been away from this blog for a while, dealing with life…

To at least check in, I figured I’d post a poem. It grew out of hearing the story of the “Gerasene Demoniac” one Sunday Evensong a couple years ago (or so). I recognized myself in the passage.

I feel the need to add a TRIGGER WARNING, as this deals with bipolar and self-injury. But other than that—I’ve been told I shouldn’t over-explain a poem before presenting it, so here it is:


Elaine Elizabeth Belz
MY NAME IS LEGION
Luke 8.26-39

I could be the madman in this passage: mine
the howling, the bruises, the manic
smashing of all constraint.

What have you to do
with me,
Love?
.                               I train my voice
to his, in case finding myself in the drama
might amount to faith.
Fractured shackles
still inscribe their false creed;
feigned hope bleeds into the margins.

But what if I were to profess
these dark stains, stark ciphers
set down on the page? Would belief
leap from dead paper, call forth
my name, and quiet
the clanging
hollow space between words?

The story plays out as arranged:

Pigs flee the scene,
the madman ambles off, perplexed
—though in his right mind;

.                                           but I
remain in white tombs of the text
poring over my Gerasene scars.

 


 

In case this seems familiar, I did blog on the text. You can find that post here.

 

I seem to be writing again!

A few days ago, I finally had that feeling other poets surely know, that sense of, I’ve got a poem to write.” It was the first time since my move home to Detroit at the beginning of June—the first time in several months, actually.

Over the past few days, I’ve drafted and revised two poems (which now need time to simmer, perhaps some input from others, and more revision). Both are slice-of-life narratives, both about a single afternoon: the afternoon I learned it takes longer to bus home to the University District from Eastpointe (née East Detroit) than it does to drive home from Flint during rush hour (which my roommate was doing at the time).

Now, since I’ve been home, I’ve enjoyed some of the great activities and places Detroit has to offer. I’ve been back to my church—jumped back into lectoring again already!—and have shopped at Eastern Market several times, including the new Sunday artists’ market; I checked out Log Cabin Day at Palmer Park, and enjoyed the RiverWalk (or River Front; it’s unclear to me), the Detroit Ford Fireworks (formerly known as the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival), and, just today, the Concert of Colors. None of these inspired poetry. A bus ride, however, inspired two.

(I’m not going to post them here. I know, I’m such a tease.)

This has me thinking now about Detroit’s rebirth, which is largely contained in Midtown and Downtown, and the everyday lives those of us in the neighborhoods experience. It has me wondering why all the good things, the things I intend to celebrate, with more than a hyperlink, in this blog, things which are beautiful, which are welcome, which welcome me home—none of these births poetry in me. A bus ride along McNichols (a.k.a. 6 Mile), however, produced twins.

It definitely has me looking more closely at the ordinary things in life.

 

In my neighborhood, though, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen five burned-out houses on my street demolished, the rubble removed, and, finally, today, the holes filled in with dirt. I’m the kind of poet this should inspire, but no. Not that either. I guess the poetic muse isn’t interested in bulldozers.

Journaling in metaphor

Sometimes it helps to have a creative method for letting out and tracking your moods. A mood is more than feelings; it is an outlook and an energy level. It can be hard to put into words, particularly for those of us bipolar folks who experience “mixed states” which combine symptoms of both mania and depression.

One of my favorite things about metaphors is that when you find a good one, you can actually work from inside it and think through it, letting it do the heavy lifting. I think that lets you work through something while keeping your more analytical mind in the dark a little bit. It’s one way to approach poetry. I’ve also found it works for journaling.

I’ve never been good at journaling – especially when it comes to putting my feelings down on paper, in plain English. What was originally true for me with poetry (in my early days with the art form) is still true with this quasi-poetic form of journaling: I tend to mostly do it when I’m feeling relatively negative emotions, such as sadness, loneliness, or a vague sense of longing, or mixed feelings that need to find expression in order to be understood.

So I’ve found this set of three simple metaphors that help me make a little bit of sense out of my feelings. I started it years ago, traditionally just before turning out the light to go to sleep. A year ago, I started it up again in a lovely bound journal I was given the previous Christmas. New entries seem to find their way into the journal rather infrequently – which may be a good sign; maybe I’m feeling pretty good these days.

The first entry in this journal will show the basic pattern. I describe what the window, lamp, and clock are up to (even though I no longer have a lamp beside my bed, as I did years ago):

1 July 2012
The window faces outward.
The lamp beside the bed never meant to let go its light.
The clock slurs and staggers like a drunkard.

Night time has always been my most productive time for writing, poetry or otherwise, since I’m very much a “night owl.” I wrote a lot of these little mood journal entries over the years, particularly when I wasn’t feeling inspired to write much else. Eventually I arrived at some theories about what the window, lamp, andclock signify, but I try not to think about that when I write a new entry. Here’s the second:

3 July 2012
The window is silent.
The lamp beside the bed gives off strange light.
The clock has lost its voice.

Then there wasn’t another entry till August:

1 August 2012
The window shudders for no reason at all.
The lamp beside the bed responds with a flicker.
The clock does not stop.

That last line echoes Sylvia Plath’s poem, Mystic,” one of my favorite of her poems. The last line of Plath’s poem—”The heart has not stopped”—might be a clue about what my clock symbolizes, especially given its use in my own poem, “By Art or by Physics.”

Continuing:

2 August 2012
The window is shattered, but hangs inplace.
The lamp teeters and casts a long shadow.
The clock may be to blame.

But the next entry is an example of a positive, contented feeling:

11 August 2012
The window guards the light inside.
The lamp glows warmly.
The clock registers this moment.

A little over a week later, that feeling had changed:

20 August 2012
The shattered window tries to mend;
The lamp sends light and heat;
The clock ticks out a work song.

21 August 2012
The window quietly moans.
The light gently hums lullabies.
The clock is fingering beads.

29 August 2012
The window holds the stagnant light inside.
The lamp beside the bed bathes everything in grey water.
The clock hums so much white noise.

2 September 2012
The window turns its back.
The lamp beside the bed drones the same thing, endlessly.
The clock keeps repeating itself.

9 September 2012
The lamp beside the bed burned too brightly, now is going dim.
The clock can’t tell.
The window is so far away.

15 September 2012
The lamp’s light gropes at the corners of the room.
The window eludes its grasp.
The clock gives no hints.

As you can see, the order in which each “actor” appears varies. This probably means something too.

28 September 2012
The lamp beside the bed makes notes.
The clock interprets them inchant.
The window smiles broadly, a sympathetic audience.

30 September 2012
The window spins around, giddy and disoriented.
The lamp slowly drips out light.
The clock anxiously counts.

If I were looking for insight, I’m not sure the following entry would help much:

1 October 2012
The window is glassy.
The lamp sheds light.
The clock ticks.

3 October 2012
The clock is telling stories.
The light absorbs them all.
The window can hear nothing.

4 October 2012
The window is stuck, half open.
It lets the light escape,
and the clock considers jumping.

Now I’m going to skip entries, since no one probably wants to read them all. This one shows me playing with the format more than usual:

10 October 2012
The window reflects back the
Light, in pulse to the beating
Of the clock.

The following would have been written while I was home in Detroit for a visit. Apparently, while there, I occasionally wrote two in a night.

22 October 2012
The clock is of two minds.
The light beside the bed wrings its hands.
The window is busy negotiating.

The window is scanning the horizon.
The light kneels beside the bed.
The clock is parceling out prayers.

Feeling sleepy:

23 October 2012
The clock winds down toward stopping.
The light beside the bed dims.
The window is closing its eyes.

Feeling happy:

1 November 2012
The clock chirps,
The light whistles,
The window keeps time.

More variations:

11 November 2012
The window
Closes on the light.
The clock surveys the remnants.

13 November 2012
The lamp flickers in time
To the second hand of the clock;
The window is the only source of light.

16 November 2012
The clock ticks religiously, but it’s the silence between ticks that counts.
The light shows up on walls and things, but goes unnoticed in thin air.
The window is an empty space surrounded by a frame.

21 December 2012
The lamp hurls itself out the window.
Time can be heard passing
Even in the dark.

22 December 2012
Tonight, it’s the clock
That hurls the lamp out the
Window.

28 December 2012
If the clock seems erratic,
it’s only because it’s scrambling to capture scraps of light
let go by the dying candle’s wick;
Scraps which crumble to the touch of indelicate darkness
the window lets in.

31 December 2012
The window lets in light,
but the lamp is not redundant: it gives warmth.
The clock is lulled to sleep.

20 January 2013
The lamp’s glow is subtle, but warming.
The clock lowers its voice to a drone.
the window turns a gentle smile out to the world.

1 February 2013
Last night the light burned over-bright; tonight
It glows just enough to see.
The clock is steady, the window shut.

18 February
The clock has picked up its pace.
The window is a protective barrier.
The lamp exhales a warm light.

19 February 2013
The lamp refuses to be turned off.
The clock is giggling.
The window is oblivious.

22 February 2013
The window is sealed up in cellophane.
The light is like liquid.
The clock can’t keep time.

1 April 2013
Light ricochets
Off the window at such tremendous speed,
The clock winds up a month ahead.

22 April 2013
There is no reasoning with this clock.
The light pools up beside the window,
Sulking.

That nearly catches us up to the present. Only a couple more entries—30 April and 11 June—follow that last one. No entries at all in May.

I imagine this sort of thing can be done in many art forms, such as music, photography, dance, or painting. When it’s too tiresome to say how you feel in ordinary language, what creative outlets do you use?