Sunday, September 26, 2010

Poetry Jam #5

Here it comes again, Ladies and Gentlemen: a partial selection of my poetical output.  While the most terrible of my poems are routinely filed under "Recycling Bin," even those I see fit to keep in my archive are not necessarily worthy of being placed here.  So what you see here is la crème de la crème (as selected by a person with, admittedly, a spotty taste in crème).

I write poems for a lot of reasons, from boredom to deep emotion.  I wouldn't assign a consistent theme to any of them, though someone who is well qualified in such matters may see it.  Some of these are quite meaningful to me, others not so much; in any case, I like them enough to share.  These poems are from the spring of 2009, with the exception of Footsteps, which is from the fall, and is included here as a tribute to Kirk Rankin, who inspired it.


It's a Riddle

My world comes to my home through the wall
Courtesy of a modern ghost;
Sophisticated, enervated
Face upon the wall,
His body is not to be seen at all.

He always looks surprised to see
That he can even see
Without a proper set of eyes
From nearly every wall.

The Guitar

Tonight I prayed to the guitar,
Invoking on its singing strings
The sound of what I wanted most,
The woman of my wildest dreams.

I strummed it with my every skill,
And plucked it with my clumsy hands
And tried to make her come to life,
But still, she did not come to life,
Her nylon strings remained the things
Of which my wildest dreams are made.

Gold is Love

Gold is love, is falling in the sea,
It's nowhere to be seen,
Until a trawler comes along
And raises it to me.

Gold is love, is buried underground,
And it cannot be found,
Until my shovel strikes a vein,
And makes a ringing sound.

Gold is love, has fallen to the side
And makes no move to hide,
So now it sparkles in the sun
To catch my searching eyes.


It's warm outside,
And things are looking sunny
For the first time in a while,
For the first time in a while
The girls are bathing on the grass,
They're soaking in the sun
And everybody's having lots of fun
Because the sky is blue again,
And I will say hooray,
Hip-hip-hooray for mild weather
'cause it makes me feel best,
And right at home I am again
Though nowhere near my house;
The river shines reflected light,
The silver rays obscure my sight.

As I walk across the bridge
And wave at rafters down below
I see the goslings on the shore,
Picking through the grass for more of
What will make them big and strong,
Just like the geese that guard them,
As graceful as a swan;
And there's just one thing
That I want to know,
Where did the showers go?

My Ship is Coming In

You don't think you hurt me, but you did,
And it's true that I've been taking this a little bit too far.
'Cuz I've been hurt before, and it kills
Me to think that you're going to keep on talking, talking,
Talking, talking, talking, talking over
Everything I say to make you stop.

But my ship is coming in,
And it's going to carry me
Where I can only hear your praise,
And I only have to see you
On those rare and special days
When everything turns out my way,
Because my ship is almost here,
And the rest of you will have to talk
Amongst yourselves and I
Won't have to hear it,

Wouldn't we all be better for it?

The View

A man sits in a little room
Beneath the branches of a tree
And out the window, sees a sky,
As grey and cloudy as a sea
That's sailed upon by lonely birds
Who are, above else, wild and free,
While man is bound by roof and walls
(Which seems a bit unfair to me)
And orders up another tea.

The Mottle-Breasted Sparrow

The Mottle-Breasted Sparrow wandered in the coffee shop
And nibbled at the cookie crumbs that lay upon the floor;
He was the only Sparrow to have wandered through the door.

The Coffee Man said "Sparrow, you will have to pay for those,"
And gestured to the register above the sparrow's head;
The hungry little sparrow flew away at what was said,
And fed upon the cookie crumbs outside.

The Ants

The ants are walking single file
With leaves over their heads,
To keep the rain from falling on
Their tiny little bodies,
Even though the sun above their heads is shining;
They're too small to see the sky,
And it could turn at any moment,
So they'd better be prepared.


The climate brings a change in those
Who work without security,
And losing hope, they would propose
To watch the world burn.

The summer and the endless drought
That forces inactivity
And leaves the people down and out,
What else to do but do without?

When shortages subvert the case
For notions of morality
And wages cannot keep their pace
It's time to make the world burn.

Authority cannot contain
The passion of the raging sea
Or douse the bright and furious flame
That boils the ocean into steam.

And from the fire comes new life,
Doomed to make the same mistakes,
Until the world burns.

Footsteps: His, and Yours, and Mine

Wherever footsteps pass, they pass forever
Forever dissipating, never fading into dust
In such a way to disappear completely;
Beneath the earth are the tremors of a memory,
And they are always shaking
And we never cease in making fresher footprints,
All the planet is a-quake, the planet trembles.

And as long as there are feet there will be footprints
Though even that is not to say forever,
When then there will be no one to remember;
Yet the memory still vibrates under mountains

By the waters of the muddy lake
I see the footprints rippling by
In incandescent waves,
And they cannot be forgotten
And they cannot be ignored,
So when my own life is over
They'll continue to be felt forever more.

To Live Is

Socrates has drunk a magic potion,
In doing so he learned the final truth,
He was deceived no more by the illusion,
And has no further questions left to ask.

Alchemists have sought the panacea,
But never found it, and they never will,
Until the day there's nothing left to heal,
Not even an equation still to solve.

Every child a creature of creation,
Growing old and understanding less,
Waiting for the final resolution,
And finding little 'til the bitter end.

Mephistopheles has promised wisdom,
Faust has foolishly ignored the price,
For if he sought an end to his confusion,
He would never have to pay a cent.


Did you figure out the riddle?  If you didn't, don't worry.  It's really not very clever.  I just like the way the words turned out (though I cannot for the world remember why I chose the word "enervated").

The Guitar actually has a companion poem, written on the same night, entitled The Girl in the Shining Green Dress.  I had intended to share it here as well, until I actually read it again, and's a little out there.  I guess I was feeling lonely that night?  I recall I was at a party, and parties often do that to me.

Gold is Love has kind of an odd meter pattern: five beats, three beats, four beats, three beats.  That adds up to fifteen beats per stanza, which means I could have re-written each stanza as three lines of iambic pentameter, if I were so inclined.  This is, as far as I can tell, the most interesting thing about this poem.

Springtime doesn't make a lot of sense.  It's kind of a stream-of-consciousness thing that I composed in bits in my head while I was walking home from school one day.  You see things, you feel things, you throw them in a poem, you try to pay minimal attention to meter.  Not great work, perhaps.

My Ship is Coming In is some pretty emo stuff, I'm not going to deny it.  Something must have set me off, but I can't remember what it was.  I'll chalk it up to graduation stress.

View, Sparrow, and Ants were all written when I made a habit of spending a few hours each week in a coffee shop near the corner of 6th and High Street called Gary's Coffee.  Sparrow is actually based on a true story, which may interest you, or may not.  I just realized it's in perfect iambic septameter, which is a pretty cool meter.  Other poems were written under the same circumstances, but most of them are  pretty dumb.

I definitely had fires on the brain when I wrote Incendiary, because I was researching for my Senior paper at the time.  The topic was arson in 18th century England,and well, yeah. That's about all there is to be said about this one.

I wrote Footsteps in my Aunt and Uncle's house on the shore of the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.  My cousin Kirk had died recently, and the family had all come for the funeral.  It happens that this weekend is the anniversary of his passing, and so I thought it best to include it now, rather than keep holding it in the queue.  I worked very hard on it, so I hope it came out alright.

To Live Is is sort of a cliche poem.  Death is the meaning of life?  Relentless classical allusions?  I forgive you if you're bored.  But you may have noticed the rhyme scheme, which goes "ABAC," rather than the more conventional "ABAB" or "ABCB." Nobody does that!  It defies your expectations as a reader!  OK, so the second stanza is sort of a cheat, but I don't care.  I still think it's kind of cool.  I also think it's cool how it goes back and forth from iambic to trochaic meter, but other people will probably think I just screwed it up.

Anecdotal Providence

Presumably, some people have a strong sense of purpose that animates them and propels them into their life's work.  I say presumably, because people have told this to me and I am generally a trusting sort.  I'm inclined to believe it because the alternative (the idea that nobody has a particularly compelling reason for doing anything) is so damningly depressing that if I bought into that, I'd probably spend my days eating cookies or counting pennies, or just sobbing inwardly about the dreadful atmosphere of supermarket checkout lines.

But I'm also acutely aware that until this point in my life, I haven't felt that powerful motivating impulse.  I have often wanted to do things, and sometimes I have even done them.  Occasionally, you might even say I had to do them.  But when have I really, truly, needed to do something?  Maybe somewhere, some time along the path of my life; but if I had, the moment passed before I could act on it, or even recognize it for what it was.

Not that I haven't been looking, or wondering (which is what I do when I'm too lazy to look).  If I have a purpose in life, I'd like to think I'd recognize that purpose when it crossed my path.  Perhaps I'd find myself doing something, for no particular reason, and inspiration would strike.  A choir of angels singing something pretty, or a magic sword embedded in a possibly-yet-irrelevantly magic stone; or maybe I'd just feel really, really good for a while.  Any one of these things would be an acceptable sign, if such signs were ever actually given to unmotivated slackers.

I wouldn't say I felt divinely moved to consider a career in education.  It seemed like something I could do (given practice and training), something I might enjoy doing, and something that could actually benefit humanity in some way, all of which are perfectly acceptable reasons to do anything.  It also seemed like it would be hard, but there's no getting around that in life: better to pick something hard than waste time forever on what's easy.  Maybe, I told myself, I could even pretend it was my purpose in life.

This past Thursday I was student teaching, or rather I was listening as my mentor taught a law studies elective class, waiting for my last period of the day to start.  The subject that day was compensation and restitution, and the students were assigned a number of case studies to examine and determine how much was to be awarded to the victims under certain circumstances.  Most of these cases involved murders or other serious injuries, and some were quite tragic, but I listened to the discussion with a sort of intellectual detachment.

One of these case studies was the story of a woman who, after going to a bar and becoming intoxicated, brought a man home, and was promptly raped and stabbed multiple times with a kitchen knife.  She barely survived, and applied for restitution for (among other things) medical expenses and lost wages.  The question was put to the students: how much of her claim was to be awarded?

A male student raised his hand and confidently declared, "Nothing.  It was her fault that it happened, because she took a man home who she only met two hours before."  Shocked at the boldness of this answer, I looked to my mentor for a response: he asked the student if he believed the woman had intended anything like that to happen to her, and the student responded with a a somewhat evasive answer that essentially affirmed his previous statement.  My mentor then tried to move the conversation into less controversial territory, but as I turned my eyes away from the student (whom I had already begun to dislike), I heard a male voice say "maybe I'd award her twenty bucks for the cab ride home."

I don't know how many people in the room heard that comment, but as my head snapped up I could see that everyone in that corner certainly had.  The five boys who sat there were all laughing under their breath; a girl who sat near them was laughing too, but also looking down at her desk.  My mentor did not seem to have noticed.

At that moment, I was extremely confused and conflicted.  I had not been participating as a teacher that period, and did not particularly want to go over my mentor's head and derail the lesson in progress. I am not, in any case, fond of inserting myself needlessly into a confrontational situation.  But my training at grad school had been very clear on the matter, that offensive comments of that sort were supposed to be addressed quickly and unambiguously.  Even more than that, I was angry.  When I looked at those boys (who could have been anywhere from sixteen to eighteen for all I knew), with their overgrown physiques, self-satisfied smirks, football jerseys and jock-ish condescension, I felt more hate and wrath toward them than I knew what to do with.  It soon transcended the shock I felt at those comments: I hated them just for being who they were, and thinking how they thought.  My internal conflict boiled down to a very simple question: how, while fulfilling my ethical and professional obligations, do I tell these kids to go fuck themselves?

And then something different happened: my supervisor from the university showed up, and waved for me to meet him outside.  He'd come to observe me teaching my seventh period Freshman Career Ed class, which I knew was happening but had forgotten in my moment of passion.  I put the whole incident out of my mind, briefed him on my lesson plan and did my duty; afterward, I rushed home to prepare for class at the university, to share with my classmates my ongoing experience in student teaching.

During the class discussion period, I was suddenly struck once more with the full impact of the incident.  Although it was basically off topic, I offered the story for discussion, and recounted the maddening tale to my cohorts.  As I spoke, I became very emotional, and my voice trembled even as I searched for the words (profane and otherwise) to describe my feelings toward the miserable little meat-heads.  The resulting discussion lasted, I believe, about thirty to forty minutes.  I received a lot of advice, some of it contradictory, but a consensus emerged that I should discuss the issue with the kids the next day after I'd had time to cool my head and think rationally.  I felt better having a plan of action, but I couldn't get the incident out of my head for the rest of the night.  I thought of writing something, but I was too emotionally drained and tired, so I just went to sleep.

The next morning I got a text from my mentor, and he told me he would be out for the day, but a sub would be around to teach his share of the classes and keep an eye on me.  I knew that it was all on me to carry the big discussion, and I got nervous.  Fortunately, the substitute was an experienced teacher who was wholly sympathetic to what I wanted to do, and he told me I could have fifteen minutes to say whatever I wanted to them at the start of class.

Five periods went by, and I didn't think very much about it.  The truth was, I had calmed down a lot from the previous night.  I still felt just as strongly about the wrongness of what had been said, but my anger was dissipated, and I felt more strongly moved by a desire to set aside ignorant misconceptions than to punish the wicked.  Also, I had become a nervous wreck, having never been in the position of lecturing complete strangers about morality (at least as a genuine authority figure). 

When the time came, I addressed the class from behind the podium in order to compensate somewhat for the weakness creeping back into my voice.  The kid who made the original statement fessed up, with a sheepish sort of smile, but denied being the author of the "cab fare" comment.  I assumed one of his buddies was responsible, but decided to move forward without pressing the issue.  In any case, seeing them once more in the flesh had reminded me of their humanity, and helped me in finding the right words.

I told them first of all that I thought Law Studies was a wonderful class to have offered at the high school level; that law was an endlessly fascinating subject, infinitely rewarding both for those who thought they might make a career out of it, as well as for the average citizen.  But commentary that shifted the blame of criminal activity from perpetrator to victim, I insisted, was simply not worthy of that class.  Commentary like that perverts the true spirit of the law, which is to protect those who have been hurt, injured, and wronged.  It is a spirit as old as the Code of Hammurabi, which promised "to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land... so that the strong should not harm the weak."*

*It didn't occur to me to quote Hammurabi at the time, but I really wish it had.

I told them that regardless of the wisdom of her choice, a woman had as much right as a man to go looking for a one night stand at a bar, and could never be held responsible for a crime committed against her by a man who had malice in his heart from the beginning.  Antiquated gender norms, I said, have no business turning the law away from the cause of helping those in need.  Judgment in a case like that should not rest on some one's idea about how a woman should act, but upon the magnitude of harm she suffers at the hands of a brutal criminal.

The substitute then joined in, principally to emphasize that rape was among the most heinous of crimes, and that we should never allow ourselves to be desensitized to it and fail to empathize with the victims.  When he had finished speaking, I asked if any of the students had anything to say about the matter.  One boy did, but he had not been present the day before and seemed slightly confused about what, exactly, the implications of the original comment had been.  I set him straight, but nobody else had anything to add, so I turned the class over to the sub and started mentally prepping for my last class.  The boys, who earlier I had written off as sub-human, quietly turned to the task of reviewing for their upcoming test.

I might have felt relieved about having faced my challenge and passed, but I suppose I had lingering doubts about my effectiveness in communicating my message.  I still felt anxious enough to grow irritated with my Freshmen, more quickly than I usually do.  In fairness, they were especially rowdy that afternoon because it was Friday and they had a football game, but I believe my nerves were still thoroughly wracked from the previous class.  That seventh period was far from being my finest hour, and my mood was somewhat soured as a result.

But on my drive home, I began to think better of my performance.  I'd followed through on something I meant to do, something that would have been easy enough to forget about, but that I felt just had to be done.  I had done it in a way that kept my emotions in check, and affirmed the better aspects of human nature.  And I had grown a little wiser in my assessment of the intentions and misunderstandings of young minds.  I could have done better, but these were all things that I could be proud of.

It didn't feel like divine inspiration.  I wouldn't say I felt particularly good, and there was certainly no choir of angels in my car.  But I honestly felt, more than at just about any other point in my life, that I'd done the world some good.  If that really is the purpose of my life, it wouldn't be so hard to live with.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Islam in America

A few months ago I bought a copy of the Qur'an, bound in a handsome green cover and gold leaf pages.  One of my softer ambitions is to read the holy books of every world religion, a task which is going fairly well even at the slow pace I'm taking.  Every couple of weeks I'll open the book and read a few sections, not just the primary text but also the annotations on interpretation, history, and etymology.  This translation was made in 1917, with a "major" revision published in 1951; the author, Maulana Muhammad Ali, presents an Islam that is earnest, benevolent, and universally welcoming.  Ali's Islam is not a rival to Christianity or any other religion, but the final perfection of them all; an audacious claim, but one made by so many other religions as to become unremarkable. 

I mention this because today is September the Eleventh, and nine years ago a series of terrorist attacks were carried out by members of Al-Qaeda, a Muslim organization dedicated to the destruction of Western (and in particular, American and Israeli) power, and the resurgence of Islam and Islamic law as the dominant force in the world.

These are all facts, rendered as objectively as an American conscience will allow: the attacks of September Eleventh were utterly traumatic, and inspired boundless sorrow, anger, and foreboding in a great many hearts.  Because of that day, the United States has committed itself to the destruction of Al-Qaeda, as well as any other organization with similar intentions.  It is a noble goal, because the havoc unleashed that day was beyond comprehension, and it should never be allowed to repeat.

September Eleventh should have been an ennobling experience, one that reminded America of its better nature; its overwhelming desire to see peace, justice, and humanity in the world.  But nine years on, we have seen too little of any of these.  The United States remains a country of divided impulses: eager to do good, it acts imperiously, and regards an indictment of its methods as an indictment of its motives.  It remains a country of arrogant militarism, self-assured in the capability of its armed forces to accomplish any mission, regardless of the utility of guns.  It remains a country of ignorance: in nine years it has failed to capture the one man it swore to find above all others, and has turned its wrath on others with only the barest regard to their affiliation with him.

The United States remains ignorant, because it still has not figured out what it means to have been attacked by Al-Qaeda.  It still hasn't figured out what Al-Qaeda means to Muslims.  America has failed to relate in a meaningful way to either the Muslims abroad or the Muslims at home.  It has yet to determine what, exactly, a Muslim is.

There are over a billion Muslims in this world.  They speak languages that Americans do not understand: they live in countries that Americans cannot find on maps.  They hold a staggering variety of political and religious opinions.  They live in a multitude of classes and conditions, are concerned primarily with the living of their own lives.  In the United States, there are few Muslims.  There are probably fewer Muslims in America than there are Jews, though the demographics are unclear.  Most Americans probably do not know any Muslims; very few even see them on a regular basis. 

For most Americans, a Muslim is either a member of a tiny minority, or a foreigner.  Neither category is liable to draw the attention of an American, unless that attention comes in the form of suspicion.  They are a perfect example of an invisible them, a perpetual class of aliens.  Nine years after September Eleventh, Americans all over this country have banded together to protest the free exercise of their religion.

Every where the story is the same: us versus them.  American protesters will defend freedom of religion, but not for them.  Americans will extol the virtues of tolerance, but not for them.  Not after what they did.

But who are we, and who are theyWe; well that's too obvious to go into.  As for they, they are the minority, the foreigner.  Though they may not be terrorists themselves, they belong to the same they, and they shall not have their way in this country again.

The chief problem is that it never occurs to most Americans that Muslims are as diverse a group as Christians.  Most Americans are familiar with at least ten Christian denominations, such as Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mormons, Methodists, Evangelicals, Orthodox, Quakers, and, Pentecostals; not to mention all of their countless splinter-sects.  

Muslims are not seen in the same way.  Those who actually follow the news may have heard that there exist such things as Sunni and Shi'a, but have little appreciation for their distinction.  As to the distinctions between all the various schools and sects appended to these branches, they are clueless.  To an American a Christian may be one of many things, but a Muslim is a Muslim.  Most Americans would not judge Christianity by the tenets of a minor denomination or the actions of its adherents.  In addition, most Americans would never hold a member of most Christian denominations as responsible for the actions of his coreligionists.  But they will judge the Muslims, because they are foreigners, because they are a minority.

A so-called pastor in Florida has been running rings around the media this week by threatening to hold a public burning of the Qur'an today.  The last I'd heard, his event has been canceled (or put on hold), but in a country as large as this it is certain that paper and ink will burn somewhere today.  The Qur'an will be desecrated to "honor" the memory of thousands of innocent people who died nine years ago; among them, Muslims.  The men and women who burn these books will feel satisfied, patriotic, and justified in their intentions.  They will be too busy with these feelings to appreciate the offense they have caused to innocent people, and too immature to see why that should matter. 

September Eleventh no longer belongs to Americans who wish for a better, more peaceful world.  It has been appropriated by those who seek moral validation through opposition and strife.  It is being reforged into a weapon of intolerance.  This is a great moral tragedy, and must be reversed.  If it is a hallowed day, then it must be a day reserved for good deeds and kind hearts.  It is not a day for talk of us and them.  

In Chapter 60, verse 8, the Qur'an says "Allah forbids you not respecting those who fight you not for religion, nor drive you from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly.  Surely, Allah loves the doers of justice."  Surely, God does not love injustice, or religious persecution.  Surely, God does not love to see people made unwelcome in the cities in which they reside.  Surely, God does not love to see people dissemble from their principles because of baseless fear.

I encourage those of you who wish to honor those who died and suffered on September Eleventh to transcend petty nationalism and bigotry, reach out to their fellow human beings, and encourage the closer integration of Islam into the greater American community of religions.  Your neighbors are not your enemies, and your enemies are powerless in the face of such cooperation.  Fundamentalism is strong because it draws its strength from division and dissatisfaction.  In a world where Islam is practiced freely in America, and where America regards the people of Muslim countries as friends, fundamentalism can have no strength.