todd lake departure

to lie here on this old pillow
listening to the endless calling

of the night to the night
the tent like a pimple on the face

of the mountain her calling
to the sky, drops all night

from broad leaves, the war
poetry of bullfrogs and owls,

the pacific verses of insects
and the haze of the unseen:

lying here on this pillow
i am transfixed like one dying

on the conviction, full of mud
and sweat, that this is what

i must have more of; caroline
there next to me, invincible,

i walked beside her through
the black green corridor of the

dark, pores electric with the
sound of her words:

behold what you are;
may you become what you receive

where i wish you to be: just here,
anointed in spring water before

a congregation of newts and pubescent frogs,
learned in the land to

which you surrendered many times:
learned just in slow and simple things,

no longer in thrall of arcana.

fragments for leaving emery

i

all according to
plan—including the driving
rain up Storey to

Low Street to Parker
and the train station, poncho
riding up and soaking

shorts et cetera
(my bus tickets a second
time) now gliding past

marshes soaked with tide
and the bajareque, the
rain having yielded.

ii

still unclear on what
all the rain means—this perfect
symmetry of storms:

maybe limina,
maybe chance, but i hope i
do not lapse wholly.

iii

how can i describe
the night yesterday? i had
many disturbed dreams

despite the pure calm
of the night (or half night; i
went to bed at just

9:30, when the
margin of the sky was
still strawberry white.

iv

i spoke to Mary
Theotokos in the dark
chapel, knowing eyes

and kind, then saw the
last lovely steam of a long
day evaporate.

v

i hope the dreams were
frustrated footfalls of some
enemies leaving.

the medicine of silence

—i—

you are here for not
twelve hours and you say “i
want to write a book

about silence”: this
is not appropriate, it’s
not in the spirit.

—ii—

This post is out of character for the poetry part of this site, because it’s in prose. But I feel moved, having just returned from a five day silent retreat, to share a little about my experience with others. I can honestly say that the time I spent at Emery House, a monastic retreat house about an hour north of Boston, was one of the most meaningful events of my life.

I write this with quite a bit of trepidation, knowing full well how paradoxical—absurd, even—it seems to be writing about silence. Obviously it would seem that the best way to “learn” about silence is just to shut up, so why spend a whole week just doing that? The question is legitimate. When you think of silence primarily as the absence of something (speech, conversation, interaction, connection), it doesn’t sound like something worth celebrating. What’s more, in an age and generation where so much ordinary social contact is mediated through devices and digital communication where talking isn’t even necessary, it may seem even less clear why it would be good to seek out silence. Surely, in this alienated age, the thing to be thirsting for is real communication, no? Even as we speak to one another less and less, we grow more and more distracted.

—iii—

I want to be very upfront with people who don’t know me personally: I’m a Christian and Emery House is run by the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), an order of celibate monks in the Anglican (as opposed to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox) tradition. The experience of silence that I’ll be talking about here is therefore indelibly shaped by my particular faith (as well as the individual questions I embarked on this retreat with the intention of asking God).

At the same time, almost every religion on the planet that I’m aware of incorporates some kind of contemplative, meditative, or mystical component (some of which, like yoga and mindfulness, are practiced in some decidedly secular spheres). Even without acknowledging a higher power behind it all, it’s easy to lose oneself in silent contemplation of a starry night on a purely intellectual level. Rarely, even in that case, are the emotions and the deeper parts of the soul left untouched. My point is that no matter what you believe, silence probably has something to teach you. But I am getting ahead of myself.

“In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asked, ‘Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.’
He says, ‘There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight.’
This is how Hallaj said, ‘I am God,’
and told the truth!”
—Rumi

—iv—

One of the first things you learn on a silent retreat is that silence is more than not talking, a negative condition of the world. Within the first twenty-four hours of shutting up (I’m a very talkative person in my everyday life), your other senses become heightened. Because you aren’t thinking of things you need to say to people and have no expectation of people speaking to you, you become more and more deeply attuned to the sights and sounds and smells of the world around you.

of course silence is not merely absence
for it is never the same
i am learning that silence sounds different the longer
it is kept:

it’s 10:41
and the only word i’ve said
today is “so,” so

the medicine of
silence perhaps is starting
to help me arrive.

—v—

In the course of the week I was at Emery House, the only time I ever spoke (aside from a couple words a day by mistake) was during worship services, which were held four times a day (morning prayer at 7:30, the eucharist (holy communion) at 12:00, evening prayer at 6:00, and compline (night prayer) at 8:00. The services, all derived from scripture and the ancient words of Christian liturgies, involved a lot of chanting and a cappella singing, since there was no musical accompaniment in the simple Emery House chapel. Even when you were speaking, then, you had to concentrate on following the music, pausing when the monks paused (quite often), and not raising your voice above those of others. It seems intimidating when I describe it in the abstract, but because I was already fairly familiar with these services, I was able to get to a place where it was really exhilarating.

My voice, freed from the obligation to constantly respond to social stimuli, became an instrument almost solely to be used for communication with God. Besides worship and meals, the only things I had to do during the day were read, write, and take long walks. In the afternoons, I took long walks with books I was reading for fun (Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read). Without my phone, on walks I was forced to really look around me, taking in the different plants, the winding of the road and the sound of unseen snakes and frogs darting off into the grass at its sides. Ultimately I will admit that it was a much more difficult task to tame the stubborn restlessness of my mind, which usually has access to a phone to slake its curiosity about the world. In lieu of reading and scrolling and looking things up, I found myself becoming more and more attuned to the richness of individual moments and scenes. The woods, after all, are alive with God’s creatures going about their business, paying you little to no mind, particularly if you stay still. Before long, my sandals started coming off. New tactile thrills awaited my soles: dirt and mud and pine needles and and spiny dry grass and roots between my toes. It’s a risky matter, walking barefoot, but in my unhurried and well-cared for state of soul, it felt like a calling:

thinking about big
things so often depends on
small things, how they grow,

how a man can walk
barefoot through deep woods, reckless
as children are, free

to pepper God with
questions: bird calls and rustles
and mushrooms, a faith

that does not ask “what
about ticks?” going around
in boots, gravely:

faith worthy because
never worthy, safe because
never safe, Christ’s own.

—vi—

Because of the silence, for five days I was able to exist at Emery House not as anyone’s friend nor as anyone’s son or relative. No one at the monastery knew I was in graduate school, no one knew about my experiences in South Africa or anywhere else. But unlike the anonymity of everyday life, I was under precisely zero pressure to impress upon people the kind of person I was. Beyond the need to conform to the minimum requirements of life at the monastery, the performative aspect of daily life was gone; at the same time, I was living profoundly unselfishly. I wasn’t thinking about pursuing my own fulfilment; instead I was focused, through the books on prayer I spent the mornings reading, on quieting my own mind in order to inwardly digest the word of God.

life is wondering
whether God is paying for
a meal: you’re anxious

until you see that
the bill is seven million
dollars; then you know

“The ‘righteous man’ is one who is learning more and more his own weakness, and is turning more and more to God, so that God is more and more free to carry out His will in him.”
—James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C.

This wasn’t my first introduction to the idea of contemplative prayer as a path to spiritual growth. But I can’t deny that before my retreat I did regard injunctions to “be still and know that I am God” with some suspicion. Part of the problem for me, looking back, was an idea—strongly rebutted in the books I read during my mornings—that prayer was a matter of thinking hard enough, of concentrating hard enough on whatever it was I wanted to focus on in order to hear the “still small voice” of God coming through, like a faraway radio transmission.

It was St. Theophan the Recluse (a badass name for a nineteenth century Russian saint, if I may say so) who first insisted in my reading on the idea that prayer is not a desperate attempt to establish contact so much as something radically different: a clearing of the mind, an inherently restful act, even. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the Spirit helps us in out weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

It’s true: I don’t know how to pray as I ought, because even when the words come easily, I don’t really understand what’s in my real best interest. And herein lies the true value of silence. Silence (both inward and outward) provides space for us as human beings to recenter ourselves and remember the most important truths about ourselves: that we are children of God, that we are beloved by him (and powerless to change this!), and that separation from these truths is the only thing worth fearing in this life. Centered in this, less fearful and anxious of the world outside, the Holy Spirit finds space to work inside us—and thus it’s really the Holy Spirit and not our own pious selves that prays on our behalf.

—vii—

Now I am aware that some people reading this might find it indulgent. What I’m describing—an extended holiday from screens and communication in a stunning natural setting—might sound too much like an actual holiday for comfort. Of course, they might say, you felt a deep connection to God and the universe while you were there, but what about after you left? It’s easy to feel holy in a holy place; the tough part is applying it to the everyday frustration of life outside the cloister.

when you are well-fed
and undistracted and shut
up it is easy

to see that life is
God’s great adventure, but this
is a tall order.

i realized tonight during evening prayer that already
God seems to have provided answers to my questions,
but this clarity means nothing if it is not sustained.
not to love, but to keep loving,
not to stop, but to keep stopping,
not to listen, but to keep listening,
that’s the game.

It has already been difficult, in the week or so I’ve been back, to readjust to everyday life. It doesn’t come naturally to recall God as often in a place that isn’t a literal monastery. At the same time, the truths I reacquainted myself with at Emery House remain just as true everywhere. They are helping me, I hope, towards a life of less fear and more confidence (at some point soon I hope to write something about fear and how dangerous it is, but that’s an essay for another time).

I could also write more deeply about the things at Emery House I had more difficulty adjusting to. The practice of eating meals in silence, for example, was hard for me. The food (vegetarian for the whole week I was there, much of it sourced from the monks’ own garden) was absolutely delicious, but the monks eat in haste. Since I was often hungry from my long walks, but also didn’t want to hold anyone up—we prayed both before and after the meal, so it mattered when one finished—I often felt like I had to eat much more quickly than I would like. I’m sure plenty has been written about monastic mealtime practices, and I can understand to a certain extent the desire not to produce an atmosphere of feasting outside of actual feast days, but given how special I felt the food was, it remains somewhat jarring to me. As I re-examine my own relationship with food, perhaps I’ll strike upon some additional insight.

I came to Emery House with a lot of questions that had been burning through my gut over the past few months. I was frustrated because I thought the most important thing I had to do was discern God’s will for me, an arduous process that would involve a lot of thought-intensive, exhausting prayer and reading of the auspices. Thanks to St. Theophan, David Benner (author of Desiring God’s Will, a wonderful little book), and James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C., I came to understand that this was not the best use of my time: no individual decision I might make is more important than living my life in a way that strives to glorify God, a trite phrase that means existing at peace with myself and in the service of those around me.

I have a long, long, long way to go on that count. But a long way is just a bunch of little footsteps, after all.

—viii—

it is God who waits
for us: awareness is all
that we are lacking

likewise, today was
pure bliss, except for the bird
who shat on my arm

while i was in the
hammock learning about
His presence and love.

light shone through the birch
leaves, obscuring the culprit;
so much for justice

—ix—

Have you ever been on a silent retreat, or have you ever thought about going on one? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments, particularly if you’ve experienced something similar in a different faith tradition. I’ve always been struck by the profound affinity that exists among the different contemplative traditions of the world, and I’m fascinated to learn more.

Also, if you’d like to see more posts like this in the future (this is something quite new for me!), let me know that too!

 

big daddy’s, boquete

it is not a crime to live in paradise:
if you can afford it, do so.
you can grow a grey ponytail and
smoke in contravention of ley 13 de 2008
at a bar, owned by americans, that
tolerates such things.

it is not a crime, except against taste, to
blare twist and shout, redneck girl,
or the bee gees at nine o’clock on a
friday night and dance like the world
depended on your dancing, indeed,
it takes more sacrifice to become part of
a place you were not born in than
most can manage.

still, such great fun: the high moist rainforest
and coffee plantings, ngäbe women
breastfeeding on the plaza as white-
shirted students return from school:
a land secure in itself—never
changing, ever gentle spring.

for rudolfo anaya

literally a golden fish, i could not believe my eyes as they were,
still red from a terrible attack in the basement where
i was vulnerable, thinking about all the trouble of april
and the future. this fish, i swear
to anyone who will listen, fourteen or fifteen
inches long, lazed at the surface
while i spoke to my mother—why are you
fearful in a safe country? she wanted to know,
where God is surely sovereign and edges
are edges and not mute like the worst kinds
of pain. this was a question for which i should
have been ready. yet in the last crisp noon
sun before a june heat
we saw a fish instead of an answer,
literally the golden carp itself ripped
otiose and fat from anaya’s pages long since forgotten.

it was enough of a miracle that we could both
think about auspices for a while instead of that horrible word
“decision” which is almost always a lie and a fantasy anyway.

i wish you had been there to see it with us. i’m sure people
must feed it things like spare potato rolls and kraft cheese.

but then magic things are magical not because they are made of it,
after all, but because they are
not made of it, i think.

fragments for laertes

i

it was an improbable couple of days;
i would not have seen it coming

even a year ago;
the best kind.

ii

showing up at lorimer to find your flat
cleaner than perhaps it might have been or

so you said; you spent the afternoon cleaning
not just for me. and you were as you always are:

brooklyn eyes and caribbean skin
always in tension: nine or ten million people between

your ears and nothing but coral and mountains
in the rest of you. and you spoke about love and the

lonely trials of the metropolis and we brought in
shakespeare too, bonding over the nighttime emptiness of

places we walked our feet bloody to reach. if marseilles had
five to protect it we are two fingers for dreams, and the

world understands dreams less and less: it only
wants to sleep when it lies down.

iii

i still say i have no ambition, you know,
though such a doomed dreamer of a man;

i only want to keep myself in the thrall
of the universe and her terrible magic

for as long as i can, never to harden
nor melt—a tough thing

but the opposite of an accomplishment, i think:
there is not much else i want.

iv

opposites do not reconcile
i think, except beyond our power to try.

both of us, at odds with ourselves so
much of the time, blocking long-tongued

voices saying we must choose one
or another path to have peace, both of

us must see that these are lies
to reject:

peace might come and go
but we can breathe beauty.

we might never shut up about where we aren’t
but we can breathe beauty.

dreams are more like clouds most days than roads
but we can breathe beauty:

it will keep you
alive in the rain.

clarendon boulevard

i have a very strong memory of standing
at schmitz’s gas station in my cap and gown
thinking this is the end of a great deed: high
school, thank christ, is over.

juvenile deeds and people thinking they’re so
clever, feeling so terribly earnest and so
callous, either deathly dull or alien,
this grinding routine day in and day out:
a red day, a blue day, sixth period, the whole complex
of a steadily atrophied childhood.

i remember people saying this: that one day you’ll
miss these days and wish you could return. but i
am learning that this is a pious fable occluding a
truth too hard to introduce to kids so young:
high school never ever ever ends.

there is an illusion of leaving adolescence
to enter in some stable place called adulthood
where we can transcend the noise of misguided and
hostile people. we make more money and say we learn lessons
but i think our hearts learn less than we think.

or maybe i should say nothing is deleted, so that once we
wash ashore at seventy-five or eighty
at the very moment we want most to fade
along our own course into the nighttime
the battle calls against those very things,
complacency never being a virtue given to us, not
even after we go.

rest is fine but the world must
not be allowed to get small before death. right up to the last
wrestle with the youth in ourselves and demand its blessing
even in senility till morning: keep looking at the daylight and
seeing life and the trackless mysteries of the night and the
deeper ones of people: high school never ever ever ends.

we never really ever get that smart
no matter what success we think we earned.

haikus for monterey

fat drops of slow rain
come with that spring smell mud and
naked easter grass.

i got home before
the sun set, after three days’ drive
from hell to blue grass

from davis to room
twenty-five of that paint-chipped
old hotel, heaven

where all kinds of birds
sing the morning in and no
devil can find me

the road home is not
easily spoken of but
that smell says it all.

fat drops of slow rain
and time spent in the good dark
thinking of no one

and nothing, none of
my friends or enemies or
those desperately loved

none of the summer
camp rain nor the winston rain
nothing but water.

i fell asleep there
the first time i probably
slept in six bad months

a comprehensive examination

1. why do you think he is single? to what extent are structural forces to blame or
is it rather a matter of choices? what is he afraid of?
refer to at least three specific
failures in your
response and use ten to fifteen pages for each prompt.

2. provide an interpretation
of the dark period (2014-2015).

how likely do you think it
is to recur?

out of the many myths he told himself
about it all coming back to the car in bethania,
the choice not to lurch lastly at roanoke
not to even say “michigan”:
were any of them any more than lies?
or do you believe he has learned
something?

3. if he had not gone to lansing, what
do you think would have happened to him?

what if he had spent his shallow dream
in williamsburg or charlottesville,
like he thought he would do?

moreover, if he liked the place more
would he live differently?

4. i think this thing is all a real mistake, am i right?

cite his poems after the following format,
simply, by first lines: (why

do you think he is single?
2018).

the song of moses, roanoke

i

i will not go into that church, i told myself,
i cannot be there, it is forbidden.

ii

what can i say of this place? i was downtown
between six and seven, dusk, the spring sun condescending

in glory to kiss the rotting hulk of the heironimus building
good night, thinking how

here in these streets, church and luck and jefferson, some
dragon ravens; serpents behind old retaining walls

in wasena, the deaf adder that stoppeth her ears,
charm he never so

wisely.

iii

it is like picking up a clod of soil by the river
and recognizing your own blood in between the little

clamshells, thinking with a thrilling kind of horror,
“but i have not been dead here”; so i thought.

iv

i will not go into that church,

i told myself; i must wait until the morning; i must go
to another neighborhood and leave it be,

i told myself; it will be better to go back to the motel
in salem and nurse the pain of the last two weeks

of this waking hell; i must not go.

v

i told myself i will only walk there; i will not enter;
i will lose my nerve and flee at the first sign

of danger; i was about to vomit.  the egyptian
dusk soft and warmly cotton

found me in horror and my heart almost leapt
out of me once i found my pew; i wondered

whether i wasn’t satan after all; this business of
panicking in churches.

vi

but i did not leave and my heart began to level at the
exsultet.  and by the end of two hours

i was water on the floor; i was deconstructed and entirely
outside whatever i was, united with the

fiery auspices smeared before mill mountain, asleep in the
flesh of surrender like one who

fainted in the heat of the flight
and awoke in warm sinai

forgetful of the charioteers in perdition;
forgetful of being a charioteer,

forgetful of everything but what made me:
just a child on his first day of school.

vii

there is nothing to be afraid of, in the end;
all our nighttimes, after all, were borne

at once
a long time ago

and on this very night.

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