11.02.2005

Expoet

I spent many an undergraduate Friday evening hunkered down in the balcony of Brady's Cafe in Kent, Ohio, staring at the top of Maj Ragain's head and listening to ordinary and extraordinary spoken word. I used to fancy myself a poet. I took all the Kent State poetry workshops I could (that and the preponderance of gym classes on my transcript thoroughly explains the summa cum laude on my BA degree). I learned how to teach poetry to kids, and spent hours in local classrooms tugging whimsical metaphors out of fourth graders.

I wrote this poem when I was nineteen:

Jesus Rests

For months now,

I have slipped you

in between words,

crafting fancy

capitalizations to note

my leavening faith.

Maj has taught me

to give things names,

so I’ll address you properly:

Jesus, come sit down,

bring your blues

take off your shoes.

I’ll boil water for tea

but I think you would prefer

a sweet beer. It’s not easy

to be Jesus.

We’re all drawing you,

defining you, making you

hang in defeat

on our church crosses

and sit in our avocado-green

upholstered chairs.

I’m not sure what to

apologize for, to celebrate.

I would like you to be

the jester who sang

that Paul Simon song

in my ear

while I meditated last spring.

Jesus,

let me be one of

your frenzied disciples.

I think I’ve caught on

to the punch line of your grace.

It’s that tarnished to-do,

that sanitized imperative

about loving you—

and all our grouchy neighbors—

with the ambition

of a tight-rope walker.

Let me be saturated

with that gritty love.

Hear my jangly prayer:

Let me be the funky moon

of heaven. I’ll write

my maudlin lines in hearty

worship, thanking you

always for the random kicks

and polished miracles

salting my revolutions.

This poem has been a blessing and a curse. It won first place in the Wick Undergraduate Poetry Prize. My friend Kelly suggested that it might be renamed "Jesus Pays" to more accurately reflect the consequences of the poem. Along with the cash prize, I also won a big head and an albatross to hang from it. Nothing is weirder in the world of poetry than success, particularly early success that cannot be matched. I have one other poem that I personally think is decent in the way that this poem is decent. I rely on these two poems; they are proof that at one point, I was a poet.

Tonight Ben and I went to a poetry reading for the first time in three years or so, thanks to a heads-up from a parishioner. It turns out there is a weekly reading at a Redondo Beach coffeehouse that is in the same general family as the old readings at the now-defunct Brady's Cafe.

And what did I read? "Jesus Rests." I didn't let on that it's a five-year-old poem. I read it like I wrote it yesterday. But this reading marked the first time I'm officially on the "inside" of the whole Christian thing. The spark of that poem was found in the lurches and hiccoughs of faith that accompanied it to the open mic. I was walking around the edges of orthodoxy, dipping my toes into the water and backing out again. Even as I still lurch and hiccough toward a life of faithful discipleship, I'm a preacher now.

One of the clearest and most joyful memories I cherish from my Brady's days: I stayed to the end, the bitter end, when even the best poetry was broken by heat and fatique and too many other words. I bought a loaf of Bonnie's bread, sat at Maj's table, peeled off the saran wrap and broke it open. I ripped off big chunks and passed it around the table. And as the poets gratefully accepted the gift of bread, I realized that it was communion. Celebrating communion with stale wheat bread just short of midnight on a Friday seemed delightfully irreverent, perhaps even elicit. Now I'm robed and stoled, ordained to celebrate that holy meal just short of noon on a Sunday.

I want to write poetry again, but I don't know how to write within these new rules of my life. I'm beginning to think the words might be there again, that I will remember how to select and apply adjectives to nouns in ways that engender heat and light. But my old tricks can't work now that I am part of the institution. It isn't subversive to write about Jesus when you work for him.



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