Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: poetry (Page 1 of 4)

Loosestrife: A Sunday Sonnet

Loosestrife
for Oliver (“peacemaker”), Theodore (“Gift of God”) and Lysimachus (Not the warrior of Third Century Thrace but the proto-botanist physician of minor Fifth Century renown and the first Western identifier of the lythrum salicaria plant commonly known in English as Loosestrife)

An etymological blunder brought
This blood beknighted flow’r upon my banks
Lysimachus who found it, someone thought,
Was not himself a name for English thanks.
“Exotic” Greek’s extracted fools gold ore
Gave name to flow’r it never meant to mean:
Lusís – loosen; makhē – akin to war –
Now “loose-strife” dons our death in purple, green.
And shall their beauty battle other plants,
As noxious weeds along my very creek,
I might decide that all names can incant –
For how else could this naming truth bespeak?
And then a grateful sigh for naming sons
For “peace” and for “receipt of what God’s done.”

July 25, 2021

You can listen to my read it here

The Holy Spirit Helped Me Write This Poem

When something wonderful happens I often write it down so I can remember to write a poem about it. I love writing poetry. I draw my inspiration from those epiphanies that happen often enough in a life lived with open eyes. “Open eyelids and open hearts” I should say. Because sometimes what you see is beyond sight, and that’s definitely poetry territory. Good poetry transports you beyond the realm of thought. It uses words to express those things to which words cannot be applied. It tries and fails beautifully. And as it fails it invites you into your own understanding. In the faint outline the words approximate, it feels you. Like a sparkler writing someones name in the dark when there is no long-exposure camera in your eyes to see what they have written.

However you have said something — with your life, with your heart, with your deepest down things — a poem that speaks it back to you rhymes with what all words fail to say. I don’t know if my poem will share unspoken words with you or not, truthfully, I’m not sure I have given enough time to poetry to expect that it would, but here’s a story that adds more words to a sonnet bellow. The extra words  might spoil it, but here goes anyway.

Connie Starzinski’s died on March 7, 2019. She was my dear friend’s MomMom , so I went to the funeral to support her and her family. The funeral was in a Catholic church building with high transom windows all around the almost circular polygon room. The transom light was the key ingredient to the mesmeric effect of incense smoke dancing high above our heads. All throughout the ritual mass the incense snaked into the transom light and collected in ribbons until the priest went to fetch the censor and flood the room with the scented smoke, he simultaneously flooded my eyes with tears. He honored the body, and all of us . We were witnesses to something deeper than that moment. At the doorway to death we all stood in in awe – full-bodied awe.

I wrote it down, “Write a poem about the incense at MomMom Starzinski’s funeral.” It stayed on the list for two whole years — 730 days exactly. Because on March 7, 2021 I wrote this poem. I don’t know why I chose that day, and I did not know it was the same day as her death. I can only attribute this to the Holy Spirit and some purpose beyond my own musings for this poem. It’s kind of spooky. I was flabbergasted when I looked up her obituary to make sure I spelled MomMom Starzinski’s name correctly in the dedication of the poem. My attribution to the Holy Spirit is the reason I share it with you now. It is Pentecost season in Circle of Hope, and we keep looking for a life in the Spirit in all the mundane and fantastic of our own lives.

The “purpose of noses” line is in homage to a Rich Mullins song I like, “The Maker of Noses“. It’s a good song, but far less profound than this strange discovery and amplified awe of the moment and its anniversary telling.

The Purpose of Noses
for MomMom Starzinski and Rich Mullins

The incense smoke rose high above the pews,
And of its bitter sweetness we were
At first unaware, though it’s presence grew.
And whether the ascending scent was myrrh
Was not a question on our minds, for grief
Already filled the room. It gathered us ‘round
The shroud with our beloved underneath.

The words of the priest cannot now be found,
But we’ll not soon forget the piled up cloud
Of incense as it fell down on us all,
The moment he honored her for the crowd,
Surrounding her with that perfuming pall.

Thrice ‘round the casket he swung the brass chord,
Reminding us just what noses are for.

________

 

You can listen to me read it here

Writing Through This Holy Week

Catch up on Holy Week with me, or just see if any of the images that came to me so far each morning also are coming to you.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 7 – Holy Saturday

April 3, 2021

Today I read part of the Gospel of Nicodemus, also called the Acts of Pilate. Chapters 12 through 21 are a weird account of “the harrowing of hell” when, some say, Christ descended into hell between his death and resurrection to free those who had died before then. I’m not sure what to think, but in my sonnet I highlighted the redemptive hope that would be part of such a monumental Exodus if it were necessary. The New Testament only has slight allusions to Christ’s descent into hell (or, more likely, Hades, which is simply the realm of the dead), so it’s hard to make heads or tales of it. Many early Church leaders believed it, so, that’s saying something. All that being said, here’s a poem that takes the story at its word (which I do not exactly)

Some say Pilate soon repented when
He saw what he had done. Centurion
Reports were strange, undoing him, and then
He set himself to searching, hurrying
To know the Truth, and not just what it is.
He learned stranger tales -‘ sages in hell
Who met the Truth come claiming what was his —
And sons of dead men who were dead themselves
Recounted Satan’s failing Hope that Christ
Could never come to hell — alive as light
To burgle darkness — brilliance come to heist —
He walked right in, not needing any fight,
Took Adam by the hand, and all then came
Behind, and hoped that Pilate do the same.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 6Good Friday
April 2, 2021
Not many anymore have had to lift
A body. This sacred duty resides
In institutions staffed by those on shift.
When loved ones die, we call, and stand aside,
And others feel their weight. We have our own,
In head and heart, the pain is very hard.
We feel, but rarely in our limbs and bones;
And so our death may stay abstract and far
Away from facts like pounds and cubic feet.
I’d guess Christ weighed one hundred fifty pounds
At least when Joseph got him off that tree,
By setting ladder from the cross to ground,
Could he, up there, receive on shoulder’s heft
The burden of that body life had left?

Holy Week Sonnet Number 5 – Maundy Thursday

April 1, 2021
Luke 22:7–71

“I have desired this moment eagerly,
And here, at last, we are together, friends.
Sit at my table now to eat with me;
It is the last of our beginning’s end,
Until it’s finished I will not partake
Of food, or drink, or any comfort’s kind.
My ends lie far beyond what fills or slakes;
My purpose for this body, heart and mind
Lies on the other side of human being.
I, too, shall be an empty cup and plate,
And yet, my poured-out, famished, vanished seeing
Will nurture newness from your soles to pates.
I’ll fill you far above your love cup’s brim,
And much more than five thousand up again.”

Holy Week Sonnet Number 4 – Wednesday

March 31, 2021
Matthew 26:6-13 and Luke 7:36-50

“In memory of her,” the Lord declared,
That all will call to mind her act of love,
Whenever his own life and love are shared.
The best disciple’s name’s not spoken of
How strange! I want so much to know her name —
To right the wrongs against all womankind,
And honor she who honored through the shame
Uncorked upon her broken beauty’s glass
With jeers and judgment made from keeping-score.
Aware of this, he took those men to task.
She knew that death was knocking at their door
Because she listened unlike those to whom
He had revealed the most his path through doom.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 3
I learned today that the oboe is the instrument to which the whole orchestra tunes.

March 30, 2021
Luke 20:5-22:2

Lord, all the things you warned us all about
Have now begun to sound in string and throat,
Discordant tuning strengthens towards a shout,
Of oboe-started-harmonizing notes.
The band is struck and so are all of us,
The world is over, as we knew it was,
All rumors, famines, earthquakes, lawlessness —
They catch us in a culminating buzz.
Again, again, you tell us not to fear,
And ever always we are terrified,
The music far too awful not to hear
Pleads us trust in only what we’ve eyed.
“But this is but the warm-up, my dear friends,”
You say, “I will be with you through the end.”

Holy Week Sonnet Number 2 – Monday

March 29, 2021
Luke 19:48-21:4

If all this weren’t so deadly serious,
We might hear all he said and have a laugh.
Because there’s almost nothing clear to us,
We’ll rush to easy insults as a raft.
They’re wrong, he’s right, so, as big winners, we
Ride on down river with our muscles slack —
Our ease resting nicely in enmity,
We gleefully watch him splash back attacks,
And float through temple talks, taking his quips
To Sadducee, Scribe, Pharisee alike
For borrowed buoyancy to leaky ships
That now careen toward the stone soon to strike —
The stone we boat builders gladly reject
Built wreckage as the vessel for us to connect.

Holy Week Sonnet Number 1 – Palm Sunday

March 28, 2021
Luke 19:28-44

You’ll do everything short of making us,
But, no, you won’t sort broken hearts by force;
Refusing to coerce, forsaking thus
The automatic lovers you could source,
You choose dramatic tragedy to show
Us who you are and whom you know —
It’s us, it’s me, and all our half-bent knees.
Before time till now, you’ve seen everything,
And so you know how most could know you now:
You would have us see you in your suffering —
A bleeding love from hands, feet, side and brow.
And as you die we ask if we must too,
“Do as I say, and also as I do.”

 

WORD-ing

I have successfully kept one of my New Year’s resolutions to my birthday. It feels good. I describe the resolution in this video I shot for Circle of Hope’s midweek reflection #sundaysarenotenough.

WORD-ing makes things more real. It makes my insides more real to me. It makes me more of who I am, and better, it makes me more of who I want to be. My imagination shapes my direction, which points my present. George MacDonald is my literary and spiritual hero. I call him my grandfather, so my New Year’s resolution was to spend the year WORD-ing with him.

Each morning (or afternoon or evening) I write the words of the seven line poem he wrote for every day of the year and published in a collection called A Book of Strife in the Form of a Diary of an Old Soul.  Then I reflect on what the poem says to me, or just try to give shape to what is happening inside of me or in the life of my community.

George MacDonald’s WORD-ing

Here’s an example from February 19, 2021

Here’s what Grandfather  MacDonald said that day

Lord, in thy spirit’s hurricane, I pray,
Strip my soul naked—dress it then thy way.
Change for me all my rags to cloth of gold.
Who would not poverty for riches yield?
A hovel sell to buy a treasure-field?
Who would a mess of porridge careful hold
Against the universe’s birthright old?

My WORD-ing

And here’s what I had to say. You might notice that the two do not have much to do with each other, but the rhymes and the bowl borne food. Yeah, that’s how it is. This was about feeling kind of sleepy and struggling to remember my dreams in hopes that they were theophanic. It was also about being hungry and wanting to be satisfied by something other than food, as the MacDonald poem clearly suggest — so I guess there is a real connection. You can listen to me read my poem on my soundcloud where I have recorded all the poems that appear on this blog.

February 19 

Still hoping breakfast breaks benighted limbs
So locked in an unconscious grapple hold —
A wrestling rest with someone — could be him
Who wrenched the hip of Jacob so it’s told;
If only trust for dreams uncontrolled
Could pierce the soul of my confusing, dim
And dumb born dawn, here in my breakfast bowl.

I wrote this poem before breakfast but made sure that my breakfast was out of a bowl. It was a grapefruit. Thanks for reading. Maybe you’re inspired.

Two Recent Sonnets

When I go on retreat, which I try to do quarterly, I like to review my journals. This is a common practice for journal keepers. It’s easy to forget where God has been, or to have missed how present God was in a previous moment when you were mired in the vagaries of that moment. In a recent review, I found my New Year’s resolutions from January 2020 . They included having people over to dinner twice a month. Ha! They also included that I would post a poem on this blog once a month. I did not do that. So here is a remedy. Two recent sonnets I wrote;

Seagulls are almost raptors

Could Be a Raptor
A Sonnet for Birders

O fix your eyes on a heavenly host–
Those wind-hovering ecstatics of sky,
Held up by figures of physics and ghosts,
By feathers canting “Wonder!” “How?” and “Why?”

May your own neck ever swivel for wings,
And long gaze ever rest right where you saw
Up there! and right there! something, O! — something
That’s swooping down, talons open towards awe.

May trust in each potential eagle spied;
In every would be hawk that is a crow;
In seagulls, yes, take them, wings open wide,
Half raptor beauties, all gripping air’s flow,

Make hearts rise with all the birds you have dreamed–
And soar on lift of desire’s thermal streams.
__________
Walking on Collings Ave, January 12, 2021

You can listen to me read it here.

 

The bay at Sunset, Margate, NJ 2/4/2021

Earth’s Most Careful Feet
for the Browns

Declaring absolution for shells crushed
Beneath my feet, I walked the glittered sand
Too littered full with shining treasures flushed
From gentle rush and pull of ocean’s hands
For Earth’s most careful feet to miss them all.
It is decided—crushing shells can’t be
A sin, and if it be, then sinner I shall
Go on being—so going by a sea
Now emptied by the cold but golden faced
From sun’s thus angled gilding of the tide
In patterns left like slips of satin, lace
Retreating, leaving fringe on edges’ glides
I wonder again if footprints belong(?)
No, not unless God’s tide had pulled you strong.
__________

Walking in Margate,  February 5, 2021

You can listen to me read it here.

Tear/Tear, Seem/Seam, Knew/New

On shrinking cloth

The heat of a warm water washing or heated tumble dry or, in the image of today’s poem, a flap out on the sunny line, the stretched out fibers of an unshrunken cloth relax. The individual patch of cloth becomes stronger. The individual fibers become relaxed in the heat. That sounds nice — constitutive, formational, good — but of course there is a cost to this new birth. Which one among you is not stitched to a cloth from which you are tearing away? I know I am not blessed with such a condition.  And I am learning to live with that reality and suffer through the seam ripper’s hook.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the racism to which I find myself stitched, but there are many thing from which we must be cut. The goodness of becoming new and shrunk and strong,  does not feel good. Jesus’ is saying something new to me today. Take it for yourself it seems to fit. The new thought is this: His little parables about wineskins and cloth are not cautionary tales. They go beyond categorization of different types of people, cloths and skins. the parables are descriptive and prophetic: You will tear. you will burst.

Seth Martin wrote a beautiful line in a beautiful song that we like to sing in Circle of Hope. (Rob , Jess and friends sang it a couple of weeks ago for #worshipwednesday). “We wear this seamless cloth of joy and loss/Severed roots and limbs/Time to start again/Start with I am Thine.” Yeah, that’s how it feels — sweet joy and bitter sorrow, becoming new and crying as we do. Even though we go where we are led hungrily.

A Poem for the Seamless Cloth of Joy and Loss

Mark 2:21

I’m feeling seamed edges pull,
Unshrunken, out to dry,
The warmth is pleasant with eyes closed —
Face up to the sky.

The tightness of a tear-wet cheek
Will also come to mind,
As heat from distant star allows
My quiet eyes to find

A new expression of the truth
I knew from deep inside,
That cannot help but stretch until
The very last is cried.

More composed myself, binded, bound
To windy dancing sheet,
Conviction tight and resolute,
But union incomplete.

I tear from that to which I’m stitched
Even as I come to life,
The only way to love me seems
To be a sharpened knife.

 

You can listen to me read it here.

 

Image and Poem by Ben White

Hope From a Couple of Poets

Where is Jesus?

Poetry helps me reach into and beyond reality. The news out of Louisville, Kentucky this week hit hard for me and my friends. Breonna Taylor’s murderers are not held accountable and it is all very legal. The worst part for me was that so many Christians I know were  running to defend the rule of law as if it were any kind of legitimate justice. It made me cry. What is religion if it produces “law and order” acolytes alone? What is religion if hearts and bodies are far from free? Where is Jesus?

Here is One of Isaiah’s Poetic Answers

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

— Isaiah 58:6-9

Here is One of My Poetic Answers

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day and a night at the Villa Pauline Retreat and Spiritual Center of the Sisters of Christian Charity in  Mendenham, NJ. I rambled all over their property which was a grand estate in a neighborhood of grand estates. In response to the question that came up in my heart as I walked and later wrote in the poem below, I have a strong sense that many of the sisters who live there would definitely want Jesus, hidden in the children of the neighborhood, to use their snowy hills for wintry fun, but I doubt it ever happens. There are definitely litigious obstacles — liabilities and lack of indemnities. There are also communal obstacles — more exactly  the lack of it. In a land of gated estates, I wonder if any child would ever wander to the sister’s perfect hill and try to sled. This poetic vision helps me meditate on the deeper, beyonder realities of Mendenham and my current despair. There is a way-it-could-be better than the limits of our religious devotions, civil and otherwise. In this poem I am digging for hope. I need to rend the veil of our reality and its many, many obstacles. I need answer for “Where is Jesus?” And on this day, on retreat I saw him in snow pants.

The Convent Hill

The truest mark of true religion’s trust
Is whether children are allowed to sled
The convent’s perfect hill. Forget those musts
And shoulds and oughts, and all those clanging dead,
And tell me if there’s cocoa on the porch.

What else could that steep green slope be for
But Jesus wearing snow pants launching forth
And at the bottom sure there’s time for more?
“Again!” Toboggans full of windy tears,
“Again!” A downward rush of icy spray,
“Again!” Wet laughter’s leap right over fear,
Until the darkness overtakes the day.

So can this be or will my vision fail?
May children use your hill to rend the veil?

—–

You can listen to me read it here.

Photo and poetry by Ben White

 

If I Can Remember My Dreams

On vacation in the woods, I am trying to tune into my dreams. It’s working. I always ask my boys each morning if they had an dreams during the night, so I thought I should point that question at myself more seriously. I sleep very soundly and  rarely remember my dreams.  I lament the loss of spiritual spelunking that could be done in my unconscious storytelling.  Here are a few things that have been helping me remember my dreams:

  1. I hate to admit it, but a key to my success is not reaching for the phone first thing when I wake up. The blue light of the screen zaps my brain into another world (and usually I don’t want to be there).
  2. I’m also getting  a bit more sleep which is likely contributing. Going to bed is such a simple way to be healthy.  Don’t watch another episode of Call the Midwife or just hit replay when Hamilton is over for the fourth time (Two real life scenarios).
  3. Walking in the woods or having some other mind clearing bodily activity. Vacation is for vacating — a kind of making empty. Is my head so full of thoughts all the time that the dreams spill out instantly before they even have a chance to be recalled?
  4. Writing them down. I remember more details as I attempt to recreate and order the chaotic tide of images in which dreams come. For example, a dream on Monday night featured a steam powered garage door opener which was unremarkable in the moment (as I dreamed it), and only named as such in the written recitation.

Here’s a poem I wrote about the project. It’s in Common Meter because I recently learned that all of Emily Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of the original Pokemon theme song.  But don’t sing this one to that tune until I’m posthumously famous, k?

If I can remember my dreams

If I can remember my dreams
It seems the day is won,
Nothing more than to shape the scene
To feel the work is done.

The labor of the waking eye
To reach back into sleep,
To grope that inner world of mine
With fingers blind and deep.

There only touch and feel to tell
What lies behind the sun,
What rises under every swell
Of moon and mind begun

Together in their vivid ball,
Unseen but very known,
Each swirl a pirouette of all
My heart could want to show.

To reconstruct this darkened dance
Here on this side of night
Is stuff of vision and of trance.
I’m grateful for what sight

Remains when morning breaks the plane,
And conscious thoughts unfurl
Today with all my senses trained
To know the outer world.

 

You can listen to me read it here:

Poetry and images by Ben White

A Vast Inside-Us Sky: A Sonnet

I stayed up late a few nights ago working on a project which included taking some video footage of distant lightning. Only the faintest rumble was able to lurch across the miles to my ears. It had me wondering about the earliest observant humans who had time enough to wonder how lightning worked. Was there ever a thought with traction in ancient science that posited different sources for lightning and thunder? I didn’t look it up, but the thought seemed possible. They often correspond, but could the correlation be common coincidence and separation be the norm? It seemed conceivable. Stretching out my mind to those ancient sages wondering how things worked opened me up.

I need more space inside me these days. How about you? Doesn’t this pandemic demand more space? We are so constricted. I’m feeling so much external pressure. Maybe everything is not so determined. Maybe nothing is so certainly what it seems. May wonder bring you hope and breezy mornings where you can pray and stretch and feel. Here’s my sonnet for you today. It’s been a while!

A Vast Inside-Us Sky

The lightning and – one, two, three – the thunder.
The lightning and – wait for it – the crack!

When did ancient sages start to wonder
Whether that was sound’s shadow on light’s back?

The sound and the fury was one with the flash,
But somehow distance wrought time so immense
It severed fact from fact – light from crash –
Made space inside of oneness – undid dense,
Unquestioned wholeness, and left us more than
Seconds and miles from what passed in the sky.

Something happened in that opened door and
Mind that happens in every watching eye:

A vast inside-us sky between the bolt and peal
Stretched out wide forever from fact to fact and feel

 

You can listen to me read it here:

Poem and photograph by Ben White

A Friday Poem (and an endorsement for the Comfort Retreat)

Some context

I wrote this poem at the Comfort Retreat last year. We spent a good part of the day groping inthe spiritual dark for something to hold on to. We found it in each others hands and our own hearts. we found it in shared songs and stories. We found it in showing the tenderest parts of ourselves to the Light and expecting the healing that is promised there.

The original draft had the word “pinkening” in it. As in “turning pink” but I decided not to be so bold as Billy Shakespeare and invent another word. My first audiences, couldn’t get the context of the vision of a lake at dusk, unleashing its vapors as the temperature changed. I hope you can fit this poem into your context, and that you sign up for the Comfort Retreat on June 6, at circleofhope.net/shop. Our friends, Angie and Jordan, have ways to lead us through a morning together. We won’t be on zoom the whole time, of course. They will help us choose and create a space for time alone with return to the larger group online.

Learning What I Don’t Know
(At the Comfort Retreat)

This evening pond now pink with eyes aloft
Pours whispers up from dreams I had put down
Like days disappearing into soft, soft
Uncreased sheets of darkest blue from which sounds
Don’t come but in which presence whispers true.
Now rising endless up above the trees,
Unmaking what I see and hear and do,
And showing more than eyes and ears perceive —
A wafting more than anything. Unsaid,
Unheard and yet the truth of you and me;
Somewhere between the living and the dead,
Someone repeating sweet things on his knees
I look at more than could be rightly here,
I feel at what I love and hope and fear.

 

You can listen to me read it here

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