Writing the Sacred Word on the Street

   By Dot Dannenberg

       It’s what you can or can’t live without. It’s all streetlight and crickets
       on this particular night. It’s all language and breath in this particular
       trial. It’s all delicacy and power lines. It’s all asphalt and glass. That’s
       why I am up night after night. That’s why I walk so softly on the floors
       and rugs. I am bowing and kneeling in every little corner, at every little
       helpful shrine, but I couldn’t say if I am praying or if I am simply
       looking for some small button or short piece of string that I’ve lost.
       Most nights I really couldn’t tell you what on earth I’m doing.
                                  —Frank Gaspar, “Bodhidhara Preaches the Wake-Up Sermon

The Family of God

My shoulder blades refuse to settle against the rigidity of the pew. The pastor is praying for our President, for our men in Iraq. I alternate between squinting my eyes and peeking to see who else is peeking. The music minister, a stern woman who sings like Minnie Mouse, is peeking. Amen. We rise and sing oh, precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow...no other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.

During the sermon, I draw pictures on the bulletin. My sister writes me a note—do you think we’ll go out to eat after church? When we run out of paper, we drag our fingers against the velvet of the pew seats. The preacher delivers a message from the Old Testament about women being submissive to their husbands.

Time for prayer requests. Carl asks that we please pray for his drug addiction. Doris talks about her beautiful new granddaughter. Wanda, the pianist, offers her thanks to the Lord that two years ago today she met her husband, who was then homeless, at Whiskey River on Pio Nono Avenue. Shannon asks the congregation to pray that her boyfriend gets out of prison before their baby is born.

The preacher asks everyone to close their eyes. The keyboard chimes holy, holy, holy. The preacher says that Jesus wants us to open our hearts and minds to Him, to accept Him into our hearts. He says that if at any time in the service today we have been feeling sorry for our sins, all we have to do is tell Jesus that we are sorry, and ask Him to forgive us. We must ask Him into our hearts. We must be saved. If anyone today would like to come to the altar and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, now is the time. Or, if we’ve slipped up—if we’ve fallen out of step with the Lord and would like to renew a commitment to Christ—come forward.

I peek again. Carl has gone to the altar. His hands are folded and his knuckles are white. I squint. I have tried this a thousand times. Okay, Jesus. Come into my heart.  I picture my heart as a little box with hinges. I picture the Holy Spirit throwing open the door of my heart for Jesus to climb inside. I picture it small and dark and red inside, and I wait to be saved. I know that when I am saved, I will feel something. I imagine it will feel like a jolt. Like a lighting strike to the chest. At the very least, I will feel the need to cry. Then when my Sunday school teacher asks who is saved and I raise my hand, I will know for sure whether I am lying or not.  All you have to do is ask, and he will come into your heart, he says. Just ask, and the door shall be opened. I squint my eyes until I see white spots. Maybe the spots are the Holy Spirit.

I am still squinting and telling Jesus what to do when holy, holy, holy changes to I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God, washed in the fountain, cleansed by his blood. People stand and shake hands. My sister jabs me in the ribs and points to my father, who is rolling his eyes because this song sounds like Hee-Haw. At the front of the sanctuary, Carl shakes hands with the preacher. Minnie Mouse glares at Wanda for lowering the key of the praise song.

As the floaters in my eyes settle, the Holy Spirit disappears.  I stretch backwards, letting my spine crack against the curve of the pew. I forget about the imaginary door to the imaginary home in my heart, and watch the family of God. Doris glares at Shannon’s pregnant belly. Minnie Mouse straightens her hot pink pencil skirt. My sister spits gum into a tithing envelope.

The Word

This is the spirituality I grew up with. I suppose you could say I was drowned in Southern Evangelical Christian culture. And like many people who spent formative years in the church, I hit adolescence, got a crush on a boy who thought for himself, and ran as far away from God as I could.

And then I began to write. I cannot say writing has brought me back to the Lord. I cannot say I believe in the Holy Trinity, the resurrection of the father, or the life everlasting. But I do know that the unconscious part of me that speaks out in poems is highly preoccupied with everything holy. Holiness is a notion I can’t seem to shake—the way everything in the world supports something else. The connectedness. The everyday somehow transformed. I have given up prayer for poetry, the word of God for the word of humankind. I have found in poetry the way to create and discover revelations that never came by squinting my eyes and asking to be saved.

Mary Oliver, in providing a comment for the cover of Frank Gaspar’s Night of a Thousand Blossoms, said that Gaspar’s poems “are agile and forceful, their narratives clear and absorbing. In his poems he is speaking to the reader—but also to himself, or perhaps to some hazy divinity, or to the blue sky. I felt in his voice no attempt to persuade me of anything. I felt only the abiding imperative to get it right. Which is, of course, what real writing is all about.” Gaspar’s poems are religion without religion’s overbearing persuasiveness. He creates in his poems a holiness that can be questioned, with revelations as grand as the cosmos or as small as nothing.

Constructing the Holy-Ordinary Image

In the title poem of Gaspar’s A Field Guide to the Heavens, he asks, “What is the sacred word on the street?” (Field Guide, 3). This line to me entirely sums up a way of approaching the writing life. Gaspar begins the second section of this book with a quotation from Simone Weil: “If a church made by human beings can be full of symbols, how much more full must the universe be. It is infinitely full of them. We must read into them” (Field Guide, 25). Gaspar’s philosophy on writing appears to follow this—gathering the universe’s symbols and reading into them. Live the writing life by giving fair weight to the physical world and the small objects and beings within it—this is, in a way, its own religion.

This philosophy, of course, crosses into the craft of writing.  A successful poem (and by success I mean one that moves both writer and reader to some sense of revelation) requires balance. If a poem is entirely celestial or spiritual, it may alienate. If a poem is entirely grounded in the physical world, it may lack drive. Description alone may not always be strong enough for consideration or re-reading. To me, the best physical descriptions in poetry are usually metaphors—leaving us with some uncanny resemblance to consider and carry with us.

Another pairing technique is equally as important: the holy juxtaposed alongside the everyday. Gaspar’s method of building images matches the holy with the ordinary; he considers the heavens alongside the neighbor’s cat. Gaspar, in a sense, writes contemporary metaphysical poetry. No one poem falls into abstraction, nor does it stay within the confines of a straightforward narrative. His poems see beyond the scope of the world, while not neglecting the world itself.

These paired images occur again and again in the pages of Gaspar’s two newest poetry collections, Night of a Thousand Blossoms and A Field Guide to the Heavens. In “My Hood of Stars,” Gaspar writes that God “kept trying to show / me how to take the words from dreams and old / magazine covers, to make something out of them” (Night, 34). In “I Work Late at My Table in Summer,” he sets Mars’s movements next to train whistles (Field Guide, 11).  In “An Ark Cast into the Flags,” Gaspar breaks a narrative in which he watches his son surfing to say, “There is a star by the moon. Actually, it is Jupiter, but it doesn’t matter” (Field Guide, 36). Gaspar gives a little nod to the cosmos, saying, sure you’re out there, but here is more important. And yet, because he writes the lines, Jupiter becomes important. If we as readers accept the weight of each line, the pairing emerges as its own kind of metaphor: the longboarder in the ocean, “doing impossible things,” becomes the “star” (Field Guide, 36). The objects in the landscape become the celestial.

The poem “A Field Guide to the Heavens” shows us not only Gaspar as the speaker seeking symbolism from the universe, but also many direct uses of this heavenly/ordinary pairing technique:

Tonight I am speaking in tongues again.
Listen to all the stars with names as old as Mesopotamia:
Rukbat, Arkab, Nunki, Lesath, Shaula. They are shining forth
in the Archer and the Scorpion. They are ablaze in the southern sky.
The Scorpion rests his tail on some trees and a streetlight. Now and then
when I go inside to warm some coffee or toast some bread, I read
a few snatches of Milton, who laments death as the loss of intellect,
who says, Are not the towers of heaven filled with armed watch?
I am looking for certain signs, certain deliriums. This Scorpion
is the same that stung mighty Orion to death. This Archer
pursues him for all eternity, in his left hand the bow, in his right,
the flaming arrow. This region is rich and manifold. In this direction
lies the center of our galaxy, a holy fire. Aloof the vulgar constellations thick,
says Milton, and I walk outside again. The ducks over in the park
are raving mad. Their sounds float on the night wind. The neighbors sleep
in one another’s arms. Listen: Dschubba, Antares, Acrab. What
are they saying in the aisles and naves of the light years? What
is the sacred word on the street? What celestial music am I
so afraid to miss? In my right hand there is nothing. In my left
hand there is a cup. In my short chair in the shadows I am invisible.
This is how I know my street is a garden and my yard is a bower.
My coffee cools in the slow breeze. Someone’s cat circles,
curious, lets me touch the scruff of its neck before it goes off to hunt
for meat or sex. The shrubs and trees and flowers all become
one another’s equals in the slow eyes of darkness. Sing,
heavenly Muse, says Milton. Geidi, Nashira, Dabih. Eat
every fruit, sleep soundly: surely, verily, nothing will be lost.
                                                                                                (Field Guide, 3)

Gaspar admits to us, “I am looking for signs, certain deliriums” (Field Guide, 3). He is the man literally out in the scientific field, his head thrown back, searching the sky for answers. He is rattling off the terminology in the names of the stars. And then, Gaspar the poet makes his move: he connects the stars with the physical world. Like a connect-the-dot, the abstract, celestial Scorpion’s tail makes contact with the physical world: the Scorpion “rests his tail on some trees and a streetlight.”

And from there, we see the pairings multiply. The center of our galaxy is certainly a “holy fire,” but are the ducks not also holy, fiery, in their “raving” madness (Field Guide, 3)? Gaspar parallels the celestial Archer with himself. The Archer holds “in his left hand the bow, in his right, / the flaming arrow,” while the speaker states, “In my right hand there is nothing. In my left/hand there is a cup” (Field Guide, 3). While he downplays his significance—the “nothing” in his right hand contributing surely to his invisibility in the next line—these small things (or nothings) he holds take on a significance matching that of bow and arrow. The cup weighs in as a symbol of all symbols—wombs and grails and communions with all that is holy in the universe; the nothing leads us down the path to unity. The shadows that cast him invisible also lead to “The shrubs and trees and flowers all become / one another’s equals in the slow eyes of darkness” (Field Guide, 3). This nothingness in the right hand, this shadow in the short chair in the small garden, really serves to lead us towards the revelation of equality of matter—star alongside cat, coffee and intellect, the resounding persistence of the universe never truly dying out.

The Stichic Form and Spiritual Revelation

Sandra Alcosser once said in a workshop that the stichic form, with its block of text and lack of stanza breaks, is a rectangular box of experience—a coffin with a body to be revealed. While the lyric poem is more open, holding more air and mystery, the stichic is usually narrative, written largely in plain speech, with a build towards revelation. All of Frank Gaspar’s poems in Night of a Thousand Blossoms and all but five of those in A Field Guide to the Heavens share many elements with the stichic.  True stichic poems contain lines of the same meter and length, while Gaspar crafts his poems with a more elastic line that does not metrically conform. However, the poems resemble the stichic in every other way. In another perfect form-follows-function moment, this choice to use the stichic appears almost obvious for a poet seeking “the sacred word on the street”—writing to find some sort of revelation in the here and now.

Gaspar’s narratives are not terribly traditional. They are linear in a way, beginning in one location, sometimes unfolding a sequence of actions. Mostly the narrative resides in the back-and-forth between the poet’s mind and his surroundings, rather like the juxtaposition of holy and ordinary images. In a talk in January of 2010, Marvin Bell said that “poetry sprang from the need to express what this life feels like” (Bell). Gaspar, perhaps more than any other poet, expresses what life feels like to me: a rambling path of days, weaving in and out of things that are surely significant. My life feels like begging, much of the time. I have transitioned from sitting in church and pleading with Jesus to come into my heart to sitting in the world, begging it to all make sense. Frank Gaspar’s stichic, in a way, is the only form that can provide some relief while still containing the chaos. Its steady, shifting build promises us something when we look at it on the page: it promises that in the end, we will feel something more concrete than we felt before—we may have a small revelation. In “It Was So Dark Inside the Wolf,” the stichic form works especially well:

All day with nothing on my mind, the soft old couch,
the heating pad, a book of Tennessee Williams’s letters,
tea, camembert, beer, soup, dozing, speaking in tongues
off in my drowsing mind, invoking this or that god, thinking
of raising my fortunes, thinking of all this swimming forward
without me someday, this bag of small wishes, the greatest
sorrows indelible and indistinct in the afternoon’s haze:
I cannot remember who said that our salvation must come
from a turn within our own nature and that there are no turns
and there is no nature. Oh, it was so dark inside the wolf said
the little girl with the basket after the hunters had killed
that beast who had eaten her, after they had cut him open to
let her out, although you don’t hear that version so often anymore.
Surely this is significant. Who hasn’t lodged in the belly
of something, who hasn’t been devoured? Do you remember?
Maybe it is something for you like an old tune that haunts you,
that makes you so suddenly sad when you see a place where
the carpet is coming up or where the screen door is sagging
on a desperate hinge. Unbearable, this material music dissipating
the neighborhood around you into nothing. How does one rise
from this torpor and say, I don’t know what to do anymore?
Outside the trees have sneaked above the line of the neighbor’s
wall. How did I not notice? They make a tiny forest along
our city driveway. They are as dark and deep as it gets here.
I am still trying to rise up from the loveliness of dying objects
into the loveliness of whatever it is they point to. I’m trying
to get at just how things are, to adjust to that, but then I start
shaking. Isn’t that how it is with you? It was so dark inside,
but that’s not the whole story. They are leaving something out.
I can feel it in the sleepless night when I run my hands over
the openings in doorways. I can feel it when my own heart
delivers all my secrets to my enemies. I can feel it when
the poem doesn’t turn but heads for the bottom with a hook
in its mouth or when the sky runs to the color of tin and
the sparrows disguise themselves as leaves in the hedge waiting
for their moment. Isn’t that how it is with you?

    (Night, 7)

Alcosser’s metaphor of the stichic as a coffin containing a body serves this poem chillingly well—with the poem itself containing the dark caverns of a beast, and the self as the body trapped inside. Gaspar reveals the body. Indeed, even when the reader emerges from the belly of the wolf, some part of that darkness remains inside of us. Gaspar writes, “Who hasn’t lodged in the belly of something, who hasn’t been devoured?” Just as we begin to figure things out, to “get at just how things are,” a new darkness appears; a darkness we can never dispel (Night, 7). Whether inside us (“my own heart “) or in the menacing color of the sky or in the dark surprises of our own poetic revelations, we will always somehow be shaken by the unbearable “material music” (Night, 7). 

The stichic form here allows the poem to become its own cavernous space. It functions much like the wolf, pulling us in from the beginning with a false atmosphere of security. We think at first that we are safe—the speaker has nothing on his mind, he is drinking tea and beer. He has a heating pad, Tennessee Williams’s letters. He is harmless, if not a bit feeble. But the stichic does not give us a point of departure—a little space between stanzas through which we could escape. The poem turns without warning to an idea of unattainable salvation, and then into a familiar narrative that we all know: Little Red Riding Hood, but darker somehow. A narrative we know with a violent turn we would like to forget. And then on to the darkness we can never shake, ending with a glance to the reader, pleading again, “Isn’t that how it is with you?” (Night, 7). 

With the final line in this poem, Gaspar tosses the stichic’s revelation upon the reader so that this nightmarish narrative becomes not simply a story we have read, but a story we have lived. And we are afraid. But we cannot forget the lines buried in the center of this poem: that the speaker is still “trying to rise up from the loveliness of dying objects / into the loveliness of whatever it is they point to” (Night, 7). Perhaps another revelation that this stichic offers is that the darkness we are trapped in (the dying objects) may somehow point to holiness.

 Poetic Doctrine

When I examine the differences between religious spirituality and the quest for holiness in writing, I find that the major difference is doctrine. The holiness in poetry cannot be doctrinal, cannot be familiar. The holiness in poetry must be unknown to the reader entirely, and mostly unknown to the poet. This is not to say that the familiarity of the spiritual has no place in a poem seeking an end revelation. Many of Gaspar’s poems contain references to Buddhism and Christianity. The spiritual content of the poem is less important than the crafting of that content—how it rubs up against unexpected images to create the Holy-Ordinary image Gaspar employs. Or how it is encapsulated in form—whether through the locked coffin of the stichic or through the meditative repetition of a villanelle or the expected turn in a sonnet.

The doctrine of poetry cannot lie in the words we say, but in the way we say them. To live this writing life in which we seek the world’s symbols, we must do less squinting and holding our breath, waiting for the One and Only Holy Spirit. We have to do more interacting with the family of God to find the deviations, the varieties of holiness. I look back on my religious upbringing and see that in fact it was not all rote memorization and cloudy doctrine, but rather a colorful collection of images and characters. The green velvet of the church pews. The off-key celebrations of musical praise. Light shining through thick panes of colored glass onto a beaming, begging congregation.

 

Works Cited

Bell, Marvin. "Three Propositions; Hooey, Dewey, and Loony." Seaside, Oregon, Pacific University MFA Residency. 9 Jan. 2010.
Gaspar, Frank. A Field Guide to the Heavens. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
Gaspar, Frank. Night of a Thousand Blossoms. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2004.

Poems Cited

“Bodhidharma Preaches the Wake-up Sermon”
from Night of a Thousand Blossoms, page 25

There’s no language that isn’t the Dharma. Language is
essentially free. It has nothing to do with attachment. And
attachment has nothing to do with language.
—Bodhidharma

Somehow or another, something is missing in me. I should
be satisfied with the household gods. I should learn my place
and understand that they are enough for any one man or woman.
Of course we are at their mercy. They suffer us every small thing.
And we thank you, god of the kitchen drainboard and goddess of
the gas-log hearth. We thank you for your benevolence and kindness,
and god of the grocery sacks for your capacious heart, and goddess
of linoleum and green lawns, and winged goddess of the laughter
of neighborhood children, but always we are wandering from
your groves and bowers, your gardens, your abundant pantries.
For instance, what does anyone’s life mean, now, in this third
millennium, so called? I am talking about what you can and can’t
live without, which is a way of talking about attachment. Is there
a language that isn’t the Dharma? To seek nothing is bliss,
said the saint Bodhidharma, but isn’t he the one who cut off his eyelids
in the search for a more perfect meditation? No, no, this is not
the way, in the heat of the night, in the heat of fevers, the blue gas jets
wavering in the hot breeze on the kitchen range (goddess off
the four burners, goddess of the coffee pot, our acknowledgment,
our gratitude), not the way when we open the door to the small
empty street and look down its length, first one way and then the other.
It’s what you can or can’t live without. It’s all streetlight and crickets
on this particular night. It’s all language and breath in this particular
trial. It’s all delicacy and power lines. It’s all asphalt and glass. That’s
why I am up night after night. That’s why I walk so softly on the floors
and rugs. I am bowing and kneeling in every little corner, at every little
helpful shrine, but I couldn’t say if I am praying or if I am simply
looking for some small button or short piece of string that I’ve lost.
Most nights I really couldn’t tell you what on earth I’m doing.

 

“My Hood of Stars”
from Night of a Thousand Blossoms, page 34

God was still walking around in the wilderness
fascinated and puzzled. He kept trying to show
me how to take the words from dreams and old
magazine covers, to make something out of them.
He was preoccupied for hours and hours, but
he never spoke his mind plainly. He did not
like people to feel too comfortable around him.
He was far more troubled than anyone now wants
to remember. This is when the world was
mostly without form, but it wasn’t void: it is
just that everything made only one kind of sense.
You didn’t have good words like automobile or deduction,
though you had rebuke and anoint. Then God
bent down and picked up a handful of desert.
Not really. It’s just how we talk about such things.
He picked up a handful of desert and there came
a great tempest. Then there were worlds standing in line,
waiting on street corners and in train stations. Then
God went a great way into that wilderness, whistling
and singing in bright garments. I watched him go.
Everybody did. Then his stars fell around us like swallows,
stricken and stunned: That’s when the people began scooping
them into their pockets and purses, trying on names, in-
venting excuses. That’s when I tried on my own garment,
drunk on fear and craving. That’s how I began whistling and singing.

 

“I Work Late at My Table in Summer”
from A Field Guide to the Heavens, page 11

June bugs are hurling their fat, homely bodies
at the pale light in my doorways. Sometimes
I go to the back steps, where they have piled up
under a lightbulb like a kind of snow, and
I run my hands through them. They are
aloof and driven and free of any malice.
Sometimes they drop against the windows like pennies,
so dull and copper, and I am pleased to see them,
for now, in the order of things, the mockingbird
can stop singing for sex, and the jacarandas
will know it’s time for casting off their royal favors.
I am at the table then with paper and something
to make it with. I am breathing the same air, the same
late hour. I am thinking about how Blake nailed
the question. It’s not if God, but what does all
the silence mean? Who knows what the june bugs
listen to. Mars is up, red and strong, swaggering
into Virgo, fog bells are banging out in the far
channels where the stone barges lie at anchor,
a train whistle burrows deep in the west side.
All over the city, creatures are devout and full of purpose,
and now these small ones, bumbling and flying, ignoring
their failures. Let them tap and fluster in their
pill bodies. Let them roll and cleave on their
spindle legs. The porchlights and streetlights
are all their happiness, and my windows, where
they are a soft rain, where I don’t draw the blinds,
where I don’t douse the hungry lamp.

 

“An Ark Casts into the Flags”
from A Field Guide to the Heavens, page 36

Today there is rolling thunder at the beach.
The multitudes have come to watch, with their cameras
and their bright clothes. Cars and vans choke the streets.
The tanned boys are all gristle and sinew carrying their boards.
The storm surf is rolling up from nineteen-hundred miles off Baja,
and it rounds the pier like hills and hills, going out to the horizon.
The curls clap the sand and shake the earth, the air is all foam
and spray and mist. A television crew has set up its equipment.
The riders sit respectfully on the sand and meditate the shapes,
the direction, the rips, the intervals as they ready themselves.
The sun is nearly down and the new moon starts to show like a narrow rind.
I am merely watching, where once I would have entered.
I am exercising a fulsome direction and prudence, but
I am also watching my son on his board. At twelve he is too small,
too weak yet to fight out to the break, but her rides the high seconds
near the shore. I watch him disappear again and again under
shelves of white water. I have to breathe and watch and let him
come up on his own. He is thin and graceful. Each time he emerges
there is an exultation. If I were a half mile up the beach, I could spot
him from his sheer joy. He is floating among the rushes of joy. He is
headed somewhere I have never been, to someplace I’ll never set foot in.
He is practicing his spinout, his step, his stall, his rollover.
There is a star by the moon. Actually it Is Jupiter, but it doesn’t matter.
I can look up and down the beach. The earth pounds and shivers,
the spume rises, the waves keep roaring. There are words that cannot
abide here. There are ideas that are not possible. You can take
whatever air you want in your mouth and twist it however you like,
you will never make sorrow, or confusion, or gloom, or their
hundred dreary comrades. A longboarder in the outside break
is carving down the face of something enormous. He is the only one
in the wave, and he is walking up, driving up the shoulder to spin
and come down again. The spray shines in the dusk. He is doing
impossible things. He looks like he will stay up forever, powering
through close-outs higher than his head. All at once the crowd
understands something. All at once we are all watching the same thing.
Even my son has rolled from his board and stands in the shallows to watch.
now every one of us knows exactly why we’ve come here.
And we are all whooping and shouting like fools.

 

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