Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, ‘Setting the Inner Compass,’ I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul.
We are approaching Advent. On the first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope. My theme this November is hope. The Merriam Webster dictionary my parents gave me when I entered high school tells me that hope is “Desire accompanied by an expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” Hope is not wishful thinking or optimism. Wishful thinking or optimism is looking at reality through rose colored glasses, ignoring the negative, focusing on the positive. Hope, Christian hope, is not like that at all. It sees the world as it is: good and bad. Our hope is not based on glossing over or ignoring the hard stuff. Grounded in our faith, we see the brokenness and the harsh realities. Some days it is difficult to feel hope, but we go on. Trusting in the way of Jesus, in God and one another, we work together, believing a better day will come.
Last month, I had just one poem. This month four. The first poem is by Lisel Mueller. In 1939, at the age of 15, with her family, Ms. Mueller fled the Nazi regime and settled in the United States. This background informs her work as an artist. In 1997, Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Alive Together: New & Selected Poems. In 1981, she won the National Book Award for Poetry for The Need to Hold Still. Lisel Mueller died this past February.
The second poem, “How to Survive This,” is from Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful new collection of poetry, How to Fly (in Ten Easy Lessons). One of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver is the author of nine bestselling novels, most recently Unsheltered. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts.
The third poem is by Lynn Unger who was in my first poetry column with her poem “Pandemic”. She shares a brand-new poem in this column.
The last poem by Barbara Crooker veers from the theme of Hope to Thanksgiving, an appropriate way to close a November column. Living in the Pacific Northwest with its short, dark, November days, the closing line of the poem resonates with me, “Though darkness gathers, praise or crazy fallen world; it’s all we have and it’s never enough.”
Thank you to the publishers and to Lisel Mueller and Barbara Crooker for allowing me to share these poems with you.
by Lisel Mueller
It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.
It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
it is the motion that runs
from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.
It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.
How to Survive This
by Barbara Kingsolver
O misery. Imperfect
universe of days stretched out
ahead, the string of pearls
and drops of venom on the web,
losses of heart, of life
and limb, news of the worst:
Remind me again
the day will come
when I look back amazed
at the waste of sorry salt
when I had no more than this
to cry about.
Now I lay me down.
I’m not there yet.
by Lynn Ungar
It’s hard, these days, to know what to believe in.
I still pray to Goodness, Truth and Mercy,
but I am starting to suspect there are stronger gods.
and war brewing on the mountain.
Hope is still in the pantheon, but Optimism
slunk off a while back. Joy, and her sister Delight,
still come around, and I leave the door open as I can.
But sometimes its hard for the soul to keep faith.
I am trying to listen behind its high, anxious whine
to prayers of the flesh. Tea, says the body.
Rain, lavender, red leaves, pie.
by Barbara Crooker
Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.
HOPE by Lisel Mueller © Lisel Mueller 1996, is from her book ALIVE TOGETHER and reprinted with permission of LSU Press.
How to Survive This is from the book: HOW TO FLY (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver. Copyright © 2020 by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Keeping Faith © Lynn Ungar is used in UNBOUND with the permission of the poet. You can read more of Lynn’s poetry, or purchase her book Bread and Other Miracles, at lynnungar.com .
PRAISE SONG© Barbara Crooker is from the book Radiance (Word Press, 2005) and used with the permission of the poet.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. (firstname.lastname@example.org).