I invited the man into my small office in a clapboard house next to First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. He told me that he was standing exactly halfway between the hell he’d left behind and the employment that lay shimmering ahead. He had no identification card and no way to verify his story. “All we need is one night, and we’ll be on our way,” he said, bowing slightly.
When I checked them into a motel room, one of the girls collapsed onto the bed and hugged it, gathering a corner of bedspread into her arms. She pressed her cheek against the polyester flowers while the rest of her family spun around, fighting over the remote control, ripping protective plastic off the cups. She lay so still. I asked her mom if the girl was okay, but the mom didn’t answer. She had a comb in her mouth and was retying another girl’s ponytail.
I gave them a gas voucher and some meal tickets for the local family restaurant. “Do you need to wash some clothes?” I asked the parents. The kids shouted for toys. I knelt down beside the girl. With her mouth against her arm, she asked, “Do you have any books?”
The next morning, I caught the family just as they were leaving the motel room. I gave them a handful of toys from my son’s room. My son was young and irritated about the loss. An ad hoc explanation about poverty didn’t inspire him. Being a preacher’s kid, he’d heard all this before. With a shrug he said, “I guess so.”
I handed some books to the girl through the car window. She shoved them under her shirt and held up her arms in a karate gesture against her siblings, already protecting the words.
One was a collection of poems. I hoped that she would read one of them by Poul Borum called “A Train Is Passing”:
A train is passing
a whistle sounds
stop stop the trees cry
but it’s no use
a train is passing
a sound expires
stop life cries
we are already far away
(This poem by Danish poet Poul Borum (1934-1996) came from a children’s book called This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye.)
My encounter with the girl was brief, and so this particular poem as a parting gift was fittingly brief. This is the life of a Presbyterian minister. People knock on my door when they are in crisis. I do what I can, like offering a book of poems. They leave. I never see them again.
Or else they live here, and I see them every day. One afternoon, a man tells me he’s thinking of having an affair with a woman he met on the Internet. I offer what I can. I listen. He never mentions it again. He’s two rows in front of me at the middle school band concert. Then, he’s sitting next to me at the coffee shop, but I don’t ask him how it turned out.
Everyday, events of grave importance appear to me. At first without a context, like the time I was driving in the fog and a pale calf materialized in the middle of the highway. Initially, it was only a lightness. Then it became a face, then a creature. I eased down my brake, parked alongside the two-lane highway and stared at it; joining the quest of others who’d also stopped.
In the ministry, it’s 47 calves. I say this because two weeks ago, during Christmas, I counted 47 phone calls in one day. Sometimes, the calls were about minor business: “Where’s the three-pronged outlet for the Christmas tree in the sanctuary?” to “You spelled so-and-so’s name wrong for the memorial poinsettias.” But most were people in trouble, five of whom I did not know, wanting wise answers in a frivolous season that never offers much time.
Tony Hoagland’s poems help me to make sense of these moments, when there is no narrative context, or at least, no time to hear it.
This is part of his poem “A Color of the Sky”:
Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week;
and throwing it away,
and making more.
For ministers, narrative gives our mission thrust and clarity. But when the narrative is missing, poetry offers momentum of a different type. As opposed to scanning horizontally through a series of events, poetry takes us, like a coal mining car, vertically through seams of shiny black into the heart of the mountain. Down, down, down, the poem offers a denouement, a settling, even though the Christmas phone calls remain unresolved.
A young woman came to me after leaving her Amish community. The night she ran away, she pretended to go ice-skating, then headed to a neighbor’s farm. She gave them the black coat with a white cap she’d recently sewn, and asked them to give the garments to her sister who had no nice coat.
Later, the Amish woman told me, “These strangers gave me a replacement, English (non-Amish) coat, which, like all English clothes, was ugly. Of course it had snaps, and I cried because I didn’t know how to use snaps. That night, to comfort myself, I watched a television set for the first time, a drama about a woman in distress, but the show ended before the woman’s story was finished. I kept asking about this poor woman on the television. For a whole week, they turned channels and tried to help me find her, but she never appeared.
“So there I sat in my unsnapped coat, worrying about this woman stuck in the television set. And I thought, is this what English life will be? Everything unfinished?”
The month before she left the Amish community, knowing that she’d probably never see her family again, she sat in the one-room schoolhouse and wrote down the words to her favorite Amish songs. Last week, nearly 10 years after leaving, she walked into my house, singing one of them:
Die welt ist nicht mein heim
Ich wanderi nurch und durch
The world is not my home
I’m just a-passing through
Much in her life remains stubbornly unsettled. Members of her family may never speak to her. Parts of our society may never make sense to her. At times, she expresses frustration that her life isn’t going anywhere, but this sung poem always brightens her face, and gives her, even as she slouches with exhaustion, a vector of speed, a sense of travel to something new.
My six-year-old nephew will not let anyone touch him. He says, “Don’t wook at me.” My mother was ecstatic not long ago, because although he would not hug her when she was saying goodbye, he stepped forward, held out a twig and said, “You can hug my stick.”
This past week, he sat on the couch next to me. His mom, my sister, recently finished a massive round of chemotherapy, and he’d been held back a year at school, a jolting year. It was early morning, and he was trying to impress me with some math problems, saying, “See? I’m not so dumb.”
My father, across the room, set down the newspaper and told how when he was a young boy, math had been difficult until he got this great teacher. My father circled one hand in the air and said,
And the night shall be filled with music, and the cares that infest the day
shall fold up their tents like the Arabs, and silently steal away.
I recited these words with him, for I’d heard this quote from the story many times. This teacher, when squaring both sides of an equation, would recite Kipling as he made tiny circles with the eraser, canceling the square root signs.
My nephew stared with wide eyes. The three of us drew circles in the air and recited the poem again, and the boy settled under my arm.
Down the road, my friend’s marriage is over. Her finances are uncertain. Tonight, her children are with their father. It’s the Christmas season. She is standing by my car. The snow is stinging our faces. It is so, so bleak.
She is speaking over the wind, saying, “Ample make the bed.”
I say, “What?”
She says, “It’s a poem I memorized. We were supposed to memorize another one, but I memorized this one instead, because I liked it. ‘Ample make the bed.’
Something, something. ‘Let no sunrise’ yellow noise interrupt this ground.’”
I stamp snow off my boots. “I don’t get it. You mean you’re missing romance?”
She shakes her head. “It means that even when you don’t know what’s ahead, you can still hold onto the things that matter and protect them from danger. Plus I just like the way it sounds. It’s by Emily Dickinson, I’m pretty sure.”
Whether the fragment is a motel room, the outskirts of an Amish town, the end of chemotherapy, or the first snowfall, poetry is what comes to mind, because poetry allows us to regard the moment that has not been bound, that has not been made religious in an etymological sense, but still remains at large. Poetry allows us to regard that wild moment streaking ahead, so that even without a known narrative, we might find within that firefly incident great possibility for meaning.
“Ample Make the Bed”
Ample make the bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.