Humble Clay Cups

Poetry for Faith and Healing

Everyone seems to want to beat up on 2016.

On social media, it’s been referred to as a dumpster fire as well as a sentient creature that will rain down more of its wrath if it hears you maligning it.

There are ample reasons why people—in my bubble, at least—want to malign 2016. Syria, as I write this, is a cradle of slaughter; Syria’s refugees, fleeing this hell, are regarded as a problem or contagion by many when they should be welcomed and allowed to heal. This past summer, Islamic State-related terrorism turned a seaside Bastille Day celebration into a nightmare. The Pulse nightclub. The Ghost Ship. Britain and other nations across the Atlantic—most recently, Italy—are taking profoundly nationalist turns that threaten the stability of the European Union, particularly in the face of Russian missiles and ambitions.

And the U.S. has undergone one of the most acrimonious elections most of us can remember. As the campaigns snaked through the past 18 months, words related to fraud, hate, and sexual assault bounced about with the casualness and frequency of lingua franca. To say our nation is in need of healing is an understatement. To say that this election is settled and the transition is smooth would be wilful ignorance.

So 2016 is a bundle of sadness, rage, violence, loss, and rift; its four-digit body is called out and beaten like a piñata, but the beating only releases more of same.

Poets breathe the air of despair, it’s often said. My creative writing students often complain that they can’t write when they are happy; another contingent of students slaps a happy ending on even the most dire of poems, desperate to make things right. As poets continue in their craft, they learn that it isn’t about either-or; it’s about allowing hope and despair to coexist in a single work. In literary critical language, I encourage this by alluding to the artistic energy generated by the tension, even the confrontation, between the two. In human language, I just say this is the mix we face every minute of our lives. 2016 hasn’t cornered that uncomfortable but inevitable market.

Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” has seen a renewed presence on the internet since November 8. This poem, originally published in Waxwing this past June, went viral in the U.K. and U.S. following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. Its title alludes to the HGTV home renovation series:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

This short lyric revolves around the idea of keeping despair on the other side of the line from hope and faith. Is drawing the line, separating the light from the shadow, an act of will? On social media, during times when the newsfeed is clogged with evidence of all that is wrong with the world, I’m always relieved to see posts involving children. Children, of course, are the ones we need to “sell” on this world, on the fact that, despite its being “at least half terrible,” they “could make this place beautiful.” It’s no surprise that this poem has taken on a life of its own, far beyond the usual literary channels: It is selling the world not only to actual children but also to the child in all of us, the part of ourselves that has not become hard, alienated, contentious, and cynical. Maybe it’s like the child we’re challenged to become in Matthew 18:3.

I’d like to think that healing is becoming that child.

I believe all poetry is vital, but some poetry readings just feel more vital, more necessary to healing, than others. Two days after the presidential election that left so many of us stunned, I attended such a reading on my campus. In an event sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, three poets involved in the #Black Poets Speak Out project—Amanda Johnson, Jericho Brown, and Mahogany Browne—read their work to a crowded auditorium. The project, initiated in the wake the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, invites black American poets to make video responses “in solidarity with those who refuse to accept these atrocities as a normal condition of black life.”

How else do we heal but by going through the rage, while jealously guarding the line we’ve discerned between faith and despair?

Each poet read their work, interspersed with powerful videos attesting to and resisting systemic violence to black bodies. Of the three, I’d never heard Mahogany Browne before. Her reading style was one of full, embodied presence—infusion. In her poem, “Litany,” the negative emotions that could add up to despair are never allowed to stagnate in one place or form, for they are continually in flux, mixing in with play, joy, and even the possible triumph of a beautiful, righteous rage, as the fire in the closing stanza suggests:

today, i am a mother, & my country is burning
and i forget how to flee
from such a flamboyant backdraft
—i’m too in awe of how beautiful i look
on fire

How else do we heal but by going through the rage, while jealously guarding the line we’ve discerned between faith and despair? The great poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” If blooming is also healing, I suppose there is never an ideal environment in which to do it, that sometimes we have to draw on what we need to move forward from within, from a source that, in our worst moments, we can only locate through faith.

It’s hard to be so open to the sadness and suffering of the world, and the trembling reflects that. But never mistake trembling for weakness or despair.

Jane McCafferty, most known for her fiction (First You Try Everything; Director of the World and Other Stories), is also a brilliant poet whose faith is always close to the surface, trembling in an effort to make healing possible. It’s hard to be so open to the sadness and suffering of the world, and the trembling reflects that. But never mistake trembling for weakness or despair. In McCafferty’s poem, “I DIG THE CHRIST,” faith trembles itself into a shield as the speaker reclaims a Christianity that isn’t beholden to greed, privilege, and injustice:

Did Mary name Jesus and when the name left her lonely
lips did it become a sudden star?

Every little anagram shines a light on how words
Are born writhing in the dark cave of someone’s mouth.
Everyone who names someone is in the hands
of an ancient raging mystery. Did she know the only words
in his name were Use us?

Sometimes you have to live in a country where they turn
Jesus into a frightened man with a whistle.
A man whose favorite word is no.  This Jesus
Keeps them safe in their prosperity, slams doors
on the refugee, defends police brutality.

But they can’t destroy him, they can’t nail him up again,
unless they find a way to nail up the atmosphere.

The name Jesus Christ heals me when I speak it,
as the Desert Fathers Mothers Sisters Brothers intoned.
And Jesus feels the syllables like smooth blue stones
Rattling around in his chest where lightning strikes
And hatred goes to die and rise again as light.

 It’s been reported that many progressives have gone back to church since the election. Emma Green writes in The Atlantic that “this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.” What if 2016 were instead invoked as the year that shook us out of complacency, the year that served up despair in a golden goblet so blinding that it was hard to keep our eyes on the humble clay cups of hope, of faith?

Here’s to the familiar feel of the clay on the lips as you sip what sustains you.

Ellen McGrath Smith

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife (West End Press, 2015) explores alcoholism and yoga through poetry. She has written on poetry as prayer for Talking Writing.

Image credits:

Cover – Quino Al, “Untitled.” Via Unsplash. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Inside – LastHuckleBerry, “Hope,” July 16, 2015. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.