Monday, March 7, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 27: Isaiah’s Hope, “War Stories,” and Charles Ellenbogen

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 27: Isaiah’s Hope, “War Stories,” and Charles Ellenbogen

Thus says the LORD:
Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness
in what I create;
For I create Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and exult in my people.
No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there,
or the sound of crying;
No longer shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime;
He dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years,
and he who fails of a hundred shall be thought accursed.
They shall live in the houses they build,
and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.
            --Isaiah 65

If religion is to be more than an opiate of the people (Marx), pie in the sky (Joe Hill), perhaps it must emerge from radical hope and a vision of a transformed world—not waiting for something after life, but right here, in this time and place. The French poet Paul Eluard once said, echoing perhaps his catechism, “there is another world, and it is in this one.” Yesterday I bumped into Chris Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, and he talked about their own Lenten project, exploring racial justice from an Ignatian lens—and how little the Church itself (as institutional body) has addressed race and the ongoing racial injustices in the United States. He wants to be part of that conversation, to spark real change, to make justice. People like Chris give me hope for that transformation.

Isaiah strikes me first and foremost because he presumes that God speaks through him. It is an audacious act, to be sure. His vision is also a nearly-impossible apocalyptic one, where there is no sadness and no children die and everyone lives a long life. It’s a vision that may be as far as the “pie in the sky,” or as near as our own breathing. Reading Thich Nhat Hanh lately, I’ve found great consolation in his notion of breathing as the ground for our return to ourselves, our return to this moment, our share of peace. Perhaps that is the other world, where we are utterly present.

The poem for today, “War Stories,” is about a past that will not be forgotten. It began when a friend told me a story about a friend who had returned from the Vietnam War, and seethed every night at dinner as his father kept talking about the rightness of the war. One night, he told his father to come outside with him into the backyard. Taking a shovel, he started digging until he uncovered a box. Inside that box was a necklace of ears. “This is your war,” he said. Whose ears were they, I’m wondering again now. They were someone’s ears. This story’s similarity to Carolyn Forche’s great poem “The Colonel” made all versions of my poem seem imitative, so I threw it out and began to write more directly about my experience of being a father on the homefront. Charles Ellenbogen, a teacher at a local public high school in Cleveland, shares his commentary on the poem and also on the vulnerability of children in our hurt communities.

War Stories (from SAND OPERA)

The fitful sleep of steak and silver. We 
man the monitors of dreaming, on this outpost
of fatherhood. The battlements of silence.
A friend opens a bottle of red. We’ve lived
in this dome so long it seems like freedom.
We know the crackle of distant gunfire
heightened by stereo, the plith of dust,
each stray bullet pirouetting in slo-mo.
Our fathers and brothers wear the flak jacket
of medal and shrapnel. We don the softness
of palms, the odor of diaper wipes. Somewhere
outside, someone’s brother’s buried
a box he won’t tell us where. Inside the box
is. We gird the landscape in the soundtrack
of earbuds, but inside the box is a baby
radio hissing. Inside is the rattle unjawed.   
In the rings of our suburbs, outside the zone
of ground zeroes. The baby is stirring, not
crying. Inside the well of our glasses,
the smutch of discernable breathing. 

“War Stories” & Charles Ellenbogen

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien wonders a great deal about stories and, in particular, the notion of a true war story and what it means to call it true. It seems to me that the poem “War Stories” is both True and true. Though I’ve had the privilege of never having lived in a war zone, I have been on the “outpost / of fatherhood” and remain there. I know what it means to tiptoe silently into a child’s room and yearn for what seems the bare minimum – “the smutch of discernible breathing.”
            I had to look up the meaning of the word smutch – it means, I am told, ‘stain’ or smudge,’ – words, on the surface, that don’t seem to be enough. But as we see children dying in the streets of Cleveland or on the beaches of somewhere that’s not home, breathing is enough. In some places, visitors are asked – how are the children? The idea is that if the children are well, then the society is well.
            Our children are not well.
            “War Stories” is filled with containers and suggestions of them – “outpost,” “dome,” “flak jacket,” “outside,” “box,” “rings,” “zone,” “glasses,” etc.. We try to protect our children, the children. I try to protect my students. But despite our best efforts, we, like Holden, cannot be the catchers in the rye. The position, like the lines from the Burns poem Holden has remembered incorrectly, simply doesn’t exist. We can build as many walls as we want (and these walls may end up doing more damage than good), but hiding is no longer an option. This poem moves me to action because it is time – past time – to step outside of our domes, to cast aside our “earbuds” and engage. Our children are not well because we have made them unwell. Despite recent claims from a criminally negligent Michigan governor, this situation cannot be “fixed.” It can, I hope and pray, be changed.
            But this change more and more of us seek will not happen quickly or with a parade. I cherish the line, “Inside the box / is.” Inside the box is the present tense, the present – the only sense of time that babies have, the only sense of time they should need to consider. They just need to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We, too, should breathe. And then engage.
            As the calendar turns to the holidays of spring and all they are meant to symbolize, we, too, must renew. “We are,” Dr. King told us, “now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” I used to think the key word was ‘now’; now, I think it’s ‘fierce.’ It’s time for a confrontation of another kind. We need the children to do more than breathe. We need them to be well.

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy - Eagle Academy and is currently enrolled in the "Tried and True" Neighborhood Leadership Cleveland Class 32. Kirsten, his wife, is President and CEO of the Great Lakes Science Center, and his children, Zoe (11) and Ezra (9) are the best poetry he knows.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Excellent commentary by Charles Ellenbogen on your wonderful poem.