Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 40: A Word That Will Rouse Us + Deema Shehabi

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 40: A Word That Will Rouse Us + Deema Shehabi

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
            --Isaiah 50: 4-7

Today’s opening reading is among the scriptural passages I cherish most, so much so that I accidentally memorized the opening. Years ago, when I came upon it in my adult mind, it seemed to be a sort of vocational invitation, a compass to navigate the unmarked path of being a writer. To speak a word to the weary a word that would rouse them. Yes, I thought, writing it down in my notebook, a sort of mantra for what writing might do. It came up unbidden during the Hunt interview with Jeremy Zipple and Joe Hoover, and my secret faith life suddenly became visible: In the Lenten season, this reading is paired up with the Palm Sunday reading of Jesus’s triumphant return to Jerusalem, riding an ass and greeted by people who lay palm fronds on the road before him—thus inviting the connection of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of someone who maintains faith despite being beaten to Jesus’s own crucifixion.

During this Lent, I’ve been wrestling with Scripture alongside the poems of Sand Opera, aided along the way by other poets and writers and people of faith as we have journeyed together through these gray and cold months. I’m so grateful that, despite your silence, that you have been with me. Whoever you are: thank you. On the face of it, it was a crazy and uncool thing to do, to try to bring together two ways of being, two ways of trying to understand this life—the life of faith and the life of writing—and to lay bare my resistances to the life of faith while I let my own writing hibernate. I have my doubts—about everything—but I’m grateful to be part of a community of writers and a community of faith (not just the Catholic Church, in all its battered splendor, but our home parish, St. Dominic Church in Shaker Heights).  

Today’s poem concerns the strange politics of identity during the post-9/11 moment, when I came awake as an Arab American. My father always instilled in us a sense of pride and belonging to the peoples of the Middle East, yet we live in a country that has been at war with Arabs just about as long as I’ve been alive. So when 9/11 happened, I was having that double-consciousness of which W.E.B. DuBois wrote so eloquently. Alongside this poem is a poem by Deema K. Shehabi, a Palestinian American poet who lives in the Bay Area, and measures her own proximity and distance to where her family came from (her grandfather was once the mayor of Gaza!).

From “Homefront/Removes” (from Sand Opera)

) (

In the wake of. I don’t even speak the language. In glances and glares. My son, you are Arab, be proud of it, my Dad would say. I awaken. I avoid pulling up beside flagged trucks. Of ire I sing, mirror. Who turns to see me, the invisible now visible. Who lives in a want ad for a criminal act. Fits the ethnicity, if you know what I mean, my colleague said. Myself as numb stranger. My son, you are Arab, be proud of it.  I count turned heads, raised eyebrows at the faculty meeting, when two Muslims are introduced as visiting professors in physics. What does it matter where numbers come from? B’s father is still missing. Whose face, he’d joke, he never knew, seeing it was always behind a home movie camera. My son, I caught myself saying to no one who exists, I am air

“Gate of Freedom” by Deema K. Shehabi

(for Palestinian hunger striker, Samer Issawi)

Lovers of asparagus, alive
as hummingbirds, place their nostrils
over a low cloud, wet of air.
It’s the year of green hills
in California that early spring;
the evening is blue-split between the first
snow on the mountain top,
and a computer screen, where news of a man
whose body is eating itself, scythes
 the long-stemmed breaths in the room.
“Do not weep if my heart fails,” he writes.
“I am your son.”

            Gate of Love

Son I have. Your hands bulge
with pear tree blossoms.
You are bellow and sweat,
hunger and bread.
I part the fog to find you
through a grimy crowd of kids.
Before you give in to the affection
that soils you in public,
I’ll promise you a truce.

            Gate of the Sun

Bristling down the chemical-
scraped hall uttering
assalamu alaikums to the young
patients from the UAE, their heads sagging
to the side, their bodies a shrine
to tumors, husks of overgrown cells,
the chemo fountain. One boy
stares through a sieve
of darkness, hewn around dark-gray clouds.

            Gate of Peace

“I have so many sons withering,”
 I whisper to the Chinese elm, as news
of the man whose body is eating itself,
disputes with the bresola on crisp baguette
that I’m eating in a garden

among the flung-out
blue jays and limping Daddy long legs.
No hymns left;
only a small neck
the sun gnarls through.

First appeared: Academy of American Poets website, Poem-A-Day (March 10, 2013).

Deema K. Shehabi is the author of Thirteen Departures from the Moon, co-editor with Beau Beausoleil of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, and co-author with Marilyn Hacker of  Diaspo/Renga


Josie Setzler said...

Ah yes, Phil, despite my silence I have been with you on this Lenten journey. And I can hear how the silence disappoints. Your posts give rise to so many thoughts, it is hard to know where to start with my own response. There is such richness in your 4-fold juxtaposition: scripture, your introductory thoughts, your poem, your guest's reflection. The 4 parts give rise to 4 x 3 x2 = 24 different combinations of 2-fold juxtapositions. If indeed that's how a person processes: two things at a time. I say this just to point out how overwhelming it can feel to form a simple comment in response!

Today I was struck by your own personal and professional response to Isaiah's words: poetry. And I'm thinking about the responsibility each of us has to speak a "word that will rouse." And there are so many ways to do this, even if our tongue is not "well-trained." Our peace group has chosen the weekly peace vigil, where our "word" is literally only a few. "Honk for Peace." "War: Everyone loses except the fat cats!" Not enough words for an Op-Ed, but enough to "rouse." The words would be nothing by themselves. It is standing there on that street corner that gives the words life. I think it is the standing there that is the whole point. It is in standing, standing for something, that we are hoping to give others the courage of their own convictions even as we find our own in that simple act. We hold the words in our hands and so we claim them. It's pretty personal. A retired priest who stands with us tells us he is grateful for the opportunity. And we all realize what he means. If we didn't stand in this way with each other, we might say nothing at all. Silence wins so easily.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for your reply, Josie. I particularly liked your anecdote about crafting your signs for the vigil. It's true, sometimes we have time for only a few words--how to craft the most effective word that will rouse, even the passing driver? Standing with those words, standing by words (as Wendell Berry's famous essay once was called), becoming those words in deed!

Maureen said...

Thank you for this Lenten series, Phil. I think it has been thoughtful and enlarging and ultimately, hope-full. It's generous, too, in wrestling with questions of seeking and of doubt. None of us has definitive answers; each of us is capable of questioning. If we don't question and aren't willing to listen, how can we anticipate any possibility of change?

If you haven't read "A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith", I commend it. My friend Peggy Rosenthal's book "Praying Through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times" also is excellent.

In the former title above, Li-Young Lee states, "The real subject in poetry isn't the voice. The real subject is silence... I would say the real medium of poetry is inner space, the silence of our deepest interior...." He admits that "it's my own mystery I'm looking at."

Thank you for sharing the sense of your own mystery in community. It is essential.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Maureen. I love "A God in the House"--for sure. I'll check out Peggy's book!