Marlena Bontas’s poetry appears in Rock & Sling 10.2. Of “I Slaughtered Your Horses,” she writes: “I believe there is a deep connection between faith and literature. The most obvious one is the Bible, as there is a great narrative built around the time before and after Christ.
The Book of Revelation is closely related to my poem, ‘I slaughtered your horses’, because it emphasizes the need to control and keep people emotionally needy.
The rider on the black horse has this overwhelming power over others to control the rations of food, because he is holding a pair of ‘scales’ in his hand. This rider is also able to sustain ‘scarcity’. In my poem, I allude to control and scarcity, two themes that fit well with the portrayed father figure.
I’ve grown up in a deeply religious environment which shaped the way I write. When your life, as an adult, is dedicated to ‘God’, you have no power anymore over your own suffering. You only get strong if you pray and cleanse yourself of sins. My poem tries to deal with the theme of control that religion has over us. When we are dependent on a higher being to live our lives, we become weak and vulnerable. In a way, religion takes us back to when we were small and defenseless as children and our fathers took care of us. And, when we are defenseless, we give our power to somebody else. We become lost, confused, misguided.
I guess my main message is that love cannot be imposed on anyone. It has to be won, not conquered. However, if we are forced to love someone, it’s always good for us to ‘slaughter’ the ties with this type of love.”
Upon his Feast Day, January 25
by John Estes
In Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, Orpheus (the most square-jawed Orpheus ever conceived, played with pompadour by Jean Marai) is challenged by the admissions committee to the gates of hell to explain what precisely (there is no almost in hell, he is told) what it means to be a poet: To write without being a writer, he replies. In an interview Cocteau once expanded on this by saying, “A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardner scent his roses.” But these types of sentences–“A poet is one who [blank],” or “Poetry is [blank]”–have been and will continue to be completed in many ways by poets, would-be poets, and anti-poets. It’s a sort of parlor game, writing about poetry, that many find more compelling than poems themselves. The poet, after all, is supposed to be writing poems. But these formulations, enchanting as many are, can be helpful. To mystify in the act of demistifying: that is one thing poetry can do, one might say. Ezra Pound kind of did: he called poetry “a raid on the inarticulate.” And certainly it was this naming function of poetry that St. Gregory Nazianzen valued, and I’m quite certain he saw no daylight between his work as poet and work as Theologian, the purpose of theology being, after all, the production of images which aid us toward an encounter with mystery. What makes him poet rather than polemicist, however, is not simply the manufacture of verse (many a poetaster can make that claim) but that he went seeking inwardly—in that foul rag and bone shop of the heart, as Yeats called it—instead of seeking succor and invective in numbers and syllogisms alone (although he could get his way around an enthymeme as well as anyone of his day).
Coleridge said: “The poet brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Whether that’s true or not, the question of the whole, or the capital-w Whole, is one with which the poet is intimately concerned, and what makes one a poet and not a philosopher is that the Whole is not an abstraction, but rather the immeasurable sum of all particulars, the entire visible universe that Conrad says art, if it is to be called art, must seek to render with the “highest kind of justice.” I will give you a new formula for the incarnation: the ephemeral made eternal. That’s a poet’s day labor. St. Gregory, unlike many then and unlike many now, knew there was nothing of the divine to be grasped except in what is fleeting; he trusted the body of language to shape and form that which is present but unseen. A fair appraisal of what’s made beautiful, I think. “We collect from various places,” St. Gregory writes, “a faint and feeble image. And our noblest theologian is not one who has discovered the whole—our earthly shackles do not permit the whole—but one who has got a fuller insight than another and gathered in himself a richer picture, shadow, or whatever we call it, of the truth.”
“The purpose of poetry,” Czeslaw Milosz posits, “is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” We call St. Gregory the Theologian a poet because he wrote beautiful poems, but he wrote beautiful and lasting poems because he never sought to escape that vocation of personhood that is so readily, so easily abdicated. The seat of the person—the soul, the nous, he knew (as many of we moderns don’t)—is a maker of images, and he took great pleasure in his communion with that power within him. There: I have given away our secret. Here is a passage from Gregory’s poem “On the Soul,” where he depicts this act of poetic participation:
With these words he took a portion of the new-formed earth
and established with his immortal hands my shape,
bestowing upon it a share of his own life. He infused
Spiriti, which is a fragment of the Godhead without form.
From dust and breath I was formed, a mortal man eikon of the immortal.
For it is the nature of mind to rule over both parts.
Thus I have affection for one way of life because I am part earth,
while I have in my heart a longing for the other life through the part of me that is divine.
John Estes is author of three volumes of poetry—Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011), Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming) and Sure Extinction, which won the 2015 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press—and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Malone University.
Image from jesus-passion.com
Rock & Sling‘s Creative Nonfiction editor, Julie Riddle, recently corresponded with writer Dawn Claflin about what R&S seeks in an essay. Check out Claflin’s blog post on the conversation.
Riddle is the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University, and is associate editor of Whitworth Today magazine. Her memoir, The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness, is forthcoming on April 1, 2016, from the University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives Series.
by Cara Strickland
I am the last person you might expect to see at a music festival. Although I’m a lover of live music, that love is rivaled by my love of sitting down in climate-controlled spaces. I camp only when there is no other option. My feet get easily tired.
My brother called in March to tell me about a special tour presented by one of our mutual favorite bands: Mumford & Sons. I was still close enough to the flicker of worry I’d experienced during the period when they were no longer touring. I’d hate for them to break up and ruin my chance to see them live forever. We booked our tickets for August.
The band was planning to take over the small, lovely town of Walla Walla, WA. Once, it was a place surrounded by farms and livestock land; now, it’s wine country, a fact which leaves many locals conflicted about the extra tourists, bistros, and tasting rooms now lining their streets.
In March, I was happily dating someone, and he bought a ticket to come along with us. By August, we had broken up, and I was dating someone else (someone who wasn’t attending the concert), little dreaming that we would break up hours after the festival was over.
My brother and I and his best friend hiked across a golf course, carrying (and in some cases dragging), everything we’d brought with us. We pitched a tent within poking distance of our neighbors, I laced up my walking shoes, already dusty, and we set off to see the town.
As we walked, we noticed signs and flags in all the windows and storefronts. Walla Walla was welcoming us with open arms. Food trucks lined the streets, and I saw one sign advertising “wine slushies.”
It was a few degrees over a hundred that first day. We stood in the street and listened to local bands, eyes darting from face to face, hoping for an early glimpse of one of the headlining band members. From time to time, I popped into the air conditioned bookstore and browsed the bestsellers.
That night, we lay in the dark, surrounded by our chatty neighbors, too tired to move.
Day two brought entrance into the actual festival grounds, on the lawn of a university. We filtered in, taking in the tents serving food and alcohol, the vendors selling everything colorful or luminescent.
Once we had found a spot, I took a lap around the grounds. I ran into a woman with a long flowing skirt, moving something that looked like a complicated slinky up and down her arms. She held out a hand. “Would you like to try?”
I held out my hand to meet hers and she transferred the metal, showing me how to move it from one arm to another and back. I let the cool metal skim my skin for a while before passing it back, wordlessly.
That night, the Foo Fighters capped the evening. This was the band that my ex had been looking forward to most. I knew he was somewhere in the crowd, but we couldn’t have met up if we’d tried.
The lead singer sat in a throne made of guitars. He had broken his leg on tour. Later, I learned that he’d had the bone set during the concert and still finished the show. As we entered the second hour, I realized that it is possible that I don’t know any Foo Fighters songs, at least, not well enough to sing along. This was around the same time that I estimated that every bone in my feet hurt.
I said goodnight to my brother and made my way out of the crush of people (many of whom were not pleased). As I entered open air, I took a deep breath. I am learning to choose myself, these days, and I became more sure of my decision with each step into the campground, quiet for once. Back at my tent, I could still hear every Foo Fighting word with clarity. It sounded better from a horizontal position.
The next day was the one I’d been waiting for. Before beginning our day in the sun, we went to lunch at a friend of my brother’s, a local assistant winemaker. She served us chili and cornbread and poured us glasses of her own wine, smooth as silk. We sat around a table and talked and laughed, reminding me of all the best things about community and food. Before we left, she let me take a shower, not charging me the $10 fee from the campground.
Refreshed, we took our place in the hot sun, rubbing on sunscreen and preparing not to move for roughly 7 hours. I found my roommate, and our group huddled together, taking turns sitting down until we couldn’t anymore.
I will not tell you that I fell in love with camping, heat, and large amounts of walking on this trip. I will not tell you that I have booked another festival. I will tell you that in those seconds, minutes and hours when Mumford & Sons was onstage, time, the outside world, even my feet, melted away. All of those hours of listening to their music on vinyl alone in my room, that Thanksgiving where my brother first played me Winter Winds, the flash of excitement I felt when I heard that they were coming within easy driving distance, everything collided with the reality of hearing them sing their words right to me.
In the days that followed, as I began to pick up the pieces of my expectations, and my hopes, I saw the hands of God in the festival, preparing me for the season to come. In the midst of discomfort and blisters, I learned to pay attention to invitations to engage with what was actually happening in front of me, catching the moments like the complicated slinky, and letting them run over my arms. I learned to listen when my spirit was screaming for me to choose myself and leave the fighters to their foo. I learned to stand still in ecstasy, soaking it in, knowing that it wouldn’t last.
Cara Strickland writes about food, faith, singleness, and relationships for a variety of publications in print and online. She lives in Spokane. You can read more of her writing at carastrickland.com
The artist for issue 10.2 is Heather Gwinn. In a contemporary version of an old story, we stumbled across her work accidentally. One of our editorial assistants, Holli Steinmetz, discovered Heather’s illustrations on Facebook, and tagged me in the comments. I investigated Heather’s website, and found, along with a collection of really beautiful art, an essay about her struggles with her faith.
We approached her with our idea for a coloring book issue, and asked if we could use her art. She agreed, and also contributed a superb artist’s statement.
We live in a world where we are afraid. Where, because of our fear, we seek easier answers. And the really terrifying thing is there are no easy answers. We exist, in part, to feature the work that acknowledges the difficulty, the struggle. And even through the struggle, we find beauty.
Here is Heather’s statement:
I started drawing in 2012. It was a latent passion that rose to the surface in a moment of despondency. My lack of artistic training means that I have learned the rules on the fly, and I still don’t know most of them. Slow and steady, I persevere and follow my joy at drawing. It is a balm for me, an outlet, and a meditation. The moment it becomes work, I’ll have to walk away.
My work is a process more than a product. I don’t plan my work, sketching out elements to determine composition and such. I go at it. Pencil in hand, I might sketch a main figure, or I might just go at the paper and see what happens. I’ve tried plans and I’m no good at sticking to them. A crease or a shadow will reveal something really neat that I just have to explore and then I’m off the map, putting a tentacle on an elbow.
For me, drawing is the fundamental outlet to play and explore. Along the way I stumble across internal conflicts that I can’t quite pin down; issues like identity and faith and weakness. They are whispers and peripheral shadows that vanish when I try to evaluate them. Drawing allows me to sidle up to them, ninja-like, and jot down bits and pieces.
I miss feeling unconditionally loved.
The mourning of my faith has taken a front seat in my work recently. Thematically, I can’t help but come back to postures of prayer, both somber and desperate. Over and over figures of faith appear on my page and I must contend with them. “Reinfirst” was loosely based on Reinfirst Manyuka, who starved to death emulating Jesus’s days in the desert. Manyuka only made it 30 days. There is something both beautiful and tragic and horrifying about the notion. Beautiful, if he felt a sense of peace and oneness with God in his martyrdom, tragic if he were really mentally ill, horrifying if he realized his error and tried to crawl home but was too sick to make it. In many ways, my feelings toward his story encapsulate my feelings about faith.
I converted to Catholicism around 2004 and the following three years were filled with a sense of greater purpose and the warmth of acceptance and peace and place I had never known before. Which was all for the good since my life outside the church was awful.
I miss feeling the warmth of surety and purpose.
Struggling to raise two children and mitigate my husband’s neglect of both them and our marriage, I found comfort in my faith. It was beautiful. After my conversion it became clear that my marriage was like so many others and that our challenges would only serve to strengthen our relationship. I realized that he was just as scared as I was and that we could be stronger together.
Of course, none of that was true. I divorced him in early 2007 and he tried to kill me later that year.
I miss feeling safe in God’s embrace.
That is faith: belief without evidence. It was so easy and rewarding to have faith in my husband and my marriage and my God. It felt wonderful. The feeling was real, but the basis behind it was not. Had I looked at the evidence, I would have found none for my faith in God and even less for my faith in my marriage. Feelings do not make truth.
My faith gave me the tools necessary to ignore what was real, my faith rewarded me for disregarding the truth with false sensations of hope and comfort and purpose. So I don’t have it anymore. I shed it like a bad friend that was so fun and wonderful but fundamentally no good for you.
I miss feeling God is with me.
From issue 10.2, on shelves next week, is Katie Manning.
For the past three years, my primary writing project has been a collection of poems with the working title All That Remains. This project began because I was tired of people taking language from the Bible out of context and using it as a weapon against other people, so I decided to take language from the Bible out of context and create art. My process is to use the last chapter from a book of the Bible as a word bank and write a poem. As I’ve worked on this project, it has grown from being something born of frustration into something resembling lectio divina.
My research for this project led me to theopoetics. There are several strands of thought gathered under this umbrella; I especially appreciate L.B.C. Keefe-Perry’s overview in “Theopoetics: Process and Perspective.” Keefe-Perry considers the various theories involved, but states that theopoetics is ultimately “the study and practice of making God known through text,” and it is meant to be accessed by anyone (579). In reading other theopoetics texts by Stanley Hopper, Catherine Keller, David L. Miller, and Amos Wilder, I came to see how I was participating in theopoesis: making God known through poetry and also seeking to understand God as maker, artist, and poet. Amos Wilder’s foundational 1976 text, Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination, articulates the intended result of theopoesis: a move away from outdated language and tired metaphors, and a more vibrant Christian imagination that participates in the tradition of creatively seeking God rather than simply resting on the imaginative and linguistic work that has been done in the past. Wilder states, “Perhaps the greatest single contribution that a new theopoetics could make—whether for the liberal churches or for the Evangelicals, both alike limited by dated stereotypes, or for the many kinds of secular mystics—would be to repossess the mystery of the cross and its glory in a way that would speak to all” (12). Although Wilder’s words were published almost four decades ago, he speaks to our current moment. My theopoetics research has led me to a deeper understanding of my creative work and a clearer commitment to using imagination, fresh metaphors, and new language to help the church move from surface-level “Christianese” into more complex questions and understandings of the Gospel.
Keefe-Perry, L.B.C. “Theopoetics: Process and Perspective.” Christianity and Literature. Vol. 58, No. 4. (Summer 2009). 579-601. Web.
Wilder, Amos. Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1976. Print.
[art by Heather Gwinn]
Instead of simple biographical material, at the end of every issue, we ask our contributor’s to reflect on the connections they see between their faith and their work. Every issue, we end up with 20 or so mini-essays on the nature of art.
From issue 10.2, here is Cameron Alexander Lawrence:
I wrote “The Baptism” at a time when I was stuck between two spiritual homes—the one I had known as a boy, and the one I was walking toward as a man—moving from American evangelicalism toward Eastern Orthodoxy. That season left me with a palpable feeling of homelessness, a sensation that sometimes returns even now, three years after my conversion.
Though I didn’t realize it when writing “The Baptism,” the poem exemplifies an ongoing tension, a paradox, in my life and work as a poet: while I feel compelled by, and committed to, my faith, I simultaneously long to be free of it. That tension has, at times, left me feeling as though I’m both insider and outsider, participant and observer, believer and non-believer. At the heart of the issue is a question about belonging: If I have declared formal membership to a specific faith, and to a particular group of people in a local parish, why would I still feel as though I’m on the outside?
Perhaps it’s partially due to a lack of devotion or discipline on my part, or to the role of the artist as one who chooses to look from a different vantage point. But it also has something to do with knowing that many of my most meaningful experiences of the divine come to me not through liturgy, sacrament, or sacred text, but outside the public and private forms of the church—in the natural world, in the arts, and through relationships with people who don’t share my beliefs. Literature is among those gifts that nurture me in the profoundest of ways, and writers (together with other artists, both living and dead) are among the people who encourage me to turn Godward, whether they mean to or not.
If there’s a connection between faith and literature, it exists because both are fundamental to being human and as such are inextricably bound. Yet understanding or articulating this connection is not what concerns me. What concerns me, both in my writing and day-to-day life, is how I might come to fully embrace my humanity, the mystery of who and what I am, of who and what you are, and how it is that we relate to each other and to God—not in spite of our humanity, but because of it and through it. And while the truth is that I don’t spend much time thinking about the connection between faith and literature, it’s undeniably the case that what I find printed in pages such as these is so often the very thing guiding me in the right direction, leading me home.
[Art by Heather Gwinn]
our final nominee, from issue 10.2
Lecture on Creation
So here we gather and no one’s dead
although we all will be and soon,
and it’s sad that we miss people most
right after we’ve seen them, not
when many years have slid by,
but I digress (Rate My Professor Dot Com
says he does this a lot, his grading is
kind of arbitrary, he never combs his hair,
and, no chili peppers next to his name,
he’s truly Not Hot). To the point:
call it ontology, a spastic first dance,
call it a nervous question that makes you blink.
If a chemist conducts unruly experiments in a tall glass beaker
and zaps electricity through
to make the mold grow quickly
and eventually dumps the gunk on a beach
or some scummy body of water, bracken, greenish with stink,
where cells or zygotes jig about with jubilant joy
that says the universe is just a delicious cluster fuck—
and who’s to say otherwise? Who’s to say that my love for the sound of bad science
as well as the sound of most STDs, Chlamydia! Gonorrhea! Syphilis!,
what words are more delightful to the tongue,
to the sibilant rush our lips and teeth crave,
splendid paradox of Eros and rot, flesh gone
splendidly wrong, is anything less than love of the liturgy,
the word made flesh, Mary Magdelene’s early years
come back to relegate her to a convalescent cave
where ointments and ice do little to keep the swelling down,
to keep her comfortable, but we were with the if
of midi-chlorians and flashy comets,
plangent uterine poppies and puppies, dissected wood toads
and a little bit of fairy dust: let them go boom, boom, boom,
spastically metastasize and blossom with daisies,
a bit of soil from Mars, Zephyric notes, go-karts and a bilingual labial rush,
which means let them finally flame into something we might
call life. Is it harder to imagine all of that or the hand
of God descending slowly from clouds
into an idyllic garden (plunk!), that first wonderful couple
tumbling from a gentle palm of light? Spark Notes:
is it easier to say Molly Bloom’s yes yes yes yes
or “that uncle to all, death,”
(to quote an under-appreciated poet), and leave things
at that? Easier to sit and cry at the end of The Notebook
or Benjamin Button or even that episode of The Office
when Jim leaves the job interview in Manhattan
and clueless Karen having drinks somewhere with
friends in the city, and hustles back
to Scranton to ask Pam out on a first date
that leads, of course, to baby stuff and boredom and the show
gets cancelled a few years down the line,
and she, the actress, her name is Jenna (you need
to write that down), blushes with ancient glittering eyes
that announce the impending conception,
deus ex machina, can of Red Bull dumped
into the beautiful uterus of a soft tulipy night?
(Three beats of silence to let this sink in.)
I’d like to add two more facts: 1) My brother
Adam built helicopters on his computer for Bell,
which, I think, connects him to gunships
over Afghanistan, and yet he’s a really swell guy.
Most of life is like that, and;
2) When you look up at night to that conscious firmament
of ego, pop tarts, bean sprouts, and blue dust,
do you see clouds or light? Is there a moon?
What stars do you bring to the world?
Which leads to my conclusion, that yes,
will be on the final, open notes and must be (write it!) in pencil.
We’re almost out of time.
We’re always almost out of time
our fourth nominee, from issue 10.2
On Apophasis and a Bee
A buttered roll and a dinner bee are not in this line.
Orthography is a roll baked at a spelling contest.
The spotlights on the spellers, I mean, burning
at roll call. See, neither role-play nor dinner rolls.
On apophasis, a translator says, I will only render
what is there, not what is not. For instance,
deus ex machina never appears in the source-text
as a buttered angel-fish or 400-watt flying bicycle
although one might say this poem is an engine.
At no point does a line break exist in the original.
Neither is a hand-held spyglass an engine of words
while sparrow-grass spells out asparagus
buzzing in the ear of this language.