This is a post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.
Simplicity, simplicity. I subtract the wisteria breeze and Miles Davis and the smell of hot carpet and my saints and the cold lentil soup I just ate from this moment, and see if simplicity remains. I decide: this is as good a moment as any to be simple.
What if what I needed to be happy and well and full of meaning lay entirely inside me? Maybe this is what Emerson meant when he offered that “every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth.” The challenge of this, of course, is that you can really wait for something only if what you’re waiting for has already begun.
What if what you needed to be happy and well and full of meaning lay somewhere in between the Federal Housing Authority, the people whose job it is to arrest you for missing a probation hearing, the Department of Social and Health Services, the state appointees who take your kids away to the house of your aunt who won’t return your calls, and your own being, with its will to declare and defend itself? T. with the chipped tooth who spent high school living out of her locker and first shot black tar into her veins at twenty-five; M. who lost a grown son to a gang killing, began studies to become a minister on the inside, and then lost a second grown son the same way; K. who in a drunken punch-up stabbed her husband, accidentally fatally; E. who never had an educational experience that wasn’t trauma. What size is my students’ I when life is a series of things done to them? What hieroglyphic is visible in their life, the answer to the questions they would put?
The most authentic political speech is grounded in both truth and reality. What does this mean? The truth is that we’re beings in common, united in our dignity, love and capacity for growth. The reality is that oppression—the degradation, constraint, de-subjecthood, literal violence and death endured by oppressed folks and the spiritual stunting of oppressors—matters. Oppression shapes, misshapes, and ends lives. “We’re all one human family,” goes the brush-off version of this truth, the fastest way a comfortable person can exempt themselves from facing the moral consequences of political realities. This bumper-sticker talk tends to prick activists into outraged assertions of reality, a doubling-down on the facts of unequal suffering. This response makes sense, since it hurts to hear truth in the service of bullshit. But this response is also a missed opportunity, since we each participate in what is, and the truth of the our diverse and common humanity is as compelling a political instrument as the reality of our unlikeness and alienation through oppression.
These days I haven’t been doing very well. A few afternoons ago, I watched a cloud for the first time I could remember: a white middle-less mass like lichen slowly breaking itself apart. More of my life seems to be a silent, solitary provisioning against spiritual winter than lyric poetry had prepared me for.
What if what I needed to be happy and well and full of meaning lay entirely inside me? But I don’t want to be so saintly that I give up my power to curse. To curse, I wish to remember, is not immoral. Here’s a curse for the dead: a memorial Hugh MacDiarmid composed in 1916 for the British Expeditionary Force, England’s paid soldiers, killed almost to a man in the trenches of France in the early years of World War I.
Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.
What this means to me is that life is hard enough without what I’ll call, metonymically, the cops: without people so numbed, angry, and under the spell of their temporal might that to oppress is their pleasure. Real talk: every so often, a police officer is shot to death or a Blackwater employee is burned up in their car, mutilated, then hung from a bridge, and some little voice in me speaks the words of this poem. It’s funny how fast I want to walk back on and apologize for this. It may be that no choice is final, so a curse needn’t be either; but a curse, I wish to remember, is not immoral.
Trample my courts no more!
To bring offerings is useless;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath, calling assemblies—
festive convocations with wickedness—
these I cannot bear.
Your new moons and festivals I detest;
they weigh me down; I tire of the load.
When you spread out your hands,
I will close my eyes to you;
Though you pray the more,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil;
learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged;
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
That’s God, from the first chapter of Isaiah: more precisely, that is the ground and foundation of the universe—the thing whose essence is is-ness, in whose being we participate, the lidless star at the horizon of all our conception that is also the voice “nearer than our ear”—talking to Isaiah, who was looking for words for his own dissident rage.
I don’t want to be a prophet. What do I want to be? Karl Rahner once wrote of the freedom of Christians: the freedom that comes with accepting absolutely all of life, its plurality and uncontrollability. “For us,” he wrote, “who were born without being asked, who will die without being asked, and who have received a quite definite realm of existence without being asked, a realm which ultimately cannot be exchanged, there is no immediate freedom in the sense of an absence of any and every force which co-determines pure existence. But a Christian believes that there is a path to freedom which lies in going through this imprisonment. … For freedom is ultimately an openness to everything, to everything without exception; openness to absolute truth, to absolute love, and to the absolute infinity of human life in its immediacy to the very reality which we call God.”
So let’s prepare for death together a moment, and try this freedom, God’s freedom, out. My lover or father waiting for me in renewed bloom on the farther shore of death: no. A world where each of us can be held in care and the flowers of our free souls can each take root: no. A world where no one, whether by rack or by fluorescent lights and medication, will be coerced into going along: no. Another spring just like this one, with me thirty-one: no. The world in the balance of my sheer will to save it: no. Knowing that every night I will put my head on Cait’s lap and fall asleep while she reads: no. My own good figure persisting: no. My flesh forgiving me: no. Poverty, indignity, and the billy club alleviated by a revolutionary miracle, since God loves us and has willed us to be free: no.
Sometimes, hell is wishing foremost for safety. How much do I want to die in front of you? So much that I’ll say how the greedy and disfigured ape in me hates hearing about others’ spiritual discoveries; hates others’ at-home-ness and contentment; hates suffering and hates knowing how scared I am to suffer; hates losing and hates the certainty that I’ll lose everything.
These days, if you hadn’t noticed, the big news is that I’m allowing myself primary feelings: I’m no longer immediately adding analysis to those feelings, then adding my feelings about the analysis to the analysis and its subject.
So, assuming that God is your ideal reader, what of your goofy, mundane reality do you banish from your written work? What trivialities are you sure to include? I once decided that all my poems needed at least one thing I’d always thought and one notion or observation completely particular to the day of the poem’s composition. For that reason, I don’t agree with the Romantics that poetry is an act of faith, a glimpse of the absolute realities behind and within the thin and reverent representation of words. Rather, I find that the sublimest transports of poetry show me what’s in between me and those absolute realities: the inseparability of my abstraction and my fleshly, hungry, fucky mammal self.
Blood flows out to the fleeing
Nebulae and flows back, red
With all the worn space of space,
Old with all the time of time.
It is my blood. I cannot
Taste in it as it leaves me
More of myself than on its
Most things one believes are not true. Maybe that’s why, in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus says that among the worst things you can pray is, “Lord, thank you for not making me like them.” I try to keep this in mind whenever I curse.
Earlier this month, I followed my son down the ancient sedimentary rock shelves of Salt Spring Island to the tidepools and their tiny dramas of strangulation, seizure, foraging, scattering eggs, spraying sperm, tasting, trapping, cowering, dismembering, scavenging and drifting free. Such dramas will continue even as the balance of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in our air falters in a few hundred million years and nearly all earthly life is extinguished but eukaryotic bacteria and new furious blooming algaes—and continue past even that until the furnace in the Sun’s core exhausts itself and the Sun swells to burn us to a cinder.
As a B.C. ferry passed behind a rock spur and its wake roared and hissed up the rocks to us, I thought: An awful lot of places in the world are not the inside of the womb.
Scale matters: the Moon will not die in the worm’s mouth. Likewise, my moral agency occurs against the meaningless ongoingness of cosmic rhythms and the proliferation of human hunger, energy, moral self-privation, and will. In this sense, I’m more scared of life than I am of death.
Scale matters. However, scale tends to obscure the singleness of the thing in which I participate. My impoverished flesh and our human teemingness are relieved by no sign. However, this flesh and the teeming rampant amoral flowering of life are themselves the sign. In this sense, the simple throb of rage and heartache I feel at human cruelty, of love and heartache at human dignity, are true. They are true. This is as good a moment as any to be simple.