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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: June, 2019

once upon a poetry school..

dispatch from 06510, aka PoetryLand

I could barely sleep the night before it all began — though truth is, it’s because my firstborn was flying across the continent, rising out of a blood-red cell on the weather radar map (“insane,” he declared the weather, as the hour grew later and later, long past the scheduled time for takeoff) and it made no matter that I was 1,800 miles from the epicenter of his Texas-sized storm, mothers don’t leave their firstborns to fly unwatched. I prayed that plane to safe landing, round 4 in the morning, and then I tossed and turned, awaiting Poetry School.

I’d flown some 750 miles all my own to get here, where, for one short week, I’m deep in make-believe. Making believe that I am back in college — make that cobblestone, storybook college. Lugging past Gothic towers and campaniles with my book bag, my syllabus, my three-ring binder, and reams and reams of poems in my tousled-pewter noggin.

Because I’ve homework due at the clang of the school bell today (and because I’m typing on my itty-bitty screen), I might need to practice the art of brevity (though I could go on and on). For the first time since perhaps eighth grade, my homework is to memorize — and recite — a poem, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I’ve lines to go before I shlep up the very steep hill to P School.

I will tell you this, though: In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have dreamed up a more bespoke week for my little monastic self. I’m holed up in the apartment of the boy I love, the one who’s deep in study of the law. (The gnawingly haunting thing is that he’s not here, and while I love being wrapped in this charmed aerie overlooking the steeples and bell towers of New Haven, I feel the ghost of him everywhere, hear echoes of his life here, but it’s all just beyond my fingertips, and the proximity without the presence makes my whole self ache in that way that absence does.)

I’ve carved a path to all the quirky eateries, where alongside folks with purple hair and piercings by the dozens I gorge on voluminous veggie salads, and don’t worry that anyone’s cocking a quizzical eyebrow.

But best of all, it’s the red-brick Jeffersonian quadrangle at the top of Prospect Hill. Inside the labyrinth of corridors and classrooms, I’ve found a place that hits you between the eyeballs with capital-K Kindness, the rarest of commodities in the world these days. The etched-in-brick gestalt, clearly, is “do no harm.” Not to the spirit of those around you, not to the power grid, the water table, and certainly not to Mother Earth. Heck, all the plates and cups and forks and knives in the Old Refectory are compostable. Meat is decidedly absent at nearly every communal grazing; God save the cows, apparently. Everybody smiles. Oh, and prayers come in every religion under the sun.

(I suppose I should mention this is Divinity School, after all, one founded by those sturdy-spined Congregationalists back in 1822, and in the two centuries since, a whole parade of notable senators, preachers, and statesfolk have prayed their way through these hallowed halls.)

In a looming seminar room at the top of a stairs, where sky-high windows let in sun or shadow, howl of wind or rain thrashing against the panes, a rare professor — rare in that he, too, is kind above all, and brilliant — teaches us to pull back every thread of every poem, to pay attention to the white space, the word choice, the lack of comma or capital, and most of all to ask what question the poem is begging of us?

I’d be lying if I didn’t let on that on Day One, I fell in love with my compatriots in the class (officially titled, “Reading Poetry Theologically”), and I’ve only fallen deeper and deeper as the days, and tender revelations, have unfurled.

There’s the 17-year-old from the Upper East Side who every day rides 2.5 hours each way on the train from Grand Central Station, and makes it home each night because, she told us, her mother “believes in family dinner.” She could double for an angel that girl, with her alabaster skin and tumbling blond curls, and when she told us how her father died when she was only six, and how for years, she hated any God who could let that happen, I was not the only one wiping away a tear.

Before we get to the oldest in the class — she’s “past 80” is all she’ll let on, but we know she’s older than the Episcopal priest who confesses to being 82 — here’s the rest of the class list: the poet, the journalism professor, three priests in total, one priest’s wife, and a chaplain from Hong Kong. (Oh, and me, too.)

Elaine, aka Past 80, is a story all her own (and I am over-the-moon for her, and pray we’ll become penpals). Suffice it to say, you might mistake her for, well, Geraldine Page in her role as Truman Capote’s doddering discombobulated decades-older cousin in “A Christmas Memory,” in the way she comes to class with cardigan buttoned askew, short gray bob flying every which way (as does mine, by the way), and shiny beads in ropes and ropes and more ropes. After telling you she was forever too qualified to get the teaching job she’d longed for, she recites her litany of degrees, sounding not unlike the Twelve Days of Christmas: one PhD, three masters, and two bachelor’s degrees. (She will also tell you her first husband left her — and their three young children — for his secretary, and then she’ll whisper an epithet.) While compiling her alphabet of degrees, she spent a few years in Alabama where she criss-crossed the back roads with her pen and notebooks, gathering oral histories for her dissertation on Southern white pastors and the Civil Rights Movement, and yesterday at (meatless) lunch, she had me and a table full of bent-close listeners riveted by her tales. And then she pulled from her satchel, a copy of that very book, published just last year; “only took 26 years to get it published,” she quipped, giggling. For so demure a gentle soul (and one who’s emphatically hard of hearing, besides), she can spin one mean yarn.

Oh, there’s so much more. But I can hear the lines of Manifesto whispering to me now….

…Go with your love to the fields. Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head / in her lap. Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts. / As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.

And I’ve syllables and pauses to learn by heart. So I can rise at Poetry School, and not be mortified.

Brilliant, and kind, professor, pointing to poet gallery at Poetry School, aka “Reading Poetry Theologically” at Yale Divinity School

Pray tell, what one poem might you choose to memorize? And if poetry’s not your thing, how have you tiptoed out on a limb most recently?

wisdom: extracting / seeking

 

before i pack my bags for summer camp for nerdy nerds (the so-called camp i’m going to has a pack list rife with yellow highlighters, five-tab binder, reams and reams of pages; dictionary, encouraged), i am dipping back into my nursing days, and wielding ice bags and ibuprofen like nobody’s business.

i’ve been up every hour on the hour through the night, employing what amounts to a giant-sized sock filled with ice, tied round the not-yet-swollen cheeks of my now-college-bound kid, the one who had his wisdoms extracted yesterday. excavated would be a more apt choice of verb, the friendly oral surgeon whispered, suggesting muscle (perhaps pick axes?) — more than usual — might have been involved. not exactly the last hurrah of high school anyone would wish for…

soon as we round the bend on impending swelling, soon as pudding and jello gives way to mushy mac-and-cheese (a second-day staple), once this escapade in extracting/excavating wisdom fades into the sunset, i am seeking wisdoms all my own: i’ll scramble to pack the last of my poetries and hop a plane to NYC, whereupon i’ll glide my way to new haven, aka elm city, where an empty apartment waits for me, and a whole div school besides.

in the rarest fluke of my non-adventurous days, i somehow found myself signing up for a one-week summer course, “reading poetry theologically,” at yale divinity school, a bastion of ecumenicism (with a strong dash of anglicanism) since 1822. i’d have signed up for this first week too, when a tantalizing class in henri nouwen was stretched across the days, but those wisdom teeth got in my way, so i’m signed up for next week’s poetry, taught, curiously, by a professor named david mahan, and i’ll soon find out if he’s my distant cousin who’s done away with his closing syllable, lobbed off his exclamatory y. (ours is not a name — with or without all its syllables — you bump into very often.)

i never was much for camp of the mosquito-and-sunscreen variety. never did like that kool-aid poured from vats, the red stuff they called bug juice, as if that would warm me to its redness. but i am positively twitterpated at the notion of making believe i’m back in school. the thought of loping down the cobblestones, my book bag swinging by my side, well, it’s akin, i’d think, to how cinderella felt when she traded in her whisk broom for her sparkly shoes.

for anyone who wants to play along at home, the reading list of poets (a brilliantly eclectic mix of voices, the very sort i love the most) includes: gerard manley hopkins, wendell berry, scott cairns, lucille clifton, denise levertov, mary karr, langston hughes, louise erdrich, and the glorious (new to me) r.s. thomas, an anglican priest from wales, often ranked as one of the three great english-language poets of the 20th century, alongside yeats and eliot, and often called “poet of the hidden God.” (be still my hidden heart.)

as was the case back in our year of thinking sumptuously, when in one academic year my appetite for binging at the course-list trough was forever whetted, i’ll send along a dispatch of whatever poetic morsels stir my hungry heart.

and now, before the timer pings reminding me to grab an ice pack, here’s the latest book for the soul, an exploration deep into islam, and my review of Muhammad: Forty Introductions, by Michael Muhammad Knight, as it ran in the pages of the Chicago Tribune last week:

‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’ is a soul-stirring primer on Islam

IMG_1929‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’

By Michael Muhammad Knight, Soft Skull, 320 pages, $16.95

Review by Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

When Michael Muhammad Knight — whom The Guardian of London has called “the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature” — set out to teach a religious studies seminar on classical Islam at Kenyon College in Ohio, he promptly realized that no single snapshot served to introduce his mostly non-Muslim students to the great prophet Muhammad, “Messenger of God.”

Instead, the professor settled on 40 such snapshots, or “introductions,” drawn from a broad swath of voices — the canonical as well as the marginalized — citing ancient Islamic scholars, French philosophers, and even “Star Wars” (though not in equal measure).

His “Muhammad: Forty Introductions” is part gonzo devotional, part Muslim primer, and, ultimately, a soul-stirring portal into a personal vision of Muhammad.

The narrations Knight turned to are a bedrock of Islam: the hadith, an oral tradition of “news” or “reports” of Muhammad’s sayings or doings, a tradition that traces its lineage of authenticity through a chain of teachers, resting in proximity to the prophet himself. Hadiths — apart from the Qur’an — serve as instruction for Muslims looking for guidance in how to live their lives. As Knight put it, “I want to know Muhammad’s way of being human.”

Knight is a novelist and essayist who converted to Islam at 16, traveled to Islamabad at 17 to study at a madrasa, then got a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. In gathering 40 hadiths, the author followed the ancient Islamic literary tradition of the arba’in, wherein scholars over the millennia have collected and curated 40 hadith, often by theme. For Knight, who rose to literary fame with his 2003 self-publication of his novel “The Taqwacores,” now considered a cult classic and a “manifesto for the Muslim punk movement,” his “Forty Introductions” is a decidedly contemporary collection, reaching into queer theology, feminist commentary and core Islamic teachings.

Something of a crash course in Muhammad, Knight’s intellectually charged collection of fragments makes for a multi-textured, many hued mosaic. In a revelatory aside, Knight acknowledges that for every student of Muhammad, the prophet becomes a “montage of images, an arrangement of moving parts.” This fragmentation is inevitable — and necessary — he writes: “the ingredients of my Muhammad often come to me as shattered pieces that have been chipped away from something else.”

Alternating between the professorial and the personal, Knight hits his highest notes when he pushes away from the seminar table and bares his own soul. “Some hadiths soften my heart and bring me to tears,” he writes toward the end of the book. “I cling to the image of Muhammad as a gentle grandfather who lets his daughter’s sons Hasan and Husayn climb onto his back as he prays.”

While the introductions he’s chosen cover a full range and complexity — from Muhammad’s physical appearance to his family life, infallibility, legal authority and mystical nature — and while Knight boldly puts one interpretation or argument up against another (a seamless synthesis is hardly the point here), it seems particularly telling that he chooses as his closing introduction Islam’s parallel to the Golden Rule:

“The Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘One of you does not believe until s/he loves for another what is loved for self.’ ”

And then, Knight reminds why this, of all teachings in all religions and world views, matters most in the end.

“Claimants upon a religious tradition have numerous modes by which they can disqualify each other as illegitimate. You pray wrong; you dress wrong. You read the wrong books, or perhaps read the right books wrong. Your prophetology is wrong. Your preferred scholarly authorities are wrong. Your opinions about permissible and forbidden acts are wrong. This hadith reminds us that we can get everything right … and still fail as Muslims on the grounds that we’re selfish pricks.”

Muhammad, the professor reminds us, came “to perfect the noble traits.” For emphasis, he adds: “Muhammad reminds us that becoming less of a selfish prick would confront many of us as an epic struggle. Being a good person isn’t the easy part.”

Knight, by way of his 40 Muhammadan introductions, illuminates the way.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

back to the summer-camp question: what would be your rendition of the ideal mosquito-free summery week away, with or without a tent? 

and before we go, i am sending the biggest smushiest birthday blessings to beloved nan, whose big birthday is today, and beloved amy, whose blessed day was yesterday. love you both to the moon and stars and back…..xoxoxo