by Louis Jenkins
When times were hard, no work on the railroad, no work down on the farm, some
of my ancestors took to preaching. It was not so much of what was said as the way
in which it was said. "The horn shall sound and the dog will bark and though you
be on the highest mountain or down in the deepest valley when the darkness comes
then you will lie down, and as the day follows the night you will surely rise again.
The Lord our God hath made both heaven and earth. Oh, my dear brothers and
sisters we know so well the ways of this world, think then what heaven must be
like." It required a certain presence, a certain authority. The preacher was treated
with respect and kept at a bit of a distance, like a rattler. There wasn't much money
in it but it was good for maybe a dozen eggs or a chicken dinner now and then.
It's not particularly easy to determine what a poem is. This one, today's offering from Writer's Almanac, doesn't rhyme and probably can't be easily scanned--which is to say, it has no obvious rhythm either. The individual lines seem created only for visual consistency, as if they were set by software. I know lots of people who would say this really isn't a poem at all. Understandably.
Some might call this "flash fiction," a tiny little story in and of itself. It feels, after all, far more like prose than whatever poetry traditionally feels like. Besides, basically, it tells a story, a not so compelling story about how the Christian faith is far less essential than a living wage; after all, the speaker says, his relatives took up preaching only when there was no other way to put food on the table--"a dozen eggs or a chicken dinner now and then."
Hurts a little for a Christian like me to read this thing, too, because, like it or not, there's some truth to it, I'm sure. The candidate Obama, in 2008, wasn't totally wrong about people taking up faith and guns in truly hard times. It happens. It was demeaning and, politically, it was an awful gaffe; but that didn't mean he wasn't, like the poem, completely wrong. I just finished Jim Heynen's new novel, The Fall of Alice K, in which Alice's mother is convinced the world will end on Y2K. She wasn't alone, and many were Christians.
Are there spiritual phonies? Duuhh. As the book of Ezekiel points out clearly (chap. 13 for starters), they're with us always, if it can be said that the stories the Bible tells have universal application--and people who don't believe it does, don't really "believe" the Bible.
We've been reading Ezekiel lately, only because it followed Nehemiah and Esther. We'd read Nehemiah because of a sermon we heard, and Esther because, why not?--it followed Nehemiah and is itself among the strangest contributions to Holy Writ, not a mention of God in the whole great story.
Then Ezekiel. My word, lots and lots of woe, Israel having forgotten God for generations, God almighty, fit to be tied, determined to bloody his people into shape before bringing them home once more. It's not a saga for sissies, and, other than the dry bones story, doesn't regularly come up in sermons. My Bible has no scribbles whatsoever in the entire book because preachers generally leave Ezekiel alone, I guess.
Still, it's odd how reading the Bible begs the mind and heart to sermonize, to create parallels and adapt the words, the ideas, the woe-and-woe-and-woe-woe, to what's going on at this moment in the world, or in Washington, in Sioux County, or your very own kitchen or bedroom.
Look at the lines from this odd poem: "The horn shall sound and the dog will bark and though you/be on the highest mountain or down in the deepest valley when the darkness comes/then you will lie down, and as the day follows the night you will surely rise again./The Lord our God hath made both heaven and earth. Oh, my dear brothers and/sisters we know so well the ways of this world, think then what heaven must be/like."
It sounds a ton like the Bible, but it isn't. Still, those words fit together in a fashion that creates spaciousness sufficient to beg our entry and find a place for it into the warp and woof of our lives. It's not hard to see how good people could get hoodwinked by such verbiage because, as the poet Jenkins says, it wasn't so much what was said as the way it was said.
Maybe--don't quote me on this--poetry, like scripture itself, always says something more than it seems to. They're not the same and I'm no heretic, but there's always more than simply what's there, as there is herein this poem or I wouldn't have got lost in it myself this morning.
It's not easy reading this poem, but, trust me, it's not easy reading Ezekiel either. Meanwhile, in more ways than one I keep waiting for the valley of the dry bones.