Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fissile Material and Other Ash Wednesday Symbols

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

As a child, I hated this holy day, with its dreary reminders of death and other kinds of impending doom.  But the message sunk into my bones, as did the symbolism.  The older I get, the more compelling the message becomes.

I've been writing a series of Ash Wednesday poems over the years, and I've decided to post two of them here.

Here, for your Ash Wednesday reading pleasure, is "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site," which was originally published in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

And for something less apocalyptic (or is it?), is "Ash Wednesday on I95 South," which was originally published in Hobble Creek Review:

Ash Wednesday on I95 South

Of flowers, I sense a dearth.
It’s night, but I should smell them now.
Someone has been turning earth,
but with a bulldozer, not a plow.

Trees smolder in piles.
New housing developments will sprout
in their place. But there will be no smiles.
Concrete covers us all, there is no doubt.

Ash smudges our foreheads.
Ash frosts the windshield.
Ash across the country spreads.
The earthly process will not yield.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
All you love will turn to rust.

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