Friday, March 3, 2017

Poetry Friday: "Season of Ash and Penitence"

Before we get too far away from Ash Wednesday, let me post this poem--a somewhat different take on my other Ash Wednesday themed poems.

Looking back over my writing life, I'm surprised at how often I see the themes of ash and penitence in my writing. As a younger person, I hated Ash Wednesday and all its morbid themes. As an older person, I keep returning to that well--or should I say ash pit?

The haunting words of Ash Wednesday--"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"--often provide powerful motivation to get that writing done (or in the words of Andrew Marvell, "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near"). In his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says, "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (page 61).
The poem below percolated for many years.  Long ago, in a pre-dawn run at the beach, I really did hear an old guy with a cigar say, "This is how I'm celebrating Ash Wednesday right here. I'm gonna smoke all day long."  The rest of the poem is rooted in truth too, although not always in experiences that I've actually had.

This poem appeared in April 2016 in the Hawaii Pacific Review.

Season of Ash and Penitence

He says he’ll celebrate
Ash Wednesday by smoking a carton
of cigarettes.  Before the sun rises,
he’s puffed through a pack.

In the early light, she repots
the plants and hopes
they’ll perk back to life.

He knows his daughter has skipped
school, and he spies on her secrets,
such stereotypes, nothing original:
the boy he has banned,
the fast car, an empty bottle.

She didn’t mean to burn
their lunch to cinders
as she counted out iambs
on her fingers, a successful
sonnet at last.

They engage in the same fights
as the sun sets:  who neglected
which chores and how they wish
for changes that seem impossible.

In the darkening dusk,
we all gather in the church.
Our pastor smudges ash
on our foreheads, as tender
as a mother feeling for fever.

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