Reverie Thirty-Three: muddy hymnal

So, by way of an update: I’m back in the USA, as of late last night. Nicholas had a habit of dropping off the grid once in a while, so I don’t think anyone thought much of his not being around, but as of late June he was doing really well; he sickened very quickly in July, and passed away on July 25. Since his family lives across the country, there wasn’t any communication between them and his friends from the Philly area. One of us found out about it only by chance. I’m on stand-by to see if there will be a memorial of some kind.

I’m not ready to write about it. On the night I found out, and during the train ride, I can’t stop thinking about it, and like vicious spiders, the verbal parts of my brain keep scanning the world for themes and things — underworld journeys, terrifying shapes, lush wilderness contrasted with dead things, the unfairness of it — and trying to turn them into verse. (I often say that as the animal I’m most afraid of, Spider must be my shadow totem; I wonder if part of that is this impulse to dispassionately weave tragedy into words.) There’s some long fibrous structure building tension in my mind, and when it snaps, I think the poetry will just puke itself out. It doesn’t feel beautiful, or helpful, at all: it feels ugly, and thick, and loathsome.

So I’m going to keep trying to distract myself with other work (including, ugh, the Real Job on Monday; I can’t express how much I don’t want to go back) in the meantime.

This week: “muddy hymnal

I’ve been steering clear of borrowing individual poems and lines to inspire Reveries, since that’s been Donna’s bailiwick this year, with Poetry Mix Tape. But I felt particularly moved to do so today, for no good reason. The title of the Reverie is from an Iron and Wine song that is best listened to late at night when you need a good cleansing cry. And as phrases go, it’s a fairly excellent one: I picture a hymnal buried in the loam of a drought-exposed streambed (fitting with the imagery of the album, The Creek Drank the Cradle), full of “muddy” hymns to human objects and moments that never get the proper attention they deserve. And then I was thinking about one of my favorite poems, “God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline”, by Sarah J. Sloat, with its opening exhortation:

God have pity on the smell of gasoline
which finds its way like an arm
through a car window…

There’s a bit of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his “Pied Beauty” as an undercurrent, but what sticks out to me is the prayer for intercession towards something that never gets it. I’ll admit it: as a kid, I used to love going to the gas station and smelling the fumes. (Probably because it was killing some brain cells through oxygen deprivation, but who hasn’t?) Why are there no prayers or hymns for these minuscule, common experiences that we all enjoy, or fear, or avoid, or feel bad for? So that’s the jumping-off point for this prompt.

First, make a list of common objects, landscapes, times of day, abstract items (a word, perhaps?), etc. Try to be as universal as possible: you can write about the tops of mountains, but I’ve never been to one, and anyway, there’s enough poems and songs about those. Try to think of items you’ve never seen a single verse about before. Then, take one sensory aspect for each of those things on your list. If you wrote mourning dove, you could talk about their frantic, startled coo, or their way of regarding you without moving anything but their blinking eyelids. If you chose the word string, you could talk about how it looks on the page, how it tastes in your mouth, or how it sounds to the ear. But in the same way the aforementioned poem focuses on the smell of gasoline, rather than its appearance (pretty boring!) or taste (why would you do that!), zoom in as much as you can.

For your hymn (or canticle, lay, paean, psalm, whatever), try to keep it short and sweet. You don’t need to write an epic about the feel of gerbil fur in your palm, or the scent of fresh paint. Most hymns that I grew up with are only a few verses long, with a refrain; you can follow that if you want. I know that there are exceptions to the rule, but you may wish to make it easy for yourself, based upon the second step of the prompt: fill your hymnal. Try to do more than one poem (let’s shoot for three or four?) featuring different senses and kinds of object. Vary the forms a little bit: one might rhyme and repeat, the next might just be couplets of indeterminate length. Maybe I’ll have two poems with lines like this:

Blessed is the mourning dove’s shade of grey
that lives in the half-light of the yard
when the earth is balanced on a solitary hour
and each color stands still as a palace guard.

Have mercy on the frosted windowpane
and the message I scribbled with one fingertip:

may it last through the pearl of the sun
coming out in the afternoon

until you can breathe its ink alive again,
press your life to the memory of mine like a kiss.

You don’t have to invoke a higher power in any of these, but try to keep some element of a wish alive in each poem, whether it be a desire for divine intervention or just the attention of your readers. And then, there is one more final point: change emotions if you want. There may be things you want to curse rather than bless, things that you want to avoid and condemn rather than praise. Or you could find some kind of intermediate point, where you just want due consideration, without being partial, to some element of the world. A hymnal can get pretty repetitive before long; so why not try to mix it up a little bit? But let the fire-and-brimstone stuff follow the same parameters of subject matter and structure as the milk-and-honey stuff, to give some connective tissue to what you write. Of course, you can stick with just one (at least two?) pieces for this, but in the same way that variety within a poem can be engaging, so can variety within a suite of poems. Let that be your guidepost.

Looking forward to what sorts of things you have to say…

8 thoughts on “Reverie Thirty-Three: muddy hymnal

  1. vivinfrance says:

    I’m so sorry you are grieving for your friend. I have somehow slipped out of writing mode lately, so my hymn could be mourning that.

  2. […] Naming Constellations, Robert Kinkaide, Shrines, Social Justice The amazing Joseph Harker of Naming Constellations asked for a personal hymn (or hymns), starting with something we have never heard a hymn written […]

  3. Joseph, we have helped write too many obituaries for people far too young. I am so sorry for your loss, my dear. Having read your words about Nicholas, I only hope he went fast… and in as little pain as possible. Yet there was a spark in your prompt, the idea of writing hymns, that gave me three in a row. I will also share this (with links back to you) at the Poetry Pantry. These are for Nicholas, and for you. When I come to NYC, we’ll drink a toast to him. Love, Amy

  4. barbara_ says:

    Well. Something got me cooking. Three on a theme, and one, not. They probably don’t really fit the musical, emotional criteria. They were fun, though.

  5. seingraham says:

    Joseph – was led here through Amy’s marvellous words and then learned of your loss … I hardly know what to say that won’t sound trite so will just say how sorry I am that Nicholas died and that you are now grieving … I love your prompt this time around (I love most of your prompts but don’t get around to doing too many of them) and will give the hymn(s) a shot. Be well Joseph, I hope peace finds you soon.

  6. […] Harker gives us Reverie Thirty-three: muddy hymnal where he asks: Why are there no prayers or hymns for these minuscule, common experiences that we […]

  7. Viv: I’m sorting it out. Time, all wounds, etc…
    Amy: he did, very fast (within a matter of days). I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse about it, but there it is. And yes, do visit!
    Barbara: I think we can forgo the musical, emotional aspect. That always seems the least important part of a hymn to me anyway.
    S.E.: thanks for your kind words! I’m moving through it, we’ll see what happens on the other side. But meanwhile, please do sing a few hymns…

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