So many conversations in the coffee house
revise the chronicles of History, usurp the headlines,
and chart a course toward mercy
our country seldom hears.
If you have a soul, some smoldering left inside, maybe
the time has come to bring it words like “and.” Its health
may be determined
by the poverties it adds unto itself.
So many years now I’ve rested on clover beds
but never once forgot myself
and buried face and arms
to breathe the earth deep down and carry it away.
The loveliness of form has brought me back
from who I was, a man itinerant, lulled by memory,
thinking what I’ve lived
has been the only path.
A woman singing of her restlessness makes room for me
to search that self-same road.
The moment bears us forth.
We’re holding hands against a coming Inquisition.
The original title was a bit longer: “Wondering Aloud in a Time of War.” In fact, the poem went through seven revisions/tweaks before settling into its current iteration. By the third draft I had dropped the reference to war, believing that the poem might sound too politicized, too much of a comment upon the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” which, at that time, was in the collective mind. What I had in mind, though, was more along the lines of Ephesians 6:2: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Each stanza, hopefully, can be read as its own small room of meaning. As I’ve said before, I’ve written a lot of poems that proceed through five three-line stanzas, letting the interplay of the stanzas, though distinct, create an intuitive logic. Originally, the second stanza in “Wondering Aloud” was entirely different. It read as follows:
What will become of us who worry over words,
their shades and implications, when the outer
trumps the inner and every soul’s a billboard sign?
The poem was sent around for many years but never could find a home with a literary journal. In 2013, when my collection Notes for a Praise Book came out, I lifted this stanza and used it in the book’s title poem because I thought the stanza connected with the themes in that poem. Also, since almost eight years had passed since my first book Fall Sanctuary was published, I was beginning to think that a lot of my work might wander around forever without finding an audience.
The audience of a coffeehouse, in some ways, serves as an alternate reality, one that works against the day’s headlines and revises History by entering into “conversation,” a prospect which, to some degree, might actually be a form of “conversion.” I like to think so at least. To “chart a course toward mercy” still seems like a necessary and important strategy even if an Inquisition is almost upon us.
Even so, some of us will still be reaching toward each other. A lot of things “don’t come easy,” as Patty Griffin says, but we’re made of “something light as nothing, made of joy that matters, too.” Nothing we call “History” will survive time. The outer always seems on the verge of trumping the inner. It's easy to forget that love exists. We're always wondering, though rarely aloud, if "we'll ever get home."
The soul knows better.