IN THE FULLNESS OF TIME
I have a way of walking out of comfort into crosshairs--
don’t know, can’t say, just let it be and carry on—yet
whoever pulls the trigger must contend with my contentment.
Not that I don’t rail against my nothingness, but I do it
in the deep of night where none can hear. In daylight,
I can’t keep a straight face being that presumptuous.
A boy, my job was scooping corn to feed the chickens.
Let’s say I say a few wise things in fifty years—behind
it all, I’ll hear a whirring sound and taste the dusty air.
On this battlefield, my allies are Basho and David, Enoch
and Thoreau, Stafford, Szymborska, Issa and more. Even Gimpel
the Fool shows up, who I knew all along was more than a fiction.
Soon enough, the fullness of time will speak my deeds. I hope
I’ll be remembered for my hands along corn stalks, for how I
pulled a sheet to cover nakedness for one whose mind had lost its way.
For more than thirty years, a lot of my writing has explored ideas like contentment, joy, praise, prayer, and gratitude. I made an offhand comment one time, saying that sometimes joy is my greatest spite in the face of a hostile world. In my poem “So Many Words of Caution and Yield,” also included in Notes for a Praise Book, the last stanza states:
A hundred years ago I would have kept my hat turned low.
At gunslingers, thieves, I would have hummed a song of trust
and mercy, to spite the click of firing pins all falling into place.
I was in graduate school in the early 90s, and I can distinctly remember opening Joseph Broksky’s book To Urania and reading its first poem, “May 24, 1980.” The last couplet floored me, I think, because the idea sounded like something my own mind had been trying to formulate since I was a child. Brodsky said, “Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,/only gratitude will be gushing from it.”
The fourth stanza is one of my favorite stanzas in all of my work. It catalogues several of the writers and figures whose ideas have become the most central of my life. From Basho’s haiku to David’s psalms, from Enoch who “walked with God” and “was not” to Thoreau who loved his life to the core and rind, these “allies” have helped to place me more fully within “the fullness of time.” The character of Gimpel the Fool, created by Isaac Bashevis Singer, has always mattered to me deeply for his naïve innocence, which reveals more clearly the corruption in the hearts of those who mock and take advantage of him. Yes, I believe I am on a battlefield—I grew up under the teachings of a Baptist Church—and we battle “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.”
The poem’s final image is rich with complications for me. My Papaw had Alzheimer’s at the end of his life, and the last time I visited him in a nursing home he kept pulling his pajama bottoms off, and I kept easing them back on while we talked about a bull he used to have in a pasture when I was a child. Nakedness, I was always taught, is supposed to be covered. Think of the story of Lot in the Bible. Or of Adam and Eve. “Who told you that you were naked?” Genesis 3 asks. On the other hand, I felt a great tenderness toward my Papaw. I did not want him to be embarrassed even though his “mind had lost its way.” Or was I trying to cover my own embarrassment? In the end, what does it matter? Such moments give us a chance to attend to one another, to comfort and ease our passage (and passing) from this life. We shall all be laid bare. Issa certainly was by all the tragedies that befell him. Stafford taught me not to care about presenting a particular face to the world. David had already danced naked before God. In poem after poem, for more than thirty years, I hope my words have done the same.