“Grief” by Stephen Dobyns

Trying to remember you

is like carrying water

in my hands a long distance

across sand. Somewhere

people are waiting.

They have drunk nothing for days.


Your name was the food I lived on;

now my mouth is full of dirt and ash.

To say your name was to be surrounded

by feathers and silk; now, reaching out,

I touch glass and barbed wire.

Your name was the thread connecting my life;

now I am fragments on a tailor’s floor.


I was dancing when I

learned of your death; may

my feet be severed from my body.


(Posted in remembrance of our father, Mardell Culley, Sr. on the second anniversary of his death)


Things That Strengthen Us, pt 2 of 2

From Christian Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss (pg. 161):

Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us.  It may be the love of someone you have lost.  It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at time you think you hate.  However it comes through, in all these—of all these and yet more than, so much more—there burns the abiding love of God.  But if you find that you cannot believe in God, then do not worry yourself with it.  No one can say what names or forms God might take, nor gauge the intensity of unbelief we may need to wake up our souls.  My love is still true, my children, still with you, still straining through your ambitions and your disappointments, your frenzies and forgetfulness, through all the glints and gulfs of implacable matter—to reach you, to help you, to heal you.

Things That Strengthen Us, pt 1 of 2

From Christman Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss, undoubtedly written first to the close loves of his life (pg. 161):

My loves, I will be with you, even if I am not with you.  Every day I feel a little more the impress of eternity, learn a little more “the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of the spirit,” as T. S. Eliot said, writing of the seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert (read him!), who died when he was thirty-nine and had only recently found true happiness with his new wife and new commitment to God.  My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own.  I will be with you.  I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy.  They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives.  If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us.

My Fear of Losing You

Beneath our enduring friendship

the unspoken, latent fear

I never mentioned to you,

that I would lose you

to work, to poor health,

to a faraway move

or something unforeseen.

And then one day I did lose you.

Death sliced you from me

with a condor’s swiftness,

ripped you out of

my fearful grasp without

a moment’s hesitation.

Always death wins

in who gets to keep.

You are gone now

and so is my old fear,

leaving plenty of room

for loneliness and sorrow

but also sufficient space

for the savoring of love,

the one thing Death

could not take from me.

From Joyce Rupp’s My Soul Feels Lean

The Way Whole Worlds Change

Experiencing and anticipating all the anniversaries of my father’s death bring me both a sense of tenderness and pain.  The tenderness is joyous, the pain striking.

It was in April that me and Mark went to church with Pop, worshiped with him for the first and only time.  We drove down for the occasion and had planned to return within 24 hours.

We saw him serving as an usher.  He was proud to stand at the door of the church, excited in his way to greet people who came to church.  He was glad we were there, too.  I remember how he dressed that morning, after a night of laughing at me because I couldn’t sleep with my brother’s loud snores.  We didn’t eat breakfast because we were planning to see our friends at the Ole Saw Mill, a tradition for our dinners when we visited on short trips.

That was the morning my dad’s decline started as far as we could see.  He fainted in church that morning, during a not-so-engaging sermon.  My cousin called the paramedics, and they took a very long time to come.  There had been an accident at the Food Lion and “all” the trucks (two of them) were occupied by the injured going to the small hospital.  We didn’t eat at Saw Mill, not with dad.  Instead, we went to the hospital, called our aunts who came from Little Rock that afternoon, and waited to hear what dad’s condition was.

When our relatives arrived, dressed in their Sunday’s best, we went to get socks and fast food for dad.  Our aunts loved us, greeted us, checked in on their brother, and released us to go eat around 5pm that afternoon.  Some time after we got back to the hospital, it was clear that we could leave, that dad was going to transfer to the hospital in Little Rock the next day, and that, looking back, everything  was different.  That was in April.  May is dad’s birth month, the day being a week away.  Now that he’s gone, I’m looking at it on the calendar like a day I don’t want to come.

It’s strange being so close, and so far, from one year ago.  The whole world can change in such a short time.

Ode to Gumbo & Other Memories

For weeks I have waited

for a day without death

or doubt.  Instead

the sky set afire

or the flood

filling my face.

A stubborn drain

nothing can fix.

Every day death.

Every morning death

& every night

& evening

And each hour

a kind of winter—

all weather

is unkind.  Too

hot, or cold

that creeps the bones.

Father, your face

a faith

I can no longer see.

Across the street

a dying, yet

still-standing tree.

So why not

make a soup

of what’s left?  Why

not boil & chop

something outside

the mind—let us

welcome winter

for a few hours, even

in summer.  Some

say Gumbo

starts with file

or with roux, begins

with flour & water

making sure

not to burn.  I know Gumbo

starts with sorrow—

with hands that cannot wait

but must—with okra

& a slow boil

& things that cannot

be taught, like grace.

Done right,

Gumbo lasts for days.

Done right, it will feed

you & not let go.

Like grief

you can eat & eat

& still plenty

left.  Food

of the saints,

Gumbo will outlast

even us—like pity,

you will curse it

& still hope

for the wing

of chicken bobbed

up from below.

Like God

Gumbo is hard

to get right

& I don’t bother

asking for it outside

my mother’s house.

Like life, there’s no one

way to do it,

& a hundred ways,

from here to Sunday,

to get it dead wrong.

Save all the songs.

I know none,

even this, that will

bring a father

back to his son.

Blood is thicker

than water under

any bridge

& Gumbo thicker

than that.  It was

my father’s mother

who taught mine how

to stir its dark mirror—

now it is me

who wishes to plumb

its secret

depths.  Black

Angel, Madonna

of the Shadows,

Hail Mary strong

& dark as dirt,

Gumbo’s scent fills

this house like silence

& tells me everything

has an afterlife, given

enough time & the right

touch.  You need

okra, sausage, bones

of a bird, an entire

onion cut open

& wept over, stirring

cayenne in, till the end

burns the throat—

till we can amen

& pretend

such fiery

mercy is all we know.

Kevin Young’s Ode to Gumbo in Dear Darkness

Grief: A Looping Line

The path of grief is not a straight line.  You don’t start off in the deepest slough then climb up each step to get back to peaceful.  Grief moves forward, but in a looping line.  You’re going along, making progress then you hit a loop and your stomach lurches and everything is flipped upside down and you land right back where you were a few weeks or months ago.  Eventually, the loops get smaller and spread farther apart, but they’re still there to…well, to throw you for a loop.

Read the full post here.