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Friday, January 6, 2012

If God Is In The Details: Metaphor, The Great Pandemic, and Hummingbirds

A poem, and then a few thoughts on metaphor...

Headstones carry last century’s news etched into granite gone
green, lichen as cold as the shade side of an empty
house.  I wait while he kneels at his son’s grave,
wander the brittle grass paths, find mothers
buried with newborns
The dates are the same.  No span of life stretches
between them.  I find brothers
and sisters, a wife,
then a child,
a husband – the Great Pandemic.

Grief is a familiar load.  It bends us at the shoulders, buckles his knees
as I wander, waiting for the right time to go to him, the sorrow
of a town etched in each stone. Grave after
winter grave, I see where death
turned the calendar
December 1918
January 1919
Seven months later we return to the family plot. Too soon. 
The soil hasn’t settled.  They have piled a mound of cold earth on
his son’s grave, carving space for the wooden box that holds the
grandmother’s ashes.  A boy holding the earth. It should not be
so – life turned upside
            like this
His mother is the first to toss rose petals for these are her mother’s ashes
floating, the petals carried by a cold wind to both graves.  I wait, watch
his father bend and reach into the basket.  His large brown hand curls
softly around the red petals and I wonder, How does one let go
 of such
 a thing?

As a writer, I want to reach out and touch this experience without staring it harshly in the eye, without crassly naming it, as if such poignancy could be reduced to a few single words.  If God is in the details, then I want to write the details in such a way that from these details symbolism rises.
Hummingbird by Sarah Rogers
In the 2012 January/ February issue of Poets & Writers, Dan Albergotti writes about metaphor, exploring “The Truth of Imagination” as seen through the lens of Melanie Carter’s poem, “Water to Sky” (first published in Shenandoah). The poem, on the surface, is about a hummingbird.  But in just 14 lines, she captures a truth about the human experience.  The fine throat “soaked through with red” shape-shifts into the “hook God dangles into this uncertain sea.”  The wings “pluck the invisible line” and suddenly we realize that the “invisible line” that links water to sky is the very same line from which we dangle.  The hummingbird becomes both bird and fish, as do we.

And God?  Ah, the puppeteer, of course.  The question arises from the metaphor, and is answered by the metaphor, yet in a way that none of us can articulate, nor hold in the palm of our hand, nor see with our naked eye.  But we know it to be true—as weightless as the hummingbird, yet as substantial as the fistful of soil I might have held had I dared to bend at the grave and pick it up, tossing it, like the rose petals, into the cold winter wind.

BOTTOM NOTES: Rattles: Poetry for the 21st Century awards a $500 editors prize for the Annual Neil Postman Award for Metaphor.   MANY THANKS to artist Sarah Rogers for permission to feature "Gary's Hummingbird."  To view Sarah's available prints and originals, please go to Sarah Rogers Art.  THANKS also to Robert Olen Butler, for reminding us in his book From Where You Dream, that the human condition resides in the details.  Origin of "God is in the details."