The Devil’s Thesaurus

When Samuel Faulk said something about haiku at the Bible study we attended, I thought, “This guy either writes or reads poetry.” I asked him about it later, and he admitted to reading AND writing poetry. We got together to talk poetry, and he told me about a book he’d been working on for awhile called, The Devil’s Thesaurus. After putting it on the shelf for a few years, he’d resumed work on it.

I loved the title right off, and as Sam described the idea behind it, I was super intrigued. The Devil’s Thesaurus was not just a book of poems, but a book whose poems all told the story of a relationship. What’s more, the poems were arranged like a thesaurus: each poem illustrated a word, and poems were arranged in pairs of synonym/antonym. My mind was slightly blown, and I encouraged Sam to keep at it.

Nearly a year later, The Devil’s Thesaurus is finished and available on Amazon (check it out here). In its pages you’ll find a wide variety of poems. There are fascinating conceptual poems like “Yin” and “Yang.” These poems can be read separately or (as their titles suggest) you can interweave their lines so that together they form a third poem. Other poems, like “Wane” or “Virtuous” are philosophical or theological. Moods throughout the book range from jubilant (“Zenith”) to comical (“Celibate”) to poignant (“Gaunt”) and crushing (“Nadir”).

Given Sam’s versatility, I’m sure most people will find something to like in his book. Check it out! Below is one poem from the book called “Xiphoid.” For me, this poem evokes the gnawing tension you feel when realizing someone might not be what they seem. Plus, the poem’s content is mirrored in its shape!

Xiphoid

How 
crazy is
it that we 
revert to Greek
or Latin just to describe
something as accurately as
possible? Like the curved
edge of your chest as
you sleep. It’s not
a scimitar, it’s
something
else
entirely.

Summer’s End

It’s that time of year when it’s cool in the morning and warm during the day. I’d dress in layers but I run cold so I end up keeping my layers on 😉 The impending change of seasons reminded me of a poem in my second book, Event Horizon, called “Summer’s End.” It seemed apropos to post. And if readers want to vote for summer or fall in the comments (and why you like one or the other), I’d love to hear it. I lean summer myself, mostly because it’s warm. But fall and Hallowe’en is a close second 🎃

Summer’s End

It’s supposed to hit 82 today.

But this morning 
I am wearing pants 
and a jacket.

I feel a chill
as summer tells me,
in hushed tones,
it doesn’t have 
long.

Mr. Andolini

This past week was the first week of school for my kids, so I thought I’d post a poem I wrote about a high school memory: “Mr. Andolini.”

I often wonder why certain things stick with us. I wrote “Mr. Andolini” about 15 years after the events occurred. All those years later, the memory still carried an emotional force that made me want to write about it. Even now, I ask myself why this impacted me so much that my brain rewired itself and made neural connections to preserve it. Whatever the reason, it has shaped me in some small way.

“Mr. Andolini” was part of my first collection of poems, The Wind and the Shadows.

Mr. Andolini

At first glance,
he was an Italian stereotype:
his olive face
oiled black hair
that slumped over his head
like a mob hit.

But he had 
none of the bravado
you’d expect
from a Mafioso Don.

He wore
a three-piece suit with a tie—
overdressed
for a high school math sub.
But the entire suit
was wrinkled;
the man looked wadded up
and tossed.

In no time,
the class was a frenzy
of chatter and cackling.

Mr. Andolini’s voice
halted through
a couple theorems,
then went staccato
like an old man
stamping his feet
at a pack of dogs.

About then,
something sailed past my head,
bounced off Mr. Andolini’s chest,
and came to rest
near my feet:
a balled up 
sheet of paper.

I looked up at Mr. Andolini
just in time to see him
crumpling into the teacher’s chair,
hands over his face.

Then my eyes returned
to the paper,
which I considered for awhile
but felt reluctant
to throw
away.

Dream Land—Christina Rossetti

I became acquainted with Christina Rossetti’s poetry while reading The Oxford Book of Christian Verse earlier this year. While her poems were written before the age of free verse, I was struck by how natural her language is—she avoids awkward word order to fit a poem’s meter or rhyme scheme. Some of her imagery is vivid, and I am also touched by the tenderness toward God that comes through her religious poems.

Our family was recently on vacation and ended up browsing a book store (as we often do). I picked up a volume of Rossetti’s poems and began reading. Much to my amusement, the first three poems in the book were about death (two involved ghosts). So I am finding Rossetti has a gloomy side, like many good poets 😉

One of the three poems about death is called “Dream Land.” With a haunting, ethereal tone, it explores the losses of a woman who has died. The rhyme and meter support the tone and draw the reader into an almost entrancing chant.

The opening lines set a somber, mysterious mood, which pervades most of the poem:

Where sunless rivers weep
Their waves into the deep
She sleeps a charmed sleep:
Awake her not.

Despite this, the very end of the poem reframes death as “perfect peace” and even strikes notes of hope and resurrection:

Sleep that no pain shall wake;
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
Her perfect peace.

Dream Land” is a short poem—just four stanzas—but does a good job enveloping the reader in what is a surreal but ultimately optimistic meditation. Rossetti does a good job framing death as a temporary loss leading to something greater: a seed given up in hopes of a flower.

The Root’s Lament

Reverse poetry is a form that can be read from top to bottom and from bottom to top. Usually, when the poem is read from bottom to top, it reverses the top to bottom meaning.

I first became acquainted with reverse poetry a couple years ago. My wife shared one with me called “Pretty Ugly.” It is still one of the best executed reverse poems I’ve come across. One thing I like about reverse poems is that they explore the problem of perception. One person’s viewpoint is limited. Despite that, we reach settled conclusions about things, and often those settled conclusions are the opposite of what’s true.

Earlier this year, I decided to try my hand at a reverse poem. The result was “The Root’s Lament.” I wrote this poem from a root’s point of view. It can be read as a look at how different parts of a tree function and contribute to fruit-bearing. But there is a spiritual meaning for me as well.

We all want to feel valued in life. This tends to be easier when our activity produces something that others can see and appreciate. Things look different when viewed through the eyes of the Spirit, however. Spiritually, hidden functions are often the most vital. Prayer, for example, is critical to building a relationship with God, yet it overwhelmingly happens behind closed doors. In a similar vein, Paul reminds a crop of recent converts: “Remember, you do not support the root. The root supports you” (Rom. 11:18).

“The Root’s Lament” will appear in my third book, Shadow and Memory, which I hope to self-publish in 2023. I hope that it does something to support readers in those functions they perform that are invisible but all important.

The Root’s Lament

I’m fruitless
There’s no way
I’m most vital to the tree
That’s why
I’m clutching dirt underground for nothing
Bury the idea that
The open-handed boughs, spilling fruit, would topple
Without me
Rain caught by the tree’s leafy tongues slakes its thirst
It’s not like
The tree needs me to drill deep, to find stygian springs
I sink out of memory
While the tree’s twigged fingers interlace with sunbeams

(Now read from the ground up)

Poetry’s Bouquet

Often I have to remind myself there are many kinds of poets. When a poem dazzles me, it’s easy to throw shade on my own work, to feel drab next to their shine.

Dylan Thomas is one of my favorite poets, if not my absolute favorite. That said, I doubt I’ve understood two of his poems. Despite that, I love the density of his language and startling imagery. I feel inspired every time I read his work because it is something beautiful and out of reach that keeps me reaching further.

That said, I’ve been equally impacted by poets like Robert Frost or Philip Larkin. While their poems tend to be more accessible, they are full of their own beauty and feeling. If everyone were a Thomas, no one would be a Larkin, and the world would be poorer for it.

When I think of poems I’ve finished and thought, “That was just what I want a poem to be,” I realize how different they all are. Modern verse; sonnets; mundane images; bizarre scenes; meaningful; absurd…all these have a place in poetry’s bouquet. At the end of the day, I’m grateful for this garden of variety. And this makes it easier for me to see that my own blooms have a place, adding their own color and fragrance.

Below is a poem from my first book of poems, The Wind and the Shadows. This poem describes another kind of flower garden and explores the tension of differences and liberty.

Happy Birthday, USA

On the Fourth of July
my daughter and I
drive across town,
park on a hill,
and watch this year’s 
fireworks display.

It starts off, literally,
with a bang:
A white-hot stem
snakes up into the clouds
like Jack’s beanstalk,
then bursts in a bright-blue bloom.

Purple plumes,
white cascading bells,
orange POP! POP! Poppies,
and other varieties
flower in fire
as a pyrotechnic garden
flourishes
before our very eyes.

On the other side
of the street,
a drunken round of “Happy Birthday”
erupts
as some people raise beer cans
to America.

For a moment,
a red rocket bursting in the air
glares with me.

But then I join in the song,
adding a high harmony
to their melody.

Sweet land of liberty…

of thee
I sing.

Published Haiku!

In a previous post, I mentioned one of my haiku would appear in the August edition of the journal, Better than Starbucks. Well, August is here, and my haiku has been published 😊. To date, this is my third published poem.

If you’d like to check out my haiku online, you can read it here. However, the link takes you to the haiku page, not my haiku, so you’ll have to find mine on the page. Given that, I’m going to post it below so people don’t have to hunt for it. But if you have the time, there are other fine haiku you can read along with mine.

If you are like me and still like printed books, you can purchase a print copy of the August issue of Better than Starbucks here.

Better than Starbucks publishes haiku without titles, which I believe is often the tradition. When this haiku appears in my third book (released sometime next year, I hope), it will have the title “Year’s End.” Thank you for celebrating this with me!

The pond is seized by
icy rigor, dead to wind,
and bereft of swans.

Metaphor

Metaphor, similes, imagery…these are the blood and guts of poetry. When discussing metaphor for the first time in school (third grade?), the teacher’s example was, “The room was an oven.” I remember feeling something like, “Wow! A lot more interesting than saying, ‘The room was really hot.’” Even at that age, there was a little of the poet in me 😉.

The significance of metaphor has grown for me over the years. It’s more than descriptive or comparative language. Metaphor hints at an existential freedom from the concrete, the merely physical. What we are is not limited to sense experience. We are not subject to empiricism’s empire. Sense experience is a jumping off point; it suggests something beyond, something metaphysical or spiritual. If it didn’t, why would we be able to abstract or see supra-concrete relationships between things?

Earlier this summer, I tried to capture some of this in a poem. It is part musing about metaphor, part tribute: I borrow metaphors or imagery from some favorite poems as examples of how metaphor points to an identity outside the empirical.

As a challenge, I would love it if readers would comment and identify as many of the poems I borrow from as they can *without using a search engine*. The one who can name the most wins the prize of…feeling indomitably awesome 😆

Metaphor

If a falling leaf
is loneliness

if leaning grasses
are love

if one short sleep past
is death

we might still be free:

Free to take 
the road less traveled

free to fork lightning
with words

free to be
signs and symbols

children
of something more.

Lights Out

Like everything else, writing has its seasons. From what I gather, most writers try to write something every day. But sometimes there are lulls (we don’t call it writer’s block or even mention that 😉). But even lulls can be fruitful to the imagination.

Below is poem I wrote about not having anything to write (there’s some irony for ya!). This poem is in my latest book, Event Horizon.

Lights Out

Sitting in bed,
head tilted back,
eyes closed.

Night touches down;
I can feel the blank
of space
all around.

It is at my door:

airless,
mute,
near zero degrees.

I have nothing
to write.

With the click of a lamp
the room vanishes.

As Summer Ages

Someone once said art is really about the observer, and that artists watch more than participate in life. (I believe Oscar Wilde said this but I’ve never been able to find the quote again!) Whoever said it, there’s some truth to it. To write, paint, make music, etc. requires that you step back to notice and reflect. All the arts in a sense represent life—that is, the arts re-present things through words, color, sound, and the like.

Perhaps this is why I treasure times when I can sit and do nothing. I need to step out of the flow of activity and doing so I can process. It’s like getting out of the river to watch it. No one can swim forever. The creation and enjoyment of art allows us to sit on the river bank so to speak.

Below is a poem that came out of sitting and watching on a late-summer afternoon. What happens in the poem is simple, but observing it led to reflecting on seasons in a broader sense. Feel free to comment if you have any reflections of your own. This poem appears in my second book, Event Horizon.

As Summer Ages

As summer ages into autumn,
leaves on the spreading tree limbs curl 
and clasp the breeze,
which draws their shadows
past my window-shade
and to the ground.