By Olivia Rall
We are all familiar with the story of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who broke open the bottle of expensive perfume and poured it over her Savior’s feet. The Gospel of Mark tells us the perfume was worth one year’s wages. To some, Mary’s gift might be described as excessive. When we hear the word excess, we often think of another word: unnecessary. Indeed, Judas’ reaction to Mary’s act was somewhere along those lines. He argued that the expensive perfume could’ve been sold for money that might have been spent more practically on the poor.
But Jesus and His ministry give us a different vision of excess. God, after all, operates from an economy of abundance. I believe that poetry is just one means God gives His creation of plumbing the depths of this abundance, the kind of excess John seems to be referring to in his gospel when he writes: “from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” God pours out His Spirit on His creation so that we might have a taste of what is to come–and He does this in the physical world where we see and hear and taste and touch.
How do we respond to this excessive grace? First, we might recognize that there is always more to God’s creation than we can possibly grasp. Really good poems broach the edges of this excess, tapping into the vast material of our human experience. Robert Frost said that poetry is “a way of remembering that which we would be impoverished to forget.” It deepens our understanding of our human condition, something the Scriptures insists is quite vulnerable and precious. In other words, poetry is a mode of creaturely witness to the fullness we cannot grasp.
Susanna Childress is a poet who reminds us of the excess that is all around us– the kind of abundance we so often fail to see. I end this post with her poem, “We Take the Sky” from her collection Jagged with Love.
WE TAKE THE SKY
We take the sky, as if red is something we could own,
something we might find in the stillest of moments,
as if the earth is humane and wouldn’t break
our bones. (None of His were broken. Not one, allegedly.)
Red is in the land too, is in the way we look at each other, the hardness
of our sleep, the need to fall down, to tell of the pox that swept Aunt Jess,
the drink that ushers Father, the path that never leads to wealth or rest
or health–but the one we always take. Shalom, we say. Buena suerte.
We always take the sky, fold it over ourselves,
the soil, run it across our skin and cling to it,
savoring the tart of a lemon, palming a bar of soap
even when our hands are clean, naming the insects
that fly across the white bulb of moon late at night,
rakishly loving the one who knows our smell,
saying (as if they are not questions), Isn’t this how
we stay alive and Why shouldn’t I burrow here.
This is how we drum on, cold and ungrowing–
what more to be than alive? It all hums: so we die in small bits,
so the egg-shaped hollow that sits behind our stomachs,
so He died and rose again on the third day, so (what).
We take the sky, we scatter on the land. We fall down,
grab the everythings, the tiniest cures, fall down again,
wash ourselves in red and know, unwittingly, it is not enough.
More certain than anything: it will never be,
and then here, in the stillest moments, the story rushes again
(veil splitting, stone rolling, Mary, Peter, John, running,
linen and spices like a limp cocoon, the blur of angels, the one red
splash of a second–like a rose breaking open–when we know),
and somewhere inside us a small green seed pricks the dirt,
coiling for air. He soothes and stirs, fingertip-sized holes in His
hands, roaming the soil and the sky for our broken bones.
And the shaking on earth is our brand new lives:
Alleluia, we say, feeling even the empty oval of our stomachs rise.
If you love poetry, consider submitting to our Fall Poetry Contest.