Into the Labyrinth: The Road to Emmaus

Traditionally, the labyrinth is an uncluttered opportunity for centering prayer. It usually consists of a single path that leads into the center and back out. There are twists and turns, switchbacks, and apparent setbacks that actually take you further along the path to your goal, but feel like moving in the wrong direction. Unlike in a maze – the labyrinth’s choose-your-own-adventure cousin – if you simply walk the path in front of you, you will get where you’re going. Labyrinths are often found outdoors or in relatively bare chapels with an altar and candles that welcome people to come and unburden themselves of whatever they’re carrying, yoke themselves to Christ, and practice walking in the spirit. It is a lovely form of sacred space: simple yet suggestive. The idea presented below is not intended as an improvement over a traditional labyrinth. We borrowed the labyrinth motif because it brought to life the sense of realization while in movement, the walking epiphanies of the story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. As such, it would be appropriate to set up during Epiphany or during Lent – when we wander the desert not to lose ourselves, but to find our center – as well as when we did it: during the season of Easter, before Ascension, when this story originally took place.

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A labyrinth of the everyday – trompe l’oeil outside Chartres Cathedral

Road to Emmaus Labyrinth

Luke 24:13-35

Our[1] labyrinth consisted of a huge drop cloth on the floor marked in a variation on a classic labyrinth pattern.[2] With staggered starts, the labyrinth could accommodate four or five people at a time. We set up eight compact, numbered stations along the path – five going in, one at the center, and two going out.[3] Two readers (one reading the script, the other the scripture passages throughout) recorded an audio tour with music as follows. People were given headphones and a cheap, one-button mp3 player and invited to pause and play and go at their own pace. In this script the numbers correspond to the track number.

  1. “Welcome”

Welcome to the Emmaus Road Labyrinth. Here we enter the story of two disciples meeting the resurrected Jesus as they walked along the road to a town called Emmaus. In a sense, we’ll be walking along with them as we progress into and back out from the heart of the labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is a puzzle to be solved. A labyrinth is a path to be followed. Walking a labyrinth is a completely different exercise than running a maze. Here there is no fear of being lost. The labyrinth externally enacts the internal experience of centering. Spiritually, it represents space set apart, or sacred space, in which we are drawn into the center, to the recognition of the presence of God, then return to the world blessed and changed by the experience, and better equipped to be an agent of blessing and change.

 

Each station in the labyrinth has one track on this audio guide. Go at your own pace. This is a time to walk in the Spirit, swap stories with Jesus and listen for the voice of God in your life. If the words or music become a distraction, feel free to pause, skip ahead or ignore the recording entirely. Enter the labyrinth and continue walking until you reach station one.

 

  1. “Station One (going in): They were kept from recognizing him” Luke 24:13-16

Jesus’ followers then and now have different perceptions of who he is and what he came to do. The disciples’ false perceptions of Jesus kept them from knowing and loving him for who he is. They thought he was a teacher, a revolutionary, a ruler; they thought he was dead.

It is difficult to recognize the presence of God when God doesn’t act according to our assumptions. St. John of the Cross called this the dark night of the soul. He saw it as a time in which, despite all appearances and perceptions, even though it feels like stumbling around in the dark, the soul grows in faith and intimacy with Christ Himself, rather than with illusions of Him.

 

Open the flaps to see images of the Jesus we think we know. Ask him to reveal himself so that we may love him as he truly is.[4]

Music: “The Dark Night of the Soul” by Loreena McKennitt

 

  1. “Station Two (going in): Downcast” Luke 24:17

The Seder is the traditional meal and central celebration of Passover. To read about the origins of Passover, please pause this recording and read Exodus 11 & 12 marked in the bibles here. The entire extended family is to come together. Throughout the meal, they retell the Exodus story in the first person as if they had been one of the slaves freed from Pharaoh’s bondage. The bitter herbs, horseradish here, are eaten to remind the participants of the bitterness of slavery.  Are you downcast? Where are you experiencing bitterness? Taste the herbs and let the words of Psalm 22 be your cry to heaven.

 

  1. “Station Three (going in): Storytelling, Part 1” Luke 24:18-24

The disciples on the road were consoling each other by telling stories and remembering Christ. On index cards, write about a time in your life when you met with God. Pin them to the storyboard. Read others’ stories and allow others to read your story.

 

  1. “Station Four (going in): Storytelling, Part 2” Luke 24:25-27

Now Jesus tells his story, explaining his work throughout the ages, establishing and re-establishing relationships with his people. Flip through a bible and take some time to hear God’s story of constant provision and love. The lectionary bookmarks and bibles are free for you to take with you.

Music: “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Jars of Clay (light) or Gavin Bryars (strong)

 

  1. “Station Five (going in): Welcoming the Stranger” Luke 24:28-29

The disciples welcomed Jesus though they did not yet recognize him. Who is the stranger walking along the road with you now? Have you ever encountered Christ in or through a stranger? Have you ever been that stranger? Consider these questions as you watch the video.[5] Pause this program and use the headphones attached to the monitor.

 

  1. “Station Six (center): Breaking Bread” Luke 24:30-31

Here in the center of the labyrinth, Jesus meets us and offers sustenance for the journey outward. Break bread with Christ. Join in this prayer from “Six Recognitions of the Lord” by Mary Oliver as you take and eat.

 

Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with

the fragrance of the fields and the

freshness of the oceans which you have

made, and help me to hear and to hold

in all dearness those exacting and wonderful

words of our Lord Christ Jesus, saying:

Follow me.

 

[minute pause]

When you are ready to begin your journey back out into the world, take a card and exit out the corner opposite from the one you entered. Practice walking prayerfully.

 

  1. “Station Seven (going out): Burning Hearts” Luke 24:32

What is Christ saying to you on the road? What does scripture say about Jesus? What does it say about you? Have you looked recently to see? Light a candle and pray for the scriptures to be opened to you, for the words to burn within your heart.

[pause]

What words from the scripture cards or from your bible reading do you want burned deeper into your heart? Write them onto a paper heart, tack it to a candle and take it with you. Light it at home, while it burns pray that the scriptures will be opened to you and your heart opened to them.

Music: “Listen” by Michelle Tumes

 

  1. “Station Eight (going out): Returning to Jerusalem” Luke 24:33-35

Where is your “Jerusalem?” Where will you now return and share what you have experienced? Who can you talk to about what you are learning about Jesus?

Christ is risen! Take a cross to give to a friend as a reminder of Christ the Lord, alive and walking with us.

 

 

[1] You know you have a successful collaboration going when no one can remember whose ideas were whose and they’ve become too interwoven to attribute them separately anyway. I got to write the script, but the experience as a whole was thought through and produced by everyone in our alt worship planning group: Cristie Kearny, Deb Hedeen, Judy Naegeli, Trisha Gilmore, Cathy Stevens, Heidi Estey, Kirk Heynen, James Kearny and Anika Smith.

[2] Ours happened to have one path leading in to the center and a different path leading back out, but generally I would recommend the Half-Chartres (basically the inside half of the design at Chartres Cathedral). You can find instructions for making a 12’ x 12’ version at “Karen’s Small Labyrinths” http://www.angelfire.com/my/zelime/labyrinthssmall.html#halfchartres. The size shown there would be sufficient for people to use one or two at a time with a single station in the middle, but wouldn’t accommodate what I’m describing here. Ours was about 4 times that size, maybe 25’ x 25’.

[3] The stations should be clearly numbered with the station number and the track number and labeled “going in” or “going out” so as not to confuse anyone. Remember they are all actually set up on and around a flat, open surface, so they will not be laid down linearly. If you use a single path labyrinth, people will be walking by stations 7 and 8 on the way in, but should only stop at them on the way out. We set up stations on small, low tables and music stands so they wouldn’t pose as obstacles by taking up too much space. Café tables would work nicely for the stations you can place around the outside of the circuit. Ideally, if someone’s standing at a station, another person should be able to pass them without stepping completely off the path.

[4] Our artists made this interactive piece. You can create your own by making a collage poster of images of Jesus or roles people think of Jesus playing: the miracle worker, the rustic shepherd, the white-suited televangelist, the revolutionary in a beret, the pacifist at a sit-in, etc. Then overlay the poster with another piece of poster board and cut flaps in it that open onto the various images.

[5] We commissioned a videographer and a high school student in our congregation to collaborate on a video of different kinds of people. You could make your own using stills of people in your church and neighborhood or footage from mission trips. Or you could download something along the lines of The Work of the People’s “Stranger” (http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/index.php?ct=store.details&pid=V00520) or LifesongMD’s “World Faces” (http://youtu.be/z6RLHKRs9D8).

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Advent Again – day 22

“Do not be afraid to…”

 

“Hymn” by A.R. Ammons

I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth

and go on out

     over the sea marshes and the brant in bays

and over the hills of tall hickory

and over the crater lakes and canyons

and on up through the spheres of diminishing air

past the blackset noctilucent clouds

           where one wants to stop and look

way past all the light diffusions and bombardments

up farther than the loss of sight

    into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark

 

And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth

inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes

trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest

     coelenterates

and praying for a nerve cell

with all the soul of my chemical reactions

and going right on down where the eye sees only traces

 

You are everywhere partial and entire

You are on the inside of everything and on the outside

forest-1890-cezanne

Forest (1890) by Paul Cezanne

 

I walk down the path down the hill where the sweetgum

has begun to ooze spring sap at the cut

and I see how the bark cracks and winds like no other bark

chasmal to my ant-soul running up and down

and if I find you I must go out deep into your

    far resolutions

and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves

Advent Again – day 20

Who am I.. that you have brought me thus far?

cubist-self-portrait-dali

Cubist Self-Portrait (1923) by Salvador Dali

from “Who Understands Me But Me?” by Jimmy Santiago Baca

I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,
my beauty,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,
I practice being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,
they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart
when the walls were built higher,
when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.
I followed these signs
like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,
followed the blood-spotted path,
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,
who taught me water is not everything,
and gave me new eyes to see through walls,
and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,
and I was laughing at me with them,
we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

Miss Vera Speaks

 

They ask how she grin through that face with that life.

I say I’s never shielded from nothing

‘Cept dying young.

 

People deep bruised by something

Talk like the world should end.

Won’t catch me dying every day like that.

 

‘Cause I seen them once

Just once – the cracks in the universe –

Thought I’d fall right through.

 

‘Stead I laughed – said some kind of God

Put up with a tattered-old place as here

Gotta have some grace for me.

 

– Jenn Cavanaugh

originally published in America, August 13, 2007

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Open Mics, Open Doors: Cultivating Culture and Relationships

“All culture making requires a choice, conscious or unconscious, to take our place in a cultural tradition. We cannot make culture without culture. And this means that creation begins with cultivation – taking care of the good things that culture has already handed on to us. The first responsibility of culture makers is not to make something new but to become fluent in the cultural tradition to which we are responsible. Before we can be culture makers, we must be culture keepers.”[1]

When we start talking about the church acting as a community center or a cultural center, people get understandably nervous. The local church should be much more than a community or cultural center, and those models should not constrain a church’s mission, and yet it must act in those capacities if it is to be both local and the church.

Your neighborhood may be different, but mine has some serious trust issues with “church” in the abstract. Organized Christianity has earned a reputation for bait and switch. Free meals! But I have to listen to someone yell at me about death and hell before I can eat? Welcoming community! Until my work schedule changes and no one notices I’m gone. (Or worse, they do, and hound me to come when I can’t.) Hip music! Followed by half an hour of trying to work through which two-thousand-year-old cultural mores still apply to women. Christians rationalize these kinds of disconnections on a regular basis, but we need to hear these disjointed messages as our visitors do. These scenarios come off as false advertising at best and intentional deceit at worst.

Why are there so many strings attached to the things we do in Jesus’s name? It communicates that we see the gospel as such a tough sell we have to lure people into the salesroom with a gimmick. In the words of R.E.M. “What if we give it away?”[2] What if we fed people simply because Jesus himself invites us to and tells us he’ll be on the receiving end of anything we give? What if we applied our shrewd-stewardly stratagems toward working out how to make the most of our resources to care for others more comprehensively, not how to get more out of them in return? To the degree that our churches have tried to sell and barter the words of life entrusted to us freely, we must own responsibility for the numbers of people who have chosen not to buy in to the churched life.

"Shelter?" by Heidi Estey. This was our poster monster for an outdoor group show in which almost all the pieces were eventually "taken in" by passersby - part of why we now put together our outdoor shows with in-house artists aware of such eventualities.

“Shelter?” by Heidi Estey. This was our poster monster for an outdoor group show in which almost all the pieces were eventually “taken in” by passersby – part of why we now put together our outdoor shows with in-house artists aware of such eventualities.

Considering ourselves, our traditions and our assets to be cultural and community resources would correct our attitudes substantially. A church, building and people, should be a blessing to its parish. The whole Judeo-Christian story we find in scripture is about God forming a people set apart to be agents of blessing to the rest of the world. To be chosen does not mean that we are in with God and the others are out; it means we are the ones called to invite the others in. This has nothing to do with imposing our lifestyle on others and pressuring them to conform to an enlightened Christian culture so they can know God like we do. It has to do with welcoming them in a way that communicates God’s desire to be known by them, creating buffer zones in which to hear that quiet voice, and making room amongst us for those who choose to follow it.

Few of us had any say in the physical design of our meeting places, but the onus is now on us to make them convey welcome. Our church is by far the churchiest looking church I have ever been a part of. Those of us moving in after years of worship in a movie theater and an office building suffered some serious culture shock. It’s an extremely staid and solid red brick and stained glass affair. Approaching from the front all you see are concrete stairs leading to three massive sets of wooden double doors. The view most often seen from the street is of these six immense and eminently closed doors. It’s imposing. I’ve been going to church all my life and I can hear these doors slamming shut just looking at them. The transformation when those doors are all flung open is supernatural, especially at night with warm light and music and voices pouring out onto an otherwise dark street. Suddenly it’s inviting. All the connotations of sanctuary make sense again. Strangers pop in just to say how happy they are to see the doors open.

The openness of our doors has become hugely symbolic for me. The unfortunate reality is that the cavernous open space behind those doors is an absolute bear to heat. In July and August it’s a relief to have the doors open, but almost any other time of year it’s a sacrifice. If you come to worship with us in February you will find one of the six doors propped not quite half open. If you’re fifteen minutes late the only thing holding that door open will be a tripped one-inch-wide deadbolt. We have bass and drums and lots of porous windows so if you walk by you know something’s going on, but it’s hidden behind essentially closed doors. Suffice it to say, I think any excuse to open those doors that’s not antithetical to the gospel is a good excuse. If it’s an activity that blesses our neighbors, meets needs in the community, or helps us fulfill our commission as cultivators of creation and creators of culture, so much the better.

Cultivating culture is different than conserving culture. Whether or not we avail ourselves of them, the Church on the whole has done a fine job of conserving its cultural goods: the writings of the first bishops, medieval mystics and the Scholastics; the stories of Asian martyrs; the paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo and treasured Orthodox icons; the chants heard morning and evening for centuries throughout Europe. If we only conserve culture, though, the Church will function merely as a museum. The Church is a unique institution called both to conserve and create, and as such, must be continuously reinventing the priestly ministry of representing humankind to God and God to humanity while consciously maintaining a tradition that runs back through the apostles and the patriarchs to our creation in the image of the Creator and Ruler of all. We who have historically been at the forefront of movements to recreate and reorder society have abdicated our responsibilities. Neither conservatives who commit to structures simply because they exist nor radicals who reject the very idea of structure that makes creative life sustainable are embodying the image of God or serving as Christ called us.

As cultivators we watch for the new growth peeping up from the earth around us, determine whether it’s the genuine article or a choking weed, and nurture the good growing things around us. We look for the plants in need of particular care, especially those good for food or medicine, and tend to their specific needs. As a Christian and as a poet, when I look around, one area of the garden that I see failing to thrive that I would like to help maintain for my culture is the thoughtful use of words. Dana Gioia wrote a fabulous essay called “Can Poetry Matter” in which he talks about the decay of language and discourse and offers six concrete suggestions for bringing poetry back into our public lives as a corrective to this decay.

I borrowed three of his ideas and distilled them into one event that answers our corporate call to be cultivators of what’s beneficial to our society and serves as yet another reason to have the doors open. Due to an ongoing failure of imagination, we called it a no-mic open-mic community reading, although Literary Potluck might stick eventually. We would call it a read-in, but that makes it sounds like we’re protesting something. Like an open mic, people can sign up ahead of time to read. Based on one of Gioia’s suggestions and our congregational ratio of significantly more readers to writers, we invite people to read either their own work or something they’ve read recently that they would like more people to hear. Open mic audiences tend to consist of writers there to read and close friends of writers there to read. They don’t draw a wide audience and the tenor of the events generally vibrates between ego and nerves. With this format anyone can participate and we all hear a lot of great writing. We also tone down the pressure to perform by removing the actual microphone from the scene. The first time we planned one of these we were a small enough group we could sit in a circle at the back of the church. The next time we set up a small table in the aisle in front of the last few pews. A microphone was not necessary to be heard.

As we held the events on Arts Walk nights we made sure people had easy access so they could sit or stand and listen a while and feel free to leave. Readers have ten-minute slots, but we ask them to keep individual readings to five minutes or less, so there are plenty of opportunities and to slip in and out without walking out on a reading. The Arts Walk is three hours long, so we took frequent breaks for coffee, tea and snacks people from the church brought to share and just to talk, catch up with other and meet anyone who came in during the reading.

[1] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 74-75.

[2] Mike Mills, William Berry, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, “What If We Give It Away?” Life’s Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986). From the first verse and chorus:

On the outside underneath the wall

All the money couldn’t buy

You’re mistaken no one’s standing there

For the record no one tried

Oh I try to…

What if we give it away?

For years this chorus would begin to play spontaneously and, as it turns out, prophetically in my head as a response to that hard sell mentality. Our first outdoor gallery initially felt like a bust. It was the only time we issued a call for submissions and got nothing of artistic merit from the outside world. It was raining so hard we almost cancelled the show because it was so miserable to install. Then a friend of one of our artists showed up with a couple of nice pieces. It lightened to a typical Seattle drizzle by the time the Arts Walk started and we had a good time hanging out on the sidewalk with our umbrellas and loaning them out so people could peruse our quirky little installation called Shelter. Half the pieces disappeared over the weekend. An editor of a local arts magazine happened on it during that time and mentioned to a mutual friend that he was debating whether or not to take a piece home as well, and an important conversation about public art, gift culture, and the church ensued. My friend referenced that same line (“What if we give it away?”) when he emailed me to say it sounded like the church was doing something right.

Advent Week 2: Waiting for Peace

ADVT02 “Peace” by Stushie

Another tough week. A week of violence and revelations of violence and of just how deep the violence of the so-called good people of the world runs.

Thankfully the same scripture that instructs us to seek and receive peace, which seems so far removed from our world right now, also discourages us from faking it, from pretending the wounds aren’t so bad and spouting nonsense about peace when there is no peace. We of all people should trust neither in political promises of security nor in our innate collective goodness to one another to eventually win out. The kind of peace we can drum up ourselves doesn’t require waiting.  It tends toward immediate gratification (taking whatever pacifies our desires)  or mollification (caving in to other’s illegitimate demands) or diversion – gorging our senses to overwhelm our sensitivity to one another’s needs, eating to the point where we can no longer imagine starvation, turning up our own personal soundtracks so we don’t hear the suffering of others, looking at anything as long as it is away.

The sense of shalom peace that courses throughout the words of Genesis and Jeremiah and Jesus entails relational wholeness. None of us can achieve that kind of peace alone. It has nothing to do with getting away from it all and everything to do with assuming rightful places within a righted all. It is a peace we receive from drawing near to a God who would suffer the violence of birth and death to be with us. It is a peace we seek for our cities and neighbors as we strive to do right by one another.

from “Here on Earth”

The old man living
In his rented room
Grows lonely as the night comes on
Especially in winter

And the boy shooting drugs
On the tenement roof
Is lonely whether or not
He has companions

Lovers lie sleeping
Side by side
A wilderness between them

And their unborn infant
Is already alone
So soon to be discarded
Even as he begins
Unfolding in the womb
Of his lonely mother

Because the scatterer
Has overtaken us
Betraying promises
Estranging lovers

Tearing us inwardly
And tearing us apart
One from another

And this is why
Those of us who are sated
Find it so easy to ignore
Those of us who are starving

And why we have been known
To torture one another
Why there are times
When we are far more cruel
Than the animals.

Nevertheless
Taken all together
Or taken one by one
We are the holiest
Of all earth’s creatures

For he who kindled
The fire of the sun
He who draws out the tender leaves
From the dark twigs of winter

He who has whittled
A cabin for the snail
Has also carved our names
In the palm of his hand

And he became a child
The better to be near us
Born in the wintertime
Born on a journey….

– by Anne Porter, from Living Things: Collected Poems (New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2006), p. 124.

Advent Week 1: Waiting with Hope

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It’s been a bad week to be told to wait.

An especially frustrating – even demeaning – time to be told to wait for justice, for the world to be set right, that things will get better, things which are not entirely in our hands to fix, things that can only truly change through some odd and mystical combination of patience and systemic upheaval, accountability and radical forgiveness, quiet and cataclysm.

Waiting with hope is the antithesis of an escapism. Waiting with hope does not mean blithely ignoring or submitting to the status quo, but walking humbly enough to find oneself in the company of those most deeply threatened by it, who have no choice but to wait, because their lives depend on others acting justly. That’s deeply unsettling when you think about it: living at one another’s mercy. We all do it, but it’s a gamble with blatantly rigged odds. Sadly we don’t extend kindness or even the benefit of the doubt with anything resembling equality and no one is under any illusion that we can rectify that overnight. And so we wait, but in the hope that justice will be established, that power will protect the powerless, that the starving will have their fill of good things. We wait with those who wait. “You’re tired. But everyone’s tired./ But no one is tired enough.” So…

Wait

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

 – Galway Kinnell

from Selected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 1983

Pantoums

Despising the Pain: A Pantoum by Jenn Cavanaugh

 

I face death every day

For the joy that is set before me.

Dust returns. Death loses the fray –

The happy end begins the story.

 

For the joy that is set before me

I ride the eternal like a tide.

The happy end begins the story –

We’ll wear our spirits on the outside.

 

I ride the eternal like a tide,

Dizzied and spun, despising the pain.

We’ll wear our spirits on the outside

For the work that is not in vain.

 

Dizzied and spun, despising the pain,

Dust returns. Death loses the fray.

For the work that is not in vain

I face death every day.

Poor blog, doomed respository for my second-tier poems. I post this one as an example to accompany yesterday’s Writers Workshop post on the pantoum form, so you can see what you can get out of working in the form in short order. It’s only the third or fourth one I’ve ever written, and the results still feel blocky, compared to writing in unrhymed free verse. If you get something out of the theme or a phrase, I’m glad. Otherwise, this is what a writing exercise looks like!

So far, the best part of writing pantoums is that they practically write themselves – you put a couple of lines together, give them a flick, and you have a perpetual motion poetry machine. For me, they are line-generators. You put a line in, you get a line out, because the form is going to take you there. To write one that stands up as fine poetry, like the one I’ll leave you with here, I will probably have to give up the rhyme, as she did, make my lines more grammatically creative, and incorporate more narrative detail. A pantoum doesn’t have to tell a story, but the ones that appeal to me most suggest one. Do you have a favorite or one of your own to share?

Stillbirth by Laure-Anne Bosselaar

 

On a platform, I heard someone call out your name:

No, Laetitia, no.

It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing,

but I rushed in, searching for your face.

 

But no Laetitia. No.

No one in that car could have been you,

but I rushed in, searching for your face:

no longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two.

 

No one in that car could have been you.

Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen.

No longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two:

I sometimes go months without remembering you.

 

Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen:

I was told not to look. Not to get attached—

I sometimes go months without remembering you.

Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space.

 

I was told not to look. Not to get attached.

It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing.

Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space.

On a platform, I heard someone calling your name.

Writers Workshop: Pantoum

Poems that sway like a Malay palm

Poems that sway like a Malay palm

PANTOUM

A pantun is a traditional Malay form of quatrain-based poetry. Victor Hugo introduced it to France in 1829, calling it pantoum. The westernized pantoum descended from a specific form: pantun berkait, which repeats whole lines in an interlocking pattern. The second and fourth lines of any stanza become the first and third lines of the stanza that follows. In the pantoum's last stanza, the first and third lines of the opening stanza are finally repeated as the fourth and second lines. The order of those lines can be reversed, but ideally a pantoum will end with the poem's opening line, creating a kind of circle. Pantoums are not required to rhyme, but most do. They can vary from two stanzas to as many as you wish to write.

Composing a pantoum is a great writing warm-up. You first write a stanza of four lines. The pantoum will work best if the lines are fairly intact, evocative phrases of similar length or rhythm -- each expressing just one basic idea or image that can resonate in different ways when placed in a new context, as they will be throughout the poem. Most of your work in setting the tone and sense goes into laying this foundational stanza, because by the second stanza, you’ll see the poem start to take on a life and significance of its own, while you just follow along or nudge it into shape with an additional line here and there. Allow the wave-like quality of the form to carry you along. Be spontaneous. Allow for happy accidents and juxtapositions. Once you get to the end you’ll probably need to go back and edit a couple of lines to fit into the rhythm that’s developed. This form demonstrates the power of the line. If you have an old poem lying about that isn’t working, but some of the lines are keepers, or an orphaned line running through your head, start a pantoum with one of those lines. This works especially well for couplets that start to sound a bit sing-songy; the pantoum form aerates them – giving breathing space between the rhymes and finding depth in the repetitions. This also works in reverse, as your pantoum might generate one perfect line that starts a whole new piece. Writing a poem in any form is a challenge. Give it what you have today. There might be a glaring hole or clunky line that you know you need to come back to. Start a new project and go back to this one next week when you can hear the poem as a whole with fresh ears and respond accordingly. Getting started is as easy as copying and printing the form below. Stuck for a first line? Scroll down further for some ideas there. Make it rhyme ABAB and it will start writing itself after that.

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 1)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 2)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 3)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 4)

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 2)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 5)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 4)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 6)

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 5)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 7)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 6)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 8)

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 7)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 3)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 8)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 1)

I find this a very meditative form. The wave-like structure encourages movement in place, like something caught in the tide just off shore. The water churns up deeper layers, but by definition you end up where you began. You swirl around a thought until you come to rest. If you have a phrase, mantra, or story that just won't let you go, maybe it's a pantoum.

When I introduced this form at church for a Lenten devotional writing class, I suggested starting with a biblical phrase...

Ideas for opening lines/ texts: 

“Dust you are and to dust you will return”/ Genesis 3

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”/ Matthew 4

“[And afterward] I will pour out my spirit on all people”/ Joel 2

“This inheritance is kept in heaven for you”/ 1 Peter 1

“Revive us, and we will call on your name”/ Psalm 80

“You will be like a well-watered garden”/ Isaiah 58

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”/ Philippians 2

“It is written about me in the scroll”/ Hebrews 10

“He loved them to the end”/ John 13

“She has done a beautiful thing to me”/ Matthew 26

Give it a try! I’ll post the results of my writing exercise tomorrow, as well as a much finer example.