Creo que el mundo es bello,
que la poesia es como el pan, de todos.
I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
-- Roque Dalton, "Como tú," trans. Jack Hirschman*
Human beings are not to live on bread alone.
-- Matthew 4:4 (ASV)
Poetry feeds us. Poetry fills the void. Poetry keeps us alive. Poetry makes it possible to get out of bed in the morning.
In the beginning was the sound, but when sound became word there was song. A long time ago there was no boundary between singers and poets, and still today there are times and places where the word is a sound and not just a mark on papyrus. When song comes into being, the problem of meaning cannot appear, because in song there is always something to do and an urgent need to do it. The song makes us move. It makes us move here, not just anywhere. It makes us sound this note, not any other. It makes us move now, not in the future or the past. The right note at the wrong time is obscene -- you're standing on the dock with your expensive ring, and your lover's ship has sailed. So when there is song, there is simply no time for despair. Even if the song is about despair, you cannot despair while singing it.
If you despair, you've stopped singing. If you can't sing, you're in despair. People die in despair, and of despair. Those old guys whose wives of sixty years have died, who tell me, "I don't know how to live without her," should be taken at their word. Their lives are in danger, because she was their song and they don't have another one.
And when we stop singing, there is much to despair about. We are here only briefly, and though some will remember us, they themselves will be forgotten. History is mostly an entrainment of one damn thing after another, of cruelties followed by betrayals, greeds by lusts, addictions by aggressions and pomps by poxes.
Our intricate bodies seem designed as a practical joke. We can choke to death because our breathing and swallowing conflict at the larynx. We vibrate between disgust and desire because God has tangled our organs of excretion and orgasm, so not only were we born inter faeces et urinam, but we return to die of love there, midst joy and stink, over and over. There, I've done it. I've mentioned God, who if involved in anything would seem implicated in these wrappers, these structured sacks of blood and bone in which we lurch, churning the substance of our souls. I'm convinced that, if something corresponding to the word God exists, it laughs, but in this respect the great designer seems to snicker behind its almighty hand.
At work I hear the songs of my people. Sometimes I sing them back. The Lord arrives just in time, they say. He won't burden you with more than you can bear. But I know of many people who were broken before their carriage arrived. And who am I to say that those crushed by the world should be able to bear it?
Now here I touch the boundary of faith. How is it, knowing how soon I'll be obliterated, that I get up this morning to fill this page with words? And you, to write on the page that is this day of yours? This question obsesses me. A colleague said that he gets out of bed for his first cup of coffee, but I think he only postpones the question. I also need my hit of caffeine, but for what? the drug is just a tool, and if it didn't take me beyond itself I would lose the habit.
Pretty soon after waking we start singing, or else we stay in bed. This is where faith engages us. Faith is the song that makes it possible to endure our utter insignificance in the factual scale of things. Light from the second nearest star takes four and half years to reach us, and that distance is less than paltry in the enormity of galaxy, and our galaxy is swallowed by its local cluster, and so on . . . Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! wrote Shelley, postponing his own despair for the time of writing, and ours for the time of reading, or of speaking again for the thousandth time as I just did.
Faith is beneath reason. And theology, because it tries to give rational account of faith, is as dangerous as high explosive. Its statements are constantly concretizing, turning into stones for us to hurl at each other. Thus our Unitarian disdain for creeds, which we share with some other denominations of Protestant heritage. But even we who shrink from creeds can catch the plague of ideology, theology that does not know itself, ready to inspire crimes because finally, finally we subscribers have shed the Illusions and know The Truth, and knowing Truth we are authorized to dictate words and thoughts, and hurl the proper stones at those who speak differently.
Theology gives faith a bad name. The great slaughters inflamed by concretized theology are the stuff of history and the cable news.
What does not make the papers is the work of faith in all lives and on all days, calling us to better selves, dragging us out of muck and into worlds of spirit, making beauty and love by singing it, summoning patience to bear what must be born, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to discern the difference. When my people say The Lord always arrives just in time, they are not writing a tome of history. They are not asserting that bad stuff does not happen. They are not asserting. Period. They are singing.
This is what militant atheism misses. You can of course look throughout the universe and time, and not find a fact that is God. To notice this is to play at high stakes with doubt, a kind of provisional atheism where I sometimes live. Duh. So what? God is not a fact. God is a song. Fundamentalist and atheist alike overlook the category where life occurs. If what enables life is real, then the song is real.
A little child shall lead us, and poetry shall feed us like loaves of bread.
*Poetry Like Bread, ed. Martín Espada (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), pp. 128-9.
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