|The following work is an excerpt from a poem cycle entitled “Alford’s Devotional and Guide to Poetry”
- If there’s an ideal place for writing, this is about as far in the other direction as it’s possible to get. That’s o.k.
- The Project encourages you to write. Kids still play with baseballs. Someone teaches them how to throw the doors open. This poem steps out. Hungry
- Children lingered in line outside an old building where youth ministry workers handed out Kool-Aid in Styrofoam cups and Oatmeal cookies wrapped in paper napkins.
- And some people couldn’t wait to leave סֶלָה before something happened. While others felt obliged to return the lines were long, and summer steamed from the cells of the crowded housing tenement.
- And the children’s fingernails shone like the backs of brown cockroaches.
- God the Lord, stars linger in their eyes how old this has become. They don’t understand, but they will when they are grown.
- We should have told the little ones what to expect סֶלָה that year, in The Projects nothing changed people looked old to me—same thing year after year Nothing new. Was it always like this? Yes
- Here was noise. Everywhere a passing bus or a car backfiring, fists and patrols whose turnings were as intense poems printed in bold.
- A white teen from the suburbs clipped berets into a black girl’s plaits. Then, the black girls greased the white girl’s scalp. They didn’t understand. Her hair was not theirs. This reveals the forwardness of hubris blessed with love.
- Bless her heart, when the Woman from the Projects smiled, her gold tooth glittered. She was forward and overfriendly. She should have loved more cautiously.
- Lord, she made me nervous—because I couldn’t understand what she was saying.
- She was an immigrant in her own country and couldn’t understand why I was nervous when she drove over a bottle that popped and splintered into slivers and shells.
- I saw the street through the floorboard and I was scared. A woman sang on the radio Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus Christ is everywhere said the blonde teenager, who sat in the front seat, who couldn’t feel fear, because she didn’t understand. Place is destiny Selah, The things she couldn’t see—oh my, shone like a mountain of glass to me.
- The woman from the projects gazed into my face סֶלָה through the rearview you can love someone someone won’t love you back. How strongly I have loved too, too deep for words.
It’s a-hard, ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard praise god…
said Woody Guthrie
- Do you understand? סֶלָה You cannot not know
- I know what happens when one holds a wish too close. I should not have taken her daughter to school.
- The Woman from The Projects didn’t understand.
- I was just being nice.
- Bless her heart; Her daughter pissed in my car, but I understood. This life, and nothing is perfect
- In The Projects, girls fought with razors.
- They didn’t understand how to keep to words like the white girls from the suburbs.
- This is about managing projects
- Looking composed סֶלָה white, teenage missionaries taught the gospel with white foam puppets in biblical robes, read poetry as though it were broken prose and told the kids to watch daylight flitting glass. That could be a cherub they said.
- And like angels, they would leave one little girl said to me You-all always leave. And the spoilers came out of the camp of the Philistines. Oh, she knew.
- Mournfully, she shrugged.
- She could tell them white people.
- And this isn’t solitude; you don’t sleep although סֶלָה you do have a whole room for this project you’re working on.
By the way, “Bless her heart” or “Bless his heart” is a southerner’s way of politely judging someone.
This book is partly a way of working through my doubts concerning my faith after my mother’s death from lung cancer—without being sentimental or without seeming to plead—although a cry can’t help but come through. I worked against any potential sentimentalism by creating a sort of handbook based on my area of expertise as a creative-writing teacher. The book also incorporates my work as a missionary. Alford’s Devotional and Guide to Poetry is biographical, scholarly and meditative. It could be considered a sequence, but I like the term “cycle” better. The themes of alienation, misunderstanding, and love weave throughout the piece, circling in and out.
Alford’s Devotional and Guide to Poetry wrestles with Judeo-Christian language, an idiom far enough removed from us yet close enough to allow experimentation. Ancient Hebrew, which lacked punctuation, influenced form. I took on the challenge of working with unpunctuated lines within each section with the result that words are not haphazardly turned over to the next line. I also interspersed the text with a Hebrew word that is used frequently in Psalms—transliterated as Selah. The exact meaning is unknown; although some linguists think it may indicate a pause in a musical selection. This word creates a dynamic “white space.” I thought of using Hebrew because church leaders and preachers in my youth frequently referred to original Hebrew and Greek texts and certain devoted members including, myself, were always trying to read these texts. Someone was always “teaching” Hebrew.