with critique by Jendi Reiter
(dedicated to Joseph Campbell)
I deserve to die in Potter's Field
Fall on my face in the dust.
A place for those who have no name
Because they have no reason.
I have crucified all I have and all I am
And still left empty.
This is Your struggle, not mine, not ours.
You let Lucifer dabble.
Alienated at Babel.
Heels are bleeding
Crushing the constant snake.
Why am I talking to You so?
I told You. You are deception.
Created the Kings of the North and
Sovereigns of the South
Only to amuse Yourself
Watching them raze.
This is Your struggle, not mine, not ours.
By your monotony.
A One incapable of monogamy
Desires one, seven, seventy.
They battle in the valleys, you dry their bones.
And raise them up to brawl again.
Your many illicit sons—doctrines without foundation,
Tenet against tenet fighting over You.
Offerings approved, rejected—brothers killed.
Inheritances taken by trickery You instilled.
I told You. You are deception.
Did you spin the clay
Only to bury it here
In this sand with weapon in hand?
Truly the Potter's option?
That's their opinion, your bastard canon
Persist to create a printed desolation.
Abomination? In the True Creator's eyes—
Latent, covert, dormant. It seems so.
I will not die in Potter's Field.
A truth revealed, a heart healed.
This is not Your struggle, nor mine. Not ours.
Only Confusion re-written,
That placed me in this furrow
Chained-metal in hand.
Paradise intended, perilous game and
With every event has transpired.
Benevolence warranted, you determined it,
I will expect it to stand.
I will shore up for the race, I will arise to your face.
I will see through the glass before long...
Copyright 2006 by Charlet C. Estes
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Persistent Armageddon" by Charlet C. Estes, stands in a tradition of spiritual protest literature as old as the Biblical book of Job. Some see doubt and anger as incompatible with faith, but one could also consider them signs of a mature faith, like the shadows that show an object to be solid and three-dimensional. (For a classic example of this tradition, see Gerard Manley Hopkins' "dark sonnets".)
The more deeply we commit to our spiritual path, the more we may become pained by the gap between our ideals and reality. Hence doubt arises: do these beliefs really fit human experience? do they cause more suffering than they cure? and can they be implemented in this imperfect world? And anger: at human beings who pervert spiritual teachings, at the Creator who made us this way. As we see in Estes' poem, faith and doubt go hand in hand because we may need to see through false dogmas in order to reach a faith that fits the truths of the heart.
"Persistent Armageddon" is an example of a poem based on literary allusions (in this case, to the Bible), yet one that can also be understood and appreciated by readers who are less familiar with the source tradition. One of the pleasures of studying literature is finding these keys that unlock multiple levels of meaning in a poem, so that one suddenly finds one's self sharing an experience not only with the individual writer, but with an entire community of writers who have pondered the same issues.
On the other hand, a poem heavily reliant on allusions will be frustrating to the uninitiated, unless there is something evident from a first reading that directly touches the emotions. Without this personal connection to the poem, the reader may not be motivated to puzzle out the additional meanings. Though the argument of "Persistent Armageddon" may be hard to follow absent some familiarity with the Bible, one instantly recognizes its heartfelt anguish at the problem of evil, expressed in traditional apocalyptic imagery.
Estes' poem dares to call God to account for the "persistent armageddon" of human warfare, especially religious war. With the reference to the Potter's Field, the speaker boldly identifies with Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus who was buried there. One can imagine a remorseful Judas, as he tosses away his thirty pieces of silver, saying that he has "crucified all I have and all I am/And still left empty." A potter's field, whose soil was not good enough for growing crops, was traditionally used for burying unknown or indigent people. The speaker of the poem here groups herself with those outcasts. She is opting out of the system that took everything from her and gave nothing in return. This rebellion is not without guilt ("I deserve to die") but it is the only honest course she can take.
The next stanza tells us why: "You let Lucifer dabble./Alienated at Babel." Was it not God, she asks, who allowed evil into the world? Having divided the human race into mutually uncomprehending tribes, can God really be surprised that we have descended into warfare? "Heels are bleeding/Crushing the constant snake" is a reference to Genesis 3:15, where God curses the snake after it tempts Adam and Eve: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."
In frustration, the speaker concludes that God must not care about His creation. He created us and watches us suffer "Only to amuse Yourself". God, not the devil, is the great deceiver. Therefore, we should refuse to keep playing His game of fighting over "doctrines without foundation": "This is Your struggle, not mine, not ours." Her argument reverses all the traditional attributes of God—not truth but deception, not creating but devouring, not faithful but "incapable of monogamy". The sonorous stanza "Horsemen driven..." inspires a chill of horror at this merciless, insatiable deity.
Subsequent lines continue to indict God for our fratricidal ways. "Offerings approved, rejected—brothers killed./Inheritances taken by trickery You instilled." These references to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, also describe a universal pattern of human misbehavior.
Now the poem truly takes an interesting turn, as the speaker realizes she has other intuitive knowledge of God that cannot be reconciled with this cruel theology: "Did you spin the clay/Only to bury it here/In this sand with weapon in hand?" Surely life cannot be that pointless.
Perhaps the God that the warring factions invoke is not the "True Creator" but an erroneous image of Him. "That's their opinion, your bastard canon/Persist to create a printed desolation." It was false mythology, not the will of God, that put the swords in our hands. The somber refrain is given a new twist: "This is not Your struggle, nor mine. Not ours." The dedication to Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of world mythology, suggests that critical analysis of religious traditions need not be an obstacle to faith, but instead may help us gain perspective on destructive misconceptions that we accepted as dogma.
"Heart healed" by this new discovery, the speaker readies herself for a more constructive struggle, namely the effort to see God more clearly and to bring that peacemaking knowledge to the world. "I will shore up for the race, I will arise to your face.//I will see through the glass before long..." (an echo of St. Paul's words in 1 Cor 13:12, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known").
I found the first five lines of the final stanza somewhat confusing. Though I grasped the general idea—God's intentions for His creation are good and faithful after all—the manner of expression seemed unnecessarily convoluted. "Paradise intended, perilous game and/It ended" has a satisfying cadence. Does it mean that God intended paradise for us, but we chose to put it at risk? Or does the speaker still feel that God was playing games?
The lines "Benevolence warranted..." suggest that she has rejected the latter idea. Still, I wasn't wholly comfortable with the use of "warranted" in this context. Is the poem saying that we "warranted" benevolence, in the sense of "deserved" it? Or that God made a promise ("warranted" in the legal sense, i.e. "swore") and we can "expect it to stand"? The multiple meanings are intriguing, but the insertion of "you determined it" adds confusion with the unclear reference to "it". I might prefer simply "Benevolence warranted, I will expect it to stand" (with or without a stanza break in there). "With every event has transpired" did not make grammatical sense, nor was it clear to what it referred.
When analyzing this poem, I was impressed by Estes' ability to compress so many ideas into a small space. She was able to rephrase or economically hint at many familiar Bible passages, while for the most part steering clear of cliche. Like a military drumbeat, the strong rhythm of these lines propelled the poem forward and created an ominous tension, gladly dispelled by the hopeful last lines.
Where could a poem like "Persistent Armageddon" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: April 1
Top prize of $250 plus smaller prizes including a $25 award for best religious poem; sponsored by the Midwest Writing Center, this contest is now in its 33rd year
Mslexia Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by April 28
Prizes up to 1,000 pounds in this poetry contest for women, sponsored by Mslexia: The Magazine for Women Who Write
This poem and critique appeared in the March 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.