Call Out of Exile
I have not cast you off, my vagabond.
It is I who have borne you from your birth,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
Why then must I seek you among foreign flocks,
and through caravans of imposters cry out your name?
Have you forgotten your dear Shepherd, my lamb,
or my Name, that you do not call upon Me?
Look up! Look up, my poor one! Where have you fallen?
I come wounded to bind you up, thirsty to refresh you.
Don't be a stranger to your Father's feast. It I who host you,
I who crush the wheat and press the oil. It is I who mix my wines.
How long will you linger by half, little sister?
Here, I send out your brother with meat for your mind.
Open and taste! See the passage I make for you,
the ground I've leveled by the weight of my waiting?
Arise and come! Put on again your everyday jewels that blaze
with the light from my Hearth, and come with Me to the kitchen.
I have an apron there with your name on it.
Have I held my peace too long, restrained Myself past the measure
of your freedom? You cup your will like a brazier for Me.
No more will your memories shame you, my little one,
nor fear alarm, nor doubt cry out, "Where is your God?".
One look at you, and the fury of my love is stirred up against them.
I make them tinder to kindle your sparkle,
and a sweet-smelling smoke to console you.
I am a Man of War for you, an Army of Love;
and I am the wakeful Governor of your peace.
How have I not noticed that gleam in your eye?
What numb thirst is sealed up in you against all taking-by-surprise,
that I may come and slake it? What delights concealed there
that I might relish, should you return the favor and I be taken too?
Stay with Me a moment in the parlor. Don't dart away
to peek at Me over your books and prayers.
Promises I whispered long ago into your secret ear
are kept here in this ivory box under the hidden stair
for just such a time as this. Open it!
the whole fruit from tender buds
poetry in foreign tongues
the end from the beginning
Promises I made to you in a fit of love when you were young
now come to term and seek the light.
Will you join your poor Partner in the garden now
that He may keep his word to you? Let's dance!
Every move a metaphor—restrained, oblique—a gloved touch I keep in custody
till you awake and I can take you to the waters at the edge of light.
There forget the limits of desire when my glove has touched your craving
and you awake past day and into night.
Hold still, my love, hold still when you awake past day and into night.
Copyright 2007 by Karen Winterburn
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Karen Winterburn's "Call Out of Exile", combines the form of a modern personal free-verse lyric with the tone and subject matter of a more ancient genre. Suitable for use in a contemporary church liturgy, the poem resembles Biblical writings such as the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, where God directly and intimately addresses human beings in poetry that is part prophetic summons, part tender seduction.
Like its scriptural antecedents, "Call Out of Exile" imagines God speaking in ways that are sometimes uncomfortably sensual ("forget the limits of desire when my glove has touched your craving") or colloquial ("I have an apron there with your name on it"). This mixing of high and low, I believe, is meant to challenge the reader's impulse to keep God on a pedestal, at a distance. As envisioned by this poem, God seeks relationship with us to such a radical extent that God is willing to come down to our level, risking impurity and foolishness. In so doing, the God of this poem prompts us to revalue those mundane experiences that we considered "unspiritual".
Winterburn plays it a little too safe for the first stanza of the poem, using standard imagery that we associate with Bible scenes. The poem picks up momentum halfway through the second stanza. Although the feast imagery is still rather standard for devotional poetry, a note of mystery and excitement creeps in with the phrase "I send out your brother with meat for your mind". Who is the brother? It could be Jesus (as the Shepherd language in stanza one suggests), a prophet, or a human companion who helps the reader on her spiritual journey. The brother/sister trope is also reminiscent of the Song of Songs, evoking an innocent intimacy. The alliteration in this stanza ("meat for your mind"; "weight of my waiting") enhances the poem's lyricism.
The poem's central theme is captured in the paradoxical line "Put on again your everyday jewels that blaze". We are royalty, in disguise even from ourselves. In exile, we have forgotten that our daily lives are clothed with God's ennobling love. We need to be reminded that the exile is only self-imposed: "I have not cast you off, my vagabond."
I'm still of two minds about the "apron" line. I understand in theory what it's supposed to be doing, namely bringing God down to a level of closeness and familiarity that will make the exiled listener feel comforted, not afraid. However, as the only modern image in the poem, it feels jarring, maybe too cutesy or flippant. I can't help picturing those novelty chefs' aprons with jokes on them, which doesn't feel right for a seduction scene. The stanza would work at least as well if it ended at "kitchen".
Winterburn's imagery really catches fire in the next two stanzas. The thrilling line "You cup your will like a brazier for Me" sounds like it should be in the Bible, perhaps in one of the prophets' visions. The texture of the lines "I make them tinder to kindle your sparkle,/and a sweet-smelling smoke to console you" perfectly fits their content, the first line light and crackling, the second soothing and low-toned. Winterburn lets the rhythms of her speech flow uninhibited at last, as in the line "What numb thirst is sealed up in you against all taking-by-surprise,/that I may come and slake it?" This passionate way of stringing words together reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Every move a metaphor—restrained, oblique—a gloved touch I keep in custody". There is so much to enjoy in the sound and meaning of that one line.
The poem becomes quite erotic in the final stanza, yet always in keeping with the modesty and kindness of the Lover, who graciously restrains his great power so as to leave the hearer free to respond. This too is in keeping with Biblical passages where God is compared to weak or disadvantaged characters (a lamb, a cuckolded husband, a hen brooding over her chicks). God's willingness to assume such vulnerability demonstrates the depth of divine love.
This poem's genuine emotion and sensual directness made it meaningful to me, but I would have liked to see Winterburn take more risks with language and imagery, as the lines I singled out above show she is capable of doing. Sticking to familiar concepts may limit the poem's readership to people already inclined to accept its message. To have a wider impact, one needs to get past the skeptical reader's presumption that he has "seen it all" and knows what the author is going to say. This applies not only to religious poetry but to any ground that has been well-trodden by poets over the centuries, such as love poetry and nature poetry.
Where could a poem like "Call Out of Exile" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Bliss Carman Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Canadian journal Prairie Fire offers C$1,250 for unpublished poems
Wild Violet Writing Contests
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Online quarterly journal offers $100 apiece for poetry and short fiction
Writer's Digest Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 20
National writers' magazine offers prizes up to $500 and good exposure for emerging writers; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques