Stopping by the Woods: A Review of A Year in Weetamoo Woods

I’ve never written a poetry review before, so perhaps I’m doing this all wrong. Perhaps I should talk of meter and rhyme, cadence and word choice. But I’m not going to do that. I shall leave such things to those better versed in the criticism of poetry.

Instead, I shall approach these verses as a reader. For, though I’ve studied its creation and taught its analysis, I am simply a reader when it comes to poetry. From time to time my thoughts present themselves in poetic structure, but such is a rare occurrence. More often I find myself going to poetry as a devotional experience—my favorite poems being those which consider the things of this earth, the things of heaven, and the age-old wrestling match between them.

I shall have to add some pieces from Christopher Yokel’s new book of poetry, A Year in Weetamoo Woods, to my collection of wrestling poems. As the title implies, it is a book of nature poetry, primarily. For a year, Yokel walked in the woods and wrote his poems and then collected them by season in a book. And honestly, if you had woods nearby named “Weetamoo,” wouldn’t you be moved to use their name in a title?

I like the pictures Yokel presents of his creation process throughout these poems. In “Arden” he writes, “Here I come/ where Adam’s curse is felt/ less cruelly, . . . / Here there is space to think/ to be,/ to draw out poetry from trees.”  In “The Price of Art” he writes, “I have flung myself over/ tree and trail,/ rock and stone,/ in payment for what I have come to take.”

Overall, what stood out to me about Weetamoo Woods were the pictures. Yokel is gifted in painting with simple words images of what he sees (or smells, or hears, or feels)—both in physical reality and in his imagination—and making them clear to his reader.  Leaves, branches, paths, stones, water, earth, wind. All are seen, felt, smelled, heard, touched: the rush of a breeze in “Stirring,” when he says, “All the trees stir together,/ as God passes/ through the midst of the garden”; the fluttering summer leaves  in “Flags,” when he writes, “The sun glinted and glimmered through/ a hundred spear shafts standing to the sky/ their bright green banners snapping in the breeze”; the frozen fields in “Tinidril,” when he says, “The fields are laid to rest/ stiff with winter’s embalming.”

Perhaps it is because I read these poems in the short, dark days at the turn of the year that those in the section titled Winter stood out to me most vividly. “The Barren King” was a favorite poem of the collection; its images of a frozen stream and the snow-covered forest bring to mind memories of hushed walks through winter woods in northern climes. Yokel captures precisely what I’ve always thought of those days in his final stanza:

Snow glorifies the branches of winter,
covers over their naked shame,
and makes them kingly for a day,
with memories of greening leaves.
The monarch in winter is a monarch still.

The images of “Ghosts of the Old Year,” also stood out from the rest—“dead leaves creak/ like ribs rubbing together,/ quiver and vibrate/ like frozen cicadas.” I love the idea of the old leaves as ghosts of the old year—what is gone is not forgotten in its lifelessness. There is a solidity to that season that looks like death, though we know it will give way to resurrection in the spring—as Yokel writes in “Awake O Sleeper” looking at the “corpses of trees” he hears “the sound of the/ robin, singing the first/ notes of resurrection.”

In this, you see, there is that wrestling of heaven and earth—and of the New Heaven and Earth with this one that will pass away. Yes, I shall have to add some of these poems to my collection.

And perhaps, after mulling them for a while I will find myself where Yokel does at the end of his year—looking back to where he set off, “another person ago.” I will be changed, like a tree in a wood from season to season changes, and I may not know myself at the far end. But perhaps, to paraphrase Eliot, that is where I will know myself for the first time.

The End

When you come to the end,
to the place where the light is
you will look back and see
the weight of your soul,
how the journey has given you
more than you carried
when you set off another person ago,
how you traded your cheap wares
for precious possessions,
ingots of memories,
experience in folds,
to arrive like a beggar in guise
but your treasure
all carried inside you
where it cannot grow old.

A Year in Weetamoo Woods was released on January 6, 2014. More from Chris Yokel can be found at his website: chrisyokel.com. Yokel’s book of poetry is available for purchase from Lulu, Amazon, and B&N.

A Year in Weetamoo Woods Book Trailer

Radio Silence

I’m planning on going dark on social media over the next day or so. Partly, it’s for my own sanity; once in a while, I just need a cleanse. Need to stop being bombarded by the constant noise of online interaction. I love it – don’t get me wrong. My extrovert comes out in full force on social media; likes and comments, retweets and interactions are her drugs and she just needs a fix. But sometimes I realize that I’ve been living so much through my online interactions that my soul has begun to fray around the edges. And so I go dark – maybe for a day, maybe for less, maybe for more – and I shut off the noise, and I detox.

But this time it has a secondary purpose. I’ve done this radio silence at this time of year before. It is especially meaningful now, this weekend, more than others.
For this is the time when God went dark.
I wonder what it must have been like on the day of the crucifixion to see the sky growing dark in the middle of the day. I wonder if there was silence in the Temple after the priests heard the veil rent from top to bottom. I wonder how John must have felt, this woman, his Teacher’s mother, commended to his care, with no more chance of hearing the caring tones of the One who brought them together. I wonder if Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea spoke as they took the Christ’s body from the cross and moved it to a tomb. I wonder how Peter longed to hear his Lord speak words of forgiveness of his denial.
There is silence in death. Whatever commotion comes before it, when the last breath is breathed, quiet falls. Whatever grief and keening comes after it, there is a moment – however brief – as the realization settles in, when silence reigns.
There is darkness in death – both spiritually and physically. The eyes close, light no more to enter or exit them. The light that is personality, life, spark – the beaming smile, the sparkling eyes – goes dark. Before candles are lit in memory there is the closing of a casket, shutting out the light.
The Tenebrae service recognizes the darkness of death, the quiet of it. One by one, as the passages walk us through the darkness of betrayal, the darkness of Gethsemane, the darkness of denial, of accusation, of death, of burial, candles are snuffed and the light goes slowly from the room. And in the end, we sit, silent, in the darkness.
I’m going dark this weekend to meditate on the darkness of the death of Christ. The silence of God in a time of need.
I am fortunate to know what John and Mary, Joseph and Nicodemus, Peter and the Priests did not know. I am fortunate to know that light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. That knowledge changes my purpose as I take part in the silence, as I consider the darkness. Darkness now is not hopelessness. Death is now not an end.
The extinguished light in death is still real. The silence after the death rattle is still real. But I see them differently with what I know about the first fruits from the dead. A walk through a graveyard is a different experience when you know about resurrection.
Russ Ramsey, in “The Last of a Generation,” writes:
Over the years, as this church’s property has yielded to progress, the original sanctuary has expanded to add a wing of classrooms, offices, and the small chapel where we gathered to remember Nana. Filling the yard to the east of the sanctuary is a cemetery with ghost-white limestone markers dating back before the Civil War. They stand tall, thin, and rounded. I see one that actually bears the inscription “R.I.P.”
When it came time to build a fellowship hall, the land to the west was already developed to capacity. So they built a stand-alone structure on the east side of the cemetery. The strange effect is that for a person to go from the fellowship hall to worship, they have to pass through the center of this garden of graves.

As we walk, my cousin points at a headstone bearing my mother’s maiden name-Aspinwall…Just like the others, this headstone offers nothing but a name and a date. Yet for every pilgrim moving between the fellowship of men and the sanctuary of God, these headstones-like a choir half buried, half rising from the dead-sing the same refrain: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, a time to die, and a time for the life that happens in between…

I don’t have all the time in the world. One day I will leave this fellowship of the saints I love so much, and I will step across that threshold into an eternal sanctuary of exultant praise in the presence of the Maker and Lover of my soul. Between the two I will be buried. People will gather and offer words in my memory. They will lay my body down in a grave and my headstone will rise from the dirt and join the chorus in the land of the living, singing: “A time to be born, a time to die, a time to live again.”
Nate Wilson says that in death we are planted, that graveyards are a garden planted with seeds.2 “These are seeds, these are human seeds waiting a long time to break the earth, to grow…As Christians with faith, we know that when we walk a graveyard we are walking a Farmer’s field. And we’re not the Farmer. This is not our field. This is Somebody else’s field. This is His crop we’re walking on…the entire globe has gone from one little garden to an entire sphere that has been planted. This world is God’s garden. This world is His field, and there is going to be an enormous harvest. The corn will see the springtime. When the end does come, I think we’ll see an eruption. I think the resurrection is going to come with thunder and it’s going to be more dramatic than any spring has ever been.”3
Where, O Death, is now thy sting? Swallowed up in victory.
I’m going dark for a time this weekend. Radio silence. I am taking time to consider the darkness, to listen to the silence.
For anticipation is part of the gift. Crocuses bloom through dead leaves, making them beautiful again.
Easter is all the more beautiful when examined through the lens of Good Friday. Resurrection morning is coming. It will be all the brighter if I consider what it took to get there.
Notes:
1 Ramsey, Russ. “The Last of a Generation.” The Molehill, Vol. 1. Nashville: Rabbit Room Press, 2012. p. 189-191. 

2 Wilson, N.D. Notesfrom the Tilt-a-Whirl. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 

Missing Uncle Sam

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

“Christmas is a time of joy,” my boss said yesterday. “I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

It is. A joy tinged with sorrow, as the Man of Sorrows left his throne and came to be born in a manger, knowing he would be the sacrifice that redeemed the world. But a joy nonetheless, because the end result of that sacrifice was resurrection – not just once, but for all who believe.

I’m holding onto the hope of resurrection right now. Holding on to the hope that the Day-spring will put death’s dark shadows to flight. Because they are dark. And they are present. And I ache in the missing him.

“I’m okay,” I keep hearing myself say. “At the moment.”

On the one hand, day-to-day, I didn’t see Uncle Sam much – certainly not compared to his students or his fellow professors of music. But sporadic lunches, quick conversations in hallways or offices, greetings at concerts and events were enough to keep that long-seated friendship fresh, one that had grown from years upon years of relationship with my grandparents, my parents, my sisters, his brothers, his nephews, our shared friends. And now I am left with them all, aching.

He was a musician. I know that. But it’s not like that stood out to me in a unique way – saying Sam Hsu was a musician would be like saying any other person had eyes. It’s a given. His music was so much a part of him that I sometimes didn’t even take note of it.

I know that must seem strange to those who knew him from the world of music. But that wasn’t the world where we overlapped so much. We met more frequently over meals, at family celebrations, or academic discussions. He was my friend, my “uncle”; and my friend came with music in his blood.

He was a friend I was privileged to sit under as a student, enjoying the breadth and depth his knowledge gave to a class that could have been routine. And in between the insights into the music, art, and literature of the western world, were tidbits of great beauty and depth that would flow from him: “He’s experienced a little of me and I’ve experienced a little of him. That’s what friendship is, isn’t it?”

He was a friend who may have been thought somber by those who did not know him well. But they never got to experience the moments of humor that would come from around side – hilariously unexpected. I’ll never forget the day he sat at the keyboard to introduce us to a Russian Romantic composer and paused with his fingers hovering above the keys: “I’m going to show you how the Russians loved,” he said. Then he lowered his hands to the first chord; it struck and faded as he paused again: “I’m not a Russian. I hope you know that.”

I stood at the hospital on Thursday afternoon, looking about me at Uncle Sam’s students who were there, and thinking of those, former and present, who were not. Men and women of God whose passion for music is fueled by their passion for Christ. And I thought: that is what they learned from their teacher. More than fingering, more than history, more than style. They learned Christ-following from one who was, preeminently, a Christ-follower.

I have allowed my mind to swim freely in the lyrics and music of hymns and carols for the past few days, knowing that it is a place he would have loved to be with me. And the joy of Christmas, the beauty of this world, the grandeur and faithfulness of God, the great truths – all of them have resounded over and over to me.

And I will rejoice. For God is with us.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

To read more about Dr. Samuel Hsu, click here.

Resurrection

28 March 2010
Palm Sunday

I am again in a part of the world where Spring flourishes. Though today’s weather is chilly and grey, the flowers have been bursting forth for weeks now. The crocuses and snowdrops are already being replaced by daffodils and columbine. The forsythia glows along the sides of the road and the edges of fields and yards. A few blooming trees have burst in the unseasonable warmth, but most just sit, prepared, a sheen of color over their branches, ready to bloom forth from long Winter slumber with the coming of Easter next week.

This morning the words of an old hymn flow from my lips: “Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son.” The hymn goes on to compare all nature to its Ruler. Te meadows, woodlands, blooms of Spring, sunshine, stars, and moonlight pale in comparison to the Son of God and Son of Man. This year, even the season seems to be in submission to Him. As though the resurrection of Spring desires to reflect the First Resurrection.

And resurrection is coming. But today I enter a week of reflection on His passion. More words blend with the music in my soul: “Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Then we sing out His name: “Jesus, Messiah. Name above all names. Blessed Redeemer, Emmanuel. The rescue for sinners, the ransom from heaven, Jesus Messiah, Lord of all.” Before we celebrate the resurrection, we must face the reality of death. Rescue. Ransom.

Yesterday I cleared away the dead leaves and branches from around the green shoots and bursting blooms of daffodils. The leaves died last Autumn, and fell to the ground, turning brown. As I cleared the dry, dead leaves from the top, I found those underneath had begun to disintegrate, the papery brown giving way to become rich, dark soil. From the black soil, new life was coming forth. Their death led to new life.

The leaves paid a cost. They lost their glossy greenness, flaming out into red and yellow, then fading to brown. They lost their shape and structure, the membrane between the veins disintegrating into dirt. They died and their death paid a ransom that equipped new life. Nature once again following the pattern its Ruler set.

The Ruler arose, though. His real death, His rescue, His ransom, did not end His life. Resurrection. The blooming trees which lost their leaves last Autumn are perhaps a better analogy. They sacrificed their crown, their beauty, the bright green of high Summer, paying a price for new life to come forth. But now they await resurrection, to burst into greater beauty than they lost.

As I enter my reflection of Christ’s sacrifice, I look forward to Resurrection. Not only His, but also those for whom His sacrifice paid ransom. Their bodies lie still beneath the earth. Beauty covered by dead leaves. But from the dirt they will arise. Their former bodies having served to bring forth good things from the soil, they willl arise with a new crown of beauty.

I think of Keren’s grin, Aimee’s smiling eyes, Peter’s dad’s hands. We keep the old body in our memories, but we shall not see it again. As the glossy green leaves of Summer cannot compare to the flowering beauty of Spring blossoms, so those old bodies will fade in relation to the resurrected ones. I miss what I knew. I cannot imagine what resurrection will bring.

As Spring bursts forth from the ground in yellow, pink, purple, blue, and green, as the sheen of color replaces the icy white of winter’s blast and the dead brown of its end, I consider what the ransom of Christ’s death paid for: the resurrection of His own.