The Importance of Thorns

I haven’t put anything up in months, & I felt this essay I wrote a while ago discussing a lovely piece of prose called St. Cyril’s Dragon: The Threat of Poetry by Dave Smith was a fitting post to resume with..

The Importance of Thorns

Threat, as defined by Smith, is “various as a heartbeat, [and] is the weight, complexity, difficulty, problem, resistance every poem draws energy from as it seeks resolution.” A good poem takes us out of our comfort zone, it disturbs us, and through threat is “manifests what is important to know. Threat engineers the struggle of self to come into being.” It is confounding to me how much of poetry, poetry without threat, has come into this idealized, soft form of art. We would never want to read a book or watch a film in which everything is serene and peaceful all the time.

Sure, one can come to brilliant understandings and reflections in loveliness, but I think it is truer to say that we are shaken in a beautiful way by discord, by threat. A poem needs a threat, a driving force, just like any other form of art does and just as our own lives necessitate threat. I believe that if one were to live out the entirety of his or her life without such threat, without the moment “when painful choice arrives,” that person has sorely missed out on the beauty of the bad and has been utterly shortchanged in his or her life experiences.

An easy, threat-less life, like a simple, threat-less poem, is one in which nothing is overcome, shaken, disturbed, and developed. It is lacking. Smith says, “no threat, no poem,” and perhaps I’m just a bit twisted, but I think threat is essentially always a good thing. To me, threat is synonymous with motivation – isn’t it the threat of failure that drives us to work hard, the “formative pressure” that inevitably shapes our lives?

As I mentioned in my response last week, there is nothing wrong with a lovely poem; poetry has a tendency to strive toward such loveliness and encapsulations of the beauty of the world, but I find that there is more to be gleamed from ugliness. And when the two coincide, when poems like those of Neruda, Trakl, and at times even Dubie, Wright, and Smith, jar us with their exquisite descriptions of such ugliness in the world, that’s when I believe that true loveliness is achieved.

The power of a poem, of course, comes from something more than merely strong descriptive words on either end of the spectrum – while something in me would be more inclined to read a horrifically disgusting poem  rife with words like “entrails,” or “fetus,” or “maggots,” without threat, a poem comprised of such cringe-worthy yet purposeless words is every bit as shallow as a poem depicting a viridian meadow bursting with wildflowers on a brilliantly sunny day. It is the consolidation of these two realms which makes a poem, as Smith says, one “that scares those who pay attention. It delivers truth we find hard to live with.” Poems in which the threat is has a force proportional to its release deliver us to a credible statement made or implied, and takes us on a journey through which we are able to comprehend, to quote Smith quoting Frost, something “we know but didn’t know we knew.”

For Smith, if the poem’s purpose is to “make meaning of action and to lodge it in memorable words,” akin to “images hung on a wall,” such images are “those which tell us what is most durable, which we admire and call Beauty because they summon from in us the will to do and to be good, and in Beauty, we see the sorrowful diminishing of what had seemed to us permanent.” This is the most perfect definition of beauty I have ever heard. Beauty is not simply what is pretty, what we find to be lovely, as seems to be the case in so many poems without threat, but rather a force that moves us, and has the power to make us realize the ephemeral nature of all that constitutes our lives.

In keeping with this definition of beauty, the ‘darker’ or surrealist poems of Neruda, Trakl, or Wright surely are far more beautiful than any gorgeous yet idealized depiction of something traditionally perceived to be lovely. To quote Smith, “To Miss O’Connor, life’s sweetness was dependent on what threatened it and upon the size of the threat. Without threat, the road of life is only a pastoral walk in the daisies. That is why poetry that fails to reveal and risk the life of the real self is no good to us.”

As Smith says, “Weak poems, pruned of thorns, barbs, and threats, console and soothe us; we all want the beatific promise. If it were not so, ever-positive Walt Whitman would have little appeal for us beyond verbal postcards from the travelogue of his imagination.” This may be true for many, and would explain the wealth of so-called “weak poems” in existence today, but I believe this statement to be true only in reference to the same sort of people who remain willfully ignorant in all aspects of life. Perhaps the sort who do not watch the news, because its all rape and war and death not at all directly relevant to them, or the kind who brush off the importance of things like having political knowledge of one’s own country, or the food they eat, because to keep blindly accepting and devouring whatever comes their way is far simpler.

These are the sort of people to whom Smith refers when he says, “Knowledge, to us, is always partial, inadequate, dangerous.” I prefer to believe that there must certainly also be many whose intrinsic curiosity hurls us away from stagnation, people who want to be pricked by a poem, to be unsettled and jolted awake. Good poetry uses the imagination to “dive down into the dark heart of experience and return with knowledge necessary to selfhood,” as opposed to “Fancy,” which Smith quotes Coleridge in saying is merely “an act an act of the mind that seeks escape from reality, creates false images, panders to us.” The power of well-executed imagination in poetry leads us to confront and comprehend threat.

Such threat bursts from every line of Smith’s “In the House of the Judge.” The threat of death, of our own mortality permeates the poem like ash, suffocating us. The poem is so densely packed with detail that it reads almost like a fully executed short story, and is obsessed with this image of ash, of the dead floating all around us. In this poem, we are brought into the very conflicted, fear-gripped mind of the narrator, who seems to be trying to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with the house and situation he is in – “night after night I stand now trying / to believe it is only dust, no more than vent-spew.” The narrator goes on to describe how he sees and feels this “flesh-gray sift” everywhere, on framed photographs, on bookshelves, in the house, and it becomes clear that these are the remains of those the judge has sentenced to death. The threat here is practically tangible, the particle remains of the deceased truly engineer the struggle of the poem’s narrator, and is the driving force of the poem’s conflict.

The narrator is indeed “shaped by the mica-fine motes that once were body in earth.” He is so plagued by the death, the audible weight, suffocating this house that his actions become rash and nonsensical. Here Smith manages to use imagination “dive down into the dark heart of experience” by detailing the manner in which the shapeless, formless dust, the only remnant of those no longer with form, becomes that which now comprises the entirety of the obsessed narrator who is still with form. This captures the truth that in our lives, such little nothings, such things that do not exist in physical form, tend to wreak havoc on our real, physical world.


The Case for Protecting Women’s Access to Reproductive Health Care

A snowy day outside the Supreme Court
A snowy day outside the Supreme Court

“The widespread use of contraceptives has indeed harmed women physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually — and has, in many respects, reduced her to the ‘mere instrument for the satisfaction of [man’s] own desires.’”[1] It’s hard to believe that anyone actually thinks this, let alone declares it as fact. But this is just one example pulled from the 59 amicus briefs filed in support of Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation arguing for exemption from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional violation of its sincerely held religious beliefs.

When I read some of the more ludicrous quotes from the case briefs aloud to my roommate, she had pretty much the same indignant reaction that most rational people have upon hearing statements like, “the promotion of contraceptive services harms not only women, but it harms society in general,” (another gem from the American Freedom Law center). She got frustrated. She asked me to stop reading because she didn’t want to hear anymore. And that was my initial reaction too – I stopped reading in anger, shook my head and thought, I cannot believe this.

You see, we have a choice. We live in a liberal state where our reproductive freedoms are largely recognized and protected. Yet for far too many women in our country, statements like this aren’t something they can simply tune out. Such ignorance is the unrelenting and unavoidable reality that they live in.

Where are you from? In Texas, a recent law imposing unreasonably strict regulations has forced dozens of clinics to close.[2] In 2011, 44 facilities in Texas offered abortion care. Recently, that number has been cut in half, and by fall 2014, that number is expected to drop even lower, to a mere six. The entire state of North Dakota has but one clinic that provides abortions, while South Dakota and Mississippi have two[3]. Just last week, a federal court of appeals agreed to let Kansas strip family planning funding from Planned Parenthood[4]. In early March, a medical office that provided abortions in Montana was meticulously destroyed and vandalized by the son of the executive director of an anti-choice group called Hope Pregnancy Ministries[5]. That office had only been opened three weeks prior – the owner had been forced to relocate from her previous office after someone purchased the building her office was in. That someone was, somewhat unsurprisingly, none other than the same executive director of Hope Pregnancy Ministries. Some may think, well Roe v. Wade legalized abortion 41 years ago, what is everyone still arguing about? Yet, around the country, our reproductive rights are being stripped away, piece by piece.

It is insane to me that the Hobby Lobby case ever got as far as the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, March 25th, I got a bus down to D.C. with members of JHU’s Voice for Choice group, and other activists from Delaware and Maryland. We joined the protests outside the Supreme Court as the attorneys presented their oral arguments. On the left, many young women and men touted neon colored or plain white cardboard signs with statements like, “My Birth Control My Decision,” and “Don’t Impose Your Beliefs.” Pro-choice activists gathered around a platform where intelligent speakers informed the crowd of what was at stake should Hobby Lobby win its case. On the right, mostly old white men gathered holding visceral and inaccurate signs, such as one that read “’Choice’ 1st Trimester (10 Weeks) Aborted Fetus” with a graphic poster-sized image of a blood clot digitally manipulated to look more like a human. One woman from the pro-life side walked through our group of supporters from JHU and Planned Parenthood and kindly informed us that we were all robots and should learn to think for ourselves.

Some protestors
In the front, a lovely old lady brandishing a hand-knit uterus. In the back, an abominable sign.
In the front, a lovely old lady brandishing a hand-knit uterus. In the back, an abominable sign.
A close up of that awful sign (sorry, it is graphic, and also digitally altered)
A close up of that awful sign (sorry, it is graphic, and also digitally altered)

As Jon Stewart recently quipped, “let me get this straight: corporations aren’t just people, they’re ill-informed people, whose factually incorrect beliefs must be upheld because they sincerely believe them anyway.” Lets talk about those beliefs – the 600-store chain of craft stores claims that four of the contraceptives it is required to supply under the Affordable Care Act are actually abortifacients, and thus providing these contraceptives places an undue burden on their – sorry, their corporation’s – religious beliefs. These four contraceptives are Plan B One-Step, Ella, and two forms of intrauterine devices. None of these contraceptives act after fertilization. The two brands of emergency contraception delay ovulation, and the IUDs thicken cervical mucus to prevent sperm from reaching the egg[6]. Fertilization never occurs. There is nothing to abort. Why are we even entertaining the notion of imposing some sincerely held belief that is factually just plain wrong? What’s next? What if the heads of my corporation are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Will I then be denied access to blood transfusions, on the grounds of their sincerely held religious fictions?

Our campus is no stranger to inaccurate and insensitive displays from pro-lifers. Last fall, Voice for Life’s “Cemetery of the Innocents” stuck 139 crosses in the ground near the MSE Library, which was meant to represent the number of fetuses aborted hourly in the United States (the correct number is actually 121[7]) accompanied by a sign that read “3600 Human Beings Were Aborted Yesterday.” Funnily enough, for all this talk of religious belief and fertilized (or in the Hobby Lobby case, unfertilized) eggs being people, the Bible doesn’t say all that much on the subject. In Genesis, the first human became a “living being” when God blew into its nostrils and it started to breathe[8]. Biblical writers thought that life began when you started breathing. With modern technology however, we can determine that what one can conceive to be ‘life’ begins sooner than that – a fetus becomes viable no sooner than the 23rd week. This threshold is defined as the point at which the fetus becomes potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb. A passage from Exodus (21:22) actually describes what the penalty would be should a woman suffer a miscarriage as the result of being injured by a man: “if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no [further] injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any [further] injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[9] Killing the woman would be murder, yet the miscarriage is treated as a property loss.

If we are really going to make an argument about whose rights trump whose, be it a corporations’ rights to religious freedom, an unborn child’s right to life, or a woman’s right to choose, let’s stick to the facts. Over the past decade in the United States, teen pregnancy rates have been consistently higher in Southern states that fail to provide students with adequate sexual health instruction[10]. Making it more difficult to access contraception will not reduce the rate of pregnancy. Making it more difficult to access safe and legal abortions will not reduce the rate of unintended births, and is sure to result in more unnecessary death for women who are forced to resort to unsafe means. Only education and safe and proper access to contraception and abortion will help women.

A Live Action News article proudly pointed to Voice for Life’s contribution to their cause by stating that the group’s bimonthly harassment outside of Baltimore’s Planned Parenthood clinic has “helped save three babies from abortion” and that they have “even watched one worker quit.” That worker told the group, “You have no idea how much you guys have done with your presence here.”[11] It is unkind, unjust, and downright cruel to impose your personal beliefs on another person’s personal battle. It is never an easy decision. It is sometimes the right decision. But it is always the woman’s decision.

But this isn’t a woman’s issue. If men could get pregnant, birth control would be bacon-flavored and dispensed as freely as condoms. Woman do not get pregnant all by themselves, and they should not be left alone to the task of ensuring their access to reproductive health care remains intact. Women everywhere want the same exact thing for their children – to be able to give them the best life they possibly can. That starts with being in control of when to bring a new life into this world.

Me outside the Supreme Court
Me outside the Supreme Court












*This was written in April, 2014