Growing up in the pews, a Bible and—depending on the church’s approach to worship—assorted songbooks rested, waiting for use, in the grainy wooden rack before me. Now I wonder if other objects merit a place beside them as sacred helps.
Sunday after Sunday, pastors preach about holiness and forgiveness; liturgists trace the melodic contours of mercy. And I find their language lacking, even as I find no fault. Such words blaze like stars, with light and heat impossible to describe from a single vantage point. Taking one person’s word for faith or love might leave the hearer with a sufficient gospel—but one that lingers incomplete.
Taking one person’s word for faith or love might leave the hearer with a sufficient gospel—but one that lingers incomplete.
Rifling through the pew rack for added artifacts, we might follow the words of life down a dictionary page to their fourth or fifth definition, compare them to postcard paintings of glory, set them to the strains of Sam Cooke or Mavis Staples LPs — artists who roll out justice like rhythms. Not to critique or even check the work of a preacher, but to complete it. And next to these also-sacred items, I might place a printed copy of Kelli Russell Agodon’s poem “Grace.” At least on the Sundays our ministers talk about grace—which should be all of them.
“Grace” reveals itself around the middle of last year’s collection “Dialogues with Rising Tides.” A poet of soul and radiance, Agodon sows desire into every line, often reaping at least a moment’s deliverance.
“If we never have enough love, we have more than most,” she writes at the top of the book’s first page, leading the initial poem “Hunger.” In this, Agodon gestures toward a tricky balance: abundance and want, promise and threat always dancing together.
And we must acknowledge both partners because life waits outside your door and mine. Life with its hot breath, its ecstatic pleasures, and animal instincts. “We are all trying to change / what we fear into something beautiful,” Agodon writes near the end of the same poem. “But even rats need to eat.”
These poems reach through their reluctant realism, groping for connections that satisfy. In “String Theory Relationships,” Agodon discovers them within a nesting doll of language. The poet pens “Love Waltz with Fireworks” as a permission slip to fall in love recklessly, knowing momentary infatuations shape us into people who more willingly bind together for survival and friendship. She writes:
“But / in this world we’ve been taught to keep / our emotions tight, a rubber-band ball where / we worry if one band loosens, the others will begin / shooting off in so many directions.”
Agodon writes out hope against hope, calling us to unravel as a quiet act of revolution. And she rouses us to keep watch in the night’s blue-black hours; our drowsy lids stay open “looking for a saint,” as she writes in “I Don’t Own Anxiety, But I Borrow It Regularly.”
“And maybe your saint is a streetlight,” the poem continues, “or maybe the sea, or maybe / it’s the moment you walk out the door / and exist in the darkness, / announce to the heavens that you’re still alive.”
Along comes “Grace,” and opening lines that leave me with the rare feeling of a clean shave:
Even those who are living well
are tired, even the rock star
who swallowed the spotlight,
even the caterpillar asleep
in an unbalanced cocoon.
Agodon arrives with a take on grace, and instinctively I try to pit hers against another.
The end of Matthew 5 testifies to a God who allows the “sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Here grace is shared goodness; in Agodon’s poem, a common world-weariness. But should grace prove as fully-orbed as I suspect, each passage complements–and never denies—the other.
“Grace” goes on in other words I’ve lived: “It’s so tiring / how every day is a miracle.”
“Grace” goes on in other words I’ve lived: “It’s so tiring / how every day is a miracle.” Eyes take in these lines, then every sense conspires to recall times I feared combusting from awe over a starry canopy in the still of the night; from desire as a kiss radiated through each inch of my body; from the sheer thrill music delivers.
Some people might know a mere handful of moments like these; most of us receive a million. Yet they can feel like too much of a good thing, especially against our sense of the world as random and painful. Agodon acknowledges this too, alternating these proverbs with the simple story of a lamb escaping its fated slaughter.
On balance, everything wrapped up in living qualifies as grace, the poem suggests. Agodon never subtracts from the word. Rather she enfleshes grace, propping it up with plenty. Doing so, she agrees with songwriter Audrey Assad, who once reflected on our understanding of “abundant life,” as presented in the Bible. We read the term as a guarantee of good when it means an abundance of everything, Assad said.
Hope will come into its own when it is both Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers / that perches in the soul” and, in the language of Romans, the one force which never “puts us to shame.”
Bruised knees and broken hearts, major chords and fevered touches, power and glory, pleasure and pain. All in abundance. The grace comes in living through anything and everything—and not going it alone.
Agodon’s interpretation of grace honors both R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” as hymns; it confesses grace will change her outfit depending on the weather, might do a little something different with her hair and then, as St. Bono sang, travel “outside of karma” carrying “a pearl in perfect condition.”
I long for pastors to mull over Agodon’s “Grace” before preaching a wedding sermon, for parishioners to silently mouth her words in line for communion, for us to consider them together as we give and receive counsel.
Agodon’s “Grace” sets me in motion, into the spiral daydream of how we might inch toward fulfilling a word by absorbing, then repeating, every available definition.
What we know of sin—so often described as an act of rebellion or an arrow missing its mark—might expand and contract as we hear a soul burn its way through 12 bars of Delta blues or observe vast failures of imagination captured by our history books. Hope will come into its own when it is both Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers / that perches in the soul” and, in the language of Romans, the one force which never “puts us to shame.” And then some.
But “Grace” deserves much more than my definition; read Agodon’s words and sketch your own interpretation. Like grace itself, the poem will not be plumbed by a single sermon, song or essay.