Safe in their Alabaster Chambers · Emily Dickinson
Jenny Hykes Jiang’s poetry has appeared in Arts & Letters, Caesura, Tule Review and elsewhere. Raised in rural Iowa, she has taught English as a Second Language literacy skills in Asia and in several regions of the United States. Currently, she lives with her husband and three sons in the Sacramento area. Jenny’s poem “Practicing Resurrection” appears in the summer 2021 issue of LPR. You can read it here.
This year during Lent, a group of friends and I met weekly via Zoom to pray together for direction. Each of us was in the midst of transitions that felt at the time mostly like loss.
Many of us are facing these types of upheaval as we slowly unspool the trauma and revelation of the last 18 months of pandemic and racial and political reckonings.
The culmination of that season of prayer for me was not a new direction or a surprise, but rather a quiet, clear calling to a vocation I already knew but hadn’t quite been willing to claim—a vocation of writing, of poetry.
This is an embarrassingly difficult calling for me to accept. To claim poetry as a vocation challenges deeply held, self-protective ideas of work and service, of selflessness and value.
To accept poetry as vocation is to be asked to accept a grace I have either long rejected or long been unaware existed, as I lived hoping that good behavior, quantifiable usefulness and enough deflection to the needs of others could manage my own existence without having to acknowledge its fullness. 2
Though I have clung to a costly false-self management, I cannot maintain that stance with integrity any longer. Though I have compassion for the person who needed those old narratives, the witness of the Bible does not support them.
The God of Christianity, of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, is an unabashed maker, poet, singer. The Greek word poieo, translated ‘make” or “do,” its related forms poietes (a maker or doer) and poiema (that which has been done or made) appear thousands of times in the Bible in reference to God, the Maker, according to visual artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura in his book Art & Faith, a Theology of Making (2020, Yale University Press).
Those scriptures, themselves mostly poetry, exude and celebrate beauty and artistry. And more than 40 times in the Bible, God’s people are commanded to sing. Singing, the most accessible and bodily of art forms, is of course intimately connected to language and poetry. Zephaniah 3:17 says, God “will rejoice over you with singing,” and I have become convinced that I must sing in reply.
While this threatens my ingrained narratives that privilege control and mastery of information, the small child within pleads, “receive.”
For if I have ever met the Holy, I have met it in art, music, poetry, and making —in the making of poetry and in the practice of embracing other work and relationships as creative work, making work.
When I make a poem, and when it sings through me, I know I live, that I have a soul. I know this world is a good one, even when that goodness is almost rendered unrecognizable by injustice and evil. I know I am small and there is a power and a mind beyond myself and of such generosity and humility that it offers itself, pours itself out to the artist, however uneducated and unskilled and certainly unworthy she may be. And in the making, I discover experiential truth, truth that I have carried, usually unwittingly, in my body. This is the joy and the fear, for writing poetry requires presence, to breathe and inhabit my body with its imperfections, my bodily lived history, my nervous system. To wade into this universe, compassion, humility, and patience are required.
When I make a poem, and when it sings through me, I know I live, that I have a soul.
Every serious disciple of a faith or of an art knows their calling insists on sacrifice. To learn and practice the silence and even the loneliness of making, to pay exquisite attention to the other and to the self, to hone a craft, all of these are a small part of the sacrificial work of making.
The Christian faith, centered around the death and resurrection of Jesus, calls me to learn to live the crucifixion, and in that death to ego and self, to know the promise of resurrection. For Lent is followed by Easter, and I can’t stay passively pondering whether poetry will “work out” for me. In the words of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” I must “practice resurrection.”
In my interpretation, to practice resurrection in the making of beauty, in our singing, is to say the deadly orders of greed and fear have been defeated; this includes the death of my self-protection.
I hear squawking messages of shame and scarcity, of “not enough”—money, talent, time, worth. But my faith promises the economy of abundance is available to those who want it. Grace is there, if that’s what I desire.
I can receive and give in one act; inhale and exhale. I can acknowledge that in writing, in poetry, in my making I will give far more than can ever be financially recouped, and that I receive exponentially beyond whatever I can give.
To practice resurrection is to claim the surprising shock of life that sizzles in creating— a blooming aftershock of the True Making that is particularly mine to receive, mine to give.