When my mother was dying, I spent a lot of time in the hospice with her. She had had a stroke, and she couldn’t talk or move. The doctor didn’t even think she could hear me or understand what was happening to her. It was quiet and lonely and sad there with her in her room. Sitting near her, I sometimes talked to her, and sometimes I read the bible.
There was a copy in the waiting room, and I had carried it back to my mom’s room. I’m not religious, but I found myself reading the bible, especially the psalms.
I had always loved their poetry, ever since I studied them in a Colonial American Lit class in college. I’m not the kind of person who likes to memorize poetry or much of anything else, but I sat down as a student and memorized some of the psalms.
Reading those poems of love and grief, sadness and light, I sat near my dying mother and thought about how much truth and longing there was in them. I said to myself that maybe someday I would try writing poems about the psalms, try to write something that would carry something of what I found in them.
After my mom died, I did try to write those poems. Over and over and over again I tried, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, but they didn’t come for me.
But they did come for Charles Swanson, a fine poet I met here in Virginia. He lives about thirty miles north of Danville and teaches high school in Gretna. He also pastors the Melville Avenue Baptist Church in Danville.
Charles has written a series of poems that respond to the psalms, and those poems are now included in his first book, After the Garden: Selected Responses to the Psalms.
The poems in this book take us back to the true roots of poetry, to its source in prayer, music, and the lives of ordinary people who struggle to make sure that the ones who come after them are able to live lives of freedom, hope, and faith. In these beautifully-shaped poems about growing up and living in the Virginia Piedmont and Appalachia, Swanson turns ordinary lives into extraordinary prayers.
Here’s the title poems from his book:
After the Garden: What Does It Mean, the Killing Fields?
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Psalm 51:3, RSV
Now this is the truth:
If there is sin, sin beyond
the thorns and the sweat of the brow, then
I have eaten.
We ran through the swamp woodlands,
blasting hummocks of litter like puffballs,
the bunny zagging through patches of light,
my mother with the twenty gauge,
I with a mouthful of marbles,
hard questions that choked me.
She shot a log from under his leap—
mossy wood showering green fireworks,
the somersaulting figure
an acrobat landing on his feet.
He slipped the skin of earth,
in the hollow trunk of a tree.
Putting aside the gun,
she reached a long arm up to armpit
into the mystery of darkness
to grasp his warm hind foot,
pads like buttercups, smooth as wax.
He came out lank, sinews stretched,
long last the tender twitching ears.
We sank onto the mossy log
damaged by her errant shot
and she laid the rabbit along her lap.
Her left hand gripped his feet,
and with her right she swaddled his head
in caress or stranglehold.
The rabbit made a squeaking noise
and I choked out
one hard marble. “Mama,
what will you do?”
A practiced hand made the wrenching sound.
These are the killing fields.
Out of the milk of human kindness
I have been fed.
Charles Swanson's book is available through his publisher, Motes Books, and through Amazon.
The Motes Books site has more information about Charles and includes another poem.
This November, Finishing Line Press will be publishing his second book, a chapbook entitled Farm Life and Legend.