Chris Ellery wins First Prize in 2014 Raynes Poetry Competition
Chris Ellery’s poem “Shekinah” wins first prize in the Second Annual Alexander and Dora Raynes Poetry Competition
Chris Ellery is the author of three collections of poems, most recently The Big Mosque of Mercy, poems based on his experiences in the Middle East, including Syria, where he was a Fulbright professor at the University of Aleppo, 1999-2000. He is co-translator (with Asmahan Sallah) of Whatever Happened to Antara, a collection of short stories by award-winning Syrian writer Walid Ikhlassi. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, he currently teaches poetry writing and film criticism at Angelo State University.
ShekinahThe spring of 1947, you could smell catastrophe like rotting meat in every quarter. In the scorching afternoons, the old city dozed like a rabid dog, and when we played together, Jews and Arabs, even our football matches grew political. Because we have the same birthday, Jamil said we are twins. The father of his father made the most ambrosial pizza in Bethlehem, and often while I waited for my friend to finish sweeping, he would tease his sweet old jedd, Abdus-Salam, commanding him like a great and ageless jinn to grant a slice — tomatoes from his garden, cheese from his own goats, oregano and mint, the very flavor of bliss. When Eema fell sick, Jamil proposed we make du’a for her at sacred Al Aqsa on the Temple Mount. “But Jews can’t go,” I said. “Details, details,” he grinned, and putting my kippah on he dropped his white taquiya on this head of mine: “Look at me I’m Jewish now, and you are Muslim.” I hope the ancient stones can still recall our laughter as I chased Jamil from there to the Church of the Nativity. Since then in dreams, like Cain, the foremost archetype of brothers, I sometimes chase my brother still — all the way to Jerusalem, where he died in the first offensive. May the memory of the righteous be a blessing. My brother knew the Noble Qur’an by heart, as he knew every alley and lane in the City of David.
Read judge Joan Larkin’s comments on “Shekinah”
Read more about the Raynes Poetry Competition, including the poems by the other winners
Q&A with Chris Ellery
How did your poem originate?
In 2005 on my third trip to Syria (I had a Fulbright 1999-2000), I met an old Palestinian man who showed me the key to his house in Jerusalem and told me about playing with Jewish friends when he was a boy. He remembered them very fondly and expressed great nostalgia for those friends of his boyhood. He was really concerned about them, wondered what kind of life they had lived, and wished he could see them and know they were happy. At the end of that trip I spent a couple of weeks in Jerusalem, and one hot afternoon in the Jewish Quarter I met a young Canadian Jew who was considering making aliyah. I really understood for the first time what Israel means to Jews. I wanted to bring those two voices together for a long time. They finally coalesced in “Shekinah.”
Your poem begins in Bethlehem in the spring of 1947. Why then?
Based on the old man’s story, it had to be 1947. The past is in the present, right? It’s a poem about the tragic consequences of history. In Syria I heard a lot about that history from the Arab point of view. From that point of view, the creation of Israel was a disaster, of course. But I also know many Jews who, however much they celebrate and value the creation of Israel, are nevertheless conscious of how tragic a loss the Palestinians endured. I wanted the poem to express that compassionate understanding. If you could get Michael Lerner to read it, you might hear “Shekinah” the way I hear it in my head. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend the event on May 20. I’m sure Lawrence Bush will do a fine job with it, too!
Have you spent time in Bethlehem?
At the end of my trip to Syria in 2005, I spent two weeks in Jerusalem and made day trips to Ramallah, Hebron, and Bethlehem. I went to Bethlehem by Arab bus from Hebron, pretty surreal. I was only there an afternoon, but it made a big impression. I got lost. I sort of always make it a point to get lost.
The word “Shekinah” has an elusive meaning and concerns the experience of the presence of God. Does it have a special meaning for you?
To me it means union, or the means to union. We — all human beings — reflect God, experience the presence of God, in compassion and love. That is the light that connects us. That is what makes us one with God, with each other, with all creation. The poem is a meditation on the love between brothers. Of course, that’s how Cain finds his way into the story. Brotherhood is a sacred bond.
Is this poem very different from your other poems? from the poems in The Big Mosque of Mercy?
There are several poems in there based on that 2005 visit to Jerusalem. “Shekinah” would fit in that book very nicely. In my Fulbright year in Syria I lived in a rooftop apartment looking out on Jamia ar-Rahman, literally “The Large Mosque of the Compassionate.” That Arabic word for compassionate is closely related (same consonantal root) to the word for “the Merciful.” Both are among the 99 names for God. “Mercy” made it into the title because of the alliteration. And because it is a book about Mercy—and compassion. These are attributes of Shekinah, too, I think.
Did you compose your poem specifically for this contest?
I tweaked it a little, but, no, I can’t honestly say I did. However, when I saw the announcement I knew immediately I had a good poem for the theme, “Union.” I did retitle it for the contest. I can’t remember how it happened exactly — let’s call it inspiration — but I was very fortunate to hit upon “Shekinah.” The Semitic root of the word means “to settle,” or “to inhabit,” so it fits the political and historical dimension of the poem as well as the spiritual.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
If I ever got started answering this, I wouldn’t know where to stop. I read daily from the Psalms. I keep translations of Rumi and Hafiz within arm’s reach. I never get tired of William Stafford and Hart Crane.
Would you be willing to share the most recent poem you read that deeply moved you?
“A Toast” by Ilya Kaminsky. It’s world-affirming, life-affirming. It finds amazement and beauty in “the 53 bones of one foot,” in redwood and hyacinth, in a “donkey on a rope,” and in “a boy pissing splendidly against the trees.” The human heart does indeed too often forget what it loves and needs to be reminded.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem? Do you remember what prompted it?
I was a high school senior, 17, I guess. It was a poem about King Tut, something along the lines of “Ozymandias,” as I recall. It was really a stinker, but I was into it.
Has being Jewish ever affected the poems you write?
I don’t know by what definition you might consider me Jewish. I do certainly think of myself as an heir of Abraham. Spiritually speaking, the Exodus is a narration of my own psychic journey. Torah is foundational to my world view and my values. Of course, these inform everything I write.
But you’re not Jewish? How would you describe your religious upbringing and identity?
I have something of a resistance to labels, whether ethnic, political, racial, or religious. Even gender identity is hardly a simple matter of anatomy. As a teacher of literature and writing, of course I understand the symbolic and arbitrary nature of language. I’m a member of the Episcopal Church and, in fact, the husband of an Episcopal priest. But does that tell you anything, really, about my faith and spirituality? It would probably mean more to tell you that I read Joseph Campbell avidly in my twenties (and still do!) and that my favorite book these days is Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. I feel quite at home in the sacred writings of most traditions, and if I had to attach a religious label on myself I suppose it would be “Seeker.” Fortunately, I don’t have to.
My parents were both practicing Christian Scientists, and I was raised in the Christian Science Church (officially Church of Christ, Scientist) and am in fact still a member of the Mother Church in Boston. Christian Science taught me very early that God is Love and that, in the words of Mary Baker Eddy, “Love is reflected in love.” That is still pretty much all the theology I need. I also learned in Christian Science to think of God conceptually, in terms of abstractions, the so-called seven synonyms for God: Life, Truth, Love, Mind, Soul, Spirit, Principle. Because of this early teaching, it has always been easy for me to believe in God and to see true faith in all religions and indeed outside of organized religion. Anyone who believes in goodness, righteousness, for example, even if she calls herself an “atheist,” is really professing faith in divine Principle, God. This way of thinking about God has steered me clear of religious chauvinism and fundamentalist literalism.
I married into the Episcopal Church at age 21, and I’ve been at home there through all my spiritual exploration. Besides my wife, Celia, what attracted me most to the Episcopal Church was a sign that said you don’t have to stop using your brain when you pass through the doors. The historical emphasis of Anglicanism is “common prayer,” not homogenous theology, doctrine, or ritual. I continually appreciate that about my chosen denomination. I’ve known Episcopalians who called themselves Buddhist and even one priest who was an admitted “agnostic,” whatever that is. No one asked them to leave the church. I’m proud (in the best sense) that, though it took us too long, the Episcopal Church (of the USA at least) finally accepted the ordination of women and that we were the first major denomination to approve the ordination of an openly gay bishop—“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” I will always appreciate the Episcopal priest who taught my confirmation class for telling me that “the Church” (I think he meant this in the broadest sense of “organized religion”) needs heretics the way Socrates’s Athens needed gadflies. I won’t try to explain the paradox, but I am both a radically orthodox and a radically heretical (progressive?) Christian. I mean no offense to your readers, but I am strongly convicted that the greatest teacher the world has ever known was a devout Jew, that radical love is the distillation of his teaching (what a shame this has not always been the premise or practice of Christian churches), and that crucifixion (of the ego or small self—nafs, I think the Sufis call it) is the only path to resurrection, enlightenment, rebirth, heaven, or whatever term you prefer for that transformed state of consciousness or union with God that is the aim and end of genuine religion. Good religion is good psychology, and (admirer of Jung that I am) I think the reverse is probably true, too.