Saturday, April 25, 2015

Poetry Saturday: Demands of Dough

It's been one of those kinds of weeks where I turn off the news:  refugees drowning at sea, wars in all sorts of places, more news of police brutality, anniversaries of genocides (Armenian) and bloody World War I battles (Gallipoli).

What do we do in the face of this bad new?  How do we retain our hope? 

I'd argue that we should make some sort of art, that we should celebrate our intellects.  After all, if 100 years ago, the Turkish authorities thought that Armenian artists and intellectuals needed to be rounded up first, it shows the value of those activities.

Or maybe it's time to return to some basic spiritual practices:  praying for peace and baking bread.  I've got a poem that's perfect for the end of a week of bad news.  It suggests baking bread in the face of despair--that's always one of my first instincts, to do something that affirms life.  I also love the metaphor of yeast.  Even during times of despair, granules of hope and transformation may be incubating, ready to leaven the loaf!

I often think of bread and spirituality as I'm baking and writing. Two hundred years from now, I have a vision of a grad student writing a dissertation on the enduring symbolism of bread in my life and work.

I often return to bread baking in an effort to remind myself of who I am at my essential core. It's nice to have that practice. Years ago, I wrote this poem, as I thought about those high school years when I made the most bread, from 1979-1983. It was published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.

Demands of Dough
Each decade ushers in a new genocide;
each bloody crime introduces histories
of humans I’ve never heard of before. Each
year’s newscast schools me in ways to slaughter
masses of humans efficiently, human rights
violated in ways I never would have imagined. Yet,
the familiarity persists as well. Armenia, Auschwitz,
Cambodia, Rwanda: an ongoing, constant
story of corpses stacked like cordwood, rivers choked
with bodies, a consistent backdrop
to the bloodiest century on record.

I turn off the news and declare a news fast.
I pull out my old recipe books to revisit
an earlier self, the vegetarian pacifist with a quick
temper, the girl who marched on Washington
to protest Apartheid and arms races and abortion
rights backsliding. I pull yeast and flour
out of my cupboard and knead myself younger.

My first loaf of homemade bread. What possessed
my mother to suggest it? Vegetarian seminarians
coming for dinner and a long, summer afternoon
to fill. What kept me baking? Praise.
An excuse to play with dough. Desire
for more nutritious food. By age seventeen, I’m the only
high school senior with her own garden.

I can think short term. I may not live
to see my twenties, especially if our president
continues to joke about bombing the Soviet Union.
But I’m able to invest the space and time
a rising bread dough demands.
I’m willing to commit to a germinating seed,
willing to hope for one more season of growth.

That was before cable brought us multiple news
channels. Somehow the abstraction of a cold
war and an arms race disturbed me less
than these scenes of neighbors butchering
each other. I cannot process misery at this scale.
I return to what I can handle:
yeast and a pinch of sugar, oats and flour,
a window sill of seedlings,
an afternoon of tea and books.

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