A poem for Thanksgiving (for us who struggle to be thankful)

A poem for Thanksgiving (for us who struggle to be thankful)

Several months ago I came across the most amazing poem by Brigit Pageen Kelly.  I have returned to it again and again.  Though not written for Thanksgiving, it is altogether fitting as we wrestle to heed Paul’s astonishing exhortation  to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (And, lest we forget, Paul was a man whose own life was marked by extreme suffering and loss–and remarkable joy.)

Kelly is a Professor of English and Rhetoric at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The reader familiar with the teaching of Jesus will immediately recognize that Kelly has meditated (wrestled?) deeply on Jesus’ following words:

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The poem’s title is Iskandariya, the name of a city in Iraq.  (The title’s significance is unclear to me.)  As far as I can tell (which isn’t saying much at all), the poem is written in free verse.  As with most all poetry, it is meant to be “performed”–i.e., read aloud, so read it aloud to someone (perhaps to friends and family on Thanksgiving day?).  It will be more than worth your time to look up any words or references that are unfamiliar to you.  Listen for how the poem moves from complaint to self-discovery to wonder….

Iskandariya
by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish,
but maybe God misheard my request,
maybe God thought I said not ”some sort of fish,”
but a ”scorpion fish,” a request he would surely have granted,
being a goodly God, but then he forgot the ”fish” attached to the ”scorpion”
(because God, too, forgets, everything forgets);
so instead of an edible fish, any small fish, sweet or sour,
or even the grotesque buffoonery of the striped scorpion fish,
crowned with spines and followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish;
instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar prehistoric creature,
part lobster, part spider, part bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star,
something like a disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat,
or even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly does it step,
as if on ice, freezing again and again in mid-air like a listening ear,
and then scuttling backwards or leaping madly forward,
its deadly tail doing a St. Vitus jig.
God gave me a scorpion, a venomous creature, to be sure,
a bug with the bite of Cleopatra’s asp, but not, as I soon found out,
despite the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men.
In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight eyes and almost no sight,
who shuns the daylight, and is driven mad by fire,
who favors the lonely spot, and feeds on nothing much,
and only throws out its poison barb when backed against a wall
–a thing like me, but not the thing I asked for,
a thing, by accident or design, I am now attached to.
And so I draw the curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step softly,
and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many years, have I been stung,
both times because, unthinking, I let in the terrible light.
And sometimes now, when I watch the scorpion sleep,
I see how fine he is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal Book
because of his strange organs of breath.
His lungs are holes in his body, which open and close.
And inside the holes are stiffened membranes,
arranged like the pages of a book — imagine that!
And when the holes open, the pages rise up and unfold,
and the blood that circles through them touches the air,
and by this bath of air the blood is made pure. . .
He is a house of books, my shy scorpion,
carrying in his belly all the perishable manuscripts
— a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, which burned.

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