Bez & Co- January 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Introduction • Daniel R. Jones

Poetry-

Little Brown Radio • Don Thompson
Mid-Trib • Don Thompson
Flies • Don Thompson
Mt. Jurupa • Matthew J. Andrews
Nameless • Matthew J. Andrews
TRIBALISMS [2] • Gerard Sarnat
Touch Me With Light • Tammy Boehm
Send Me • Annelies Zijderveld
Humility • Stephen Lang
Falling to Pieces • Fabrice B. Poussin
Super Stars • Fabrice B. Poussin

Photography-
Every Day at Dusk • Fabrice B. Poussin
Fear • Fabrice B. Poussin
Lady in White • Fabrice B. Poussin

Fiction-
Choral Society • DT Richards
These Things Happen • C.A. McKenzie

Introduction

At long last, here is the inaugural issue of Bez & Co, a literary journal with the aim of promoting Christ-honoring prose, poetry, and artwork. The submitted pieces have far exceeded my expectations, and I’m grateful for such a wealth of poignant creative pieces.

While I read through this issue as a whole, I looked for some sort of continuity that ran throughout which might serve as a theme. And while it’s impossible to find a common denominator in every short story, poem, or photograph, it seemed that there was a standout from one piece to the next: the concept of solitude.

In a way, it’s fitting. We’re on the heels (or in the throes?) of a global pandemic that has left many of us quarantined for months on end. Some have lost family members and friends. Others have lost their source of income. The feeling of solitude is ubiquitous—and so is the feeling of loneliness.

I’m reminded that in Psalms, God reminds us that he “sets the lonely in families.” I’ve seen this concept play out over the past year, as well. My church family has gotten creative in their attempts to stay connected, using video hangouts, text message check-ins, and socially-distanced home visits. Jesus has promised to be with us always, and by proxy, the body of Christ is delivering on that same goal.

I hope that this issue is a sort of respite for you. Amidst the solitude and loneliness that you might be feeling this time of year, these pieces of art remind us that we are connected despite the vicissitudes of our feelings from day to day. We’re never truly alone. Take solace in the fact that the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you.

-Daniel R. Jones, Managing Editor of Bez & Co.

Little Brown Radio

Little brown radio with naugahyde hide, Bakelite knobs and carcinogenic red-tipped dial.  Vacuum tubes glowing not quite into shadowed corners where who knows how many imps hid.

Altar on which I warmed midnight crackers, born again and again into the church of sleeplessness—a cradle insomniac.

Listening in the dark.

Not to Wolfman Jack’s doo-wop liturgy, but to half-mad Southern Baptists with their retro Elizabethan cadences and vowels bent like blue notes.  Sowing seed all night in the stony ground of the air.

Little brown radio, tune me in.

Let me hear again that unimaginably distant station—a faint signal that reaches through time, audible despite satanic static.  Let me hear that calming, uncrackled voice that somehow knows my name.

-Don Thompson

Mid-Trib

Clouds mill around, waiting for a wind that never comes.  They have a desperate, bus stop demeanor.

But in fact, not much has changed.

Sometimes TV news automatons lose it and talk gibberish with their jaws out of sync.  Finally, they make sense.

Choppers throb us awake at sunrise dropping paper money in parking lots like bales of hay for animals starving in a Serengeti drought.  Everyone has pockets full.  Worthless.

And the Emperor, stripped of his nakedness, has put on sack cloth and begs, holding up a scrawled cardboard sign: Will Reign for Food.

-Don Thompson

Flies

Not even Grünewald’s crucifixion includes the flies, that mob looting Christ’s wounds.  Some things paint refuses to do.

John stood there: He knew.  But if the Holy Spirit nudged him, he nevertheless left them out.

Blood made it into scripture, of course, acidic excretions and shreds of flesh, but not the flies pasted to Christ’s eyelids or crawling on his lips when he said, “Father forgive them…”

The flies?  The flies too.

What do we think?  That scarlet ribbons and a few beads of sweat like diamonds would suffice?  That Christ hanging there like roadkill on a fence wouldn’t draw flies from the open sewers of Jerusalem?

-Don Thompson

Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been publishing poetry for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.

Mt. Jurupa

Near the summit, above the smog
this mountain wears like a sash,
a technicolor Jesus is painted
on a granite canvass, his arms expanded
in welcome to weary pilgrims,
in presentation of the land below:
a vast spread of concrete scars,
hazy square plots, tiny men
grained like sand: His kingdom,
His children, His sermon crying out
from the stones, perforating my silence.

– Matthew J. Andrews

Nameless

“He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” – Mark 1:34

My own eyes see it:
the man convulsing in the dirt,
the steady finger, pointed and firm,
the two connected like lightning
and a charred, leafless tree.

But the hush is deafening, the absence 
of a name fills the page – 
a placid lake devoid of footprints,
a mountain shrouded in dervishing clouds.

Why must the wrists always 
glisten with blood but the man
never show his face?

Why are the words
written only in dirt,

smeared by every wayward breeze?

-Matthew J. Andrews

Matthew J. Andrews
Based in Modesto, California, Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in SojournersRed Rock ReviewThe DewdropJewish Literary JournalAmethyst ReviewBraided Way MagazineThe North American Anglican, and Spirit Fire Review, among others.

TRIBALISMS [2]

i. Pedicured Nomad Is An Abrahamic Island tanka*

Christ, like some sort of 
weird transfigured Bedouin, 
you can almost hear  
this wandering Jew’s pitty 
pat of infidelity.

ii. Abrahamic Teases tanka*

— RIP Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

Ancient favorite game,
Who Would You Most Like To Meet?,
for decades I’d say,
Jewish bros LCohen, Dylan
— now Sufi mystic poet.

-Gerard Sarnat

Gerard Sarnat

Gerard Sarnat won San Francisco Poetry’s 2020 Contest, the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for a handful of recent Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry is widely published in academic-related journals (e.g., Universities of Chicago/ Maine/ San Francisco/Toronto, Stanford, Oberlin, Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Pomona, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, Penn, Dartmouth, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Baltimore) plus national (e.g., Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, Northampton Poetry Review, Peauxdunque Review, MiPOesias, American Journal Of Poetry, Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library Literary Journal, South Broadway Press, Parhelion, Clementine, pamplemousse, Red Wheelbarrow, Deluge, Poetry Quarterly, poetica, Tipton Journal, Hypnopomp, Free State Review, Poetry Circle, Buddhist Poetry Review, Poets And War, Thank You For Your Service Anthology, Wordpeace, Lowestoft Chronicle,  2020 International Human Rights Art Festival, Cliterature, Qommunicate, Indolent Books, Snapdragon, Pandemonium Press, Boston Literary Magazine, Montana Mouthful, Arkansas Review, Texas Review, San Antonio Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Brooklyn Review, pacificREVIEW, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Fiction Southeast and The New York Times) and international publications (e.g., Review Berlin, London Reader, Voices Israel, Foreign Lit, New Ulster, Oslo’s Griffel, Transnational, Southbank, Wellington Street Review, Rome’s Lotus-Eaters, Nigeria’s Libretto). He’s authored the collections Homeless Chronicles: From Abraham to Burning Man (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), Melting the Ice King (2016). Gerry is a physician who’s built and staffed clinics for the marginalized as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. Currently he is devoting energy/ resources to deal with climate change justice. Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids plus six grandsons, and is looking forward to future granddaughters.

Touch Me With Light 

Are you with me
at the cusp of the torrent? 
Gray skies ragged 
and the hungered earth 
beneath my tread worn feet. 
My veneration sanguine,
etched in weathered stone 
as the birds of the air 
snatch your sustenance from 
my blistered tongue.
Bring me to my knees,
scrabbling at the door 
that never opens.
I can see past my imagination 
to eternity, 
and I am but damp breath
panting for you in the gathering storm 
Time is a finite line.
Destiny, a place where the promise 
of your arms surrounding 
my fractured soul  
is the transient fragrance 
of crushed petals that bleed out 
through my clenched fists
token moments can’t sustain.
I need you now 
to touch me with light 
again. 

-Tammy Boehm

Tammy Boehm

Tammy Boehm is a poet, novelist and short-story writer living on the “third coast,” a.k.a. western Michigan. She is passionate about writers, worship music, and probably needs an
intervention for her genealogy addiction. She’s been married since 1990 and has two grown sons (both married) and one grandchild who lives in the desert southwest.

Send Me

Who lit the match that burned the bush, leaping 
flames no extinguisher can catch 

Where did they go, driven out this time by 
fire. Be ever seeing but not 

perceiving. Do the words flatten or fly, 
their hands on the wheel to turn round, 

they think, they see what they want, their eyes closed 
to seed scattered on the path, then 

trampled. Seed strangled in the clutch of thorns.
Fields white, workers few, stalks smoking, 

daggered trunks, seed choking. Still, seed for birds,
Seed strewn on soil parched, pocked with rocks 

Sun scorched. Shallow roots from fleeing again
So, who can look at wings hiding 

feet and face flying and not think monster 
If a coal touched their lips, they’d burn 

Who would say Send me into blazing fire 

– Annelies Zijderveld

Annelies Zijderveld

Annelies Zijderveld is an Oakland-based writer whose poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ethel Zine, the Racket Reading Series Quarantine Journal, and Alexandria Quarterly. She is a contributing editor for Harpy Hybrid Review. She holds an MFA in poetry from New England College and a BA in Journalism from Southern Methodist University. Find her online at anneliesz.com.

Humility

I threw my father’s gold-filled pouch,
Proud in rage, upon the dust,
By the sandals of the stubborn priest,
Whose shabby, crumbling Umbrian church,

In praise of the sainted, silverless twin-
Physician to the Syrian poor-
I would, in time, and sweat repair
By hand, stone by beggared stone;

But first, emerging, on bare feet
I cross the bones around my cave
Tenderly, thus, escape my grave,
Past dainties foes would have me eat,

To disdain my tainted clothes for justice,
Stand naked before God and man,
Bereft of every vestment, chain,
Let and hindrance to true service;

Then to the Mount of the god of thieves,
To meditate, to find the words
For a sermon to my brethren birds
And courage to covenant with wolves.

Through the Sultan’s fire I pass
Unscathed, to witness to your truth,
I kiss the leper on his mouth 
And scold the sovereign for excess.

I never shrank from your command
But now must slip my enemies’ snare,
Escape alone, as David’s prayer
Slips from my bleeding hand.

October 3rd, 2020- 796 years later               

-Stephen Lang

Stephen Lang

Though from Scotland originally, Steve has travelled widely, especially in Africa, and currently lives in El Salvador with his family.  Steve’s poem, “Raphael” has been nominated by Ariel Chart for the 2020 Pushcart Prize. ‘Plum Tree Tavern’, Grand Little Things’, Oddball Magazine and ‘Indian Periodical’ have also published work from Steve’s new collection, Cuarentena, and poems have also been accepted for future publication at ‘Founder’s Favourites’ and ‘Bez & Co’.

Falling to Pieces

She saw another cell crash into loud oblivion
spoke of a filament fading to a shade of gray
sensed that any moment a roof might collapse.

She remembered words born from dust
burnt to floating ashes in mid-winter hours
and the frigid air of what is certain to come.

Quiet into the late hours of another dream
statue atop peaks lost in ghostly fogs
she may not take another step for fear of change.

Aware of the constant quakes below the oceans
it might be prudent for her to appear a fixture
for soon scars will deepen and reach to the core.

A mirror stands in the middle of her alcove
but she dares not let her reflection pose
the blue marble of her flesh more threatening. 

As if of the hand of Rodin her eyes in the dark
she ponders the weight of stone upon her breast
and the impending collapse of her futile matter.

Fabrice Poussin

Super Stars 

She was famous and she died
In a movie everyone tried to see.

He was an idol on a road to eternity
When he crashed onto the future.

Tabloids screamed names at the deli
And I stood in a daze before the M&M’s

Fabrice Poussin

Every Day at Dusk by Fabrice Poussin
Fear by Fabrice Poussin
Lady in White by Fabrice Poussin

Fabrice B. Poussin

Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.  

Choral Society

Douglas took my pause for breath as an invitation to stand up. I had to hold the rest of my sentence. I shot a glare in Corrin’s direction. The top of his head glistened oily and red. A drop of perspiration dangled off his fleshy jaw. He glared back at me.

D’andrée, on the other side of Corrin, as wiry as he was stout, allowed herself a sigh of exasperation. She had smeared her writing pad blue with lines from her pen. Her lips were so tightly pursed they had turned purple.

Douglas walked over to the credenza that took up the whole right wall of his office. It had a single hotplate on which rested a clear-glass pot of tea. A backlight filtered through a glass cylinder in the center of the pot. The swirling tealeaves looked as if they were alive in a miniature fish tank.

He took his time to prepare his mug–an industrial mug, the same color as an old factory machine–with milk and sugar, before he poured the tea into it. The delicacy with which he poured made the mug seem an almost sacrilegious vessel.

We kept our silence, so the only sound in the room was the simple click and swish of the milk, sugar and tea. Those sounds, even then, seemed strangely prescient.

As Douglas turned back to us, Corrin opened his mouth to get a jump on me. One glance from Douglas silenced him. D’andrée leaned back in her chair and smiled, until she saw me doing the same.

I knew what Corrin was going to say. My brain kept piling up responses like leaves in autumn. Of course we needed to account for audit regulations from the moment we chose our data structure. The cost in space was not an issue.

Douglas walked back to his desk. He sat down and leaned back in his tall leather chair, the mug between his hands at breast level. Its rising plume condensed in little drops on his chin.

His pose was straight from the movies, someone acting the role of a thoughtful executive, yet that cliché, so deliberately Douglas, allowed me to unclench my fists.

Why do I care? I asked myself. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t keep the old modification timestamps in the client record.

Another part of me responded: Yes, it is the end of the world.

Meanwhile Douglas placed his mug on his coaster, causing a sound somewhere between a thump and a click. The sound combined with the background hum of the office’s air-conditioning and the wet scrape of D’andrée’s pen to plunge me into a very strange vision.

I was no longer in the office. I was in the sanctuary of St Bartholomew’s on Regent and it was the previous Saturday. We were in a church because our usual community center hall was booked. We sat in the sanctuary’s choir stalls, two long rows, tenors and baritones facing sopranos and altos. Reverend Smalley stood to my left, between the altar and us. The same sounds had just happened.

“I apologize,” he was in the middle of saying, “for holding principle above compassion. Compassion should always come first.” Someone rustled in the choir stall. A pen scraped.

Once connected, the vision and the meeting moved forward together. I could not rewind to find out why Reverend Smalley had said what he had said. Douglas began to talk. Reverend Smalley tapped his conductor’s wand.

Douglas spoke with a lassitude approaching an American drawl, yet still in a cross-Atlantic accent. We all knew what he was about to do: he would recount his understanding of the problem, in his own glib way, and then propose a solution. We knew from experience we couldn’t break in, and especially we couldn’t try to fix any misconceptions he had developed.

I listened with only half an ear, as, in my vision, we were now singing most difficult section of Hubert’s “At round earth’s imagined corners”. I tapped my fingers together, out of sight, to remember where to breathe.

I could see clearly, in that double vision, how different the Coral Society environment was to this. Not that Reverend Smalley’s words couldn’t apply—I saw immediately I lacked the business equivalent of compassion for Corrin’s way of data structuring.

No. It was the “I apologize” part, spoken in Reverend Smalley’s cultured, peaceful voice. I didn’t have any way in this world to say “I apologize”, without Corrin taking it the wrong way. And by taking it the wrong way I meant stomping all over me in front of our CEO.

Douglas finished his formal recap and segued to his proposed solution. Corrin and I always found Douglas’s solutions amusing. They had a kind of simplicity born from his lack of appreciation for the boundaries of our world. They more often than not missed the point completely. But he was our CEO. So we practiced our ingenuity to fit our needs and practices into whatever strange tapestry he had created.

“So, Mallory,” Douglas said, when he had finished, “what’s your take on that little compromise?”

I paused and considered my words carefully. I wanted to get across the essence of Reverend Smalley’s attitude and have Corrin understand it.

“Your approach is legitimate,” I said. “Sometimes we have to consider things other than the principles of audit recovery. It wouldn’t be the best solution from my point of view to do what you’re suggesting”—although at that moment I couldn’t remember even vaguely what that was—“but I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to trace back mods when audit time rolls around.”

There. I had said what I felt was right and good. Corrin could disagree if he wanted to. He could miss my point. D’andrée could say what she wanted in the coffee room. But I had reconciled the two worlds.

DT Richards

DT Richards

DT Richards is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and programming. His Christian fiction has been published online on his own website dtrichards.wordpress.com, and included in magazines such as Heart of Flesh and Ancient Paths, as well as the upcoming anthology “This Present Former Glory”.

These Things Happen

It was years before I told anyone this story. Even then, I didn’t tell it because I was proud of it. I told it because I was slightly drunk. 

We were sitting around a campfire, passing around a three-dollar bottle of whiskey. I watched the flames slide along the dry wood, listening to the crackling of blackened limbs regressing into embers and coals. The wood burnt quickly, turning black almost as soon as it touched the flame. It made us wonder how long it had been since it rained.

Luke picked up a broken branch beside the fire. “Don’t burn that one,” I said. There was a beetle burrowed in the log, large and black. One whose exoskeleton shone like gunmetal. We had seen it when it was still daylight. Michael watched it dig itself in directly under the bark. I broke into the rotten wood with my pocket knife. We tried to pick it up by getting it to grasp onto a twig, but when we touched it, it made a noise like a far-off bird call. A tiny sounding scream. I was fairly sure the beetle was still inside, and I thought that somehow I would be able to hear it over the fire—I was worried it would scream when the heat reached the point of being unbearable, when the beetle felt its insides heat up and its exoskeleton crack with the pressure from its swelling body.

Luke looked at me like he knew it was the scream I was worried about, but like that was the only thing I was worried about. Hearing the tangible evocation of pain. Bringing pain out of the abstract and making it real, but not the life connected with it. That life seemed to be allowed to remain nonexistent—as if he had that power. Not allowing life to come into existence by merely refusing to acknowledge it. As if pain wasn’t something that was avoidable, but life was. Or maybe he thought the two were inseparably connected—each life, a tiny scream that may or may not be heard over the flames around it. 

The fire reflected off of Luke’s glasses, centered over the black of his pupils. The flames were repeated flawlessly in miniature in Luke’s eyes, and something about that made me think that I was right. That he thought life and pain were inseparable. He tossed a different log into the fire and the image was gone, the air swelling with light and cinders that turned to ash before they reached the ground.

I picked up the plastic bottle that was at my feet and took a drink, the harsh and cheap whiskey flowing down my throat. I tossed the bottle to Michael. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got arrested, Luke?”

He shook his head and held out his hand for the bottle.

“It was probably six years ago. Before I knew you. And I’m only telling you this because I know you won’t tell anybody.” Luke nodded. “I’m serious,” I said. I watched the fire glinting off his glasses long enough for his smile to drop away.

*******

We were blackout-drunk when we left the bar. Some of this I remember and some I’ve pieced together from what other people told me about that night. Some of this is pure guesswork. I’m not totally sure which parts are true and which are speculation anymore. I’ve gone over this night in my head thousands of times, and now it’s just all one thing—one disjointed detail after another. I’m surprised I remember any of it, honestly.

We were drunk and belligerent. We walked out of The Red Cow and up the stairs to the sidewalk. The Red Cow was a bar that was located beneath another restaurant—closed now. There were these square wooden columns scattered around the room that made the place feel cramped even when it wasn’t busy, but honestly, that was part of its allure. That cramped feeling combined with the ubiquitous haze of tobacco and underground location made it feel like an old jazz club sometimes. That night it felt like a basement.

We took our time going up the narrow stairs. James was in front of me with his arms outstretched, holding onto both handrails. I watched red paint chips fall from his large hands as they slid up the rails. James was tall and heavily built. His size and his short beard made him look older than me, even though we were only nineteen.

The late night air was full and humid—hard to breathe. The sidewalk was crooked with alcohol. We were trying our hardest not to look drunk.

It was a Tuesday, so the streets were mostly empty at this time of night. The red, white, and blue banners from last week’s parade were still hanging on the light poles, swaying in the warm breeze. Across the street, two guys started yelling. We turned to see what was going on and saw that they had stopped walking. They were looking directly at us and yelling. They looked about our age, maybe in their early twenties, but smaller than us. Scrawny.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying. James couldn’t either, but he didn’t care. He started yelling back. I found myself yelling, calling them over to tell us whatever they were saying to our faces. They crossed the street, screaming at us the whole time. The smaller of the two guys walked up to James and pushed him. The other guy came at me. I guess he hit me because the next thing I remember is getting up from the ground.

The guy that had pushed James was lying on the ground, and there was blood on his shirt. It spread slowly outward in a circle, painting a bull’s-eye on his white, collared shirt. James had a slight smile on his face that slipped into a pale and blank stare. His lips parted in the middle and his eyelids drooped down across his pupils. It looked like his last drink was catching up to him.

The guy that hit me was looking down at his friend. “He has alcohol poisoning,” he said. “We have to take him to the hospital.”

“I have alcohol poisoning,” his friend said. It sounded convincing coming from him. The blood shone wet in the yellow glow of the streetlight.

“Come on. Help me carry him. He has alcohol poisoning.” The more they said it, the more sense it made. We had to get him to the hospital because he had alcohol poisoning. I reached down and put his arm over my shoulder. Luke picked up his other arm, and his friend picked up his legs. My shoulder was warm and damp.

He was light. We carried him a couple blocks to the nearest house. His friend set his legs down while he knocked on the door, leaving him standing, supported between me and James. It was probably three in the morning at this point, so it was a while before we got an answer. The friend kept knocking, alternately beating the heavy wood of the front door and ringing the doorbell. A middle-age woman in a nightgown answered the door.

3 a.m. and she opens her door to three drunk guys holding up another drunk guy bleeding from the chest. That must have been the last thing she was expecting.

“We need to get him to the hospital. Call an ambulance,” the friend said. She must have called the cops too, because they showed up first. They put the three of us in handcuffs and drove us to the police station. James and the guy who punched me were in one car, and I was in the back of another. I didn’t see either of them again for the rest of the night.

The holding cell was small and dirty and had a toilet in the corner. I laid down and dozed for a while, trying to sleep off some of the booze. I thought they might be more lenient on an underage drinking charge if I were at least close to sober by the time they talked to me again. But I was still very drunk when they woke me up.

They took me to an interrogation room. I sat there for a while, staring at the cup of water in front of me. I didn’t see how they needed to question me for underage drinking. I thought they were trying to make an example of me or something.

A cop walked in. “How did you know George Conley?”

“Who?”

“George Conley, the kid who’s dead.”

“What?” I looked at him blankly. They were just screwing with me. They knew I was still drunk and just wanted to scare me. “I don’t know any dead kid.”

He pulled a picture out of a folder and set it down in front of me. “You don’t know him? You were with him three hours ago. Tell me you don’t know him!”

“I don’t know him. That jerk picked a fight with me and James.”

“Well, that jerk is dead and your buddy James is going to prison for murder.” I started laughing, thinking how ridiculous it was to try to scare me like this.

The cop walked out and left me alone. I stared ahead at the blank walls until he came back. “You’re being charged for accessory to murder.” Something in his tone this time made me worried that he was serious. He was.

He told me that James had stabbed George Conley in the chest and that the knife had hit his heart. He told me that carrying George was the worst thing we could have done for him and that he was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

He wanted me to testify—to sign a statement saying that I had seen James stab him. He told me they would drop the charges of accessory to murder if I signed it. They put me back in the holding cell for a couple hours, letting me think it over.

A man was sitting on the toilet in the corner, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He watched me as I walked in and started talking to me. I didn’t look at him. When I tried I just ended up looking at the jeans around his ankles and the dingy white underwear inside.

He stood and pulled his pants up, walking towards me. He continued talking, telling me that he was being charged with robbery. “You look young. What are you in for?”

I told him what had happened earlier that night, and he started laughing. 

“Boy,” he said, “you’re going to prison. Even I don’t believe you!”

*******

A grasshopper bigger than my thumb jumped out of the darkness and into the fire pit. He shoved his head into the white ash and tried to dig in, but stopped moving. I was quiet as I watched the grasshopper’s belly swell with the heat, wondering if it would pop.

“So what happened?” Luke asked.

“Oh, well, when they took me back to the interrogation room, I told them I didn’t see James stab him, and I wasn’t going to lie about it. Anyway, they eventually let me go, and James only got five to seven months in prison. But it turns out this guy that got stabbed was some politician’s kid. The family could have pushed for a longer sentence, but they knew their son was kind of wild and he was known to start fights. So, even they thought it was an accident or that it was probably their son’s fault to some extent. James basically got charged with a misdemeanor for murdering this guy.

“But still, that guy died. And it’s one of those things you think about afterwards and wonder if you could have prevented it. Like, what if we hadn’t carried him? Maybe he wouldn’t have died if we hadn’t carried him. But I don’t know. You can’t think about that too much. I mean, he had a lot of alcohol in his system so he was bleeding out pretty quickly anyway. There probably wasn’t anything we could do about it…I don’t know. I guess these things just happen sometimes.” 

The fire was dying down. I picked up the rotten log beside the fire and set it on the embers. It lit quickly, and I watched the flames surround the log. I looked for where I had cut away the bark amidst the flame and asked Michael to pass me the whiskey. I listened to the fire, waiting, hearing nothing.

-C.A. McKenzie

J.R.R. Tolkien vs. Flannery O’Connor- Escapism in Fiction (Craft)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Suppose you were to take out a notebook and a pen and list off the best Christ-following authors you could think of from the 20th Century. 
Chances are, the names “J.R.R. Tolkien” and “Flannery O’Connor” would both be listed on Page One.

But despite their larger-than-life status as novelists and forerunners of Christian thought, both authors had a decidedly different take on the creative life. Consider, for example, the following two quotations, which represent almost diametrically opposed truths about writing:

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” -J.R.R. Tolkien


I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” -Flannery O’Connor

So what gives? How is it that Tolkien advocates for escapism in writing and O’Connor denounces it? Which is correct, artistically speaking? Which is the right mindset, spiritually?

The answer, of course, is nuanced. 

Let’s start with the artistry aspect. It helps to look at the distinction in writing styles between Tolkien and O’Connor. It’s hard to imagine two writers so entirely unalike: Tolkien, the Oxford-educated, high-fantasy-obsessed polyglot, was famous for his epic and elaborate tomes. O’Connor, on the other hand, was Southern Gothic through and through, and her most famous works were short stories that explored the grisly reality of human nature.

Is at any wonder that their fiction reflected their views on craft? 

Since both writers contrast so drastically, it’s a more useful question to ask whether they succeeded in their particular aims. Luckily, the answer to this question is much easier to answer: it is a resounding yes. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor have received much critical acclaim and popularity. Their works have stood the test of time, and serve as insightful literature that speaks to the human condition. Undoubtedly, both were–and are, successful. 

The two took drastically different artistic approaches, but both shared common themes: unexpected grace, (compare Tolkien’s concept of the “eucatastrophe” and the character “Bevel” in “The River,) the duality of humankind (consider Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,”) redemption of a deeply flawed individual (think of “Boromir” and “Gollum” in The Lord of the Rings and “the Grandmother” and “the Misfit” in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)

These shared themes that run throughout the corpus of work these two literary heavyweights are not a happy accident. They can be traced back to the same source: they were both profoundly impacted by their love for Christ and their Catholic faith. So while they took two contradictory approaches to the creative life, the similarities that bound them were significant enough and elucidated well enough to make them both correct.

Perhaps a final quotation can best illustrate this point. C.S. Lewis, who famously disliked T.S. Eliot’s poetry, acknowledged that the two served the same God. As such, he said about Eliot: “I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison, trivial.” 

May we all take such a mature view.

Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

A Taxonomy of Tired Tropes

If life imitates art, we’d do well to be careful what we put on our canvases.

Yet, at times, every artist is guilty of being a bit slapdash or lazy in their approach to their craft. How often do you find yourself groaning at a trite “truism” while reading a poem? Or rolling your eyes when an overused trope is rolled out again in a novel you’re reading?

To be truly exceptional, we must learn to write as writers and edit as readers. This means eliminating the tiresome, worn-down shortcuts we’ve taken in our writing process.

As a cautionary exercise, I think it would be fun to maintain a list of platitudes, thematic cliches, and tropes that are over-used. Some examples might include the following:

– Writing scenes in which a character looks at her reflection in the mirror and pores over every detail of her appearance. This is often used as a shortcut to having to deftly work in physical descriptions. Cut it out.
-“The moon” used ad nauseum in poetry
-A man who is denied justice by the usual channels, so he starts taking vengeance into his own hands.
-A nerdy, girl-next-door type gets a makeover and becomes irresistible to her crush.
-A former criminal tries to walk the straight and narrow, but is reluctantly dragged back into “one last big job.”

What examples do you have to add? Any scenario irk you in particular?

I leave you with the following quotation from the poet Gérard de Nerval: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.

Book Recommendation: Sithrah

A huge “thank you” to Kingdom Art, for recommending an absorbing, smart, gorgeously-designed graphic novel called “Sithrah.”

“Sithrah” is about a 7-year-old girl who is involved in a plane crash while on vacation with her father. The crash has a domino-effect, plunging her into a enigmatic adventure where she encounters a rebellious anti-hero named Dino and spirits who are bent on deterring her from finding her father. Along the way, she’s helped out by a mysterious spirit guide called a “Sithrah.”

From the get-go, the plot of this story is engaging. There are deep spiritual truths embedded throughout the graphic novel, but the message never feels heavy-handed or sanctimonious. The narrative arc is snappy and the world-building is phenomenal. Each page is imbued with breathtaking, vivid scenes which are expertly drawn and colored.

It’s no surprise that this graphic novel was met with critical acclaim. The author is Jason Brubaker, who formerly worked for Dreamworks Animation. He quit that job in order to create “Sithrah.”

You can read the entirety of “Sithrah” for FREE here.

With that said, you should absolutely purchase the physical copies of this piece of art. The first three “books” are available on Amazon (just search “Sithrah,”) and his fourth installment is currently receiving funding on Kickstarter here. He’s already reached his funding goal, and the estimated release date is October 2018.

To see more of Jason Brubaker’s work, check out his website Coffee Table Comics.

I greatly appreciate Kingdom Art for the wonderful recommendation. Check out the Kingdom Art site to see some pretty amazing artwork. (Commissions are currently open, too!)

Profanity and Clichés: Perhaps They’re Cousins

In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle shares a thought-provoking anecdote about a lecture she once gave at a university. In her discourse, she discussed the perils of American consumerism. At one point, L’Engle, who was a committed Christ-follower, planned to state sharply that consumerism has “screwed us over.”

Upon delivery of the sentence, however, L’Engle didn’t get the response she expected. She tells us in her book that no one appeared particularly surprised or moved that she had used what was (in her mind) a pretty crass and blunt way of communicating.

The word was commonplace. It’d lost all meaning and fell flat.

And in my opinion, this is the true crux of the problem we confront as writers, choosing whether to insert a four-letter word or fall back on the hackneyed statements such as “muttered profanities under her breath” or “yelled obscenities unworthy of print here.”

Poets and novelists, of all people, should understand that language wears out. Sentences have a shelf-life. If sentimental statements are used too often, they run the risk of becoming saccharine. And if a cliché is overly sweet, it’s sure to spoil, regardless of the truth it reflected, initially.

In the same way, “bad words” decay over time. We’ve all met individuals that have used “the F-word” as every known part-of-speech. What’s worse is when such words become disfluencies, taking the place of filler words such as “uh,” “um,” and “er.”

The net effect of both these examples is a devaluing of language. Writers and orators fall back on old chestnuts, platitudes, and thoughtless cuss words.  Perhaps, in some way, clichés and curse words are kin, both indicating an abuse of language.

If you’ve ever heard a friend whose language was typically very reserved and conservative utter a “curse word,” you’ve probably noticed you go on high alert. Likely, the hair on the back of your neck stood on end as you asked yourself what could’ve affected this person so deeply that caused them to reach for such a potent word.

It’s my belief that as a writer, we should treat unsavory language in a similar way. We ought not to abuse language. Cuss words, at worst, are profane, low-class, and utterly meaningless. But utilized intentionally in the mouths of our characters, these words can serve a purpose—illuminating a character’s inner turmoil or most heartfelt convictions.

Christ-followers would do well to remember that “risqué words” are even present within Scripture. From Saul calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” to the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon to Paul’s use of the Greek word “Σκύβαλον,” (which translates closely to “the s-word,” Source. ) it seems that the Lord didn’t shy away from strong language to prompt an emotional response in readers.

So how do we reconcile this truth with the fact that in James 3:10, we read, “Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.” (HCSB.)

The nucleus of the question comes down to motives. In the context of James letter, he’s admonishing us as believers to not curse fellow humans. Similarly, as writers, we ought to look toward the reasoning behind our own inclusion of such words. Are we attempting shock-value without redemptive purpose? Are we seeking to glorify God through the story arc and development of a particular character?

We worship a God who refuses to white-wash. He does not sentimentalize or use padded language to euphemize the wrongdoings of humans. In Scripture, he didn’t tend to edit or censor the stories of wayward people. Rather, he transformed their souls. With the Lord’s help, may our writing do the same.

Misquoting Augustine

Once, in my college years, a couple friends and I grew tired of the mush they served in our cafeteria and we headed to Krispy Kreme Donuts. It was a golden October day, and we wove through traffic while listening to music with the windows down.

As we drove along, a song came through the car’s stereo that called into question whether God exists or whether He is good. I’d expect to hear a song like this among friends who aren’t disciples of Christ, but on this particular friend’s playlist? I knew that she was a Christ-follower.

“Hey, what’s with this song?” I asked. “It’s pretty dark.”

“Oh, yeah.” She was a little defensive. “It’s a little negative. But it’s how the singer feels, and it’s honest. You know what they say, ‘all truth is God’s truth.’”

This is a prevailing rallying cry for many artists who profess to be Christ-followers. It sure sounds right. If it’s an honest feeling…how can you discard it? Aren’t we as disciples of Jesus supposed to be enamored with genuine, truth-telling art?

It’s worth looking into the origins of the catch-phrase “all truth is God’s truth.”

The popular expression is actually a modernization of a line from St. Augustine. In his treatise, “On Christian Doctrine,” Augustine writes: “Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”

“All truth belongs to God.” It’s a pithy little maxim, and undoubtedly true. But many who hold on to this gem from Augustine tragically miss the context in which he wrote. Indeed, it’s conceivable that many people who use Augustine’s quotation don’t even know that it was him who said it.

Perhaps the most vital statement came in the second half of Augustine’s sentence:

…and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition, and let him grieve over and avoid men who, ‘when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’

Augustine understood that all truth belongs to God. But while deftly invoking the book of Romans, he also pinpointed a common error we can fall into, lest we’re discerning: If we focus wholly on fragmented “truths” without getting around to glorifying God, we’re only exercising our own pride.

So how does that play out in the actual creation of art?

I think as artists who are followers of Christ, we have two great responsibilities: 1.) to glorify God through our craft, by carefully directing others to Christ and not ourselves, and 2.) ensuring the presentation of such a message is artful, beautiful, and meaningful. The latter responsibility is a difficult one, and of paramount significance. But make no mistake, these responsibilities are numbered in order of importance.

In my opinion, falling short of these responsibilities can take on two different forms, both equally dangerous: Some artists lead others astray through their art (a sin of commission) and some artists fail to glorify the Lord through their art (a sin of omission.)

When writers, musicians, or artists dwell on thoughts or philosophies that are not glorifying to God, they commit a grave mistake. I believe this was the case in the instance of the band that was playing through the speakers in my friend’s car. The lyricist who penned that song would do well to remember what became of Job’s friends, who urged him to “curse God and die,” because they thought the Lord was not benevolent.

A good methodology for determining what content we should include in our art is Philippians 4:8, which reads “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (HCSB)

It’s pretty easy to rule out things that aren’t true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable. But the good news is that the things that these attributes do encompass are limitless. Does your 500-page epic sci-fi novel address topics of justice? Put it on paper. Does your painting showcase the pure creativity the Lord has endowed you with? Then paint it. Is your sestina, which reflects on an aspect of human nature, lovely and commendable? Write it down.

If we create something beautiful, but fail to direct others towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ, we’re only giving them part of the truth. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Half the truth is often a great lie.”

Unfortunately, this plays out in the music industry time and again. If a “Christian band” achieves mainstream success, their lyrics are often called into question. Any oblique references to Christ or the gospel seem to be quickly abandoned.

Many musicians stated that they don’t prefer to use the “Christian band” moniker, because they feel it excludes certain audiences, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that belief. However, if artists are unwilling to mention the Lord in their lyrics, interviews, or personal interactions with fans, they are likely not using their music as a vehicle for ministry.

Christ-honoring art needs to contain both compelling, well-crafted, beautiful messages, and point others, in some way, to the glory of God. With the Lord’s help, may we tell the whole truth–God’s truth–through the art we create.