Poetry review: Bob Hudson's Kiss the Earth When You Pray


I have a memory of Bob Hudson, a memory that at once prompts me to reflexively hike up my pants and turn my face toward Jerusalem (or Detroit), yet to do so with the knowledge that from beginning to end, the prophet’s journey must listen every bit as intently as one must speak the truth with absolute loving intensity. The memory is simple, an experience to anyone who has had pancakes and coffee after meeting for worship on the first day of the week.

It is one thing to observe a Friend sitting quietly, waiting to see what the Holy Ghost might instruct one to say aloud, ministering to all, speaking truths that above all must be interpreted before the truth of the ministry can be substantiated. Such courage to minister, ministry which exhibits a courage to change, can only be fueled by an intense listening. Intense listening. Don’t say it, but read it. Read it and listen. Listen. Wait for it. Listen. And then, ask questions. Listen again. The memory I connect to Bob Hudson is that even in a comfortable and relaxed family setting, Bob and his life-partner Shelly can withstand the prophetic intensity of boldness and radical faith, and have the courage to ask questions in the face of the driving anxiety of the Other.

I remember sitting with Bob and Shelly and sharing with them, tugging at them, pleading with them as they listened; about idolatry, the failures of the church, and the corrupted nature of the human spirit. What I saw in their eyes as I tried to convince them of the apostasy of the Church catholic is that they simply listened, and asked questions so they could listen more. Very soon, I recognized that Bob was not inclined to win discussions, justify his intellect, or provide evidence of spiritual wholeness that Fowler would immediately award Stage six accolades for.

He was certainly ready to listen to everything I had to say, and legitimize not my ideas, but my being. Bob’s attentiveness to the spirit within others is such as a lighthouse on Lake Michigan – a light that shines brightly and quietly enough so that others have that brief window to see within themselves. Bob Hudson’s recent collection of literary work, Kiss the Earth When You Pray, is evidence of who Bob is, and evidence that all I shared about his capacity and gift to listen makes him the sort of spirit that one longs for in every gathering or assembled body of faith. If you know Bob even a little, you have an image, an exacting and guiding image of Bob listening as you read his poetry.

Kiss the Earth begins with an anecdote about blues artist Blind Willie Johnson. While theologians and folks with a bit of time on their hands attempt to not just define what the human soul is, but to explain in detail what, why, and where it is, Johnson escapes the bondage of hubris. “It’s nothin’ but a burnin’ light.” From there Hudson moves forward with questions about this light. What is the language of this light? What is the language of the soul? He believes, he stresses, that whatever it is, the theologians and educated reasoners of the world may not see the trees through the forest. Hudson seems to suggest that there is no special discourse that the soul is bound to or limited to, but rather is one of those colloquial expressives that are universally comprehendible. The language of soul is an awareness of the self and of the Other. (2)

Since my own faith and reasoning (of sorts) generally has little time for questions of the soul and whether it is real or not, I am reticent to begin a book of poetry that drifts into my inner-self, entering through the eyes and twisting like a cigarette-smoke fog through those places that may indeed have extra space due exactly to my rejection of space-filling with soul possibilities. In the midst of my own rhythms of attentiveness to God’s revolution, Bob reminds me to listen as he has shown it is possible to do. It is something I must learn to do, because I witness in this writing a place I can sit with self, be self, and listen to others in order to know self. As I listen to Bob introduce his poetry with prose about the soul and his choice literarily embody soul through Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, I write my first notes in the margin. I listen to Bob, and I write. “If the soul exists,” I note, “its origins are in ascetics prior to its aesthetics.”

As I reread the note later, I recognize I am not listening, but rather, I am listening with an agenda. I begin Bob’s book by challenging the binary black on white signs with my own binaries of the mind, or, soul.” As I continue with Bob’s portrait of Father Zosima, I recognize a call to courage. The courage to listen with honesty about my own assumptions.

The poems begin, attended to by the service of sketches by Mark Steeres that allow for a pause between the rhythm of what is written for the rhythm of contemplation – a break that reminds us not to fly through the poet as the crow goes, but to stroll, pausing to enjoy, consider, and listen. Bob wants us to stroll, but first, before the inaugural step of this journey is taken, we must “let the soul wander” through pine forests that naturally lack walls but contain “a thousand thousand doors.” (6)

Listen.

Wait.

Be led.

“Father, I’m scared…

what if there is no God?

“I said, ‘Listen—even then…

there will still be a God.’”

Courage.

To reject domesticating the divine:

“Some prayers are like snares…

“No, you cannot bring down

The Holy One with prayer

“He is not caught in your traps.

Listen—you yourself are the hunted.” (12)

Honesty.

Hudson invites us to listen to the Other with honesty. The Other insists he knows you from a time and place that you have never known. Not ever. You insist to the stranger you are not the person he thinks you are. He finally accepts your denials, and indicates it’s best for you, in any case.

“Lucky for you, for the man

I’m thinking of was a very great fool.”

“ ‘Oh…’ I said and began

To wonder if he might be right.” (17)

My only notation on page seventeen was a quickly inked exclamation point. I wonder if I am beginning to listen without agenda. I wonder not what to listen for, but just to listen while I read. Bob is inviting me to read and listen, to listen to know myself, as authentically as the poem on the page asks of me with the same wit I myself reserve for audiences I have given up on. Hudson will not, however, give up on anyone. It is not in his being, it is not reflective of his God.

Listen.

Hudson writes that word so consistently. Listen.

Listen to the language of

Love.

Gratitude.

Transcendence.

“On Ancient Prayers” (21) I am immediately reminded of the words of Jesus. Do pray repetitively. Hudson puts it differently, more constructively, with some nuance that reminds us that the rituals of the past are not without their meaning – a difficult notion for a Quaker to accept.

“You cannot make bread without kneading the dough.

You must fold it and fold it

And fold it again

“But only when you set it aside

Can it be transformed into something else.”

“Listen”—writes Hudson. Over and again. It come to mind – the poet invites me into relationship—and—action. To listen is necessary but not enough. As I turn through the leaves of his work, I recognize that listening requires interpretation. Not to answer back, but to experience the discovery of soul, and the soul is the fuel, I now think, of embodiment. Interpret and then listen again, this time to that inward light that is authentic self. Hudson, who exhibits authenticity in person and in his writing, provides the reader with access to the kind of poltergeist of an archeologist that mines the self to liberate the soul. To interpret gainfully, to allow for the mining of origins of self, is to be self aware. The soul can be liberated in all of or in spite of its potential non-existence. Certainly, poetry and the poet are evidence that the exploration of self must continue.

Exploring the audacity of vision.

Of Pride and Prayer.

Of Resentment.

“What the hell kind of poet wins medals?” asks the abbot.

Hudson writes of fear. (36)

And puts vocation into perspective. (41)

“The stone-deaf old gentleman

Stands ready to light the fireworks.

“A sky filled with lights

and no sound, no sound.

And then again, just listen. Listen for

“the voice of One Who Hears.” (44)

On Mystery… (46)

“Thinking only gets you

so far. The coyote is quick

“yes, but ahs she ever

seen a shooting star?”

A notation is scratched by my hand driven by perplexed impulse. “Do I interpret this?”

Pilgrimage.

Perspective.

Meditation.

A place to yield, warned by a word. Two. Gerund. Followed by state of what?

“Growing Old.” (60)

In the end is “Dying.”

No.

“This is not Dying. This

is the soul lying flat like a flood

“and spreading itself evenly

over the world in a dream.” (62)

And my final scribble in the margins.

Waiting.

Listening.

Kiss the Earth When You Pray

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