As we continue to move through the liturgical season of Lent, we are invited to confront our brokenness, our wildernesses both internal and external, and our ever-present need for resurrection. Here, Brittany Deininger, a first-year MA in Theology & Culture student, reflects on a poetry series engaging the seven deadly sins, which she was commissioned to compose for Lent. We are thrilled to feature two of those poems here, “A General Theory of Memory” and “Vice: A Waltz.”
As a poet, I find the intersections between theology and art to be utterly delicious. This Lent, I was commissioned by Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma to write a poem for each of the seven deadly sins to be read as part of their Lenten series. Seven poems in six weeks. I did not grow up in a liturgical tradition, and the seven deadly sins and heavenly virtues were an occasion for me to research and reflect on the nature of sin and how we approach the tension within us. The words of Cornel West come to mind as he says in his book, Black Prophetic Fire, “We’re all shot through with contradictions.” What is at stake in the conversation about the nature of sin? Why does it matter? As far as I can tell, how we perceive what ails us, the way we define the human condition, greatly impacts how we perceive the antidote and apparatus of our healing. How we define this pairing of problem and solution impacts our relationship to self, other, and the world.
As I began to think of Lent as a time of reflection and repentance, I turned to the wisdom of the blues to inform me, because if any art resides at the center of the human condition it is music and poetry. James H. Cone, in his book The Spirituals and the Blues, says, “The blues are a lived experience, an encounter with the contradictions of American society but a refusal to be conquered by it. They are despair only in the sense that there is no attempt to cover up reality…But there is also hope in what Richard Wright calls the ‘endemic capacity to live.’ This hope provided the strength to survive, and also an openness to the intensity of life’s pains without being destroyed by them.” The way Cone describes the blues, for me, points to the tension of Lent: the singing of sorrow, the naming of reality, can be the language and affirmation of an authentic hope.
The call of poetry, like the blues, is to express being and reflect reality without covering it up and without being destroyed by it. Poetry begins by attending to the beauty and suffering mixed in the human spirit and holds together the polarities of life and death. In the coming weeks, poetically reflecting the human condition through the lens of the seven deadly sins is not a task I take lightly. Through the writing process I have come to think of this Lenten time of repentance not as a wallowing in our brokenness, but an account of the human condition without covering over reality. As people of faith, we let suffering speak. We deal with the darkness. But we do not stop there. We are not conquered, destroyed, or unnamed by the darkness. As the affirmation of faith from the Iona Community in Scotland reminds us, “We affirm God’s goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.” Yes, Lent is a forty-day wilderness walk, but it is not a wandering. Lent is a walk toward Easter, new life, and redemption.
Below are two of the poems from the Seven Deadly Sins series representing gluttony and lust.
A General Theory of Memory
We’ve come out of the open country
hot and hungry, ready to trade
birthrights for bowls
of salted soup.
We take a big bite and choke
on the fish bones, those curved
needles that hold together
the pluck and guts of the deep.
To be human is to forget.
Can you feel the slipping:
passwords, phone numbers,
returning shirts to their hangers?
From the temporal lobe slips the
memory of enough. We forget
how to linger with the one
ripe peach, how to give thanks
all the way down
to the pit and not devour the bushel.
To be human is to need,
which is another way of saying
that our bodies are a thin
thread that ties us together:
the one at the table, the one with no
fresh apples, the one who picks the lettuce.
Becoming human is the discipline
of remembrance, that reach
for an old fullness, a whisper of
what we were made for in this world.
Vice: A Waltz
I’m going to give it to you straight,
no pomegranates or palms. No bees.
No birds. No rooftop baths.
Love needs a language,
but it garbles in the mouth.
Vice interrupts us, mid-
sentence, which is to say that it comes
like death, which is to say that it happens
to all of us.
They say there are seven sins that are deadly,
but what they don’t tell you is that
there are a hundred ways to die before you die.
When night comes, tapping at the glass
are flocks of moths with their grey
moth feet. They come sliding
out of the black and bounce off the
dining room windows like col legno
notes that mean “to strike” in Italian.
Inside, I put another log in the open
mouth of the fire, its tongues
swirl, perspire, devour.
Outside, the night eyes of the timber
wolf meet mine through the trees.
Breath escapes his nostrils like smoke
from an inward fire. Meanwhile, I’m practicing
the discipline of letting my heart catch,
without the reach for cage or collar.
Look at us: moths and wolves
and the human heart, all
trying to figure out how
to trail beauty, how
to house desire
in the veiled expanse of the body.