During church this morning, in the Story for All Ages, the minister retold the parable of the prodigal son, and I found myself sympathizing wholeheartedly with the brother who refuses to participate in the celebration, pointing out to his father [paraphrasing], I have done everything you asked of me, every day, and even tried to anticipate what was needed before you asked for it. Where is the feast for me? And Jack Gilbert’s The Abnormal Is Not Courage — a poem that knocked me off my feet when I was a teenager, to the extent that I copied it out by hand and sent it to friends, came to mind: “I say courage is not the abnormal. / Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…”
The older I get, the more I end up arguing with Gilbert’s postulates and conclusions throughout his oeuvre, to the extent that five years ago I drafted a poem about dumping a drink over his head. But on less irritable days I am capable of being captivated by texts I don’t fundamentally agree with (readers of my other journals may recognize this in my repeat visits to Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and C. H. Sisson’s “A Letter to John Donne”). I disagree with “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” because it casts a false mutual exclusivity between the burst of bravery and domestic drudgery. As much as I identify with Martha rather than Mary, the cook instead of the countess, yadda yadda etcetera, the either/or angle doesn’t work for me: whether it’s a one-time stand or a stoic stretch of endurance, call it courage if it propeled the person into harm’s way or out of their comfort zone. I’ll allow that there may be better words than “courage” for assessing and elaborating on such acts, but that is also a reflection of where I seem to be headed both artistically and theologically: a general preference for discussing and examining things in terms of what they are rather than what they are not.
In that vein, “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” remains a touchstone poem for me because I’ve known it for almost thirty years, because it does steer the reader/listener toward those things of many days and long accomplishment. and because thinking about it in tandem with this morning’s services may be the kick in the pants I needed to rework the Pittsburgh poem and the Martha poem and draft some new ones on related themes. This morning’s sermon presented a bounty of springboards. Rev. Gail mentioned that she had planned the service with a worship associate, Rachel Rogers, who had read the parable from Luke (15:11-32) as a story about three kinds of courage: the courage of the prodigal, first in claiming his inheritance for adventure and later in admitting that he had screwed up; the courage of the older brother, in showing vulnerability by voicing his anger and hurt; and the courage of the father, both in welcoming the prodigal back into the family and in going out to the unhappy sibling — the courage of trying to keep connections alive. (The title of the sermon was “Loving without Limitation.”) Rev. Gail also spent some time describing her experience of reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son — about identifying with all the bystanders Rembrandt depicted in his painting. (She placed a copy of the book next to the pulpit, and there was a QR code linking to the painting in the order of service.)
Plenty to think about. Plenty to write about. As ever.