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I pause today to honor the memory of Anya Krugovoy Silver, an extremely gifted poet and an incredible woman of faith, who died on Monday. She was only 49, much too young. I only ever got to see her at the Festival of Faith and Writing—where we all loved having her both as an attendee and as a presenter—but she was such a person of radiance that each interchange I got to have with her was filled with great delight. I will miss her incandescence.
Indeed, at the last Festival this past April, one of her sessions was discussing joy with several other poets. I think it is one of the key themes of her poetry—despite, or perhaps because, of her diagnosis fourteen years ago while pregnant with her son, Noah, of inflammatory breast cancer, one of the rarest of cancers with a bleak 5 year survival rate. But it was not a cavalier joy—it was one rooted in an honesty and a truthtelling and an examination of every hard thing. In one interview she put it this way: “I think all of life is woven together and separating the strands is impossible, so I’m comfortable talking about those [hard] things and still being a happy person.” She includes an epigraph from George Herbert in her second collection of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God: Poems, that could be a credo:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.
–George Herbert, “Bitter-Sweet”
That balance–sour and sweet, lament and love–shows up brilliantly in all her words, right down to her self-description as a “metastatic breast cancer thriver.” The co-existence of cancer and pregnancy, motherhood and mortality, an all-loving God with the relentless trauma of illness and loss. She explained how she navigated:
My first faith response to my [diagnosis] was intense anger at God. Of course, this is the old question of theodicy. Why would God allow me to become pregnant and then a mother only to curse me with a terminal disease. Or, as poet Jacqueline Osherow writes in her poem “Villanelle: Tikkun Olam: “Should I ask the obvious? Why would God/create a world requiring repair?/And what was He thinking when He called it good?”
I had not been attending church in the few years before my pregnancy, but I now found the need for answers to existential questions that religion brings. The first service that I attended was a baptism. I watched as joyful mothers carried their babies up and down the aisles of the church. Meanwhile, I stood there, bald and afraid for my life. The triumphant tone of the service left me bitter and lonely, and I ran out of the sanctuary and into the bathroom. There, praying for God’s presence, I felt a warm presence enfolding and comforting me. And so, rather than in the pews, I felt God’s healing on the floor of the church bathroom. And really, that’s not surprising, because that’s probably where Jesus would be, wandering the halls of the church, looking for those who, for whatever reason, exclude themselves from the ritual, and lovingly bring them back in.
My experience with mothering, therefore, has always been closely linked to the knowledge that I will die. What will happen to my son when I die? Will he be happy again? Will he believe?
Here’s what I’ve learned: God is with me. God is not just watching from above. God will not decide whether I live or die by how often I pray. God is with me the most when I am at my most lonely and afraid. God will be there for my son. When I call for help, I feel God’s presence in calm and peace. As God tells the reader in Isaiah 45: 7 (KJV): “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” I interpret these enigmatic words not to mean that God literally created and gave me my cancer, but that God is in all things, both the light and darkness, the peace and the evil. Where evil exists, God does not absent God-self.
Three simple words: God is there.
“Three simple words: God is there.” A breathtaking statement of both challenge and comfort for me.
I’ve included below 8 poems so you can begin to understand why Anya was so widely published (4 books and numerous journals) and widely admired. A beloved professor at Mercer College, she was also chosen as the Georgia Author of the Year for Poetry in 2015. And just before this year’s Festival, she had been selected for a prestigious 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. We had a good laugh when I joked that I was going to follow her around the Festival with my best Oprah voice, intoning “Guggenheim Fellow Anya Silver”—but it was so very gratifying to see her talent recognized and rewarded.
I usually say more about the poems I feature, but today I leave you to discover them for yourselves–fierce, funny, faithful, forthright as they are. As Jill Baumgaertner, long-time poetry editor at Christian Century as well as faculty member and dean at Wheaton College, observed: “Anya Silver’s poems are as beautiful as her person. The world is so much richer for them and poorer for the loss of this extraordinary talent.”
The Festival ended this year in ice and snow—and many authors stranded in the Grand Rapids airport for hours on end. All of a sudden, I started getting notices on social media that some of the poets had taken over and were staging an impromptu reading on Concourse A. I particularly love the picture of Anya—her sheer exuberance, her pleasure in words so evident despite her exhaustion from a long conference, interminable delays, and illness. That’s the image of jubilant perseverance that stays with me to encourage me as we now travel on without her.
May those who love her experience the God who is there.
With profound gratitude for her life and work.
We will not see her like again. Rise in glory, dear Anya.
By Other Names
grief and triumph were one and perennial,
petals on the same rose,
or the same rose by other names.
When Rachel was dying, and too weak
any longer to sit up when visitors,
crying, came to say their last goodbyes,
she listened to her friend Deb’s prayers,
whispered over the hospital bed.
Then, suddenly, grabbing Deb’s arm,
Rachel lifted her head and prayed—
not for herself, but for her friend,
who was so shocked by this last proof
of goodness that she began to weep.
Then Rachel’s face settled again,
its petals sweeping back into place,
and she fell, once more, asleep,
while Christ walked toward her
holding his shears of pity and peace.
How comforting, the smudge on each forehead:
I’m not to be singled out after all.
From dust you came. To dust you will return.
My mastectomy, a memento mori,
prosthesis smooth as a polished skull.
I like the solidity of this prayer,
the ointment thumbed into my forehead,
my knees pressing hard on the velvet rail.
If God won’t give me His body to clutch,
I’ll grind this soot in my skin instead.
If it can’t hold the flame that burned my breast,
I’ll char my brow; I’ll blacken my pores; I’ll flaunt
with ash this flaw in His creation.
I stand in Walgreens while my mother sleeps.
The store is fluorescent and almost empty.
My father is ailing in a nursing home,
my friend is dying in the hospital.
What I want tonight is lipstick.
As pure a red as I can find—no coral
undertones, no rust or fawn. Just red.
Ignoring the salespeople, I untwist tubes
and scrawl each color on my wrist,
till the blue veins beneath my skin
disappear behind smeared bars. I select one.
Back in my mother’s apartment, silence.
I limn my lips back out of my wan face.
There they are again: smacky and wanting.
August evening, church bells,
light shattered on the quick
creek as in a Seurat painting,
grass thick with Queen Anne’s lace,
the summer sun still so late
in setting that bedtime comes late
to the children scattered in the garden.
Late summer, and the roses in second
bloom know what’s coming.
But for now, bells, water, laughter,
my mother and I walking together
arm in arm, because happiness
is a decision each of us has made,
without even discussing it.
Psalm 137 for Noah
Come darling, sit by my side and weep.
I have no lyre, no melodious voice or chant.
I meditate on the Zion I could never grant you.
My son, my roe deer, my rock-rent stream.
My honeysuckle, my salt, my golden spear.
Forgive me your birth in this strange land.
I wanted your infant kisses, your fists clasped
round my neck. I craved you, though you were born
in the wake of my illness, my dim prognosis.
I was selfish: I willed you this woe, this world.
You inherited exile for my sake.
Holy, holy, holy
How to love the Trinity, its vagueness,
non-sense, God talking to God on the cross?
Theological geometry, stumper of metaphor,
God humbled to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Only when I heard that voice singing Our songs
shall rise to thee did I feel a welling of love
that, at best, visits me occasionally in prayer,
indwelling and expanding within me.
Yes, God, the darkness hideth thee.
Too often as I sit in the pews, nothing
happens. Or worse, Nothing happens,
doubt a scrim over every word I pray,
a tepid mutter of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But that hymn’s falsetto, surrender, the not-
knowingness of it—Lord, though I can not see,
I did hear a shimmer, some wick in me caught
fire, and fear, that liar, left me, momentarily,
free in the Holy, music, the blessed Trinity.
For S. S.
The way they shade from milky celadon
to indigo, the summer afternoon blue
of them, grounded tugged-down cumuli.
Their swaggery mob-cap profusion,
the generosity with which one or two
will fill a vase with hue and height.
For how they bundle in either sea-wind
or drought-prone suburban garden.
Both elegant and humble, armful
jumble of secret place, nesting ground,
lace-trimmed lingerie or vintage tulle.
Even the autumn hulls of them,
how easily they wither into tender beauty.
For all these reasons, I stand at the window
and watch my neighbor’s hydrangeas
in early June, full-flower moon blossom,
and forget if I’m child, breast-budding girl,
or middle-aged poet with thinning lips—
all of me living, sun-smacked and glad.
How to Hula Hoop
Love the ridiculous.
Fear not contortions of the body
nor the vibrations of failure.
Place the hoop on your waist
where your husband puts his hands.
Then gyrate like crazy.
There’s no single method:
make of your hips a swivel stool
and your pelvis a pendulum.
Some will spiral slowly,
letting the hoop rock and swing
like a carousel of pastel horses.
I, graceless, wildly whirl myself
from abdomen to knees.
Normally, the hoop tumbles
down my legs in a minute
or three—but occasionally,
it will stay and settle,
and I’ll sway like a cartoon snake
in a basket, lifting my arms
above my head, seductive Salome.
Or rather, a middle-aged woman
with her moments briefly balanced,
a car wheel going nowhere,
but in no special hurry to get there.