“I’m convinced we are all rough drafts, walking around pretending to be leather bound first editions. It’s important for us to have space to discuss what we are becoming.”
Even in between Benjamin Reese’s poems, he speaks in imagery you can’t forget. This was one of my favorite lines from the recent Open Mic night, an evening dedicated to that very thing—discussion of the periods in between a rough draft and a final edition (which we may never become).
The evening opened with two students from the Institute for G.O.D. each discussing things they’ve learned across the street, and across the world, with both sincerity and hilarity (Josh Mohn’s standup had most of the audience crying tears of laughter).
We were then brought to contemplation through Cadle Edwards’ performance of two original poems and one “cover.” Her first poem asked the question: Why is the world so weird, that in the midst of a union between man and wife, the topic of discussion is the sacredness of pets? Then, in a poem by Phil Kaye called “Repetition”, what power do we have, to use words on repeat, until they mean nothing? The poem exposed the all-too-common meaninglessness of words, uncovering the pain behind words kids are forced to hear, like “separation” (that nice word that precedes divorce). The “trick” that a child learned in order to make it through a world without meaning begged the audience to sense the necessity of articulating words that are true, and not just cover-ups for a painful reality. Cadle ended with “I heard it in Alabama,” a poem she finished just minutes before taking the stage, about drinking in the lessons nature has to offer us. The thing she heard in 'bama was that the fall leaves’ colors are the most vibrant after the deepest droughts of summer, a reminder of the brilliance we all have the potential to bear, even when in need.
Then came the night’s featured poets: Patriq James and Benjamin Reese. Though diverse in style, they both did the very thing Cadle spoke about: filled the room with color, even when dealing with issues that Patriq admitted were quite dark.
Patriq combined his own journey of learning that “darkness is not dark to God,” (Ps. 139:12) into several soul-shaking poems that spoke of the darkness of our world, with a climatic ‘pop’ that startled the audience into remembrance of the many black men and women whose lives matter to God, but not to the world around them. His poems were a confirmation of the line of the Psalm--because darkness is not dark to God, we don’t have to be afraid of going there with him. Darkness is as light to him, the Psalm says, and by bringing up our experience to him, we allow him to draw near to us, even in suffering.
Finally, Benjamin Reese capped the night off with several poems including the theme of the table—an unintentionally recurrent theme that reflects Ben’s desire to dwell in longer moments with other rough drafts in life. The expectation of a speedy answer to a question asked while walking (“how are you?”) does not work well on Ben, who is keenly aware of the tangled messiness that resides below the surface. We all need to take to the table then, enjoy a drink, and sit awhile, until the true mess comes out, which we should welcome with acceptance and mercy.
Similarly to the other artists of the night, Reese’s poems drew on the need for this, not by casting a picture of idyllic beauty, but instead quite the opposite--by showcasing a situation without anything commendable, convincing you that you never want to live there. His last poem of the night was indeed a sad ending. A young man travels to a friends home, hoping to sit at the table with him and others to discuss life and enjoy one another. Instead, he arrives to a dark house to find the table is filled with bills and no company awaiting him. He retreats to the basement, where he undresses and sleeps, alone. No one wants that story. But maybe we are all so tired from pretending we are on the bestseller list, that we forget that a new day awaits us, and so does a table.
Ben finds the table, in honest words that let you know it didn’t just happen in poetry, but in real life too. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” a friend told Ben, in one of his satirical poems highlighting how great life would be alone, secluded from others. In another, we meet a mother crying every time her grown son boards a plane that will take him far away from her. These are the moments where life is truly lived, where pages are scribbled, where heirlooms are uncovered, where leaves are the most colorful you’ve ever seen them.
As Patriq shared, God is not afraid of the darkness, even that which exists in the human soul. He is waiting at the table after everyone else has ventured to bed. To join him there, as we did this particular evening, is a gift.