Poet John Fry explores the intersection of prophecy, the crucifixion of Christ, and the suffering present in current events within this stunning, visceral set of poems reflecting on Obadiah 1:2-4,10-18.
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2 Behold, I have made thee small among the heathen: thou art greatly despised. 3 The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? 4 Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.
10 For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever. 11 In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that the strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them. 12 But thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother in the day that he became a stranger; neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress. 13 Thou shouldest not have entered into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; yea, thou shouldest not have looked on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor have laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity; 14 neither shouldest thou have stood in the crossway, to cut off those of his that did escape; neither shouldest thou have delivered up those of his that did remain in the day of distress.
The Exalting of Israel
15 For the day of the Lordis near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head. 16 For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the heathen drink continually; yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down, and they shall be as though they had not been. 17 But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions. 18 And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the Lord hath spoken it.
Artist Statement | Frontera Ofrenda
About Obadiah we know little beyond what scholars can conjecture from the text of Obadiah’s book. The shortest of all the prophetic books in the Hebrew scriptures at 21 lines of verse, the words of Obadiah’s vision nevertheless thrums with the same intensity that readers/listeners of the books of Isaiah or Jeremiah call “prophetic.” The long poem I’ve written in response to—and in dialogue with—these verses from Obadiah’s vision attempts to recreate the intensity of that prophetic voice speaking to our nation’s fraught sociopolitical here and now.
I write this from the central Hill Country of the state that has more detention centers where immigrants of all ages crossing the nation’s southern border in search of asylum are being held than there are stars on our national flag. 184 such facilities as of this July, though the number may have increased since then. Some of these detention centers are operated by ICE in county jails, among other places, across the state. The detention centers that concern this long poem, however, are ones where not only adults but children have been detained—ranging in age from infancy to seventeen years—often after being separated from their parents or adult family members in ways more than dubious at best. And continue to be detained apart from adult family members who, we now know, have in some cases been deported back to their countries of origin. And, even after a judicial intervention, the federal government has struggled to rectify the humanitarian crisis it manufactured. The children who’ve been separated from their parents— thereby becoming “unaccompanied minors” according to the law—do not know where their family members are. The desperate adults, still in detention or now deported, likewise often don’t know where their children are. As of this Fall, 13,000 minors are still being held in detention centers (a number inclusive of those who entered the US unaccompanied and those who’ve been separated from their families).
What makes a prophet(ess) speak the way they do? What alchemy coalesces inside a person to produce what we recognize as the proverbial voice crying out in or from the wilderness? A prophet is someone who brings urgent but unpleasant news to their community. Unwelcome because a prophet speaks truth to the power of a community’s center from the edges of its margins. Disliked because truth often tastes more bitter than sweet. So much so that the Bible repeatedly recounts the kinds of violence telling the truth—in biblical terms, speaking with the authority of God’s own voice—invites. Jeremiah finds himself thrown into a pit by the very people to whom the Lord sends him to witness. John the Baptist loses his head. Prophets are not, of course, perfect and are subject to their own foibles. But to speak prophetic truth, the biblical exemplars make clear, requires a willingness to court potential personal disaster. (Who among us\ wouldn’t—at least for a moment—be as reluctant as Jonah?) Prophets know this. And prophets speak the truth anyway.
If you’ve followed the news in any medium this year, you already know some facet of the story of asylum-seeking immigrant families being separated at the border. You may also know that detaining children and adult immigrants has become a billion-dollar industry for the companies who receive the lucrative government contracts to do it (some of whom also run for-profit prisons). Two such agencies running such centers detaining children in Texas are Southwest Key and BCFS. Southwest Key is a national nonprofit with its headquarters in Austin whose mission is “opening doors to opportunity so individuals can achieve their dreams.” How detaining children separated from their parents opens doors stymies my faculties, and they have other programs in addition to the numerous “shelters” with rhetorically disingenuous names like “Casa Nueva Esperanza”—that’s House of New Hope—where these children have been (are being) kept. BCFS, which stands for Baptist Child and Family Services, is a Texas-based “global network of non-profit organizations operating health and human services programs” that aims to “meet the needs of at-risk populations.” Neither nonprofit pays its bills solely on the basis of this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe but, to be clear, they nevertheless financially benefit from the federal government’s logistical disasters.
I’ve always been struck (and, secretly, pleased) by the contiguity between prophecy and poetry. And, more generally, that so many of our world’s sacred scriptures also happen to be poems, although there’s nothing happenstance about this. (Of course I’d say this, being a poet myself.) The hymns to the Sumerian Inanna written by her priestess Enheduanna, who’s incidentally the earliest known poet by name in recorded history.The Dhammapada. The thousand plus hymns of of the Rigveda Samhita and the Bhagavad Gita. The Blessingway ceremony of the Diné. Maria Sabina’s healing chants. Poetry’s proximity to prophecy, like its origin in song, is as ancient as it’s storied. By no means am I unique in finding this coincidence—that’s anything but—endlessly inspiring, but it’s an autobiographical given that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, especially those that are also poems, are wells of water for this poet preacher’s son that never run dry. They also never fail to provide provocations.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Texas has routinely been described as an “invasion” by conservative pundits and politicians. As of the 2010 census, 38.2% of the state’s total population was of Latinx ancestry. Research suggests that, by 2020-2022, the majority of Texas residents will be Latinx and, as is the case now, primarily Mexican American. In certain parts of Texas, Latinx people dramatically outnumber Anglos, although those in municipal, county, state, and federal positions of leadership and power do not necessarily reflect these demographics. West Texas in and surrounding El Paso; all of the communities running the length of the Río Bravo/Rio Grande from Del Rio to Laredo; South Texas, by which I mean everything from San Antonio southward and eastward to the coast, including the Rio Grande Valley or El Valle. To those who haven’t traveled in these parts of Texas, including those who’re Texans themselves from elsewhere, any one of these areas may seem more “Mexican” than “Texan,” where the latter means white by another name. In any one of these areas of Texas, the likelihood of Spanish or one of its derivatives being the vernacular increases the closer to the border you are.
In her cantankerous and achingly beautiful love letter to American poetry that she calls a vigil, the late C.D. Wright describes her restlessly various aesthetic sense as “a way to vocalize, perform, act out, address the commonly felt crises of my time.” In book after book, she does exactly this. She also writes: “[t]hese are spiritual exercises.” So too was writing this poem for me both an attempt to find a language adequately electric and capable of delivering readers a shock of recognition—even if one of outrage or offense. It was also an exercise in searching for a form sturdy enough to contain the depth of my grief and anger over my country’s inhumane practices that was still supple enough to sing. A stereotypically brief lyric freezing an instant of time in place while flirting with eternity wouldn’t suffice. It needed to be long enough to gesture toward the catalog and capable of gaining intensity through accretion. Something approaching the series, sequence, or serial—but not, given the exigency of time, something going on without end (even though such a litany could). As I read and reread the book of Obadiah like a good monastic engaged in lectio divina and wondered where on earth, heaven, or hell I was supposed to begin, I remembered an observation of the poet Charles Wright that distilled what I aimed for when composing a poetic line for years: “Each line should be a station of the cross.” Once I began thinking about using the Catholic practice of walking the stations of the cross as a poetic structure, I knew its symbolic weight would be able to carry the theological and, yes, political argument of what I felt but had yet to find the words for.
This borderland area of Tejas/Texas, “la frontera” as the Tejana Gloria Anzaldúa theorizes it, is my home even though I currently write several hours north of it. Being a United Methodist preacher’s kid meant my family moved all over the state. And although I was born in Kentucky while my father finished seminary, I have lived in Texas all my life save for a four-year college sojourn in North Carolina. My parents moved to Alice, Texas, when I was roughly six months old, a small town about an hour from Corpus Christi. After childhood and early adolescence in central and west Texas, I graduated from high school in Kingsville, Texas, a half hour or so away from Alice and about an hour from Corpus Christi. Prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, these places and everything south of the Nueces River was México. Kingsville, the seat of Kleberg County and the vast King Ranch, also lies half an hour north of a major Border Patrol checkpoint not far from Sarita, Texas, along the I-77 corridor into and out of El Valle. Depending on traffic, Kingsville sits 2 hours and 9 minutes from Matamoros, the sister city of Brownsville. I’d argue it’s the most underappreciated and unknown area of the state. A landscape crisscrossed by languages and the histories of multiple countries and the inevitable violence of geopolitics and racism. Contrary to popular (see under: overridingly Anglo) opinion, South Tejas vibrates with art, music, and life like the bougainvillea that flourishes there. Nevertheless, it remains a liminal space between both countries with all the blessings and banes you’d expect, and this is one reason why Anzaldúa calls it “una herida abierta,” an open wound.
How then, poetically speaking, to try to craft a voice that might be a “throat of these hours,” as Muriel Rukeyser puts it? I read and reread a lot. The poetry of Latinx poets also from Tejas whose voices keep me honest like Anzaldúa, Emmy Pérez, ire’ne lara silva, and mónica teresa ortiz. Long poems and sequences by Rich, Rukeyser, Carolyn Forché, and C.D. Wright. And, for the first time in my writing life as a poet, I found myself combing through news article after article for the frequently elusive facts related to these detention centers. And, to the extent that this poem documents reality, it was important to be as accurate as possible. As I began to draft using each station as an anchor, I quickly realized several things. Conventional punctuation, the kind that parses syntax into easily digestible units, wouldn’t suffice. Perhaps with Charles Wright’s observation in the back of my head, I found myself composing where individual lines (longer than I usually write) stood as stanzas in and of themselves while the lack of punctuation caused them to enjamb with the frenetic rush of what a prophet talking might sound like. The Obadiah of the poem is an admittedly anachronistic fiction of poetic license on my part, a slippery “I” who addresses the “you” of the poem, which is simultaneously singular and plural. Equally objectionable, perhaps, is the allegorical way the poem responds to the book of Obadiah itself. Being a poet instead of a scholar of biblical hermeneutics, I felt completely justified in interpreting Obadiah in a way some might call eisegetical instead of exegetical. To those who might take issue with how the poem uses Obadiah and the Passion in the service of an allegorical argument, I would only point out, also being a scholar of medieval literature and culture, that no less than St. Thomas Aquinas believed that scripture signifies in more than a literal, or a historical, way. The longer I wrote, the more I realized that the actual stations of the cross in the poem weren’t the iconic moments leading up to and following the crucifixion. Rather, in the allegoresis the poem attempts, the detention centers were the real stations where—given that the crucifixion renders any divisions between American “us” and Latin American “them” irrelevant and illusory—the mystical Body of Christ is crucifying Christ again in time. In our here and now.
In the place I call home, and even more so south of where I’m from, you’re as likely to hear Spanish, Spanglish, and TexMex being spoken as often as English. Both languages sang in my ears as I formed my first words. Spanish is my second language and, even though I’m not quite a fluent speaker of it, does not feel like a “foreign” language to me at all. That is to say, Spanish sounds like home to me as much as English does. It is the first language of the man I love and am soon to marry, a first-generation Mexican American whose parents immigrated to the US from Monterrey, México, and the primary language we use when we spend time with his family. Because half of my family (given and chosen) are Mexican Americans because of my relationship with my beloved, to say nothing of the many Latinx women and men I’m lucky to call dear friends, I’m a gringo unusually sensitive to the linguistic imperialism still rife in Texas and in America more generally. The vilely racist and Mexiphobic rhetoric spouted on the campaign trail by our current president and after his election—and the degree to which it has enabled more of the same, in addition to an array of equally noxious rhetoric about other minority groups—offends me in the extreme because it aims to demonize many of the people I love, who I live beside, and with whom I align myself artistically, spiritually, and politically. This is why the Spanish quoted by Obadiah—the voices of Jeremiah, St. Teresa of Ávila and, most of all, Jesus of Nazareth—are neither italicized or, with one exception, translated into English. In this current political climate, it’s important to remind primarily or exclusively English-speaking readers that no one language has a monopoly on the sacred. And that words, as a kind of matter, matter. A recent case in point, of course, being the caravan of Central American asylum-seekers making their way through México that Trump, among others, calculatingly calls an “invasion” to justify deploying 5,200 active-duty troops to the border—crisis manufacturing, again. Conspiracy theories are spreading like kudzu vines about these beleaguered people and, to hear the most conservative media venues talk about it, you’d think every single one of them (grandmothers, mothers, fathers, children) are felons guilty of violent crimes. But these refugees currently making their way through México with the intent of seeking asylum in the United States are breaking no U.S. laws in doing so. Despite the fear-mongering of Trump & co., these migrants have every right to do so according to our laws.
In case it wasn’t already clear, this poem arises from my conviction that the crisis going on in Texas and other border states is unequivocally evil and, although undeniably complex in sociological terms, a crisis that has been unnecessarily compounded and worsened by our nation’s current administration. An evil, which a word I don’t use lightly, that flies directly in the face of the Christian commitments publicly and loudly espoused both by the majority of our elected officials and their constituents. I hope it reminds readers—especially those who identify themselves as Christians, and even more particularly white Christians—that scripture does not equivocate on how we should treat strangers, guests, and refugees. The Bible may speak in contradictory tongues about many things, but on this the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament are reassuringly clear. As St. Benedict writes in his rule, guests are to be welcomed as Christ. Not as if. But as. A paradox, to be sure, but is Christianity not all paradox at its heart? For me this, in the language of the liturgy, is the mystery of the faith that won’t let me go anymore than I’d ever call its grasp comfortable. Paradox, after all, is where I live. The reasons why that’s so appear throughout these notes. I’m a gay man who grew up in the mainstream Christianity of the 1980’s and 90’s that told me I was both beloved by God and hell-bound for my orientation. Was raised resolutely Protestant and am a recent Roman Catholic convert for reasons only my poems can explain. Am a white man who became artistically, politically, and sexually active in a place where I was in the racial minority who, because of all of the above, has chosen to align myself with Latinx Americans (and other persons of color and minorities of all kinds) to challenge the systematic racism and Christo-fascism that has never not riddled this country. And, gringo though I am, I wrote this to speak out and stand up (as a gringo) for the place and the people who, as Benjamin Alire Sáenz so beautifully puts it, “are my heart, my heart.” Like him, “I do not say that for rhetorical effect” about the border. It’s my hope that this offering humanizes and particularizes a place and persons that our national discourse too often effaces to the point of abstraction in the service of a talking point. And even if the poem scandalizes or offends, my intent, to the extent that intent matters, will have been realized.
Postscript: December 7, 2018 | Since drafting this statement that seemed hell-bent on becoming an essay from the beginning, the litany of border- and Latinx refugee-related outrages grows longer before the recording angel of this particular moment in the violent history of these Americas. Teargas, outlawed by the U.S. on the battlefield, has been used against Central American asylum-seekers attempting to enter from Tijuana including tender-age children. News stories have circulated revealing that the staff working at the infamous Tornillo detention facility had not been subjected to an FBI background checks, a decision made by the former director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. I write in the second week of Advent—only Lent do I love as much as—the liturgical season when Christians wait for God’s entrance into the wilds of embodiment in the form of Jesus of Nazareth born to the Virgin Mary. The Word made flesh. Light from light, reads the Nicene Creed in my missal, the light of the world coming into the world days after the winter solstice, the longest night of the solar year. And Christians, who collectively make up the body of Christ that the church is (for better and for worse), are waiting. Just as so many of us in the US are waiting for the American elected powers that be to recognize that the God in whom they profess belief became flesh in no Bethlehem inn room. In the least likely of circumstances for any divinity. And the easiest to overlook by anyone who forgets or misses the point that, as the medieval literature I study envisions it, Jesus was born in a humble manger. A Jewish child born to parents living under the oppression of Roman rule. Recently, I scrolled past a photograph on Facebook that stopped my index finger in its aimless tracking. The photo depicted a life-sized Nativity—Mary, Joseph, manger-laden Christ-child—set on a church lawn. To which the congregation had added chainlink fencing enclosing the Holy Family like every one of these recent families who’ve been placed behind the same. The families waiting at the authorized entry points at the mercy of every element. As the infant Jesus, however well-swaddled, was. I once wrote in a poem that “every city is Bethlehem on the solstice.” An ikon for this here and this now, the Holy Family detained (and potentially separated). And every refugee family, a holy—the Holy Family.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Forché, Carolyn. The Angel of History. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.
Langford, Terri and Jessica Hamel. “Interactive: Federal Children’s Shelters in Texas.” The Texas Tribune, June 24, 2014.
ortiz, mónica teresa. muted blood. Black Radish Books, 2018.
Pérez, Emmy. With the River on Our Face. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016.
Rich, Adrienne. An Atlas for the Difficult World. New York: Norton, 1991.
Rukeyser, Muriel. Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Elegies in Blue. El Paso: Cinco Punto Press, 2002.
silva, ire’ne lara. flesh to bone. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2013.
Southwest Key. www.swkey.org.
Walters, Edgar, Ryan Murphy, and Darla Cameron. “The number of migrant children in Texas shelters spikes again, reaching new high under Trump.” The Texas Tribune, October 18, 2018.
Wright, C.D. Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2005.
Wright, Charles. Half-Life: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-1987. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
Originally from South Texas, John Fry is the author of with the dogstar as my witness (Orison Books, 2018), which was a finalist for the Orison Poetry Prize, the Dorset Prize, and the Nightboat Poetry Prize. His poems and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in West Branch, Colorado Review, Blackbird, Waxwing, and Denver Quarterly, among others, and the anthologies Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute, 2016) and New Border Voices: An Anthology (Texas A&M UP, 2014). A graduate of Texas State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing, he’s currently a poetry editor for Newfound Journal and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s writing a dissertation on medieval English poetry, and an Assistant Program Coordinator in the University Writing Center. He lives in the Texas Hill Country.