2012 Curator Emily Ruth Hazel responds to the theme of "Water" from Isaiah 55:1-13 in this poem.
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7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD , and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 ¶ For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD . 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: 11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. 12 For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
“Word of Mouth” is a spoken word piece that echoes and expands upon the words of the Old Testament poet-prophet Isaiah, remixing with a contemporary spin the language and themes in the book of Isaiah. I focused primarily on Chapter 55, a passage that brims over with an exuberant sense of hope and possibility as well as an intimate sense of reassurance. Countering the scarcity mentality that is so contagious today, this passage reads as an invitation to engage with God and to live full lives that aren’t defined by our pasts or by our human limitations.
Responding to this in poetic form, my aim was to reimagine how that invitation might translate in contemporary images and colloquial language, and how it could be filtered through the lens of the American cultural context to be understood in fresh ways. I wanted to capture the experiences of everyday people working in a tough economic climate. And I wanted to convey a sense of God coming alongside us—recognizing the contributions of those who may be undervalued, acknowledging the struggles we face, and affirming that change is possible, that we can live with a sense of trust and abundance regardless of our circumstances.
While my work as a poet is often closely tied to my personal experiences as an individual, one of my goals with this piece was to explore a wider range of perspectives—including but also reaching beyond my own—to reflect our shared human experience. At the same time, I tried to envision God’s perspective on relationships with people. The creative risk in writing a piece that would essentially put words in God’s mouth felt weighty at times, as did deciding how to translate the tone, but I enjoyed the challenge of pushing past some of the traditional assumptions about God’s interactions with and attitude toward people. I wrote this piece with the hope that listeners would be able to find at least a part of themselves in it. Yet it is also a reflection of the speaker: as a person’s character is revealed through his or her own words, this is meant to be heard as a series of verbal paintings, a collective portrait of a surprisingly approachable, deeply relational, and radically generous God.
Following the themes of Isaiah 55, I have kept the imagery of different forms of water flowing throughout the piece—although I have incorporated many other images as well. Water speaks of refreshment and restoration, which tie into the themes of thirst and hunger (physical, emotional, and spiritual) and transformation of landscapes (both natural and internal).
The process of writing this piece was a little bit like reupholstering a chair: trying to preserve the beautiful, old frame (i.e., the essential concepts in Isaiah and the feeling of the language in certain places) but also taking some liberties in updating it with a contemporary color and pattern. I didn’t want the fabric of the new piece to completely clash with the preexisting parts. My hope is that the infusion of the new may encourage more people to sit in these words awhile and to appreciate the continuing relevance of the original text.
“Word of Mouth” was inspired primarily by Isaiah 55, but Ms. Hazel also drew from other passages in the Old Testament with similar themes.
Primary Passage: *Isaiah 55:1-13
Other Passages Incorporated: 2 Chronicles 7:13-15 Hosea 6:1-4 Isaiah 29:13 *Isaiah 41:17-20 Jeremiah 29:12-14
[Words and phrases were borrowed from a few different versions of the passage: the New International Version, New King James version, and The Message, (contemporary paraphrase, in colloquial language).]
Emily Ruth Hazel is a poet, writer, and cross-pollinator who is passionate about diversifying the audience for poetry and giving voice to people who have been marginalized. Selected as the Honorary Poet for the 25th Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading in Providence, Rhode Island, she presented a commissioned tribute to the Poet Laureate of Harlem in February of 2020. She is a two-time recipient of national Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for a residency at The Hambidge Center in 2014. Her chapbook, Body & Soul (Finishing Line Press, 2005), was a New Women’s Voices finalist. Emily’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, literary journals, and digital projects, including Kinfolks: A Journal of Black Expression and Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature. Her poetry has also been featured on music albums, in a hair salon art installation, and in a science museum exhibition.
Emily has written more than twenty commissioned works for organizations, arts productions, social justice projects, and private clients. Currently, she is developing several poetry book manuscripts and writing lyrics for an original musical inspired by the life of the extraordinary singer and Civil Rights icon Marian Anderson. A graduate of Oberlin College’s Creative Writing Program and a former New Yorker, she is now based in the Los Angeles area.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Pitts-Wiley