A commentary on “At the Wall”

I’m in an exceptionally pompous mood.  And that’s saying a lot.  I not only worked my name into my blog title.  I also added the implication that I’m full of deep thoughts.  So be forewarned.

 here I posted a poem recently.  To be honest, it’s one I’m quite proud of.

Poetry is a funny thing.  People tend to be afraid of it.  Somebody has remarked that poetry is the only art form that seems to have more people making it than actually watching it.  (I think that person didn’t know about blogging.  Or atleast didn’t consider blogging an art.)

At any rate, because the creation of this poem is still fresh in my brain, and because I want to do what I can to spread my love of poetry, and because I’m pompous, I thought I’d run through what I was thinking and why I wrote it how I did.

Even I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that this is the only way to read and think about poetry.  But it is one way… so here goes.  (Before I begin a brief commercial message: Billy Collins’ Introduction to Poetry is a brief poem with some really staggering insights about how to read poetry.)

So for the remainder of this post I’ll put my poem in quotes.  After every few lines I’ll comment on them.

“They have gathered before this wall,

It was a nondescript wall.

In the art wing.”


In the first verse, w’s started popping up.  Especially at the end word of each line.  A 3 line verse gave the little snap shot I wanted to; and brief stanzas that have an odd number of lines give a sense of unsettledness, to me: I wanted to establish the idea that this was a place in transition, recently made strange.


“Half a world away

They are gathered by a wall”

One of the guiding ideas in this poem was juxtaposing the wailing wall in Jerusalem with the impromptu wall that was created at the school.  I wanted an easy way to discriminate between which wall they were reading about.  I settled on using italics and 2-line stanzas.  2 line stanzas feel more complete than 3 line stanzas, and on a pragmatic level, I needed these to be shorter because I simply have less to say about the wailing wall than I do the high school wall.  I was conscious of mantain the alliteration of the “w’s” through this stanza.  (I wouldn’t say that I was actuallty conscious of trying to continue it, but I was pleased when it occured.  I think I must subconsciously shoot for devices such as alliteration, sometimes.)


 “Now there is a piece of paper.

And an old coffee can

Into which a box of fresh, new markers was placed.”


The old coffee can and the new markers really struck me.  I think this is a return to the new/old; settled/unsettled contrast I’m setting up between the walls.


“There was God’s dwelling

And now it is all rubble except for this.”

I was clear that the first italicized stanza could leave some doubt in even informed readers minds.  I wanted to make it more clear, and I wanted to establish the sense of tragedy and loss: the wailing wall is all that remains of the second temple.  It’s a tragic thing.


“Squares and trapezoids of print

In the unlikely, bright colors

Have been blossoming on the page all day.”


The above verse might be my least favorite.  The actual paper was quite striking visually, all these bright, contrasting shapes on white.  I don’t know that I really caught how simply interesting it was to look at.


“Much is revieled by what it is you’d like to call this place:

Kotel;The  Wailing Wall; or Waqf Abu  Madiyans”

During my brief research in preperation for this poem I was struck by the fact that there are 2 english names, a Hebrew name, and an Arabic name for this place.  This struck me as fitting, almost symbolic, for the mutli-ethnic, confused nature of Israel itself.


“At the top,

In purple

It says “This is what we remember.” “


Much like stanza 2, I was clear that I hadn’t been fully clear about what the other wall was all about.  I figured this made it pretty clear it was a memorial to a student. 


“If they do not rend their garments they say

That which they have been told to say:”

I found that the assumption is that Jews will rend their garments at the ruins of the temple.  I was captivated by the saying, which occurs later, which they say if they choose not to rip their clothing.  In the verse above, I wanted to lay the ground work for this amazing piece of found poetry.


“They have gathered before this wall.

In groups of twos and threes and fours.

They are crying, some of them.”


The little community that the wall created was the catalyst for this poem.  I finally began describing it here.  I was going for an understated effect, here.  Knowing that the next verse wouyld be so flowerly and powerful.


“Our Holy Temple which was our glory,

 in which our forefathers praised You was burned…


Frustratingly, the whole saying did not fit into the 2 line stanza.  I decided to mantain the structure I’d set up and split the saying across a couple verses.


“They are holding

Each other and they are rubbing backs

And crying, some of them.”


I wanted to capture how affectionate and physcial but not sexual the kids were.  I also hadn’t really paid much attention to sound in several stanzas, and I wanted to emphasize the tears the kids shed, and so I echoes the idea that some were crying.  I also thought about the way it makes it clearly that I’m understating, to use that phrase “some of them” twice… in a way it’s like if you say “some” twice, you kind-of mean almost all of them.


“and all of our delights

 were destroyed.”


The good news about breaking the traditional saying up, and leaving just this little piece for the next stanza is that the small lines and small stanzas gives the words lots of emphasis and power.  I also liked that the end word of the 2 lines were heavy in the “d”s (A bit like the “w’s above.)


They are holding

Hands and leaning into each other

And looking up at the paper.





Some of them are crying and some of them with

Prayers, rolled up small and tight on scraps of paper

I knew at some point I wanted to begin to bring the narratives together.  Here, I create a few paralells.  Paper, and renewed echo that some of them are crying. 

They seem to know

An instinct, perhaps, a hidden signal.

When it is time.

I wanted to bring the American wall closer to the wailing wall by invoking the air of the sacred.  One of the things that works in this poem, I think the American narrative gets boring right when the Israeli one gets interesting, so I mantain some tension.


They place them in the cracks

Of what remains of the wall


Solemnly, ritualistically,

They approach the paper.

And they add whatever it is they had to add.

These last two stanzas just continue to bring the narratives together.


They walk away leaving there prayers behind them

Is there a symbolism here?


It is song lyrics for some of them.

It is a love letter for some of them.

It is a long, rambling attempt at constructing meaning.

Again, both of the above could have applied to either wall.


It is a long

Rambling attempt at constructing meaning.


Plattitude and sincerity

Rub elbows like the jock and the goth here

Rub elbows like the messages from those  who did and did not know her.

Though I lost generality above I wanted to focus on the idea that the American wall become larger than just the girl it was about.  There was an important distinction in the mourners, but both those who did and did not know her were there.  I also liked the musicality of “jock and goth” and “those who did and did not know her”


In my dreams I approached the wall.  I wrote:

 “Our Holy Temple, which was our glory,

was burned and all our delights were destroyed.”

I realized early on that the final stanza would be a union of the conciets I’d adopted for the different narratives: it’s 3 lines like the American narrative, but italicized like the Israeli narrative.  Ending it with that complete saying that I found so powerful seemed like the way to go.  I wonder if it’s clear that I treat  the girl who killed herself as a symbolic temple. 

Wow!  What a clunky, self-indulgent, ugly little beast this turned into.  Makes me thankful for the purity and ambiguity of poetry left unanalyzed.  


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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