Ash Wednesday Poem

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from American Rendering, by Andrew Hudgins

Ashes

My left hand joggled Johnny’s arm, and Johnny

— Jesus! —

Johnny dropped the coffee can

holding his sister.  The can

rolled jerkily,

the lid

spun off, and Sister Rachel spilled

across the black linoleum.

Did I mention we’d been drinking?  Everyone

stepped back,

then back again.

Who wants

to track a woman’s ashes on the floor

of a rented hall, then get home

slightly drunk,

pull of his dress shoes and find a residue

of fine dust

trapped in the polished leather creases,

especially if it’s dust

you know by name

and flirted with

ungracefully a time or two:

“Nice shoes.  I love those

strap sandals.”  Rachel Fuller.

A few

drunk mourners gasped, a few

more gigled,

and since I was the one who knocked her loose

I rooted in the kitchen,

found a broom,

but Johnny

wrestled the splayed broom from my hands

and slapped the heavy ash and particles

of crushed bone toward the can.

“Come on now, Rachel,”

he said, “you

wild woman you,” and weeping,

Johnny stabbed and swatted at the floor

until I found a paper towel,

wet it,

and mopped

the last fine dust.

But what next?

At home I left it on the dresser.  A month.

Three months.

“Throw that revolting thing away!”

my wife said.

Six months.

“Why are you keeping it?”

Rachel Fuller.  Old possibility.

A little loud.

Sharp.  Quick.

A little sexy.

But what do I know?  I met her at a party,

admired her taut,

tan calves,

but praised her shoes,

and thought

she might have been a little sorry

I couldn’t find the sly

next words to say.

Eight months her ashes challenged me to grieve.

But I kept waiting

and, as I knew it would,

the magic

leached away, the awe

withdrew,

and I disposed of it, her dust, as we do

almost all

the dead — even those

we loved,

loved utterly —

because they are sheer dust

and should be honored as the dust they are.

 

Ash Wednesday begins Lent with a solemn liturgy of the imposition of ashes at the altar rail of shared communion in mortality, which is also a shared communion in creation, marked by the ritual words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” echoing God’s words in Genesis 3:19.

And there are plenty of poems and plenty of poets of mortality.  The great English poet and priest John Donne, for example, installed his coffin in his family room instead of an Xbox, a Wii system, and a wide-screen TV.  Family togetherness meant gathering around the coffin and watching daddy lie down in his coffin, remembering mortality, or memento mori as Donne would have said in classical Latin.  The Anglican tradition has rich resources for Lent and mortality and ashes and dust to invoke and catechize and celebrate in liturgy and song.  And it all begins in ashes.  Ashes for mourning, ashes for casting in the air to settle on your head, ashes of Hiroshima and ashes of Auschwitz, ashes of St. Helens and ashes of Vesuvius,  ashes upon ashes of flesh and lives turned to ash.

Dust, though, isn’t exactly ash.  Dust is a much broader category that contains ash perhaps, but scoops up and scatters far further.  Dust is the ordinary stuff of the world, the garden, the amazing fecundity that gathers in the corner of your closet, under your desk, all around, ans insistent abundance of dust.  Ash is what’s left when life and stuff is destroyed, mere floating down limp fragile ash.

Dust instead is full of insistent possibility — it’s always invading the corners of our lives.  God’s Genesis statement of who we are as dust is a recollection of creation as well, and God’s breath riffling about in dust to see what happens.

It is the itchy frolic of ashes that Hudgins’ poem evokes.  There’s a relish of the ashes, of the dust, and there is life to remember, life to find evoked, life to wake up to yet in this dust and ashes that we are.  He doesn’t have an answer.  He just tells a story of the ashes of Rachel Fuller.  And in his poem he confesses more than once his failure to rise to the challenge to live and communicate lively with this Rachel now of ashes.  Rachel as ashes wakes him to more relish and appreciation of his life, however hilarious.

Ash Wednesday is full of hilarious possibilities, and they all happen every year.  Priests go about in white robes, which turn smudged soon enough, dipping thumbs into bowls of fine ash from last year’s Palm Sunday palms finely incinerated and blessed.  Ash inevitably goes tumbling down on noses and cheeks and clothes of the faithful as so trusting we come for the efficient imposition of ashes.  The liturgy itself, however, breaks open into more than smudges and tumbles of ashes all around.  The priests administering the smudged crosses of ashes on Ash Wednesday have next to celebrate pristine bread and wine, and so typically wash their fingers in lemon juice to get rid of the smell of ashes.

Isn’t that odd?  After a communion in the ashes of mortality the liturgical celebration of communion in Christ is lemon fresh with an incense of Febreeze?  Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

And in the falling we find a common place to take hands, to begin again beyond all forgiving or forgetting or air-freshener — sheer dust we are called into communion, dust more than ash.  John Donne in his coffin remembering death with his family as a spiritual exercise is more ash than dust.  In Genesis God does not call us “ashes”, the burnt and consumed and forgotten like the lost of Hiroshima, but rather the returning and gathering dust.  It is such a transformation that Hudgins poetically magics in his poem.  And that is the magic of the Gospel as well. Your ashes are transformed in God’s creation into dust, and are never left as ashes.

In ashes we repent who we are, and in dust God creates in us ever anew.  The ashes are the sorry repentings and refusings of you — the dust is God’s beginning resurrection and relish of you.  Dust is different from ashes.  And so are you.

 

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