A Syllabus of Our Virtues

Give me some space
for my thoughts to be
right or wrong
give me some time
to know what I’ve chosen
you call me sister
but I can’t breathe
you’re too close to my process
your morality is secondhand
and airtight with artifice
and I can’t move too well
in this tiny space
you have permitted for me
to ask questions
well I have some that might
make you uncomfortable

like do you care about the truth
or just the parts that fit
the narrative you’ve constructed,
like do you feel weak
sometimes, and grateful
for being little
and not having all the answers,
like do you ever wonder if you
were capable of a greater love
just removing the labels
and finding strength
in the contradictions

like can you maybe hold off
on talks about heaven and hell
for one hot minute
to recognize the gray sky
is streaked with the blood
of rogue realities
and the freezing rain knows
the taste of all our sins

you call me your sister
but all your songs are so
perfectly sung there are no
riffs for me to call my own,
for me to become truly human
so you can forgive me
instead of judge me
for what I’ve done

Pilgrim for a Day

I left you in Michigan
in the doting hush of tree shadows,
the network of U-turns along 8 Mile
and what’s left of the songs
after we’ve sung the parts that we know.

I left you in the wake of a shared dream
as shades of beckoning green
shuffled awake
to sounds of passed torches
flames igniting more flames
clad in uniform with billowing sleeves
fortified with tears of testimony
home-cooked meals
and homegrown faith
in full bloom
clink of glasses and sterling silver
laughter at roadside overlooking
some nondescript mountain
carved now with stories
of lost mothers and
found sons
and a search that never ends
like blood between generations
and an abstract path to salvation
as tangible as a sleepless night
paved with anointed verses
and a verdant culture where
we have pitched our tents
to light up the darkness
with our unwavering voices.

I left you in Michigan
with the footsteps my truth
has been shedding since my arrival
like torn feathers, except more sacred
so eager to leave my mark
so willing to give my heart
to the road that keeps unraveling
even as we sleep.

* * *
For Sis. Toni Rose Valenzuela
Sterling Heights / Detroit / Grand Rapids, MI

The Sun Rises on Rapid City, 4/22

The problem is,
you only find a path
to shoot down the sun
at postmortem,

when the coliseum
is empty and the flourishes
of ego have been archived,
the dust you disturbed
swept away.

It’s not such
an incomplete thing,
If you have replaced
one grain of certainty
with a pause,
a question for another day,
isn’t that power,
even if it means
you’re wrong?

Here, you show them
the line where the mud
meets the sandstone;
moving the mountain
is another story.
Possessing the truth
is an illusion, a summit
that leans against
the ever-shifting light.
The climb is everything
you’ll ever own.

You are where you’re going,
all the lies you’ve survived.

There is still a place
for you at the table
where it adds up,
all the missing gold
that’s been recovered
when before there was
only desperate searching.

Scholar of Metaphors Curating Scripture

No, that’s not my heart
you’re looking at.

I’d hate to be the voice you mistake
for the hand leading you down
the path towards the enduring light,
nor have my words, papery thin
and its evocative colors held
precariously in place by your mind
to have to bear the weight
of breaking your heart
so the Holy Spirit could come in
and lay claim to the pieces

I’d be the last person to call
this cage a fraud, this elaborate
dream seamlessly mimicking life,
which I have paneled with mirrors
to conjure the infinite

you have shown me your favorite knives
and walked around in my presence
wearing on your sleeve the winds
that might carry you away
most easily; I am only giving you
what you told me you wanted,
singing you the songs
I know you prefer to hear.

I’ve bent the daydream so you
might see it better, your image
with the imperfections removed, and
somebody else’s put in their place.
Your stories, in splendid disguise.
Your darkness, framed
so as to do away with your guilt
of going onstage unfinished.
Your autonomous divinity, softened
by language and deliberately
inaccurate brushstrokes
in order to be familiar
without becoming offensive.
All but tricks of the trade.

It is my gift, and it came
from the selfsame womb of knowing
as your blazing certainties and
the quiet glow of your gospels.
But if I showed you the workings
behind the miracle you would
cry blasphemy and accuse me
of betrayal. And if I explained
to you why I did it, you might
recognize the knife that you
showed me when we first met,
and you’d hate that I have
cut the truth with it more
skillfully than you ever could.

So I feign defenselessness, and
deny all intimacy with the mystery

but please,
your tear-stained prayers
are too good for my pages.
You’d shame the nakedness of my name,
saying salvation in the same breath.
That is your heart, not mine,
that you’ve been looking at.
And the grace I’ve received
is not for you to understand.

Broken Alabaster

They keep trying to sell me the virtues
of making it through life unscathed
as if we weren’t put here to make mistakes
and find beauty in the loopholes
I don’t really have the heart to say
it’s too late for me, for all their warnings
and I guess they won’t really care
to hear the stories I brought back
from the unknown they so fear
so I just try to not make them uncomfortable
or wear my tarnishedness too obviously
when i sit across the aisle from
the majestic temples of their
many weighted sacrifices,
their compact psalms,
I keep my perfume bottled up
and hush the effervescence of my song
before they accuse me of speaking in tongues
when all I want to do is find someone
I could pass on the taste of raw truth to

His Many-Tiered Mercy

When you say you are imperfect, you mean
that you may have uttered some unkind words
to one you have promised to love. You mean
you may have once or twice slept past the hour
when you should have been breathing life to
an act of devotion, using your hands to heal, or
build bridges, or uphold the holy. You mean you
may have allowed yourself to be overtaken by
your humanness over the long haul of your
journey to heaven.

When I say I am imperfect, I mean that I have
been damaged, marked. I mean that I have
spiraled down and reached dirty rock bottom.
I mean that I have been in contact with the
serpent and have engaged with its charmed
tongue until I could recreate with artistry the
intricate scale patterns of temptation and hang
it up so I could gaze at its dark beauty. I mean
that I have used my flesh and the flesh of
others to satisfy longings, curiosities, egos and
addictions. I mean that I have stained sheets,
insecure walls and a tainted soul. I mean that
I have struggled with questions dangerous
enough to take your peace hostage while
holding a serrated blade against the throat of
your convictions. I mean that I have consorted
with the sinful and broken bread with the infidels,
that I have gotten drunk with them, on life, on
alternative truths, on the elixirs of broken rules.
I mean that I have danced with storms, over
graves, and with strangers. I mean that I have
lain my faith down on places where blights of
doubt grew rampant and some of the shadows
are more graceful than the light. I mean that I
have been intimate with forbidden fire, and
understand it enough not to fear it.

I really tried to step into your circle of comfort,
the grand chandelier room for the virtuous who
have passed the test, burnished with fervor and
rallied by goals trained since birth to lift and
harmonize. But I can’t find my voice. I found
some familiar words in your language but none
of my meanings. All my hard work in putting my
pieces back together is dwarfed by your success
in remaining intact.

And the day I get tired of pretending it may look
to you like I’m slipping. But in my heart it will feel
like I’m soaring.

The Flawed Disciple

And I guess I was never your guardian,
your sister but not your keeper.
I was just someone who’s been here
a little longer,
with demons of my own making,
demons that I prayed so hard
would never come to torment you,
demons I held at bay every time
I came in contact with you,
to shelter you,
so you could see in me
the beacon of illumination
that I was supposed to be.
You never knew it, but that
was one of my proudest parts.
Distancing myself from things
that made me ugly inside
so you could have someone
to look up to.
It seems self-defeating now,
burying all my guilty acts
like illicit treasures instead
of purging them, or at least
making peace with them
and holding them leashed
and subservient at my side.
I denied them with all my will,
just so I could stand in front of you
in that white uniform,
make the place I occupied
worthy of aspiration.
But I was never your guardian.
I was just someone whose path
ran the same way as yours
for a while. Just a coincidence,
really, that it was the better part
of your childhood.
It gave me the reason
to want to make better choices,
hold on to fiercer ideals, knowing
you were walking right next to me,
knowing you were watching
everything I did.
We touched spirits a few times,
my leathery, bullet-riddled one
put to shame by the pristine,
pliable one of yours.
But you never knew,
and that was what mattered.
As far as you could tell, I never faltered.
The walls of my house weren’t
papered with the dark, monstrous
patterns of my many failures.
I showed you instead what great things
faith and faithfulness could do.
And in your future that I believed in
more than mine, believed
more worth saving than mine,
I conjured a choir of angels who sang
louder than my demons seethed.
Maybe you saved me.
By being young, by being there.
And my adamant resolve
to never hurt you.
I was never your guardian.
The outcome of your own journey
was never in my hands.
And when life’s undertow ultimately
pulled you and me to different
shores as we knew it would,
and you found other company,
they didn’t take you from me.
Didn’t overtake me.
Didn’t undermine my influence.
Didn’t rob me of my life’s work when
they started showing you how to do
the very things I shielded you from.
Didn’t poison you.
Didn’t spoil you for me, or for anyone.
Didn’t derail the future I thought
I had secured for you.
This is your path, the life
of your choosing.
Your own innocence
to spend as you see fit.
Your own demons to create,
to live with, to fight.
Your own guilt
from the depths of which to pull
the antithesis of your own redemption.
I have done nothing for you.
I can do nothing for you.
I was never your guardian.