Monday, January 19, 2009

Three Poems and the Stories Behind Them, Starting with a Funeral

Dear friends,

I'd like to share three poems and the stories behind them. The first poem, "Over Utah in January," is mine. The others, "Saturday" and "The Thief on the Cross" are by Dan Christensen.

A year ago today, I attended the funeral of my grandmother Margaret Driggs in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had little idea what to expect, since I had never met any of the extended family via her second marriage. (My dad's stepfather, Dr. Howard R. Driggs, was much older than Grandma. He was born in the 1870s into a polygamous Mormon family with 22 children.) And all I could think of, as far as Utah terrain goes, were the salt flats we had driven through way back in 1976 on a family vacation. I was in for a surprise!

On the airplane, looking down over Colorado and Utah, my breath was taken away by the gorgeous snow covered mountains. I took out my journal and started writing, and my poem "Over Utah in January" was born.

Over Utah in January 
by Virginia Knowles

I am in the sky looking down on
Vast speechless stretches 
  of frozen white
Curved round and round by
Slicing crevices and streams
And human roads 
  abandoned though they be
Foothills then soaring 
  mountains beyond
Majestic tall yet distant small
From the sky where I look down

Clustering pines 
  (wilderness steeples)
Defer to barren ground below
Shedding to it cumbering, 
  nurturing snow

Upright spires green
Evergreen over branches, trunks, 
  rough and woody brown
Rooted deeply into ascending slope
Yet as living arrows aiming high
To the sky where I look down

Up and over mountain towers, fly
Peering through mottled fog outstretched

Amid earthy upturned layers, variegated ripples

Shadow clouds now upwisping 
  sharply angled peaks

Oh! These are of no human 
  construct or design
Not even marked by 
  footprints in pristine snow
Just fingerprints, signatures divine
Where winter earth meets winter sky

Yet in the valley 
  I see manly habitation
In patterned rows, casual curves beneath the mist
Nestled in yet beckoned 
  to a deep and high communion

Only bold ones venture 
  beyond certain fringes
Strive upward, breathe hard, 
  ascending steep, behold
Some faithful cannot climb 
  but still lift souls to see
To know and long to know

Others seem content merely to stroll 
   in evenness beneath, below
Oblivious to wonder
I am in the sky looking down
Then gazing up in awe at Him
Who gazes down in grace on me below
On me, who sees and longs to know

At the funeral home that Saturday, I noticed a fiftysomething man who stood out from the crowd, partly because he is very tall, and partly because, in the midst of Mormon clean cut hairstyles, he had a long braid and a beard. I thought, "Either he is in the wrong room, or he married into the family." I was wrong on both counts. He is actually my (step) second cousin Dan Christensen. We chatted only briefly then just before the service started. Later, at the lovely luncheon reception in the home of another cousin, I heard music in the parlor. I walked upstairs and found my brother John playing the piano while Dan sang Broadway music for a small group of relatives. Afterwards, I asked Dan, "You don't look like a typical Mormon. Are you still a part of the Latter-Day Saints Church?" He replied that he was, and talked to all of us for quite awhile about what it was like to be a non-typical Mormon, an artsy freethinking actor and musician. As I left later, I handed him my card and said, "You seem to be the creative deep thinking sort of person. I wrote a poem the other day that I think you will like, and I'll put it on my web site in a few days."

By the time I arrived back in Orlando the next day, there was a note in my e-mail inbox from Dan thanking me for our conversation, especially that I had made him think. Several days later, he wrote again to respond to my poem:

Some of the images of your poem have stayed with me these past few days. I love the pine trees as steeples. That is so original and yet it seems so obvious now that you've said it. I think I've seen trees metaphored as "spires" but a steeple is more approachable, more homely, closer to the humans who live on this desert floor. This line is brilliant: "Just fingerprints, signatures divine." Reading the first half, I immediately see the texture of snow as understood from the air. Simple enough (love the word "just" here!) for those who have observed the recurring patterns of nature. Okay, so it's like fingers pressed the snow to the mountains. But, wait a second. Whose . . . ? Who . . . ? But it's too late. The literary fuse is lit. Igniting our understanding... We're observing Creation. The Play of Gods! The next two words detonate the meaning--but not with a linear thought. There are multiple explosions here. Perhaps always there during previous millennia but, as we begin this new one, we have problems to solve regarding ID. We're taking fingerprints for signatures! You chose an old word that is also as immediate as today's trip to the bank. It's a momentary derailment. One can't quite read it as a sweeping cosmic phrase without a hiccup and becoming aware of his own body. The placing and lifting of a finger. These snow-covered mountains are not the works of an anonymous god! Then, as if to soothe the reader, allowing the previous line to sink in, you follow with a simple rhythm--but pleasing and interesting--like when one realizes two children are twins: "Where winter earth meets winter sky." Well, I've gone on and on. You can see why I didn't start sooner. Thank you for making so many beautiful images and sharing them. On the day of the funeral, you mentioned there would be a poem. You inspired me to think about writing. A couple of days later I wrote the following. I find it interesting that your poem looks down from the sky while mine barely leaves the ground. Tell me your impression.


by Dan Christensen

I didn't wear practical shoes
although I knew I could make do
walking on cleared concrete
or across frozen snowpack
on the hard, synthetic soles
of the ones I chose.

My cousin must have dressed with the same thought
because she took extra time to back her car around
and into the lane behind the hearse.
We were still parking while the pallbearers
carried the casket and unpinned pink carnations.

I stood on stone cold lawn probably
made bare by whoever set the folding chairs
(and covered them with green fake fur).
The grass sank a bit during the prayer;
I shifted my weight from foot to foot.

There was a long silence after the Amen.
Then I walked along an astro turf-covered plank
beside the open grave. I wanted to locate
names on stones: My great-uncle
(whose wife lay in state today),
and his son who died before I was born.
The son's wife whose funeral I missed
not many years ago and their son
who committed suicide. Margaret didn't place
a stone here for herself
before she died.

After lunch I discovered mud
on one of my shoes--
just a little, on the edge.


And so began an e-mail conversation that continues (rather sporadically) to this day. We have primarily talked about theology, logic, and poetry. I think it has been eye opening for both of us, since he comes from several generations of Mormon heritage and I am an evangelical Christian. One of the web sites I sent him to consider is

For several years, Dan has written essays and poems for the quarterly anthology "sine cera" which is published by a community college in Salt Lake City. He submitted the "Saturday" poem, and not only was it accepted, but they named the entire issue for it! Later on, Dan excitedly told me that he had been invited to read one of his original essays at the Utah Arts Festival, which is a high honor.

In June, Dan wrote:

"I had the most remarkable opportunity yesterday. A non-denominational Christian organization is here shooting Bible films. I played one of the thieves beside Jesus on the cross. I'm still trying to figure out how to describe it without devaluing it with words. I'm happy to say I am changed by having witnessed what I did."


I would imagine so! I've always said that a heart can be reached so effectively with music, art, poetry, and drama -- and even more so when you are in the drama as an actor!

(The Christian organization is Crown Ministries, and the film was part of a series that was just featured at the San Antonio Christian Film Festival. You can see production photos from Dan's scene at Utah Day 5. Here is the only one I could download.)

I wrote back to Dan, "Could you pour your impressions into a poem?" And so, a few weeks later, in the midst of designing the set and playing Uncle Max in a local production of "The Sound of Music", he sent me "The Thief on the Cross."

The Thief on the Cross
by Dan Christensen

I stole a heart and broke it,
took time that wasn’t mine,
pocketed memories when other people
got distracted,
claimed happiness I did not buy.

I am a thief.
I know it. So does he who hangs beside me.
Even under pain of torture
unable to resist this nature,
I enlist my fellow felon in one last larceny:
The Perfect Crime.

He agrees.
And so we die common thieves
who steal my place in paradise.


I wrote to Dan a few weeks ago and asked if I could put "The Thief on the Cross" here on my blog on January 19, the one year anniversary of the funeral and the day we met. He happily agreed.

Here is the story as told in Luke 23:32-43.

"Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

We have hope! Imagine paradise for a moment: the best thing about it is that God is there and he wants us with him!


Dan, I want to thank you for being patient with me as I've bumbled through trying to share my point of view, and for being so gracious as you have shared your own. Thank you, also, for the gift of your two poems!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Virginia, for keeping in contact these years--I was wondering the other day if it had been five or even six since we found each other, long-lost cousins, at the Utah funeral of your grandmother (my great-aunt by marriage). It's nice to feel connected. You have followed Aunt Margaret's tradition (translated for our modern age) of clipping newspaper stories, copying other documents and mailing them from New York to Utah which helped her stay connected with my father and others of this family she had married into.

    I'm glad you preserved the picture from Crown Ministries here; their blog chronicling the movie production has since been taken down.


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