This New Never
This new never is quiet enough to fill a hundred caves
with monks. The wind rushes up from our pasture,
bends the pines and brings no news. I whisper
your name and look at your picture on the desk,
the one where you smile like the Little Flower
of Lisieux, willing your pain into someone else’s joy,
if only you could decode the mysterious how.
You’ve been gone two months in this new forever
where I can’t call you Sunday afternoons
to talk about your last college course, on silence,
a subject we both longed to comprehend and
entered in awkward minutes when we didn’t know
what to say from the desert inside, each of us
craving the sound of wind across the mouths of caves.
Some days I swear not to eat. Then you make me break
my vow. You say, in my head, don’t be stupid, and I want
to retort, the way you were, but don’t because you hurt
enough, your eyes tired of looking for I’ll-never-know
what but perhaps a visit with one of your obscure poets
who helped you think yourself to that beach in Mexico
where you sat alone with the black dog watching the surf.
I look for any ever or always where you might be hiding,
your little girl self leaning out from behind the black oak
in our front yard, you in your pink and yellow dress
playing peekaboo with me. I listen to the sky. In the quiet
you speak: I’m not there, buddy. No dice. But I’m OK.
"This New Never" reprinted with permission of the poet from his collection The Time I Didn’t Know What to Do Next (Wind Publications, 2008). Also published in the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events
Interview With J. Stephen Rhodes
How did you come to write “This New Never”?
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
I believe this poem, like many others I wrote at the time, helped me to express my grief and thus to not be dominated by it. It also helped me recover my appreciation for my daughter’s beauty and goodness. And it also helped me turn my grief into something that conveyed beauty—at least to me.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
I directed this poem to my daughter—it’s a “you” poem, and that sense of address gave birth to its language and images. It allowed for “singing” (a lyric) I might not have discovered otherwise.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
I’ve been quite taken recently with two Irish poets, Paula Meehan and Michael Longley, both of know something of recovering from life’s wounds and who know how to sing without being obscure or cute. Robert Cording, Suzanne Cleary, and Mark Jarman have come to mean quite a lot to me. Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop remain guiding lights.
What are you working on now?
I’m having a lot of fun working on a poetic bestiary in collaboration with the gifted artist, Amanda Chao. Animals figure prominently in a lot of my poems. I’m also trying to figure out how to write “religious” poetry (since I’m a religious person), and also poems that speak to the environmental crisis and the wider problems it engenders. Stephen Dunn’s warnings on the inherent dangers of such writing challenge me, but I still feel “called” to try.
J. Stephen Rhodes writes about living on the edges between security and fear, guilt and grace, as well as between country and city, and prosperity and scarcity.
His poems have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Shenandoah, International Poetry Review, The Texas Review, The William and Mary Review, and Tar River Poetry. His poetry collection, The Time I Didn’t Know What to Do Next (Wind Publications, 2008), won enthusiastic reviews from Suzanne Cleary (Trick Pear), Fred Marchant (Full Moon Boat), and Leatha Kendrick (Heart Cake). His essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Brevity, and Sojourn, among others. He has won a number of literary awards including a fellowship from the Hambidge Center for the Arts and Sciences (2007) and Second Place in the Bright Hill Press Book Contest (2006). He was selected to read for the Kentucky Great Writers Series in 2010. He has written professionally since 1987. He lives in Berea.
Regarding his poems and essays, he comments, “I want to write in a way that offers hope for people like myself who are more than a little overwhelmed by modern life. I want to be honest about the brokenness that besets us, but I am also looking for beauty in the midst of that brokenness.”
For example, in his essay “Dark Glasses in Church” (Gettysburg Review), he describes making the transition from being a married, plane-hopping administrator to being a divorced, small-town pastor: “I felt like I was spinning inside a washing machine while looking through a sudsy window at my wife, children, vocation, and the rest of the world.” Or in his poem, “What was Taken,” he reflects on leaving the world of security for the world of anxiety after being the victim of a break-in:
Tonight it’s hard to sleep
because the door still swings open in my mind
letting in strange fingers I might have seen
today putting coins in a parking meter
or shaking out cigarettes while I walked
by and waved as I often do
Steve Rhodes grew up in Atlanta in the 1950’s and 1960’s in a white-painted brick house on a quiet street in a moderately well-to-do neighborhood. “Before 1960, I thought of my family as a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ kind of family. The 1960’s yanked me all over the place: warehouse work, a gruesome private school, bad acne, ditch-digging, a mother who drank too much, being kicked out of Boy Scouts, “God is dead,” Campus Crusade for Christ, VISTA, working with developmentally challenged children, and service as a conscientious objector working in a hospital during the Viet Nam War.”
The subsequent three and a half decades have only served to widen this exposure to different worlds: pastoral work at a inner-city church and two small town churches, the deep south, Appalachia and Central America, stints as a seminary dean and as the director of a non-profit organization.
In addition to a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Emory University, Rhodes received his M. Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary, his B.A. from Eckerd College, and his M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine-Stonecoast.