O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Job 19: 23-27a
A couple of weeks ago, a dear poet friend told me her poetry manuscript had just been announced a finalist in a poetry book publication contest. I’m sure she told me this because she knew I would understand how painful this news was to her. Over the last quarter century I’ve been a book semi-finalist or finalist 17 times. And, I’ve received hundreds of rejection letters from magazine editors for poem submissions. We talked a while, and then the next day she emailed me to ask how I’d dealt with so many near misses. To answer her question all I had to do was look up from my computer screen to the cork board hung near my desk where most all my poetry writing life I have kept a copy of four verses from Job 19.
When I seriously began writing poetry at age 45, all I wanted was to have at least one poem published in a respected magazine or journal. I expected that I’d get lots of rejections. That’s when I cut those verses out of my church bulletin and kept them to remind me that longing for publication was nothing new. I delighted in Job’s wit in foreseeing the invention of the printing press. However, after only a handful of rejection letters, my first acceptance of three poems from a flaming liberal theological journal, The Other Side, nearly overwhelmed me. I had to reconsider what Job was trying to tell me. Perhaps writing poetry was more than publication? Writing might be a gift I’d been given and a way through my life that held implications I would gradually learn.
That first poetry acceptance came in 1986 while I was living in the Saegertown Lutheran parsonage and sharing an office and an early HP touch screen computer with my husband. My husband’s sermon and doctoral dissertation writing always trumped my poetry writing when it came to computer time. Gradually, I began to long for a room of my own with a computer of my own. That longing was fulfilled a couple of years later when my husband accepted a call to Wesleyville, a suburb of Erie, PA, where I claimed the extra 8×10 foot bedroom overlooking the fenced backyard, dominated by an immense pin oak centered 15 feet from my window. My husband moved on to a new computer and a larger office; I inherited the touch screen HP. I had bookshelves built on two walls, installed a desk made of a green painted door balanced on a pair of 2-drawer file cabinets. I got his old desk chair, but I did buy a new pink-print recliner for my reading chair. As a birthday gift, my mother-in-law gave me $25 that I used to buy a second-hand brass, floor lamp that I still treasure. That’s when I hung my first cork board over my desk and taped Job’s verses on the bottom where among all my poetry contest announcements I could easily find him.
Slowly, my right bottom file drawer began to fill with files of my poems and a paisley printed cloth-bound notebook began to record my poetry rejections and acceptances. In that cozy, first room-of-my-own office, I wrote a poem titled, “Job, Too,” published in the 1989 Winter issue of The Georgia Review, my first major literary publication. “Job, Too” is in no way a cozy poem. It pretty much sums up the book of Job with the phrase, Shit happens, which turned out to be the reason for its publication soon after the Georgia Legislature had passed a law banning the phrase on bumper stickers. Stanley Linberg, Georgia Review’s editor, even phoned me to warn me that his journal and I might be attacked by his state’s rabid legislators. Stan Linberg was a wonderful editor, but he greatly overestimated his readership among his local statesmen. However, I found myself going back to reread and to research further the time and the authorship of Job.
In 1990, Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg issued a new translation and a new interpretation of parts of the Hebrew Bible, The Book of J, in which Bloom suggests that the J passages—essentially all the uncanny, deeply human, narrative portrayals of Yahweh—were written by a woman, perhaps the daughter of a priest. I, along with most of the American scholarly reading public, was fascinated. Although Bloom never includes the Book of Job in his authorship surmise, Job was written at the same time as the J author was writing circa 950–900 BCE. What if the J narrative writer also wrote poetry? Say, the poetry sections of Job which especially in chapter 28 and the last chapters in which Yahweh speaks using so many childbirth metaphors? What if the J writer never married or was widowed or even divorced? If so, she would have returned to her priest father’s home. And, Jewish law would have allowed her to do some kinds of work. Maybe she was a midwife? Maybe she had enough time between childbirth patients to write poetry? Maybe she had a room of her own?
Since I first read Bloom, I’ve moved three times, had three different desks, had four other writing spaces, the last two here in what has become my Pittsburgh condo. When my husband and I moved from the Florida home we had built after his early retirement, I gave up what at that time I considered to be the very best room of my own that I had ever had for a 36″ white Ikea desk in a corner of our condo’s living room. I had Ikea bookshelves installed on both sides of the entrance hall that hold less than half the books I had owned in Florida. My poetry files, now filling two three-drawer Ikea metal cabinets, were in our bedroom. The condo’s 2nd bedroom became my husband’s office, so he would have somewhere to retreat when he became emotionally overwhelmed. Everything seemed to be working; I even had a few poetry acceptances. I was busy rehabing our condo, and I was learning how to live as a Pittsburgher so I could understand how to write Pittsburgh poems.
Then, my husband sued me for divorce, moved out, and left in his office only an ivory slip-covered sofa bed, a two-drawer file cabinet, and a closet filled with tax records and boxes of photographs, mostly of birds hidden in trees and of outtakes from family birthday parties. For weeks I hoped he might return, and at the same time I dreaded he might return. I was paralyzed. I would walk into what I still felt was my husband’s office, turn around, and go watch another repeat of The Big Bang Theory. Then, my brother Jerry came for a visit and slept on the sofa bed. He reported he slept well.
Somehow, my brother’s visit banished my husband’s ghost from that room. That time when I walked into that room to remove the bed sheets, I decided I would find one thing I could change about the room. I moved the sofa bed from the east wall and placed it in front of the window. The first thing I noticed was a perfectly good electrical outlet and a working phone jack on the east wall. My husband had placed the sofa there. He had placed his massive desk on the west wall, all the while complaining that the phone jack behind his desk didn’t work, so that he had to go out and buy a long phone cord to snake around the corner into our bedroom so he could have a phone on his desk. Hmmmm?
The next day I moved my desk, office chair, dictionary stand, and computer to the east wall of my newly claimed office. I went to Ikea for another smaller white desk for my printer and two simple white floor lamps. From the hall closet I moved an oriental rug to ground the sleeper sofa, and from what had been my husband’s closet I moved a tall skinny bookcase he had used for sweater storage, but that I now use for writing supplies and unsold copies of my two poetry books. Months later, I replaced his plain white sheer curtains with ecru lace “bird song” curtains from my favorite mail order catalog: Country Curtains. Beside the sofa I’ve installed upon a rustic-stick end table a Christmas cactus in a deep green pot. I’ve gradually added green themed pictures and an antique verdigris copper door plate my son Alfie gave me. And, above my printer hangs a new white-framed cork board with Job 19 taped on the bottom margin.
A couple of weeks ago, Christian Century accepted for publication one of my new poems, “January 26th: the Anniversary of My Mother’s Death,” wearing this epigraph:
He is green before the sun,
And his branch shooteth forth
In his garden.
Job 8: 16.