Wednesday, February 4, 2015


let us wonder at

the pondering
the last act
the final door

all that leads there
is not true nor
the stained glass
layered with dust

let us find stones
and cast them
in the waters of John
and watch the ripples
spread and fade

let us watch the sun
rise from its palace

let us wonder
at dead children
life bleached from their hearts
their dear hearts
that beat so fast when born
but now just
cavities collapsing

and oceans

beating against shores

sounding their soft alarm

while dervish galaxies
whirl their endless stars

across the moonless sky

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent (for nelson mandela)

It seems unlikely to me, this season of Advent,
a story of an unwed Mother journeying far,
for reasons unclear, to a filthy manger,
to give birth to the Child - covered in blood -
in a pile of hay. And Joseph, a seemingly mute witness,
watching the story unfold, sensing
the grief that will one day enfold them.

Then there was a Star and three Wise Men.
From the East they came,
to the Mother and Child. Kneeling,
they brought gifts that he already knew then
he would need later. Reconciliation not being an
easy affair.

When Mandela was born, there was no Star, but
the Wise came to him eventually, if reluctantly,
and only much later. And Gifts?
I imagine freeing the oppressed counts.
He was not nailed to a Cross, but he carried one
for twenty-seven years
in a small cell and alone.

A man who forgave the enemies that tortured him,
imprisoned him, spat on him. A man who reconciled
an entire nation exacting no retribution.
And in this season of Advent,
Mandela has gone, called by the Child.
How long the people of South Africa waited
to follow their Star out of the wilderness.
How they must now grieve.

Listening to the news,
how foolish I feel in this season of shopping,
as I straighten the star on the top of my plastic tree,
take the dusty, sanitized manger yet again
from its old cardboard box,
and wrap gifts that are not wise at all
for people who know not what they do.

- r. russeth

Saturday, August 3, 2013

dark matter

One day we shall together write an epitaph across an alien sky,
Where an as yet unborn race will struggle
To understand that which holds together everything.

They will argue the nature of the gods,
Fight wars over liturgies and covenants,
As they build their first ship,
And journey to one of their three moons.

Their planet will suddenly seem very small
As one moon slides over their home world
Like a six fingered hand. Hiding it from their astronauts, who, humbled,
Will weep without tears.

But by then we will be long of that which holds together everything.
Our ashes making a slow journey of return
Through the sleep of galaxies;
While our revelations, written on photons,
Leap ahead.

And on a certain night,
Untold but as yet unborn children,
Will hear their mothers 
Calling them home at dusk
From their games with rules
Nothing like ours.

Called to bedtime,
Without perhaps seeing that one star
In that one night – with its untold trillions of revelations -
Flash brilliantly for a blink of an eye
For anyone bothering to turn an eye or three

To the small space between two
Of the three rising moons,
Before turning off the porch light,
And latching the screen door.

Brilliant unread epitaph,
Filling the night with all we never needed to know,
Before fading to everything
That mattered.

-        richard russeth

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

metaphorically speaking

Flying to Phoenix,
I picture myself leaping from this plane
high over the dreaming desert,
just to find out, once and for all,
if metaphor
can trump literal.
But, of course, I don't leap.

The pen may be mightier
than the sword, but, in the end,
I know gravity always wins.
Mountains turn to plains,
fire turns to ash,
life itself

falls to earth.

As the rising sun
sets free the night,
the pilot tells us
to prepare for landing.
The plane shudders
as its wheels come down.
No one speaks.

I always think of landing
as a kind of birth,
but I can feel the people around me
wondering what their
eulogies would be. Who
would speak for them?

How I envy the pilot staring out
at the fast approaching tarmac,
soothing control tower voices
in his head, the end of the
journey known with GPS precision.

My runway is so hard to see,
if it is there at all,
metaphors being such difficult things
upon which to land.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


in your body

light through your veins

each cell pregnant

with your future

no rage

can change

the fading 

the way water


in the flower bed



today, the sun was an hour hand;
the moon was Monday.
while dusk crept like a tide into our small church,
we remembered the dead by reading the litany of saints;
the dead heard us and smiled.
a siren went by on its way to save someone.
a child set prayer wheels spinning in Katmandu.
an old woman counted the veins on her hands.
we wrote prayers on small pieces of paper with pencil stubs.
streetlights went green. yellow. red.
a nun’s hands sang the rosary in Vatican City.
thousands swirled around the Kaaba in Mecca.
the bread and wine blessed our hands and mouths.
somewhere tequila was drunk.
we read each prayer aloud since the dead can no longer read.
a Sufi spun in mystic trance in Senegal.
in London, the DJs whirled and the crowds surged.
a murder was committed on a blameless victim in New Orleans.
deadheads twirled round and round their universe.
a drug user was found dead by a general’s statue in a park.
we exchanged a sign of peace between ourselves.
buddhist monks felt the dharma wheel turn in san francisco.
the poor are still with us when the service ends.
our prayers wind their way along their paths,
while the world spins quietly through the night.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


At eleven thousand feet,
we stood under a clear vault
of blue sky, but not the blue
you are thinking of, no.

Not the blue of the suburbs'
huddled masses. Nor the blue
of the Blue Note Club in New York,
though almost that of a tenor sax
with a split reed.

It's somewhat like that blue bottle
your neighbor kept – god knows why –
in her bedroom window. Not exactly
the blue of New Orleans or Nashville
or Harlem either, though maybe almost
the blue of a pick-up game along
the Henry Hudson Parkway at about 89th.

Miami almost has it but its too warm
and there are too many boats.  Minnesota
probably has one or two lakes among its 10,000
that nail it, but I've never actually seen them.
I might say it was the blue of Chartres
with monks singing compline,
but that does neither justice.

Let’s just say, it was blue

the way winning the seventh game
of the world series tied
in the bottom of the ninth
with two outs and nobody on
is baseball.

That blue.


seventeen syllables allen ginsberg would have gratefully counted

Sun on clouds, moon in trees, nothing in this world is beautiful alone.


broken seashells

Her words slid backwards,
stumbling on a rough patch,

each syllable a stone
she threw from her mouth.

The second drew blood; he sputtered,

gears grinding across his face.

When she spoke again, it was all ozone,
broken wires and small sparks.

His jaw was a slow car crash.

“Broken seashells washing over each other,”
he’d thought the first time he heard her on the phone.

Now he knocked back a shot of gasoline,
and no one dared strike a match,

except for her -

tossing it to him like a flower,
and walking away.

Why I Write Poetry

When my father’s chest fell for the last time,
it was hard to look up and realize
everything else was as it had been before.
Green buses trundled by seven floors below
belching diesel and noise. The cafeteria workers
moved dinner from room to room. Parents
wept in the fluorescent hall.

Not that I thought he’d live forever
or, terribly enough, that I wanted him forever,
only that he’d live long enough to ask me
why I write poetry.

He appeared relieved, actually to be done
with this pale green room and dull world, until his
last exhale, which lingered
with us even as it sank into his chest,
the bed, the floor under, the basement,
the dirt, the water far below. As if
in the midst of his last,
he’d unexpectedly recalled
his first, and how much it
tasted like vinegar or sugar,
felt like the end
of a long rise
through the now beckoning deep.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

three things

Just a veneer of snow
On the Sierras as I fly over.
A whisper from winter.  This
Is how the end begins. 

There are three things that matter. 
None of them
are what you think. 
The reason for snow,
for one. 

I dance but poorly with Reason 
As it always wants to lead. 
On the other hand, snow dances with me. 
It pulls a curtain around us,
Reveals who has walked before me, 
Makes everything speak in whispers. 

Reason says no two snowflakes 
Are alike. And this 
I do hope is true. 

Out the window and far below, 
In a desert valley between mountains, 
A dirt road snakes through wilderness 
And trails off into whispers 

Like the mountain streams do here in spring, 
When the snow melts 
With nowhere to go 

But down.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


prophets awake exhausted from their dreams.
their beds soaked in sweat.
with the ebbing fever of their visions still ringing in their ears,
they arise each morning in love anew with our broken world.
while we, fearing the wounded, the other, the lost,
make the sign of the Cross and send the world away in the collection plate.

blessed are the prophets' eyes for they see and their ears for they hear:
those in love. those crushed by debt. by earthquakes.
those with child. those with enough. the wedding banquet.

the killing fields.

they taste the sweetness and the sweet bitterness of this life.

they see the glory in the least of things. they hear the poor,
no matter how loudly the pharisees might rage.
they see the oppressed, no matter how well
their ghettos are hidden.

in the thin space between heartbeats, between the threads of the veil of the temple,
between the last breath and the dying, here is where prophets harvest their words.

yet, when they feed the starving, we call them deluded.
when they bear witness, we call them liars.
what they taste and declare to be sweet, we spit out as poison.
little honor is there for prophets,
and I am not a prophet. but if I were I might speak these words to you:

"why are you here?"

I might say to you: "did God cradle you in your mother's womb
just so you could be born and repent of your sins?"

I might say to you: "did He give you life just so you could have
your demons cast out?"

If I were a prophet, I might say to you:
"In this perfectly broken world, you must see
that which strives to be hidden,
hear those voices others would deny,
taste the bitterness of the forgotten,
and yet love all of it without exception,
as if your life depended on it -

because it does."

- r. russeth

Sunday, February 5, 2012


The trees stand weighted
with prophesies of snow;
a burden received,
but not sought.

They preach, these trees,
in snaps and creaks
and the falling away of their glittering
The morning sun clothes them
in brilliant revelations,
while the sky above dazzles
in a far blue emptiness.

With snow melting
on my upturned face,
I wonder if I but stretched 
from the highest branches,
could I send ripples across
its azure smoothness?

But there’s no need.
For yesterday,
the sky came down as snow
to grace the forest and 
the flowers that hide beneath.

In spring, when dying snows 
free every flower from winter's grasp,
I will gather them up, one by one,
into small bouquets for our home.

Each one a reminder that,
like the snow covering the forest today,
grace is given to us all -

just as the promise of spring
is given to the flowers 

by the dying snows.


Monday, January 16, 2012

learning to swim (psalm 139)

The first time I went swimming
there was no trick to it.
I just floated in that warm place
of salt and blood,
while God knitted me
the lungs I would later need,
when I finally surfaced.

Then there was the baptismal font,
which involved no swimming at all,
just presence.
Held by strong arms. 
I had godparents
and a baptismal dress, I’m sure,
but these are long disappeared.

After that there were sinks, bathtubs
and plastic dish basins half full
of lukewarm water and silly toys.
Mother and sisters watching over me
gently.  I imagine
me laughing as I baptized them,
splash after splash.

When I was seven, I had
my first real swimming lesson
at a cold indoor pool beneath
an elementary school,
where we were thrown in the deep end
in the hope that fear would float us. 
The instructor
was an old man holding a long metal pole
with which to save us when we sputtered
to the surface, choking.

My first communion was about then.
Rite and ritual. Cut and paste.
Color within the lines.
Old nuns trailing dust.
An earnest young priest
as white as the proffered wafer
I choked down
while my parents looked on
in solemn indifference.

The years go by.

I learned to swim -
well enough at least to keep from drowning
in lakes over which, in the heat of summer,
dragonflies hovered and skipped.
But any rough water made for doubt,
and the life jackets that other people proffered, 
never seemed enough.

Walking the beaches of Carlsbad,
I have always
been envious of those able
to ride the waves in nothing
but wet suits.  Sitting on their boards
as the waves raise them up and down
on the vast, unknowable ocean.
Floating patiently over its unthinkable
depths, through which life swims unseen,
calmly waiting for the wave
that takes them back.

The years go by,
and you tire, really, of not swimming, 
of pretending that at the far side of the sea
there is only the edge of the world.

So, in my fifth decade, I am again learning to swim.
I may not race into the waves, but
I find myself wading in with a crowd 
almost every Sunday.
And where I go, I’ve learned no one cares
if you are a good swimmer,
and most of us gathered there, I’d wager, are not.

But the hardest lesson learned
is that it’s not about
being the best swimmer or
a good swimmer or even
being able to swim at all.
It’s about being able, finally,
to dive into the ocean’s waves,
and swim out over its unthinkable depths,
not because you aren’t afraid,
                                               you are,

but because at long last you have learned: 
you are held by strong arms
that will carry you to the shore,
no matter how distant,
or how deep these waters
through which life swims

if you will but let them.


Monday, December 19, 2011

on helping to serve the eucharist (for the first time)

Standing next to my pastor,
holding the wine,
I have this thought:
“I do not belong here.”

The clay cup is heavy
and cool in my hands.
The wine is dark
and brooding.

Declaring to the gently
stooped woman standing before me:
“The blood of Christ, shed for you,”
I feel a sense of loss.

When she whispers “amen,”
I hear my doubts on her lips.

Handing the cup back,
she smiles, but not at me.
And I realize that she has received
something that was never mine 
to give.

I turn to the next person in line,
and the next and the next,
blinking back tears,

feeling holy
and undeserving;
with each “amen,”

that both are true.

                  - richard russeth