See the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project to read the poems for March 13, 2014 by scrolling down to “Day 13/Poems 13” and of course, to read my poem: The Scattering of Ashes / by John C. Mannone
Backstory to “The Scattering of Ashes”
Recently I attended a fund raiser banquet for Women at the Well Ministries (a Christian group) not too far from where I live in east Tennessee. I knew that I wanted to write a poem for them. I just didn’t know what yet, so I scribbled some notes about the skits, the testimonies, and the painting/collage*—some Biblical impressions:
-God fashioned woman as a piece of fine art (supported by the Hebrew) (Genesis 2)
-The Potter and Clay (Jeremiah 18) as well as my published poem, “The Potter”
-We are fearfully/wonderfully made (Psalm 139)
-We are his workmanship, his poetry (from the (Greek poiema) (Ephesians 2:10)
-Elisha’s miracle of the oil in the jars for the poor widow (2 Kings 4)
-The Samaritan Woman (John 4) and my poem (unpublished) by the same name
But at the “end of the day,” I felt an ekphrastic poem wanted to emerge, but it wouldn’t come out until now.
Once I decided the poem would focus on the urns, and their symbolism, I had to do a little research. I looked for direction in the hope of avoiding the clichés, the common tropes. I started with a search engine and “googled” “famous urns and women”: I quickly found direction. On the second hit, “the ashes urn,” I got the image I wanted: ashes of shame in a burial urn (even though the googled item had nothing to do with that; it was about the cricket matches between England and Australia). I went down the list of hits:
“Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial”: This is a discourse of the Sepulchral Urns that made me think more about burial urns and it’s sublime rhetoric (which turned out to be important).
“Urns for Women”: This was an advertisement, but one of the items became key term for the poem–a scattering urn (as opposed to a burial urn, or a host of others).
For many poets, a discussion of urns often leads to John Keats’ famous poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”. This poem provided an unexpected, and important, piece to my poem. I used the last two lines of the ode in my epigraph, which triggered the beautiful encouragement voiced by the prophet Isaiah. I eventually adapted some of verses of Isaiah 61:1-3 as the ending to my poem, which I already knew had to be uplifting. These women, the implied subjects of the poem, had their share of abuse, guilt shame, a sense of worthlessness, and a huge dose of fatalism. The poem needed to speak to their value and their beauty regardless of appearance, as well as their survival from the grips of their struggles: physical, emotional, spiritual. And though it was tempting to use the image of the urns being vessels for water from a well that they rest on (and its own symbolism of drawing the cleansing and refreshing everlasting water from it), it would be the expected. Instead, I opted to let the visual image and reference’s to Jacob’s Well and the Samaritan woman allude to it. I chose to concentrate on a different image—the ashes in our urns (are we not made of “clay”?). Getting rid of the junk inside us has a transformative message, too.
The long lines felt natural for that “sublime rhetoric” I wanted. I was careful to enjamb the lines in a different way than just at the line break. The subject of some lines is deliberately ambiguous because while I might be describing an art feature, I am also referring to the metaphorical link to the women.
Of course, by the very nature of the ministry, the poem has several Scriptural references and allusions, yet remains with a non proselyte-like tone.
*A highly regarded local artist, Lisa Bell, had donated her talents by painting this work, which was auctioned, with all the proceeds going to the ministry. Here are her contacts: Linkedin and Fuller Frames on facebook. Her new website is forthcoming.