Some rough poetry from my scripture journal, with comments on both the content and how I would revise them further. Please read with charity; these are true first drafts. I wanted to post them anyway and ask if any of you write poetry as you read scriptures. I have polished a couple of scripture-related poems, but I often write them and don’t look back to polish; I use them more to help me understand the stories in a different way.

I. For Laman and Lemuel

That was not the death we feared:

Babylonian swords, biting till
we died or slaved our half-lives
away. We did not fear
or believe in that death
and failure to believe
changed not with distance
or with time.

Half a world away we curse
the ocean. To us Jerusalem
is still urbane and witty
faithful when convenient
with a sincere veneer
that makes our raw meat
lives seem far too real,
and much more to be feared
than the distant pleasures
of our wealthy past.

We did not choose this journey.
We resented every step.
Each time God healed
our homesick hearts we stirred
them up again
(O Jerusalem!)
Since we departed
nothing,
not even the promised land
has ever been home.

Content thoughts: I always feel that Laman and Lemuel, at the beginning of this story, are so much like I would be if I had to leave everything for the desert. They go, but they are mad about having to leave. They turn into murderous villains gradually; I don’t think they started out that way. I think they let the homesickness and longing for the past fester until it turned dangerous. As I’ve been dealing with depression lately, I read about them and wonder if they were depressed too. Someday I’d love to know their version of the story.

Revision ideas: As far as revising this, it’s really wordy. I’d cut a bunch of the prepositional phrases and condense them. If I’m really trying to write with the voice of Laman and Lemuel, I would also change the middle stanza and lines like “sincere veneer” because that’s what I think of Jerusalem, not what they thought, so it’s not consistent. I feel like I never really return to the idea I start with, that Laman and Lemuel are not afraid of death by Babylons. What do they really fear? Losing control to Nephi, I think. Losing everything familiar, everything that gave them a sense of power. That does not come across in this poem yet.

II. For Lehi (1 Nephi 2:4)

The dreams from God made all his gold
seem pale as dust
ephemeral
far less real
than desert sand and tents
the dubious gifts of saddle weary legs
and bickering sons.

He traded trappings
for the real world
shook off the fine wrought
carpets and vases and left them
for the sand
and the truth.

Content thoughts:
Reading through the Book of Mormon this time around, I’m struck by how much Lehi left behind. I have always known he was wealthy, but it hit me again what it might have been like to abandon all that, all the status and position and nice stuff, because God told me to. So instead of the finer things of life, Lehi had to embrace dirt and bickering and all of the realities that come with hunger and living in close quarters while you’re on a really long road trip. Lehi left the pleasures of Jerusalem to be grounded in the reality of the desert. He had to embrace the dirt and blood and sweat. Lehi’s journey is like a birth and a death, leaving behind his old life and starting something new and strange, but perhaps less glittery and more solid. Less great and spacious building, more tree of life.

Revision thoughts: Well, it’s really short, and lacks a lot of good images. It’s more the idea of a poem than anything really substantive. It needs to branch out more and then be pruned back again. Several times. The ideas I talk about in the content section aren’t really in the poem yet very well.

III. For Nephi (1 Nephi 15)

I am full of visions
and their pain: they spill
from my mouth like blood
and fire
which burns my brothers
who cannot see the light
or know how every one of us
will die without a Christ.

For this I preach
and sometimes rage
for this they hate me
and resent my words

I have seen what I have seen,
and in their blindness
and my stark grief
which comes from having seen too much
we fight
again
again
again.

Content thoughts: Nephi finishes his vision and then Laman and Lemuel ask what Lehi’s dream means. Nephi’s frustrated with them, because he just paid the price to ask and see, and they haven’t. So he teaches them, and he lectures them, but they can’t accept his words permanently. It’s partly because he is their younger brother, and it’s galling to have him preach like that, and partly because he has seen too much. He can’t back down. He’s a prophet now. They take his words to be hard, and even though they realize at some level they are in the wrong, it’s too much for them to accept and internalize what he says.

Revision thoughts:
Again, more the idea of a poem than a poem. I do feel like this is the source of their conflict: Laman and Lemuel are blind, and Nephi has seen too much, and there’s more to write about here. I like the image of visions bringing blood and fire, but it’s not really accurate since Nephi saw more than destruction, and maybe there’s a better way to put it.

***
We’ve published other scripture-related poetry: “Man With Picture;” “Reproach;” “Hannah;” “To Martha and her Fragrant Home;” “Mammon.” The poems I just linked to are polished; you can see the gap between my rough drafts and the final version. Which ones speak to you? Do you have other favorite scripture-related poems to share? How does writing poetry help you understand the scriptures better?

7 Comments

  1. Lisa

    February 3, 2015

    Oh Emily, these are so poignant and brilliant, even in first draft form. I love that idea of writing poetry as a way to process the scriptures; I’ve never tried that, though I do journal as I study. The online “Notes” at lds.org has become my favorite way to study and to save what I deem precious. I’m going to try the poetry approach. Thanks so much for this!

    • Emily M.

      February 3, 2015

      Thanks, Lisa! I hope you let us read what you write sometime.

  2. Ana of the Nine+Kids

    February 3, 2015

    Thanks for sharing these! I couldn’t help but compare my life’s perspective (again) to Laman, Lemuel, Nephi and Lehi. I am afraid of what murmuring I might do if I had to go on an extensive camping trip. And the second poem about Lehi sacrificing his worldly belongings made me think about the decisions I have made to have children. Each time I have gone in with faith but its not like a lolly pop journey to wonderland (all the time anyway.) Lehi got sand and a tent and bickering sons. I got morning sickness, anemia, vericose veins, work overload and post partum depression, toddler temper tantrums (and teenage ones on occasion), potty training and student driver training. It reminds me that the really good, right choices also come with the need to continually rely on God for support.

    • Emily M.

      February 3, 2015

      Ana, I think there are so many similarities between Lehi’s journey and having children. I love what you say: “the really good, right choices also come with the need to continually rely on God for support.” I don’t know why this still surprises me sometimes–it shouldn’t–but it does. Thanks for your insights.

  3. Jennie

    February 4, 2015

    Wow. Stunning. I love the idea of processing and feeling concepts of the BoM into a more layered concentrated poetic form. It’s amazing how less words sometimes yields more feeling.

  4. Laura

    February 4, 2015

    LOVE LOVE LOVE these poems! I have also been thinking lately about how following the direction of the Spirit sometimes leads us to suffering that we would have preferred to avoid, and I appreciate the idea that although that may be true, it is our reaction to that suffering that makes all the difference in our lives. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Cindy

    February 4, 2015

    I love them! And I see myself so much in the first one…

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