Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: December 2015

Thich Nhat Hanh: Anger as Hell

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Jesus did not say that if your are angry with your brother, you will be put in a place called hell. He said that if you are angry with your brother, you are already in hell. Anger is hell.” I like that. A lot. It is an intriguing reading of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus says there, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the fire of hell.” I have almost always heard this passage interpreted to mean that Jesus was ratcheting up the intensity of the law so that it would be impossible for a person to keep the law, and we would realize that only through grace can we escape the fire of hell. Not just murder will send you there, but anger and insults will, and of course none of us escapes both of those little numbers.

Here’s why I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of Jesus’ words. I’m with C. S. Lewis all the way on this whole heaven and hell business. To oversimplify just a bit, Lewis saw heaven as the presence of God (Love, Light) and hell as the absence of God (Love, Light). Lewis says that we don’t just go to these places when we die, we are in them all along. So I understand Jesus, C. S. Lewis, and Thich Nhat Hanh to be saying that any time we step away from Love and Light (and by extension no longer communicate those things to others) we are in hell. And any time we experience Love and Light (and by extension communicate those things to others) we are in heaven. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce creates beautiful concrete metaphors for both those conditions.

Even Pogo, in the old comic strip, got got it right several decades ago when he said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It would be hard to put it more succintly. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Our enemy is not the other person, no matter what he or she has done. If we look deeply into ourselves, we can see that their act was a manifestation of our collective consciousness.” He means that we all have violence, hatred, and anger in us, and it is manifested by some people in extreme ways. This all reminds me of something else Jesus said, that the judgment you use against others will be used to judge you. That is a hard one, as so many of Jesus’ little broadsides are, especially in a time like ours, when every day the violence and hatred are manifested on TV and the internet.

Fanny Says What? Southern Culture from Nickole Brown

Earlier this year, Southern poet Nickole Brown published Fanny Says, an anthology that has been called “an unleashed love song to her grandmother,” who has left behind a presence as large as the living person. The early sections of the book speak with the voice of Fanny, a grandmother who was larger than life. Some of the poems in the final section speak with the voice of the granddaughter left behind, trying to co-exist with the Fanny’s ghost.

It’s a beautiful anthology. The emotions are sometimes raw. The language is often more than raw. If you are offended by vulgar language, this is not an anthology for you. In fact, if you are offended by vulgar language, this is not a blog post for you. Consider this your f-word warning. Stop reading now.

The first poem of Part I is titled “Fuck.” It’s a very funny rendition of all the artful ways Fanny used the word.  It was “the f-word made so fat and slow it was basset hound.” And in Fanny’s mouth, “fucker” became “a curse word made into a term of endearment.” Anyone who has loved someone like Fanny will love this poem.

Some of the later poems, the ones that offer up Nickole Brown struggling with the absence and presence of her dead grandmother, are touching without a drop of the saccharine. Her language is like a straight razor that cuts to the bone. One of the poems near the end of the book, titled “To My Grandm0ther’s Ghost, Flying with Me on a Plane,” wrestles with the paradox of not knowing how Fanny would respond to the fact that her granddaughter is a lesbian, not knowing whether love, after all, would be enough. The poem ends with a series of questions that include “Will you/ come get me, your hair piled high and white, when/ it’s my time to go? . . . ./ Or ashamed,/ will you turn away your face and hold up/ a shard/ of that mirror,/ showing me/ I’m going to hell?”

I love everything about this anthology. The language, the emotion, the wry sense of humor. I love reading some of the prose poems at high speed, being bombarded by voices and images that make it a thrill ride. Mary Ann and I heard Brown read from the book at the Arkansas Literary Festival last spring and bought it afterwards. I’m pretty sure, after reading it through, that I’ll read more of her work.

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