Some how I got the reputation as THE poet of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois largely on the strength of being pushy and obnoxious about putting myself forward on every occasion possible—worship services, special readings, coffee houses, benefit events, vigils, and demonstrations. If folks would stand or sit still long enough, I was sure to declaim original verse in their faces. It helped that 18 years ago Skinner House Books, a publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) issued my little collection We Build Temples in the Heart from which a handful of poems have been regularly used in denominational services. I also have the benefit of a platform on this blog which regularly reaches a few hundred readers and on social media. After years of such efforts my visibility has risen to the second-from-the-bottom rung of minor Midwest poets of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
But I am not the only poet in the Congregation nor, alas, even the best.
Last week the Tree of Life poets group met in person at the church building for the first time since the Coronavirus pandemic struck more than two years ago. Mostly women, the group was started by former minister Sean Parker-Denison to help writers hone their poetic chops by reading their work and critiquing it. Sometimes prompts are shared to get creative juices flowing. Participants ranged from complete neophyte, to secret journalers, to already accomplished crafts persons. Everyone got better. Some participated in the churches coffeehouse night and read at worship services. Some were encouraged to submit their work to literary magazines and on-line journals. Some began to read at some of McHenry County’s poetry nights and open mics. Some even dared poetry slams. Carol Alfus and Sue Rekenthaller are two standouts from the group.
Alfus is a retired special needs teacher and a long-time pillar of the church community. She served as Religious Education Director, Board member, Board Chair, a worship committee member who has led many lay worship services, Choir member, and an ever-ready volunteer for any task at hand.
Like Robert Frost, she often revels in rhyme and rhythm and all of the craft of verse. Unlike many who try that, her work is never stilted, forced, or stylistically overblown. Her voice remains smooth and conversational. She generally eschews the polemical or abstract preferring the personal and observational. She even makes forays into story-telling balladry. In this piece she mulls poetry itself.
Birthing a Poem
It might start as a whisper—
a word, a phrase, an idea—
tickling the back of the mind
until it is put to paper.
In the sunlight it may sprout like a seed,
grow lush and vibrant,
or dissolve like a snowflake,
and leave no trace.
At times the senses—
dazzled by the depth of a star-spilled sky,
gasping at brutal, lung-freezing cold,
transported by sonorous chanting,
drunk on the smell of a baby’s head—
seize the pen and fill the page,
trying to recapture the moment.
Emotions speak their own language.
Each writes in its own
distinctive script and color.
Anger demands a vent.
Regret seeks a confessional.
Love and Wonder deserve a song,
Joy, a playground.
And Grief, at all times
must be given a voice.
In the end,
there is nothing without intention.
It is intention
that scrapes down to the essence,
sands it smooth,
buffs it to a soft glow,
then flings it into the darkness,
and hopes for the best.
—Carol AlfusSue Rekenthaler.
Sue Rekenthaler and her husband Gary Gauger are truck farmers who supply vegetables to local customers. She is also a veteran social justice activist with special interest in sentence, prison reform, and criminal justice reform, and homelessness. She is a hand-on activist who visited immigration detainees in McHenry County Jail for the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants (ICDI), was active in actions of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County and was a founder and remains a mainstay of the Compassion for Campers program for the homeless. As a long-time Tree of Life Social Justice Team member and past chair she was also active in peace and anti-war work, and the campaign for Marriage Equality among many other initiatives. She also promotes family farming and food security as a founding member of the of the Foodshed Co-op. Sue also served her community as a Library Board member.
Sue is a prolific poet and covers a wide range of themes and topics from personal and autobiographical, to domestic, and to both the wonder of nature and sharp social awareness. She is very active in the surprisingly robust McHenry County poetry scene reading regularly at Atrocious Poets events, Woodstock’s Stage Left open mics and spoken word nights, the monthly Hidden Pearl poetry nights in McHenry and other venues.
We have been friends and social justice warriors for about 25 years. Lately we have worked closely together on Compassion for Campers and our regular distributions of gear and supplies at the Community Power Shower events at Willow Crystal Lake. Last Friday I asked Sue to send me some new pieces for this blog. She sent me two short verses so new that the eggshells still clung to the chicks. The first was inspired by heavy winds which lashed the county last week. The second is a reflection on that fragile relationship between imperfect children and imperfect moms.
Sidhe and the Banshees have been here all day. Even the dog has not left the house.
In the wind is the loneliness of early pioneer women when those howls filled the prairie and roared across the Plains.
Sidhe is a fierce master. Strong enough to tear apart trees. Strong enough to fill houses with sand and dirt.
But, it was not that loneliness that drove them mad. Oh, no. It was Sidhe and those Banshee screams that stole their breathe, stole their thoughts.
Sidhe jumbled and swirled the electrical charges flowing through their bodies.
Tomorrow may be calm. Tomorrow may be quiet. Today we will hide in the pillows, safe from Sidhe’s reach, ignoring the Banshee screams.
We belong to a secret sisterhood.
We let others shine today. We try to cast no cold shadow. We let them shine.
We, the mothers whose children turned silent voices and blank eyes towards us.
We, the mothers who every day long for those wayward children to return.
We, the mothers who have crawled across broken glass begging forgiveness.
Forgiveness for things we were unaware of doing.
We are here in plain view.
Only those who share our secret see us.