Doubts and Reaffirmations
Poems by Timothy DeJong

Brief Reckoning

The Catholic philosopher says we are none of us Christians
And in a way he is right, we fill our heads with gods 
We can understand to replace
The one we cannot. But we all long 
For what we see to be redeemed, one could even say
We all believe in God if we define 
God as another word for that which helps us live
With all we can’t control. The bare alternative’s
To accept nothingness as end and final limit, 
Life as perverse anomaly a billion years will surely
And intractably correct, to think which requires
Difficult faith, thus I’ve heard some atheists soften
What they see as the nothing after death 
By describing how the body’s atoms
Turn to ash or silt or stars, become the universal forms,
A notion that, while comforting, ducks the credo’s
Darker implication, cold finality 
Of no continuance. We cling to the proviso 
Of an afterward: “The dead live on in memory, 
The memories of those who loved them”—again, evasion:
Those who loved them will equally die,
And memory, since human, is a faulty 
Stay against oblivion, imposter of an anchor, love as well
A desire for attachment explained, on this account,
In terms of chemicals, biology, wound through with fear
And survival, constant need never to be alone. A need a god
Might fill: hence our severe predilection for divinities, 
Our history charted in “muttering kings,” “inhuman births,”
Endlessly flowering pageant bespeaking projections
Of the same will to ascend and to control
That birthed the deaths of millions, unthinkable
Atrocities endured and perpetrated, pinpointing the dilemma
Of all God-seekers, who wish to resist imagining him authorizer,
Even indirectly, of our mostly blindly chosen 
Course of action, the confounding mess
It can mean to be human, the blood 
And the bile and no less the shattering
Feelings—guilt, envy, shame, confusion, sick 
Regret—that can set, each day again,
Any face toward the future wearing pain. Yet so much in life
Is good, and hope beats in every heart like a great hunger
For more of what will feed it. That we’re so compelled to be,
Not merely by circumstance but by composition, 
Compelled internally, hints at some force
By which the universe proceeds to a sense-making end
Despite the carnival of anguish and desire
In which we founder. For solace, for relief,
We call after meaning, great beast that lowers 
Its head and lumbers off into the dusk. Meaning, which must 
Come from somewhere, if we know it, essays to live in things,
Outstrip the mortal prisons of our brains, and reveal
God as its ground or source. Observe, I admit, in me
The need for some unblemished purpose to pervade
The script we’ve made, to enervate the chatter that proliferates 
Between and maybe frays our monadic minds. Nothing
Is ever new, I know this much, and still I seem to hear
Each day again faint voices pondering
The import of some vista I’m denied, I to whom the future,
Whether better or worse or just more, is curtailed,
Has begun becoming past. Nor is that news,
That life is brief, that there’s no stay against our reckoning.
Really there’s no such thing as life, but only lives,
Each with its meager purchase on the dissolve and gleam,
Certain decay and all the rest for each,
Each with a peculiar and original
Glimpse into the fray, all of us given to wander,
Become ourselves, and leave off wandering.

How to Be, What to Do

From your earliest years there was always 
Someone to tell you how to be,
Which you appreciated even without knowing it.
Living inside the lines, growing into yourself, 

You built a house on a high hill from which
Vantage point all mistakes seemed correctable. 
You spent the points you earned at the work factory 
On the stuff one must by rule accumulate,

And now it populates your well-furnished rooms. 
Your children, who love you, prosper in faraway cities. 
All this you gained through playing by the rules. 
Meanwhile the years slipped past with practiced ease. 

Is there a solitary but critical step you might have taken, 
A decision that might have made the journey cohere? 
Your experience is common; you wait inside your life. 
In the evening gloam you stand, hands behind your back

As if awaiting some revelation. When you speak
Your words float and evaporate along quiet corridors. 
The scent of night rises, there is a look of formal
Distance in the silent line of trees. 

And on the front porch the empty 
Swing sways gently, lifted by the faintest trace of breeze.

Uncertain Ghazal Ending in a Prayer

I always preferred to think I belonged where I was. Maybe,
Though, belonging is the lie that fits us to what may be.

Now the plague conspires to leave our well-laid plans
Unhatched, mismatched. Each sentence I speak is maybe.

I find solace leaning on others’ words, those of poets,
Mystics, scholars, their numinous interrogations of what may be.

Of course, all art shares, too, an emptiness, visionary
Or not, what Keats called negative capability, living within maybe.

It’s hard to stay there, the nights are cold. It takes practice,
Takes a gift or curse to shape convictions into questions, into maybe.

A throw of the dice, wrote Mallarmè, won’t abolish chance.
Walking away he thought he heard a voice whisper, Maybe. 
I pray to God to help me stop changing 
my mind about my life. Will it be answered? — Maybe.

Autumn Miniature

After the summer’s drought how quickly—
fueled by short hard rains—
the dead lawns gleam green again.
In the drop-off line at the primary school
children hoist their small shoulders through
the sunroofs of SUVs, wave like tiny popes
to their waving friends, each at the front
of an imagined procession featuring them.
All day round here cars drift down country roads 
as people go where they suppose 
they ought to go, later to return,
obedient to routine, as the sun tucks itself down
behind a scrim of cloud. Inside all this,
in one more car, I could be anyone.
Nothing about this place is special.
Outside our little town the whole world
spills out like paint on canvas, triumphal
orderly mess, conspiring to add—
how can it not? — to something
finally good. Here, from somewhere,
the drone of bees, a child’s shout, 
basketball’s thump on blacktop,
faint stinging scent of burning wood.
All of whatever anyone can see
spinning over into darkness, as though
the wide earth’s unseen curve,
knowing what we all need,
conspires to make it look
something like grace the way 
night falls on neighborhood.

Game Theory for Beginners

On a warm winter day I wander
the property performing small tasks:
wash the dishes, feed the chickens,
tidy the yard, thinking as I do of a poem
I taught not long ago that observed the overlap 
between what’s good and what’s hard.
Every decision a many-rooted tree
heavy with leafed branches, as when 
the radio host asks why the president 
would let an arms dealer go free 
in order to rescue an athlete imprisoned
in a foreign country. Lives like dominoes
mid-topple, pay to play by the rules 
of a game we’re inside but can’t see. 
I stop by Bonnie’s Greenhouse,
whose owner’s late for work, and pace
beside the sagging waist-high gate.
Fog thick as syrup, and the vacant street
rings with roosters’ indignant screams.
An ancient TV antenna, layered in vines,
hangs slantwise over the abandoned garden
in front of the house next door
whose white-painted siding is peeling.
I stand in the street unsure what I’m feeling.
I’m wearing my father’s old sport coat, black and tan
patterned herringbone, its silk crimson inner lining
so frayed I needed, this morning, to take
a scissor to its strands. I know how it will go,
as it always does: the room will fill, 
the heads wait, nod, halfway between
intent and bored, as I explain a novel
or story or poem. But what am I doing here really?
Something I know I can, I suppose,
in the time that I have. Sometimes, walking
from one place to another, I feel them,
all those other lives beside or inside me,
all evenly unlived, silently evoking 
the nothing they became.
One mind, one life’s enough, I guess:
each day, like everyone, I wake to wakefulness
and think all day unceasingly until I sleep.
Why were our minds made restless,
and where will they come to rest? 
One wants to say we’re all trying our best,
debating endlessly what’s meant by best.
The path I travel’s not the one of least
resistance but the one I haven’t guessed.
The world’s a wreck, I know it, so it’s time
to mend what hurts I can, help others thrive,
hope for surprise, thankful meanwhile I’m alive,
take solace in the company I keep.

Timothy DeJong lives in the Waco, Texas, area and teaches in the English Department at Baylor University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals, among them Waxwing, Image, Rattle, and descant. His website is

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