Poem project selections

By Robert Cording

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer is thankful

for a hairbrush, for a pipe and tobacco,

for cigarettes and Schelling’s Morals Vol. II.

Thankful for stain remover, laxatives,

collar studs, bottled fruit and cooling salts.

For his Bible and hymns praising what is

fearful, which he sings, pacing in circles

for exercise, to his cell walls where he’s hung

a reproduction of Durer’s Apocolypse.

He’s thankful for letters from his parents

and friends that lead him back home,

and for the pain of memory’s arrival,

his orderly room of books and prints too far

from the nightly sobs of a prisoner

in the next cell whom Bonhoeffer does not know

how to comfort, though he believes religion

begins with a neighbor who is within reach.

He’s thankful for the few hours outside

in the prison yard, and for the half-strangled

laughter between inmates as they sit together

under a chestnut tree.  He’s thankful even

for a small ant hill, and for the ants that are

all purpose and clear decision.  For the two

lime trees that mumble audibly with the workings

of bees in June and especially for the warm

laying on of sun that tells him he’s a man

created of earth and not of air and thoughts.

He’s thankful for minutes when his reading

and writing fill up the emptiness of time,

and for those moments when he sees himself

as a small figure in a vast, unrolling scroll,

though mostly he looks out over the plains

of ignorance inside himself.  And for that,

too, he’s thankful: for the self who asks,

Who am I?—the man who steps cheerfully

from this cell and speaks easily to his jailers,

or the man who is restless and trembling

with anger and despair as cities burn and Jews

are herded into railroad cars—can

without an answer, say finally, I am thine,

to a God who lives each day,

as Bonhoeffer must, in the knowledge

of what has been done, is still being done,

his gift a refusal to leave his suffering, for which,

even as the rope is placed around his neck

and pulled tight, Bonhoeffer is utterly grateful. 


Poet’s Commentary: Martin Luther considered gratitude a central Christian posture in response to God’s free gift of grace—many of his often-quoted remarks are exuberant in thanksgiving and praise. This poem enumerates all the things that the German Lutheran theologian-pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was grateful for, in a least-likely situation—his letters from a Nazi prison: small material necessities (even laxatives!) and letters he has received; the lives and voices of the other prisoners; the power to read; the hymns he sings to pass the time and the voice he has to sing them; the minutes he’s allowed outside in the prison yard, including the gift of the trees and even lowly ants; his memories; the gift of his life and the God who holds him. Luther claimed God’s grace as the only key to salvation, though he also experienced deep doubt. But Bonhoeffer, even as the noose is tightened around his neck, is so confident of God's grace that he finds himself full of gratitude for all things, even his own suffering and death.

Robert Cording has published eight collections of poems, including Only So Far, Walking with Ruskin, Heavy Grace, and A Word in My Mouth: Selected Spiritual Poems. He has received the Pushcart Prize, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry, and two poetry grants from the Connecticut Commission of the Arts. His poems have appeared in the Nation, the Southern Review, Poetry, and the New Yorker. He is the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing Emeritus at the College of the Holy Cross.

*This poem first appeared in The Paris Review (Summer 2000) and won the Pushcart Prize. It also appears in Cording’s Against Consolation (2001); used by permission.