By Carol Gilbertson
We stood on a green hill
on a brisk spring day,
two small sisters in coats, singing
two-part harmony into a tiny grave.
Our preacher dad had asked us
to sing the one about children
and their heavenly father
at the burial of a baby, stillborn
to a couple named Story.
But this was a story
I couldn’t crack. How
could a baby be born
with no breath or life,
how could a baby be dead,
but still, born?
I looked at the mother’s eyes
as the two of us sparrowed on
about how life and death
would never sever—I knew
it meant separate—children
from God’s strong arms.
It was nice to get paid for singing,
but I didn’t want to ever be dead
and flourishing in some faraway
holy courts. Each night I prayed
uneasily that If I died before I woke
the Lord would take my soul—
God suddenly materializing
in the dark room, like a frightful thief
in the night, to spirit some unseen
part of me up and away.
I liked my real home on the prairie.
And I wanted my story: all babies born
unstill into their fathers’ arms,
everyone mounting green hills
unwounded by grave dirt,
all of us singing an old, old story
and breathing, breathing,
grace all around us like fresh air.
Poet’s commentary: An essential theological principle for Martin Luther was his focus on grace alone, rather than good works, as the means of salvation for humans. This poem’s retrospective speaker worries through a particular vision of God’s love and grace in the Swedish folk hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father,” by Karolina Sandell-Berg, which is traditionally sung at Swedish baptisms. The naïve speaker questions the vision of a distant father-figure cradling her and longs instead for her own earthly vision of grace. Her musing about abundant life is poignant at the graveside of a stillborn child. The poem plays with traditional religious images and expands on Luther’s notion of free grace.
Carol Gilbertson is a poet, librettist, and hymn-text writer. Her chapbook, From a Distance, Dancing (2011), was a finalist in Finishing Line’s Open Chapbook Competition. She has received the Donald Murray Prize and the Flyway Sweet Corn Prize. She has written hymns and a song cycle with various composers and co-edited Translucence: Religion, the Arts, and Imagination (2004). Emerita Professor of English and former Dennis M. Jones Distinguished Professor at Luther College, she was founding director of the Lutheran Festival of Writing at Luther College and is on the Board of LutheranArts.
*This poem first appeared in The Christian Century, 13 June 2014; used by permission.