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What is Nature? (From the Biography)

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In November 1900, John Emerson Roberts had begun his fourth year as an independent freethought preacher, speaking on Sunday mornings in theaters.  He was beginning to be noticed beyond Kansas City.  A nationwide network, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, invited him to speak at their conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was a great opportunity to make his views widely known.

            Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.” As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

“Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.”

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine.

After some additional arguments against old Christian views, Roberts personifies the natural world as mother:

“The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.”

Having lifted up nature, Roberts goes on to challenge the Christian view of heaven.   He asks, “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. He concludes:

“There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.”

Another speaker at this conference was Clarence Darrow.  Both men were paid $25 for their efforts.  Roberts and Darrow began an acquaintance that lasted for decades.  That is another part of the story told in the biography.

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly from the author.

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Recommendation: Sean Hill’s “Blood Ties and Brown Liquor”

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I “discovered” Sean Hill through a poem published in Poetry magazine this past April.  Titled “Bemidji Blues,” it describes snow, shadow, cold and music in the city in which Hill now lives, Bemidji, MN.  The craft of this poem is wonderful―particularly its shape and the way in which he repeats words (in different meanings) as end rhymes―so I went looking for other work by him.

Hill’s first – and so far only – book, Blood Ties and Brown Liquor, (University of Georgia Press, 2008) describes a totally different world, the world in which Hill grew up, the town of Milledgeville, Georgia.  The craft is equally good, involving many different forms, and there are a variety of experiments.  The combination of this craftiness with the serious subject of what it was to be African American in earlier generations, is powerful.

This is the only book of poetry I have read which includes a genealogical chart – of a fictitious family.  Silas Wright and his forebears are a major subject of the book.  However, some of Hill’s actual family are also included, such as his grandmothers and their stories.

A series of six poems titled “b. Nov. 14, 1926: Grandmother poems” appears to draw on actual remembered stories.  Here is one of them:

#1: Ernest and the Plowing Bull

On the farm we growed cotton for sale and corn
greens potatoes peas sweet potatoes and okra to eat―
three milk cows a mule and chickens for eggs and meat.
I had two brothers, in 1921, ’22 and ’26 we was born.
Phineas the oldest Ernest next and I was the baby.
Lived with my mother and father, Inez and Charlie―we called
her Nin―and grandmother and grandfather, Eva and Sam.  Y’all’d
liked Ma Eva. She and Nin they’d go out for the cows and bring em
up to the house so we’d have milk fresh from the teat.
Ernest had a bull.  He broke him to the plow.  Bull named Pete.
He would plow and Ernest could even ride him.
They’d tromp through the yard―Ernest on top―looking to get cool
walk down to the pond and wade into that green brown pool.

I find the contrast of the sonnet form, with full rhyme scheme, the diction and the homey story-telling makes a great combination.  Only a few of the poems have such precise structure, but all combine skill in the form chosen with rich narrative.

One poem which is widely available on the internet, with good reason, is this short poem about Silas Wright learning to write his name.  It is balanced by a poem later in the book about the widowed Silas actually fishing and remembering his wife.

Silas Wright at Age Seven 1914

Silas Wright follows a fish’s wriggle
In the shallows between reeds. He scribes the
Line in his tablet—as much pride in that line
As a man in his son. He almost giggles—
Still he goes on. The next letters come easy.
With this he’ll have more than a mark to bind.
Rambling across the page again and again
In messy rows on it flows until he
Goes a little off the page’s edge. He smiles.
He’s surprised to hear when his mouth opens—
That’s mine.

Silas Fishing 1967

That heron yonder’s
a good fisherman―
patient―will wade
and wait.  But it ain’t
a good day for fishing―
neither of us having
no luck―just minnows
nibbling my bait.
There he goes―up and off
to another pond I suppose―
trailing those long legs, flapping
slow and steady.  I cried and cried
the day Mama died.  And it hurt
me deep when my wife . . . when
Devorah passed.  But I didn’t
shed a tear.  Been near ten years
and here they come
like the drops from
that heron’s feet.

There are many other characters in this book, vividly and gently presented.  They are a delight to know.  But Hill will not let the reader be too comfortable.  He starts the book with a reminder of how much was not right with this world in a brief preview poem titled “Southampton County, Virginia Aubade1831,” which refers to Nat Turner’s insurrection:

Some whites don’t rise with the sun
having departed in the night,
man woman and child, leaving behind none.
The sigh of a broadax mingled
with cricket and frog song.
The mockingbird greets the morning
with many tongues.

I highly recommend this book and will watch for new work by Sean Hill.