The RHS Book of Garden Verse


Uncomfortable with their intimate dependence upon plants, human beings have asserted dominion over their lowly green companions. For generations, from Gilgamesh’s whacking at the holy Cedar Forest, to the expulsion from Eden, to medieval botanists collecting herbs for their signatures to healing, to Charlotte de la Tour’s explication of flower dialects, to Luther Burbank’s seed catalog, and Monsanto’s genetic insertions into corn and soybeans, humans have considered plants as cultivars and instruments, like pebble-tools, fire, querns, or rototillers.  Uncomfortable with the thought that plants might be transcendent beings with long-term strategies of their own, most humans maintain a strictly I-It relationship—except for poets. Decorous in the best sense of a well-matched counterpoint of the verbal and visual, the Royal Horticultural Society Book of Garden Verse, published by Quarto in the Frances Lincoln collection of illustrated gardening books, is a splendid addition to the long tradition of miscellanies and anthologies of horticultural verse. Happily neither comprehensive nor predictable, but concise and surprising, it is like a country walk, welcoming inquiry at every turn. The expected favorites make an appearance—Kilmer’s Trees, Herrick’s Cherry-Ripe, Housman’s Loveliest of Trees.   But all is not cowslips and golden daffodils. Here also find Sharon Olds’ lowly slug with its gelatinous trail, Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms who “shoulder through holes”, and the weedy patch that will not yield, no matter how much Housman “hoed and trenched and weeded.” The prints are as dramatic as they are apposite to the text. With no sign of desiccated, flattened specimens or botanical preciosity, the roses and marigolds float from page to page like greetings from a country walk to Colley Hill or Banstead Heath.  Like Edwin Morgan’s “strawberries/ like the ones we had/ that sultry afternoon/ sitting on the step,” these prints and poems make a sweet gift for the gardener with muddy knees and for the wintry-minded bookish naturalist who takes her greens in water-colors, in this garden of diction, you will find palms with island dialects and low plants with American vowels, mingling with the verbal cataracts of English Romantics, and the word-intoxicated intensity of Elizabethans. References to other works, like the poem, “April,” from Vita Sackville-West’s The Garden, will lead, like the “couch-grass throwing shoots at every node” into the larger company of green beings with lives and minds of their own. #TheRHSBookofGardenVerse #NetGalley

–Richard L. Rose

Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance

December, 2020

Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance

            Christmas decorations are going up along the street. Unlike other animals, who mostly seek to practice unobserved lives, humans call attention to themselves. When other animals do show themselves, their displays are fantastic and extravagant, but usually brief.  The cost to benefit comparison must be kept low. A puffed prairie cock can attract not only a mate but a bobcat. The unit of measurement for this comparison is generally taken to be progeny. Failure to replace the adults with progeny is usually considered low marks in the survival game.

             Another measuring unit, however, is benefit to habitat, with pass-through benefit to your species. Unplanned as they are, animals’ interactions with their habitat contribute to overall stability, as Darwin described in the famous study of earthworms and soil. Many other interactions have been studied, such as the microtubular communication system of trees and fungi. Even unattractive species like Emerald borers, locusts, tapeworms, bot flies, mosquitoes, and black flies in both adult and larval forms are often control elements within food webs, acting as stabilizers in different ways. Population biologists speak of the “strategies” of plants, animals, and microbes. The prairie cock’s strategy in an epideictic display is to attract mates. The fungal strategy is to take up the nutrients from the tree’s roots, but the tree’s strategy is to use the absorptive and communicative potential of fungal mycelia. The oyster’s strategy of producing thousands of eggs is to bet that a few will survive, but the cat’s strategy is to produce a litter and take care of them so well that most of them will survive. Such strategies are the evolved solutions to the problems faced in the survival game. Unless you’re a microbe, hundreds to thousands of years are required for even minor strategies to evolve. Oyster-like strategies, based on having surplus progeny, depend on a high reproductive rate. They are called “r-strategies.”

            An oak tree, producing an abundance of acorns in one year and only a few in the next, is following a different strategy.  Many plants can afford to wait to reproduce. They can survive through vegetative reproduction. Bamboo may flower only every thirty years. They can afford to wait. Meanwhile, the squirrels who preyed on the oak and grew fat in the year of abundance die off in the years of shortfall. They cannot afford to wait. The oak quietly controls the interaction, following a long-haul strategy, called the “K-strategy.” This brings me back to the contrast between decorations and displays.

            Perhaps craftsmen and animals have this in common: they do not decorate. They do display—at their own peril—both in the service of their kind and, unknowingly, in service of their habitat. When a craftsman like Toni Morrison constructs an elaborate story like Solomon’s Leap, she does not decorate. She takes a perilous risk to display something central to human survival—and to the survival of human habitat: so also with Stephen King, writing The Green Mile. These writers do not waste material; as mortise and tenon do not show joints, their writing does not explain when it can show.Whether craft is employed in making stories, furniture, or cathedrals, the strategy is to make something useful, reliable, and durable for other humans playing the survival game—which is the only game in town. The works that best follow a K-strategy are those providing reflexive ways to improve human interactions with other humans and with the habitat.

             A good example is the exponential growth curve of the current pandemic. The exponential function embodied in this curve is governed by variables that humans can affect, particularly in the early stage. When we “flatten the curve,” we are using the mathematical tool reflexively, not passively observing it. Given an ideal period of two weeks to a month of total quarantine, the virus, having nowhere to go, would die out. While this ideal is impossible to achieve, it is quite possible to approach.  Unfortunately, having a well-crafted tool to use or work of art to learn from does not guarantee that it will be appreciated. Displays of Italian masterpieces inside the vaults of Saudi princes do not touch the heart. Humans have a long history of failing to study, understand, and use the works that sustain the survival of caring, the survival of habitat, and the survival of the human project.

            Things are always flying apart—buildings, languages, beliefs, cultures. Physical and social erosion, along with occasional catastrophes, do their entropic best to demolish our efforts. The current pandemic reveals the cracks in infrastructure, institutions, and ideas. Work is needed; new structures are needed. Most of this work will not turn out masterpieces but small, incremental actions of fashioning, caring, structuring, and display. And this is the human project—our unique contribution:  the cognitive path.

            Unlike the many natural migrations and shifts of other species, such as the wanderings of monarch butterflies and wooly-bear caterpillars, the cognitive paths of humans become a grand procession of learning, errors, and countless leaps of consciousness—or frame-shifts. These frame-shifting leaps transpose us to systems with different coordinates, as in math when one goes from rectangular to polar coordinates. Such shifts include inventions, insights, and acts of moral courage. They are mostly unobserved, but like the long-haul K-strategies of forest giants, they preserve habitat, both biotic and social. Such shifts of frame and regard do not call attention to themselves or decorate the scene: they build, save, preserve, protect, and care for community, communication, communion, and the other commons—the rest of the living world.

             The frame-shifts of the human project include resistance, confrontations, and sacrifices. Understanding comes after the fact as the consequences become clear. The procession of the human project continually shifts toward more humane behavior and institutions across cultures and continually resists challenges, such as the hatred of outsiders so characteristic of our primate back-up system.

            To keep the procession going, I pray.

             Prayer is not a twist inward but a turn outward. It is sustained attention and creative engagement, both personal and collaborative, leading to a cognitive procession from fate to will, ignorance to understanding, greed to acceptance, waste to salvage, fear to hope, opportunism to compassion, exclusion to inclusion, and partial work to whole-hearted soul-work in the vocations that suit you.  To pray is to remind yourself that fate is an illusion; that ignorance, greed, and waste have mortal costs; that fear is false evidence appearing real, and that no secretive or mercenary theft can gain as much for the community as widening the circle of compassion. To pray is to engage creatively and skillfully, sometimes collaboratively, in building community.

            In this aspirational system, I defy the satisfactions of ignorance and the comforts of denial and withdrawal. I defy the reduction of humanity or the living world to any kind of bottom-line calculation. I defy the insistence on beliefs, proofs of loyalty, and decorations of status.           There is much to resist, externally and within, in order to advance the human project. Resistance takes on many forms—confrontations, poems, laws, quiet actions.

            The few square inches of cortical ensembles which have set us on a different path than our closest animal cousins have given us aspirations. Our best aspirations are easily identified in all cultures, and also corrupted in all cultures. Aligning ourselves with these aspirations is our human project. Luckily, we can usually do it unobserved, in the same way that animals go about their lives with only an occasional need to risk a display like this.

My latest form of resistance is a book of poems, PushBack. Links to PreOrders for PushBack, to be published in 2021, are on AmazonBarnes + NobleIndiebound, and Book Depository.


“People of different cultures sometimes differ to the point where, although we could probably understand them, we might not want to make the effort. Then all we can do is show some humility and simply greet them.”  —Edmund Carpenter  

            The above image, entitled “Lee Memorial: Color is Not a Crime,” was originally a photograph of the base of the Lee statue in Richmond during the spring protests. As prepared by Derek Kannemeyer for the cover of his new book of poems and images, the image reminds me of the wide, elephantine forehead of Ganesh, the Obstacle-Remover, peeking from the wounded Earth and encouraging us to greet change.  One resists such greetings. Edmund Carpenter noted that the cultures of some indigenous peoples might be understood through anthropology, but for us to understand them in any other way might be too much of a lift. As he says, “we might not want to make the effort.”

             Certainly, I am not interested in the Inuit’s diet. And I fail to share a gothic’s fascination with mutilation and ghoulish imagery in October. And I fail to share a fan’s persistence in November to watch games and super-games and to recite sports statistics as part of the ritual. Nor am I a fan, or likely to become one, of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, the Grateful Dead, or of various sects, evangelistic movements, and political cults. But Edmund Carpenter is not simply saying that it’s a waste of time to argue about taste (de gustibus non est disputandum). Actually, we do more than argue about taste. We go to war over it. 

            To avoid that, and lesser issues—like taking a governor hostage until she recants—we can recognize and greet another way of life rather than denying it, despising it, slavishly aping it, or attacking it and taking hostages. Every way of life has its own provisions and visions.

Sometimes we can appreciate them and try to make bridges, however imperfect. Example for the elderly: Paul Whiteman playing what he called big band jazz. It was an homage, but not to be confused with the real thing.

 Sometimes we can appreciate the other way of life and simply refrain from imposing ourselves on it. As Joe Henrich and others describe in their study of the “weirdness” of Western cultures (, the tactic of restraint has rarely been employed by Western cultures. 

And sometimes we can appreciate the other way of life simply by listening, greeting, and going on our separate ways.  I have been wondering about the nature of that greeting—the greeting of Ganesh.

(Here are some of the people who erected the Lee statue.)

The Greeting—

            (1)  The greeting is genuine; therefore inclusive, and therefore self-sustaining. A welcome with reservations is no welcome. My self-respect does not justify domination over the other. To greet the other is to acknowledge self-respect on both sides, even though we may respect ourselves with regard to different criteria. A greeting must be genuine. 

            (2)  A genuine, welcoming greeting draws the other into one’s sphere of concern, and accepts inclusion in the other’s sphere of concern. Again, the criteria on each side may differ. In an extreme case—say the other is a cannibal—inclusion will not last long. But a greeting is not a commitment.

            (3)  It is an expression of genuine welcome and inclusion, with the possibility of an extended relationship which sustains self-respect on both sides. We may not change. We may not want to change. But we can live in welcoming relationships with most people and most cultures. In fact, in the United States, we have proved this. More than India, or the former Yugoslavia, or other areas of heterogeneous ethnicity, we have found practical ways for many peoples to live in welcome.

            We have called it “pursuing happiness,” “free enterprise,” “a government of laws not men,” “a melting pot” or “stew,” and “justice for all,” but these phrases are very imperfect descriptions for the relationships we have invented. Often, we only value a welcoming relationship after it has been damaged by the tactics of domination, zero-sum analysis, exclusion, and deception. There are no borders on the Earth, only on our maps. Every damaged welcome becomes another barrier. So we come to the present time: Ganesh peeking over the Earth.

            It is sad to realize that elephants will not be on Earth much longer.  They require a large, uninterrupted habitat, not “reserves” where they can easily be rounded up. We also require an uninterrupted habitat of good will, not a fragmented, depleted, and overheated one. We also may not be on Earth much longer. But that broad, elephantine forehead greets us with a push:  A huge push.

            In the present sociopolitical churn, we know that we are being pushed. Pushed to genuine respect, self-respect, and welcome.  Serious and humane effort depends upon self-respect, not bravado or self-delusion. But sustained self-respect requires attention to the self-respect of others. What self-respect does a caged child feel? Or an enslaved girl? Or a man whose color is his crime? Or a trans person whose body is their crime? Or a woman bullied for having an unwanted pregnancy?  Or a worker required to behave like a machine?  And how does the suffering and death of any of these bear on our own self-respect? 

            “Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind,” said John Donne. So we must resist others being pushed about. But I find that resistance is not so much a decision as a bodily response to the assaults on self-respect. Sorry, but it is like vomiting—an act of revulsion and resolution. What are some forms of local literary resistance?

Consider: the poems of Nathan Richardson and his performances as Frederick Douglass (   

Consider: S. Ross Browne’s new exhibit at the Black History Museum, “The Surrender of Lee: A reverse mandala” and his new mural in downtown Richmond on Robinson & Cary. (

 Consider: Joanna Lee’s continued efforts to keep the Richmond poetry community alive at River City Poets  (

Consider:  James River Writers outreach and conferences ( e.g. Helon Habila Ngalabak (

Consider: The B-Corp Handbook: How You Can Use Business as a Force for Good by Ryan Honeyman & Tiffany Jana (

And consider my new book of poems: PushBack (Atmosphere Press, 2021), a book of stories, Forms of Resistance (no publisher yet), and a website dedicated to showcasing my work: Forms of Resistance—all coming in 2021.    

Live in Welcome.


                                                         TWITTER KNOWS BEST

In a recent interview on NPR, Jack Dorsey said that Twitter is a listening medium. We listen to the world; it listens to us; we learn more about ourselves. Through listening, self-correcting feedback, and readiness to change or repent, Twitter brings knowledge asymptotically closer to The Way Things Are, the title of Percy Bridgman’s book. Bridgman is known for describing operational definitions. An engineer may not understand everything there is to know about an I-beam, but she does not have to know everything. She only has to be able to describe it in operational terms: load-bearing, stress, strain, and so on. Twitter brings us closer and closer to the way things are by engaging more and more of the wisdom of the crowd. Listening to each other, responding with sweet reason, accommodating to differences of opinion or emphasis, we glide asymptotically into a society of mutual understandings.

What sometimes happens is that an operational description becomes the only description.

This tends to undermine mutual understanding. In addition, since humans have, as we learn from our pandemic, limited patience with exponential curves and asymptotic curves—anything, basically, more obscure than straight line (Euclidean, of course), the time required to reach sweet reason via the wisdom of the crowd is likely to be prohibitive with respect to other matters, such as survival.

Other factors are also troublesome. Indeed, a standing issue between the hard and soft sciences is the wealth of intervening variables which come up in soft-headed fields like politics, journalism, sociology, anthropology, and so on. A perfect motto for economics, ceteris paribus, is perfect precisely because it is never true: all things are never equal. And, since it is never true, a whole science is created to model situations that never develop quite as expected—rather like the weather.

Sometimes, in fact, the crowd is not really interested in reason, sweet or sour.

The process of listening and self-correction, so admirable in an ascetic community where flagellation coaches are available, is less effective in Grand Central Station at rush hour or when dodging fire from a descending helicopter. In other words, Mr. Dorsey should hire some anthropologists and take their advice. He does not understand the spread or depth or pernicious, destructive capacity of Twitter—despite more than three years of having national policies rendered on the medium. Poorly rendered—like bad sausage.

Apparently he didn’t notice, or he thinks that crowd wisdom will catch up to it by and by, or—and this seems more likely—he is making so much money that he is unable to accept genuine criticism and institute immediate, genuine change—not “studies” and “listening,” as if one were preparing for an earthquake only by improving seismometers.

Speaking of metrics, where are the data gatherers and the data-driven divas and divos of Congress? How much more information do you really need to collect to identify a dangerous monopoly indifferent to the public good?  Where are Zora Hurston, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Professor Boas when you need them?



No more statues for a while: Statues & Statements

George Floyd Movement

Two comments.

The statue

          “The goal is to get into the other’s head. Make it tidy. Extract inefficient thoughts, wandering fancies, imprecision. It’s not enough to demand only obedience to a few rules—don’t steal, don’t club your neighbor.

“No, the ideas must be right—and properly arranged. In the past we might have been satisfied with creeds, oaths, and proof-texts, but now so much more is possible with the new glial apps. Installation is ninety-two percent painless.

“The key feature is the detection mechanism. No uncertainty exists concerning installation of the proper cognitive subroutines. Right thoughts are automatic. Retinal read-outs assure compliance control.

“Pineal re-set procedures easily provide our citizenry with the confidence we have come to expect in all state services. Additionally, the annual public recitation of proof texts has been replaced by a convenient frontal clip of updates transmitted as needed through the 8G network. Contact your service drone for further information on discrepancies noted in your neighborhood.”     —from a service contract in 2080


          I’d like to recommend that we avoid building statues for a while. These visualizations of how we want each other to think have obvious shortcomings, not least of which is the difficulty of removing them when they’ve been around for a century and weigh twelve tons.

It’s tempting to think that we’ve got it right and are now able to put up some other twelve-ton statement—or even improve on it by installing the idea of the statue directly in each other’s heads.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that humans are, like documents, always under revision. We’re works in progress. We only think we can be finished. In reality, we are as provisional as the statements we make.

Now, if this seems dizzying or frightening, consider this: it also means that we don’t have to continue being what we seemed to be.


I have not used this website recently for several reasons. It is a discouraging medium with little promise for feedback or engagement. Additionally, although the website is indeed a place for placing my poems, stories, and music so that others may see them, it turns out that users may check the newsletter but do not go to the website to look for other works.

Given that the reasons for setting up the site were to engage with others and to make my works publicly available, you can see the problem.

Another reason is the times we are living through. What more could I say about them? Statements abound. I’d prefer not to add to them.

So I’ve been posting poems on Medium at

One a day, the poems come from an unpublished book.  Here’s a comment I wrote about the poem posted today.

About “Life’s Narrow Beam” & other poems         June 15, 2020

Life’s Narrow Beam

 Don’t take a poet’s advice.
It’s like believing sunlight
when the Devil beats his wife.

No matter what the intent
the supple lines surrender,
it’s a feint.  You’ll meet your end

and turning quickly around,
discover line is paid out
to a sinking sail in shroud.

Usually it’s not a good idea to interpret your own poems, but I want to talk about this one to let you in on something, if you haven’t guessed it. While I could convey a poem’s message in an essay, the poetic format allows me to consider the wrappers used for the message. Poems are not simply “statements.” Where do words come from? Why do you choose one word rather than another? What neighborhoods do words share? What is emphasized by form, placement, rhymes and other echo-effects, enjambments (run-on lines), capitalization, tone, pace, melody, and punctuation? Any surprises?

Well, in this poem, the “beam” seems to be about light. Poems by Paul Verlaine and Wm. Cowper echo this possibility — as does “Row, row, your boat.” This possibility is strengthened by the meaning of “the devil beats his wife,” a colloquial expression referring to seeing sunlight during a shower, sometimes called a “sunshower.”

But you’re warned not to believe this — no matter what the ‘lines’ of poetry suggest. Indeed, the way things seem could be a feint like the visual illusions created by film-makers using blue rooms to make ghosts appear, the subject of “A Ghost of a Chance,” a poem from a few days ago.

You may even discover that you are not where you thought you were. In this case, not a “beam” of light at all, but the narrow beam of a small sail boat keeling in a storm, its sail still wrapped. Since it is of narrow width (narrow beam), it is unstable — not unlike life, where stability is a matter of dynamic corrections from moment to moment, not a state of being permanently achieved by having the right ideas or practices.

This switch-around which you discover by “turning quickly around” to see your “line is paid out” is a frame-shift, an effect I often seek in poems and in other writings. (See below.) Frame-shifting is also a life-practice which I recommend, but that’s another story.

The “line paid out” tingles for a moment as you realize that the phrase refers simultaneously to the rope-line attached to the sinking sail, the possible end of the sailor’s life-line as the boat keels over, and the final line of the poem. So why do I mention all this and not just let you discover it for yourself?

Two reasons: (1) I’m quite serious about these poems, even when the tone is humorous. Getting others to take them seriously as poems rather than as “statements” suitable for the line of this or that publication is vexing. Indeed, the reason I’m publishing this book a poem at a time on Medium is to avoid the folks who think I must make a statement that agrees with the current line of their publication. (2) The other reason to talk about the poems for a moment is that the book is soon coming to its half-way point, when it will ask you to “turn quickly around” and make another frame-shift.

In “Things Need Not Be This Way,” you will suddenly be in the territory of an extended narrative poem with long stanzas. As such, it will make different demands on readers than the “one minute reads” previously published. Let me know how you become engaged in it — if you do. — rr

More frame-shifts, poetic and narrative, are to be found here:





A new venture

Call it the shut-in venture. Here is the first installment of a new book of poems, delivered one per day, on Medium. com:

I will also return to making blog entries. WATCH THIS SPACE. In the meantime, you may also read any of the works and past essays & reviews on

Population matters


                                        IN MEMORIAM     RAJ JAISINGHANI

I have not blogged for some time. Frankly, it didn’t seem to matter. Recently, however, I was interviewed about my friend, Raj Jaisinghani, who passed away last year. We cooperated on some workshops related to his book HOMO SAPIENS, and also wrote a paper together, with the assistance of my son, Robert A. Rose.  Here is a pdf of the version of the paper that appeared in the newsletter of the Church of the Holy Comforter in December, 2015.

Population Matters

My only partner in this work

The only partner I have had in this……………………………………….is you.


The only partner I have had in this to wait, to listen, and to see me through, unknown, yet inches from this line, is you; yet I might know you well enough to kiss— with each always purchase of the other, with each a continent to understand, with each a hidden people, hidden land sharing all lines and the quilted cover of the Earth, now surveyed; waiting to be remade. —from FRAMESHIFTS, PART 3, VOL. 2, P. 376 BY RICHARD ROSE (2011)

Calamities are downfalls for some and windfalls for others. We are givers and takers, partners and apart, in shifting realms and roles in a turbulent world. The practice of frame-shifts is like planning for emergencies.

Recently, I’ve been receiving training in giving emergency services during disasters. It doesn’t seem that different from imagining stories, poems, and music, or graphic arts like this quilt made in 1944 by Mary Hobson. How’s that?

A quilt–or a story, or a poem–begins with a frame of reference. The quilts currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from Gee’s Bend Quilters of Selma, AL immediately raise questions with their house-tops, staggered bricks, partial frames or different frames overlaid for a stereoscopic effect, silk and corduroy lines, and repeated patterns of unrepeated designs–what Edward Tufte might have called “small multiples” in his works on envisioning information. Then consider how they were made. As Rita Mae Pettway said, “Piecing them up, you do that by yourself; but quilting we all did it together.” (See #treeoflifevmfa and

Arts embody understandings. The artist gives you a story to enter, a role or song to play, a gesture or poem to repeat and comprehend. These imaginative frames of reference are given to hold between you–the artist on one side, you on the other, like the women holding a quilt between them. The work of stitching draws in the calamities of the community, the givers and takers making sense of their turbulent worlds.

Amusement is not at stake.

Amusement is not at stake; we are surfeited by amusing distractions. The arts give us objects to hold between us. This is the meaning of  “entertainment,” coming from the French words for “holding between.”

Holding a frame of reference–someone else’s understanding of the world–between us has been called “suspending disbelief,” but it seems to me that it is more like the emergency planning of first-responders as they imagine what they will do in different scenarios, and then go on to plan rehearsals. Entertaining ideas is different from seeking amusement: it’s a serious business even when we’re laughing about it. We are always in rehearsal. As Joe says in Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life, humans are always rehearsing and have to keep rehearsing finally to become themselves. Arts help us with the work on ourselves.

I write speculative fiction, poetry, and music, so pardon my suggestion that the speculations offered by writers, poets, visual artists, performers, and composers are not back-scratchers to touch an itch you can’t reach–an itch to be amused.  They are given to stitch worlds together, to hold like a life-line between the givers and the takers; they are offered for the entertainment of ideas. And for finding partners.




Since 2011, I’ve been peddling my works in various ways.  Here’s an invitation to any partners out there:

TO READ A SAMPLE OF FRAMESHIFTS: Berkeley Hotel chapter from FS

To buy BOOKS FOR A QUILTED HUMANITY BY RICHARD L. ROSE:  Find them on Amazon. When you read one, please leave a review!  Currently available by clicking on the icons on this page are      FRAMESHIFTS (2 volumes) and Coming Around (journeys in and out of Richmond over 200 years, since the time it was a sales center for enslaved human beings.) Also on Amazon is an e-book, Death Wears A Tricorn, the first story in Frameshifts. And . .

COME TO  MY Reading at the Writing Center in Charlottesville (508 Dale Ave. 22902) 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, See

OR COME TO THE Book Festival in Fredericksburg, 10 a.m to 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 21

OR COME TO: Booklovers’ Festival at Jefferson Park in Richmond on Saturday, October 19,



Richard L. Rose


REVIEW OF THE DAMASCUS ROAD: A Novel of St. Paul by Jay Parini (2019)

“The world is always ending but the Earth remains.”

Richard L. Rose (

Why does a prominent poet, teacher, and literary biographer turn his attention to the life of the first traveling salesman of Christianity, a wandering Jew whose significance has been reduced to proof texts for contradictory claims, and whose outdated opinions are lampooned and reviled? Parini has gone twice before into the unforgiving territory of religious interpretation with Jesus: The Face of God  (See .) and The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life, but these were nonfictional works in which he could distinguish sources from personal opinions and generally protect himself against anachronisms. The Damascus Road is a more personally vulnerable work.  Instead of explaining religious ideas as they historically arose, Parini seeks to engage the reader in a story that embodies the early Christian community.  A skilled interviewer, he does this by imagining conversations with two witnesses from the First Century: Paul and Luke.

History is a succession of dynamic situations with ragged edges, the transitions absent or elusive. Stephen Jay Gould, in describing the anomalies and even chimerical forms of the fossils in the Burgess shale, wrote, “The history of life is not a continuum of development, but a record punctuated by brief, sometimes geologically instantaneous, episodes of mass extinction and subsequent diversification.” (Wonderful Life, p.54). Discontinuity is the rule; loss is routine; absence of some key source is always guaranteed. Full of ourselves and our information-rich age, we find this difficult to accept.

How is it then that a poet and biographer comes to write a novel about an anomalous and almost chimerical First Century founder of the Jesus Movement? Compared to Burgess fossils, the material on Paul of Tarsus may seem rich, but in fact, primary sources are rare and provide nothing of the specificity that even a short scrap of nucleotides might reveal about a fossil. Paul is a transitional figure between the gatherings of early followers of the Way and the later Hellenistic church, about which the primary sources are abundant.  They are so abundant that Albert Schweitzer took theologians to task for attributing late First and even Second Century ideas to Paul. (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, 1930) Self-deception is enhanced by an abundance of documentation, however irrelevant. Paul may have grown up in Cilicia and learned the Torah from the Septuagint, but in his letters, he does not introduce or modify the practices of the Way, create a mystery cult, or feature himself as a mystagogue.

Within only thirty years after his death, however, the Pauline conviction about the imminent physical return of Christ, or Parousia, had waned; the message had become spiritualized, the ceremonies formalized, the gospel stories compiled, and the messianic Way had become the Church. Like Socrates, Paul had midwifed a new tradition, but what was gained and lost in the transition?

Readings of the sayings of Jesus, shared meals, and baptisms were practices of Jewish and Gentile members of the Way in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Damascus well before Paul’s conversion.  Paul’s contribution was a reasoned, conceptual foundation for the existing practices.  As a rabbi and Pharisee, Paul was taught to expect a predetermined messianic fulfillment of God’s promises for chosen people, a physical resurrection of the dead, and the elimination of the heavenly layers of demonic angelic powers that separated believers from God. After his conversion, his rabbinical training took on a new meaning. The end of history was at hand, as Jesus had taught his followers. The immediacy of this event was underscored by signs and wonders, like Paul’s vision on the Damascus Road. Parini retells this event many times, as Paul would have done in his preaching. At each telling, Paul probes more deeply into the meaning. Ecstatic in nature and therefore emptying him of his former life, the vision had left him re-clothed “in-Christ.”  It was not God, but Christ who filled him. Christ was the necessary mediator, the virtuoso of divine knowledge and compassion, the “human face of God.” To Paul, anyone who joined the elect—woman, slave, Greek, “tax-farmer” for the Empire, centurion, aristocrat, tycoon—was on the same footing with any other member. Because each of them was “in-Christ,” their community was the “body of Christ.” One joined the elect by beginning a life of continuously dying and rising in Christ. For Paul, this was a physical experience, as concrete as the obstacles on the missionary path or the heavenly beings who put thorns in the flesh, or who appeared as welcome helpers in a prison, or who carried him through the three heavens to the divine realm. These travels and visions were only possible because he was “in-Christ,” not because he had found oneness with ultimate reality or Atman, spoken the logon prayer of the Mithras cult, or been deified through a cultic practice. Even baptism was not always necessary to be “in-Christ,” according to Paul, who often welcomed new members to a community only upon their acceptance of the new life in Christ.

In contrast, the mystery cults of the First Century were available to all, not to a predestined group. Ethical requirements were minimal. Ascent and rebirth into deity was the desired outcome of mystical union. Concern about the end of history was not a feature of these cults, many of them based on agricultural concerns and a cyclical view of time.

In messianic eschatology, time was an arrow whose flight ended in a new world, the Kingdom of God,  of which the brief Hasmonean Kingdom had been a very imperfect precursor. History would soon end. For Jesus and for Paul, the Kingdom was at hand. Jesus would return to gather the faithful. In contrast to the ascent of worshippers through the Eleusian or Mithraic rites,  Pauline baptism was simply the bonding with Christ in his death and resurrection and the beginning of a life of continual deaths and resurrections for believers, now “in-Christ,” including many sufferings and martyrdoms, until the impending end of history; the new life was in Christ, therefore ethical, and the union was with Christ, not God, because YHWH was too removed, holy, and surrounded by heavenly beings to be approached. Jesus’s physical resurrection had overcome the angelic powers, in all their height and depth. By suffering and rising with him, the community also would ultimately overcome its adversaries.

Paul’s troublesome situation lies at the ragged edge between the Way and the Church, the messianic message and its Hellenistic interpretation. Certainly, his ministry installed the original gospel message, or kerygma, and his dominant subtext about being”in-Christ,”  in many towns and cities of the empire. And his letters and leadership made an international community from hundreds of scattered “house gatherings” (οικοι). But his rabbinical training in disputation and the physically concrete understanding of his vision and mission were rooted in Pharisaic Judaism. Textual analysis, for example, demonstrates that Paul never wrote about “rebirth” or being one with God. (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle,, 13-15) The language of the Gospel of John comes from a later period. Indeed, both the Gospels and the Talmud were collected only after the writing of Paul’s first letters. Undoubtedly, Paul’s teaching shaped the composition of the Gospels, even if the biographers were reacting against him, as Parini suggests about John Mark.  And Paul’s teachings certainly must have shaped the two books by Luke, who, though careful to document the missionary travels, takes liberties with quotations, as was the common practice of Herodotus and other historians of the period.

It is only by accepting questionable quotations, ignoring the absence of references to rebirth, and disregarding Paul’s repeated references to the end of history and to being “in-Christ,” but not a deity, that it is possible to think of Paul having created a Hellenistic gospel message. In fact, however, the message he preached remained a Jewish eschatological message and his mission, as he saw it, was to facilitate access to the message by Gentiles because he was convinced that God had included some Gentiles within the Elect.

The troublesome nuance about Paul’s situation is that, in order to facilitate access to the kerygma, Paul would undoubtedly have spoken to Gentiles in terms that they understood, but we do not have a record of those conversations. Would he have spoken about the Logos, “soul wisdom,” the cult of Mithra, or even have brought up the Timaeus or Phaedrus to Athenians? All one can say is that it’s plausible. As a novelist, however, Parini can say much more.

Like Richard Moulton in the Modern Reader’s Bible (1946), Parini plots his story by interpolating the authentic Pauline letters with the account of Paul’s journeys in Acts. But Parini has written a novel, not a harmonization, biography, hagiography, or pious story. Like Paul’s own message, the novel is a disruptive story, open to criticism and vulnerable to misunderstandings. Like Schweitzer, Parini reveres “truth, as something that must be a factor in our faith if it is not to degenerate into superstition.” (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, xxvi) Because Paul’s words have been interpreted to support so many contradictory positions, it may seem that he was conflicted or confused, but the consistency and logic of his argument become more evident as Parini allows Luke and Paul to tell the story in their own words.

The early gatherings and simple ceremonies of early followers often took place in the homes of members of synagogues and wealthy supporters such as matrons or businesspeople, whose property included slaves. In fact, women were usually the key supporters to anchor and lead the early Jesus Movement. And not only the poor and disenfranchised but all social classes were represented in the community. Paul visited these assemblies as an enthusiastic new convert, confident that Jesus had personally told him to preach to Gentiles as history sped to the end. Paul was keenly sensitive to the imminence of the end times and therefore disregarded, and encouraged others to disregard, long-term plans of any kind, including marriage.

The teaching of Paul evolved through remarkable experiences and encounters with new audiences. Parini skillfully shows how Paul, Luke, and other early witnesses came to explain their experiences in different ways. As differences in selective perception lead one court witness to claim that the defendant came out of the alley while another insists that she saw him at home, so the different accounts by witnesses of Paul’s prison escapes, shipwrecks, and miracles reflect the interests and intentions of the storytellers. In one retelling of the Damascus Road, Paul speaks of talking face-to-face with Jesus, who said, “that I could become like him, part of the Eternal Mind. He told me that time only existed for those who were lost. To be ‘found’ was to find myself outside of time.” Luke mentions that he preferred the earlier version, in which Paul was knocked from a white horse, struck blind by a bright light, and asked, “Why do you persecute me?” Both stories are true. That is, a foolish literalism misses the kind of truth conveyed by fiction.  As Luke says, “I quite preferred that version, although I perhaps have combined the details of many versions in my own way. A good story is a running river that never empties itself. ” (p. 48)

Surely, in the early gatherings, Jesus’s followers tried to tell everything they could recall from their experiences with Jesus. They remembered and they misremembered. As twenty-first century readers, we understand that every story, even the one that didn’t make it into print, was true, or aligned with respect to the experience of the storyteller. No canon existed. Perhaps it would not be needed since history would soon end.

But history hasn’t ended yet and during the interregnum, many canons have come and gone. Many kinds of experiences have been accepted or rejected—some considered exaggerations, others, heresies for which many have paid with their lives. And  some of the retained versions of stories have been distorted for various applications.  Is it possible that the church may have lost or culled a conversation like the one Paul has with Elon, a leader of the synagogue in Thessalonica?

“Only God matters,” Elon said.

            “And how do you know anything about God?”

            “We know him by his actions.”

            I pressed here. “What might those actions be?”

            “The creation of the world!”

            “Ah, yes. But that was not a single event in the past,” I said. “Creation is an active and continuous process.”

            This puzzled, even annoyed him.

            “The world dawns every day,” I said, “and it’s always new. The creation overwhelms us with its beauty, its changes.” (p.201)

By proposing such conversations, Parini urges us to consider the fluid nature of the received texts. One’s experience is never settled. New words and stories are needed even for the life-changing events that will never be forgotten. Such an experience exceeds our ability to capture it in words or images. “Art is an act of attention,” Luke writes, “and I was writing down everything at night, making notes while the rest of our company slept. My story of the adventures of Paul would attract readers. How could it not? Someone had to remember everything that had happened, what we did, what Paul had said and accomplished. In his letters, he refused for the most part to talk about himself, addressing problems at hand . . .” (p. 266).

Even so, Luke selects materials with care, omitting some of Paul’s more manic utterances and censoring conversations like one about a sexual indiscretion, in which, grateful for Luke’s forgiveness and understanding, Paul finally says, “Suddenly I understood in a most visceral way the crooked timber from which God had fashioned us, and knew it was impossible to live in the purity to which I aspired. That had been a fantasy of mine.” (p. 228) Indeed, although the statement seems to foresee Kant or Isaiah Berlin, it is primarily a corrective for narrow interpretations of Paul’s general teachings, if he had any, about sexual practices. Such interpretations, from the anti-Pauline Encratites to the Shakers and Southern Baptists, could have profited from the correction that Parini offers. Straight and gay men, lesbians, matriarchs, capitalists, marijuana-users, effete aristocrats, noble officers, and temple-prostitutes populate this novel, along with violent mobs and brutal soldiers. Luke says, “we occupied a highly wrought, aggressive, and intensely political world. The Pax Romana persisted, with the imperial ‘peace’ guaranteed by the use of selective brutality. It would never be simple to follow the Way of Jesus without offending someone . . .” (p.212)

One might even offend someone by writing a novel that suggests that religious language leaps “from metaphor to metaphor,” as a poet does, and not by moving “slowly and carefully, amassing evidence, making our deductions. But Paul didn’t operate in this manner. His energies poured out freely, touched his listeners in unexpected ways, and the world around them blazed with new meaning. And sometimes he angered those who heard him.” (p.206)

One has the sense that this novel is a personal summation by Parini, propelled by a sense of urgency to fulfill obligations to family, to profession, to self, and to a national community that in its longing, confusion, inequities, violence, and waywardness seems so much like the community of the First Century. If so, I echo his concern:

“. . . it seems to me that all traditions say that humans remain unenlightened when they live in a trance and forget three realities: their animal nature, and tree-rootedness in what is given, their limited understanding and scale, and the inter-relationships affected by their self-dazzling control of everything.”                                                                                                          (

The compressed energy of Paul’s anticipation for the Parousia, like the liquid oxygen of a rocket booster, was needed to lift the Way into flight, to transform it into the Church, and to prevent it from petering out like so many other First Century sects. Once aloft, however, the next stages of the journey had different requirements. The eager cry, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” was tempered by cautions, usually ascribed to Jesus:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There! For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Lk 17:20).

The messianic message was spiritualized using Greek language about the soul and Word and Greek and oriental concepts about gaining secret knowledge of God and ascending through sacred rites into communion with God. Challenges to the concept of the Elect and changes in hermeneutics and textual criticism were evidence that the experiences of the believers of the Way were already fading from memory. The journey of the Church had begun.

Parini guides us through the towns of the First Century Mediterranean world, filling in the details about local cultures and practices, and letting us eavesdrop on conversations that can only be imagined. As conversations and memories faded, the world did end. A new world of understanding had begun. And, as anticipated, when the world as they knew it came to an end, some were prepared for the new journey. May we learn from their example.