Theodicy by Susan O’Dell Underwood

It’s a small world, but not if you have to clean it.
Barbara Kruger

Out in the ruined Gulf of Mexico, a live feed
records the worst we can do to ourselves.

No plague of biblical proportion ever came close to this mess.

Watch the visage of the violence —
the damaged brown pelicans,
black-slick hermit crabs and sand pipers,
mangrove roots and saw grass smothering in oil.
You take in vain again the names — God and Good Lord,
and the desperate worst-of-all, Jesus Christ.
There’s no evidence any omnipotent being
so much as eavesdrops.

Like oil and water, your mother used to say
about your brother and you, exempting herself
like a wise Old Testament king,
backing out of the catastrophe.

You can’t remember which of you drew first blood,
crying over tooth marks on your knuckles.
Who saw and thought your brother
sank his baby teeth into your hand?
Who saw and thought instead
that you had bashed him in the mouth?

In every Cain and Abel death-match of blame,
only impotence is unimpeachable.
Keep yourself out of the fray.

There’s nothing left to hold against the love
that used to turn a different world,
or justify the rage that can’t leave
well enough alone in all this dark.
You can’t do a thing to staunch
the Gulf’s floor bloodletting
a mile down in freezing, pressurized black,
the most urgent voice the planet can muster.

Let the saviors be. One foolish human at a time
will wash one gull at a time, one heron,
cradle and redeem some big-winged creature.

Every last one is sent back to be sullied all over again.
Every last one of us stranded
like white bears in a far away melting land,
blinded like sheep on the steppes of Patagonia,
toxic and damaged, corrupted like spring peepers
waddling forward bright-eyed, on five legs.

Susan O’Dell Underwood directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University, where she also teaches Appalachian literature. She and her husband recently started Sapling Grove Press for the under-served community of Appalachian writers, photographers, and artists. Besides two chapbooks, her work is published in a variety of anthologies and small journals including Oxford American, Rock & Sling, Crab Orchard Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee. Her unpublished novel Genesis Road won the Tennessee Arts Commission grant for prose. Her first full-length book of poems, The Book Of Awe, is forthcoming from Iris Press in 2018.