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Two Empty Chairs

“We did the NFP [natural family planning] bit for
awhile [sic]… and have felt revulsion over it ever since.
During that time we might have had at least two more
children.”  —Letter to the Editor,
Seattle Catholic, 2002

Two empty chairs, each in its place—
The kitchen table’s vacant space,
Where our six children see the chill
Of unworn seats, both standing still
Like Tiny Tim’s by the fireplace.

We timed the marital embrace
To procreate at slower pace.
That empty phrase means none shall fill
Two empty chairs.

Our family planning did erase
Two precious souls we can’t replace;
We chose ourselves above God’s will.
Their nonexistence buys each frill,
And never shall their presence grace
Two empty chairs.

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Poet’s note: The Catholic Church forbids artificial contraception, but allows “natural family planning” in grave circumstances.  There is debate among the faithful as to what qualifies as sufficiently grave circumstances.

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The No-Life Algorithm

based on a letter to the editor of Seattle Catholic, 2002

The priest gave papers teaching birth control
Through tracking monthly cycles, maddening us
With calendars and charts and stickers, full
Of codes far more complex than C++!
Thank God we’ve never tracked the monthly rhythm;
The papers, shredded up, we’ve never missed.
For, had we learned the no-life algorithm,
Which of our seven children would exist?

Would it be Mary, Peter, Anne, or John,
Or Paul, Elizabeth, or Catherine
Whose lights of life would never even dawn
Because avoiding children seemed a win?
Well, all I know is this: I’d rather give
My life than not allow my kids to live.

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Poet’s note: C++ (pronounced “see-plus-plus”) is a computer programming language, criticized for its complexity even by some notable programmers.

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Untitled

Joshua C. Frank found this poem in the 1951 book by
Archbishop Sheen titled
Three to Get Married. The book
can be found here.  

by John Davidson

Your cruellest pain is when you think of all
The honied treasure of your bodies spent
And no new life to show. O, then you feel
How people lift their hands against themselves,
And taste the bitterest of the punishment
Of those whom pleasure isolates. Sometimes
When darkness, silence, and the sleeping world
Give vision scope, you lie awake and see
The pale sad faces of the little ones
Who should have been your children, as they press
Their cheeks against your windows, looking in
With piteous wonder, homeless, famished babes,
Denied your wombs and bosoms.

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Joshua C. Frank works in the field of statistics and lives near Austin, Texas. His poetry has also been published in the Asahi Haikuist Network.


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21 Responses

  1. BRIAN YAPKO

    Well-executed poetry, Joshua, written from the heart and which gives us much to ponder. When I return home I plan to comment further. Happy New Year!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Brian. I’m looking forward to reading your further comments.

      Reply
  2. Roy Eugene Peterson

    A sensitive subject well presented in three poems that stir the emotions.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Roy. It certainly stirred my emotions when I read those letters… which is why I had to write those first two!

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Josh, I applaud you for giving the alternative viewpoint to the birth-control narrative we’ve been force fed for years… a doctrine that has robbed lives of meaning and purpose. I see more and more people reaching an age where their self-serving, materialistic lives have left them childless, lonely, and regretful. If procreation (in the biblical sense) was as zealously pursued as libertinism, I am certain the world would be a happier and safer place in which to live. I hope serious consideration is given to your message… a message that has been stamped out to the detriment of many.

    I would also like to say, your employment of the rondeau form (one of my favorites) … those repeating lines are a triple tug at the heart. All three poems are exceedingly well presented, but I am especially drawn to the message of “Untitled” – it’s haunting.

    Josh, thank you for shedding light on the side of the contraception argument rarely heard.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Susan! It’s nice to hear someone say all this. Everything you’re saying on the matter is, of course, true.

      When Pope Paul VI issued the controversial papal letter Humanae Vitae in response to some very high-level Church leaders and theologians pushing for the Church to allow contraception, he predicted (guided by the Holy Spirit) that if the teaching were ignored by the population, it would:

      1. “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality”
      2. lead the man to lose respect for the woman and come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion”
      3. place a “dangerous weapon… in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies”
      4. lead man to think that he had unlimited dominion over his own body

      We only have to look around us to see that all these predictions have long since come true. I believe, based on Paul VI’s predictions, that as long as birth control is widespread, these problems will only worsen with time despite our best efforts. Of course, the joke is on the modern world; natural selection will ensure that families, communities, and cultures that refuse to use birth control will dominate through numbers in the long run. For more on this topic, I recommend Progress Debunked by Samuel Thomsen.

      I also love the rondeau form and was really happy to have a image that made it the perfect form for “Two Empty Chairs.” I love your description of “a triple tug at the heart.” For the untitled one, it really is haunting… so much so that not only has the concept inspired some of my other poetry, but when I saw that there’s a “Found Poem” category, I had to submit it here!

      I hope my message gets serious consideration, too. I’m surprised I haven’t had more comments, especially after seeing the positive response to “The No-Life Algorithm” in the prose/sonnet challenge and to “Elegy for the Child Never Conceived” (that’s turned out to be my most popular poem). The fact that this side of the argument is so rarely heard is why I want to get it to a wider audience.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Josh, thank you very much for the information you’ve supplied. Not only is it interesting, it also serves to outline how we have come to live in a world that revels in sexualization, neutering, and mutilation of children, and abortion. You say below that you are surprised these poems aren’t receiving the same popularity as ““Elegy for the Child Never Conceived.” I believe it’s because these poems are not only starker, but they touch upon a subject on which many have an opposite opinion. Contraception and abortion have been sold to the populace as the ultimate acts of selfless care for a planet dying under the strain of overpopulation… a complete lie. Many have decided against having children because of this lie. It’s tough to read words that challenge that lie. I’m grateful to you for presenting the alternative stance in a world that prides itself on groupthink.

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Susan, thank you for your reply. If you’re interested in the history of the decline of Western civilization, I recommend The Case Against the Modern World by Daniel Schwindt, Revolution and Counter-Revolution by Plinio Correa de Oliveira (this one can be found free on Internet Archive), Catholic and Identitarian by Julien Langella, and Liberalism is a Sin by Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany (this one can be found free with an online search). These books trace it all the way back to the Renaissance. Large families being common is one of many fallen dominoes starting from the one domino of individualism.

        Still, if the world were to give up birth control and see the importance of being fruitful and multiplying, a lot of the decadence of the last hundred years or so would vanish. Far from being a selfish act, having a child, whether the first or the twenty-fifth, makes us more selfless. Children have a way of refocusing our priorities, and more so the more children we have. “Their nonexistence buys each frill” wasn’t just a throwaway line I tossed in for a rhyme; it summarizes the problem with modern culture. The money people could spend raising more children, more souls for Heaven, they spend on useless things (often worse than useless) they think they can’t live without, which is exactly what sellers of these things want. Capitalism and industrialization thus will always ensure that the most powerful people will be in favor of anything that encourages people to have few or no children, and against anything that encourages people to have many children. That’s one major reason our overlords hate religion, family values, rural life, traditional sex roles, patriotism, and all those things we cherish, and will do anything to destroy them—it’s a business decision. Capitalism is inherently at war with all these things. Hence my poem “The Great Satan,” published 8/27/2022 (under “A Villanelle for Robert Hoogland”).

        As for the concept of overpopulation, I agree, it’s bogus. So, I’ve got a few more words to challenge that lie. Every person in the world could have his own house and yard in an area the size of Texas, leaving the rest of the world for other purposes such as agriculture and manufacturing. The world could support over 50 billion people using agricultural methods no more efficient than what Japan already uses (this calculation takes into account how much they import), and this number will undoubtedly increase by the time we reach that point, if we ever do. But, leaving these facts aside, the same people who complain about “overpopulation” are silent about the fact that energy use per capita is increasing at 3% per year because of our increasing use of technology. That’s like having five or six children per couple. If that increase were caused by population growth, the left would be outraged, yet the exact same increase in use of the earth’s resources is caused by technological “progress.” Of course, they’ll come back at me and point out that I used technology to say this… but unlike them, I don’t claim to be invested in the cause of environmentalism. Instead, I’d rather we used that growth to make more people than more machines. That the culture has chosen to spend its growth elsewhere shows a preference for machines over people.

        The fact is, our technological civilization is unsustainable, any way you look at it. If the world is still around in a thousand years, it will probably be more like the Middle Ages.

        Yes, these are starker than “Elegy for the Child Never Conceived”… that one was about the concept in general, while these two are based on actual cases. One couple really did regret the two (or more) children they could have had but didn’t, and another really did thank God that they were spared the same error. People never wish they had fewer children… but they often wish they had more. I’m glad you’re grateful to me for presenting the alternative stance. There are many issues where no one else will present anything other than what groupthink tells them, so I feel compelled to write about these things and share them with as many people as possible. I like to aim my pen at the foundations.

  4. Margaret Coats

    Josh, with these three poems, you have offered a wide array of thoughts and images showing the shortfalls of “family planning,” even when the planners avoid many sins and vices closely associated with trying to prevent pregnancy. And even here, selfish lack of openness to life appears to be the main motive. It’s either “This is the number we wanted,” or “We couldn’t afford any more.” But if we consider the whole family, including the other children as you do in the first poem, the greatest gift to them is surely brothers and sisters. No “frills” make up for missing siblings that the family could have had (with God’s willingness to provide them, of course).

    It’s also useful to point out the unnatural complexity of any program to regulate births, as you do in “The No-Life Algorithm.” In contrast, one of my friends says she and her husband “just let things happen when they happened.” That’s a kind of personal freedom with dependence on God that relieved them of stress and brought them happiness. They had six children and lost one to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Despite the grief at their loss, they withstood it more calmly than others.

    Your writing here is probably the bravest countercultural post we’ve seen, because it considers a topic where most on this site probably share the mindset of the world at large.

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Margaret. It is precisely because these shortfalls and selfish motives exist that these stories had to be brought to a wider audience. (I wrote and submitted more because each poem generated more ideas, but these are the two that were accepted.) As you may have noticed, I didn’t make these up; I merely wrote in the voices of the couples who wrote these letters to the editor 20 years ago.

      Yes, the unnatural complexity is an aspect rarely discussed as well… all that hassle, and for what? To cancel out their children’s existence like in time-travel movies? There is nothing loving or Christian about saying, “Not tonight, honey, God might give us another child we’d have to spend money and time on if we do.” One person said this kind of behavior is like planting corn in the dead of winter to avoid a bountiful harvest, and he’s right. How wonderful about your friend who let God plan her family like the couple from “The No-Life Algorithm!” What a great example for the rest of us to follow.

      Thank you for your compliment at the end. First, Susan is my inspiration in boldly writing countercultural poetry; she deserves some credit. Second, as I mentioned in my reply to her comment, I believe, based on things Pope Paul VI said, that unless the issue of birth control is addressed, none of the problems we write against stand a chance of being solved. Third, “Elegy for the Child Never Conceived,” written on the same subject, has turned out to be my most popular poem in my online and offline social circles; I’m surprised these aren’t enjoying the same popularity.

      Thank you again for your comment. I always enjoy reading yours.

      Reply
  5. Brian A Yapko

    Thank you for your patience concerning my comment to your poem, Josh! First, I concur with Susan and Margaret, both of whom commend you for your bravery in presenting a point of view with which many do not agree. I continue to be impressed not only by your bravery but the strong boundaries you have in defending your faith. You take ideas to their logical conclusion no matter what the consequences or popularity-level. That’s called integrity.

    Your message is well-served by the poetry you present. I especially admire your rondeau – a difficult form which you handle admirably. Yours strikes just the right tone between critical observation and pathos. The central image of “two empty chairs” is perfect and allows you to bring Tiny Tim into the mix with all of the Dickensonian resonances of A Christmas Carol.

    Your “No-Life Algorithm” is also starkly evocative in presenting the terrible choice that requires a parent to decide between life or no-life for children. The charts and cycles and codes necessary to track monthly rhythm seem particularly unnatural which, I suppose, is one of the points you are offering.

    “Untitled” is well worth reading – especially for the imagery of those pale sad faces of the little ones pressing against the window.

    All beautifully done and presented. Great work, Josh!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Brian! How nice to hear from you, especially the compliments with which you start. You’ve described exactly what I intended to convey with my two poems.

      The image of two empty chairs based on that letter to the editor came from a quote from Richard Price: “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road.” After reading that sentence from the letter to the editor quoted, I asked myself what the burnt socks are. The image of two empty chairs seemed perfect for a rondeau, especially since the most well-known rondeau in English is “In Flanders Fields.” Once I chose rhymes, the poem wrote itself!

      As for “The No-Life Algorithm,” it was really the story told in the other letter to the editor that was “starkly evocative.” The first eight lines just followed the true story using the metaphor of computer programming; the other six came from thinking about line 8 from the speaker’s perspective.

      Yes, the last one, by John Davidson… I, too, found it to be well worth reading, especially for that same image… that’s why I had to share it with a wider audience here!

      Thank you for your comment. It’s always a joy to read yours.

      Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you for commenting, Kathy. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? Based on your comment alone, I’m not even sure whether you liked my poems.

      Reply
  6. Kathy Bahr

    Our Existence
    What I’ve taken from your poetry
    Is that it is befitting of life
    Did we have room for children…
    I would say we have room.
    You made a telling observation.
    Whom? Religion for control or as excuse.
    What’s your spirituality? I was taking a quiz.
    On spirituality beyond Religion…

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      I’ll try to answer your comment the best I can. You’re right that my poetry is unashamedly pro-life. Most of the time, when people say pro-life, they mean anti-abortion. Essentially, that’s just being against murder. However, that’s where many stop. When we insist on the right to erase children from existence à la Back to the Future, and God intervenes and they’re conceived anyway, of course we’re going to resort to abortion because we’re already insisting on the right to sweep them out of our lives. Even in the movie Terminator, someone refers to the villain’s attempt to prevent the conception of the future hero as a “retroactive abortion.” He’s right.

      You’re also right that we have plenty of room for children; see my comment above regarding population.

      As for the question about religion, I’m Roman Catholic. My poem “Unholy Orders,” published January 4, 2023, shows that I’m not about using religion to control people. When religious leaders do try to control people, these days it’s often to dissuade them from obeying their own religion! What kind of madness is that?

      This isn’t about trying to control people with religion, if that’s your concern. This is about trying to show people what they’re missing when they use any kind of birth control, regardless of what religion they are.

      Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      The letters to the editor are excerpted online on a few websites from far-right groups that have broken away from the Catholic Church. All of them have copied the excerpts word for word. To save you all the trouble of finding them, here they are, for reference:

      “Dear Editor… I was a non-religious divorced pagan before I met my husband who was, at the time, a minimal practicing Catholic. I became Catholic in 1993 and we were married in 1994. I had no idea at that time that Catholics were allowed to do anything to prevent a child. I had never even heard of NFP until the priest we were meeting with during the six months prior to our wedding handed me a packet of papers and basically said, “here, you’ll want to learn this.” When I got home, I briefly thumbed through the papers. I saw calendars, stickers, and charts. To be honest, it was mind-boggling all the effort people would go through just so they could have intimacy without consequence. It was also shocking to me that this was being promoted before I even took the vows on my wedding day! I threw the packet away and have never looked back. I am thankful that I never learned NFP… I wonder which of my children wouldn’t be here had I chosen to keep those papers and learn NFP?”

      “Dear Editor… I am a mother to seven children and can share my own experiences. NFP did NOT bring my marriage closer. I struggled with reconciling myself to the fact that scripture states a husband and wife should be submissive and not separate unless for prayer. We were avoiding pregnancy…..plain and simple. There can be nothing spiritual about telling your spouse that you can’t participate in the marital embrace for fear of a child being conceived. Webster’s dictionary defines contraception as: “deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation”. Systematically charting and watching out for those fertile days is the deliberate prevention of conception. I know friends who use it. I’ve talked to them in a very personal way. They do not want any more children. They are using NFP as birth control, which it is. And one friend has been using it for 11 years and “hasn’t had any accidents.” … I can say that St. Augustine was right on target when he wrote in The Morals of the Manichees: “Marriage, as the marriage tablets themselves proclaim, joins male and female for the procreation of children. Whoever says that to procreate children is a worse sin than to copulate thereby prohibits the purpose of marriage; and he makes the woman no more a wife than a harlot, who, when she has been given certain gifts, is joined to a man to satisfy his lust. If there is a wife, there is matrimony. But there is no matrimony where motherhood is prevented, for then there is no wife.”… My favorite comment recently was made by another author comparing NFP to a farmer who plants his corn in the dead of winter so as to avoid a plentiful harvest.”

      “Dear Editor… Let me put the NFP debate simply: if it is your intention to avoid having children it really doesn’t matter what method you use. You’ve already committed the sin. If, however, you use contraception as your method of choice, you add to the first sin a second one. As to the oft-repeated mantra of “grave reasons”, allow me to say this: name one. Look deep into your heart and name one that is really, truly grave… We did the NFP bit for awhile… and have felt revulsion over it ever since. During that time we might have had at least two more children.”

      “To the Editor: NFP is one of the chief infiltrations of the new-age sex cult into the Church, along with sex-ed and immodest dress… As modern Catholics have been conditioned to embrace mutually contradictory ideas while defending them as consonant, they have been easily deceived by the notion that NFP, as commonly practiced, is somehow different from birth control. I have no training in moral theology, but even I know that the goal of an action determines its substance. When a couple engages in deliberately sterile relations, this is known as birth control, plain and simple.”

      Reply

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