Christmas as Poetry

Gerrit van Honthorst, Adoration of the Child (c. 1620).

Christmas is a poetic argument against the prosaic flattening of the world into a place without depth or mystery. For a few days or weeks, it interrupts the social imaginary where God is absent, ignored, or simply unthinkable, inviting us to consider––and adore––the mystery of a world saturated with the divine. 

“This is the irrational season,” says Madeleine L’Engle, “when love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason / there’d have been no room for the child.”

The Feast of the Incarnation not only accepts paradox, it revels in it:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut up in a span!
Summer in winter, day in night!
Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Great little One! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth. 

–– Richard Crashaw, “In the Holy Nativity of our Lord”  (17th century)

Whether you spend the Twelve Days pondering these things in your heart, or caroling the wonders of everything heard and seen in the stable of new birth, may you be filled with peace, blessing, and endless praise. 

But enough prose. Here is some of my favorite poetry for the “irrational season.” These poems may all be found in Sarah Arthur’s marvelous and indispensable collection, Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. 

Salvation to all that will is nigh; 
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room 
Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb.

–– John Donne, “Annunciation” (17th century)

+

It wasn’t that long ago
that he’d spoken these stars
into being
and this woman’s life
was just a thought in his mind.
He’d smiled down on her birth
and entered her name in her pages
perhaps with an asterisk
denoting plans too sacred to be spoken
but pondered in his heart.
Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silently wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her. 

–– Joan Rae Mills, “Mary” (21st century)

+

. . . Now
I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
was closeted in time
he is my open door
to forever.
From his imprisonment my freedoms grow,
find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
slips through death’s mesh,
time’s bars, j
oins hands with heaven,
speaks with stars.

–– Lucy Shaw, “Made Flesh” (20th century)

“Oh sacrament of summer days”

The author at Midsummer on the Mississippi River’s Lake Pepin, Wacouta, Minnesota.

A something in a summer’s day,
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth – an Azure – a perfume –
Transcending ecstasy.

–– Emily Dickinson

Then summer came, announced by June,
With beauty, miracle and mirth.
She hung aloft the rounding moon,
She poured her sunshine on the earth,
She drove the sap and broke the bud,
She set the crimson rose afire.

–– Leslie Pinckney Hill [i]

 

Summer arrived this morning in Puget Sound at 8:54 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time. The sun rose hours ago (5:12) and won’t set until 9:12 tonight––16 hours of sunshine! But with only 103 minutes of complete celestial darkness separating dusk and dawn, the June Solstice feels almost like the Bible’s eternal Day: Your sun shall no more go down (Isaiah 60:30).

Charles E. Burchfield, Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66

In Charles Burchfield’s painting, Summer Solstice (1961-66), we see such a world, impossibly radiant. Of the daisies and buttercups in the foreground, the painter said “they could not have even the slightest dark accent, but must be swimming in a glare of sunlight from the zenith sun, and therefore all but obliterated.”[ii]

With such amplitude of light, time seems almost at a standstill. We enjoy the absence of hurry, and bask in the “Credences of Summer” celebrated by Wallace Stevens: “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change still possible.”[iii] If Spring is analogous to resurrection, summer is a type of heaven: plenitude of being, perpetual noon, luminous serenity, joyful play, cessation of care.

In high summer there is time for everything––swimming, hiking, reading, talking, tasting, singing, wandering, discovering, escaping, appreciating, savoring, loving, renewing. Time to follow a stream to its source, listen to the whisper of an aspen grove, count the falling stars, dive into a crashing wave, dance to the rising moon. Time for hammocks and porch swings as well. As my Minnesota relatives remind me, “Doing nothing is always an option!”

“Oh sacrament of summer days,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “Thy sacred emblems to partake – / Thy consecrated bread to take / And thine immortal wine!” [iv]

This image of summer as sacrament seems perfectly true when the season is at the full. But any hope for perpetual communion is illusory, the poet insisted. Change is inescapable. The fraudulent “sophistries of June” will too soon begin to fade, “Till Summer folds her miracle – / As Women  do – their Gown – / Or Priests – adjust the Symbols – / When Sacrament – is done.” [v]

In some of her poetry, Dickinson’s contemplation of the natural cycle of growth and decay––“that pathetic pendulum”–– produced a mournful catalog of loss. Flowers are “beheaded” by frost. Night’s shadow sweeps over “the startled grass.” The green world and azure sky are swept away in time’s “departing tide.” For most religious minds of the nineteenth century, the year’s fall into wintry death was prelude to spring’s rebirth and summer’s eternity. But Dickinson reversed the order, judging winter’s lifeless silence to be the culminating metaphor of human fate. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff has summarized this poetic trajectory of decay and dissolution, “Sunset’s unvarying bloodbath is the model: all life leads but to death.”[vi]

Dickinson was just being an honest observer. She watched her garden fade, the leaves fall, the birds fly south, the summer depart. She saw friends and family die. Gazing “perplexedly” on so much change and loss, with the old vocabularies of Christian hope worn thin in a century of doubt, she nevertheless yearned for a transcendence which might harmonize the paradoxical pattern of creation and destruction. She kept trying to get to heaven before they close the door. But the riddles of time and destiny could not be solved by mortal mind.

She was tempted to give up the search. “How good to be safe in tombs, / Where nature’s temper cannot reach / Nor vengeance ever comes.”[vii] But late in her life (she died at 55), she came to terms with the unknowability of the larger pattern, allowing herself a degree of trust in a larger Providence, bewildering though it may be. In a letter to a friend a few years before her death, she echoed Job’s leap of faith: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).[viii]

A century later, another American poet, Thomas Merton, would tell himself, “Dance in the sun, you tepid idiot. Wake up and dance in the clarity of perfect contradiction.” [ix] Dickinson knew that same dance when she wrote:

The Opening and the Close
Of Being, are alike
Or differ, if they do,
As Bloom upon a Stalk ––

That from an equal Seed
Unto an equal Bud
Go parallel, perfected
In that they have decayed ––

But Summer’s first morning is no time to ponder the riddles of temporality, or fret the far-off winter night. “Quick, now, here, now, always,”[x] open your door and lean into the freshness of the world. Run barefoot across the lawns of summer. Thank the generous sun. Breathe the golden air. Find the hidden treasure. Don’t come home till dark.

 

 

 

Related posts:

Merry it is while summer lasts

Sacraments of Summer

Summer Reading

 

[i] From “Summer Magic” by Leslie Pinckney Hill (1880-1960), an African-American educator and writer. Q. in Gary Schmidt & Susan M. Felch, Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2005), 229.

[ii] Charles Burchfield, Journal for July 10, 1964, in Guy Davenport, Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (San Francisco, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 2004), Plate 35.

[iii] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1997), 323.

[iv] “These are the days when birds come back” is really about “Indian summer,” but the sacramental image refers to the authentic, if fleeting, heart of summer, or at least the act of remembering it.

[v] “Sophistries of June” is from “These are the days,” while “Till Summer folds her miracle” is from “It will be Summer––eventually.”

[vi] Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 297.

[vii] “The Clouds their Backs together laid.”

[viii] Letter to Mrs. Holland, March 1883, in Wolff, 514.

[ix] Thomas Merton, “Atlas and the Fat Man,” q. in Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 141.

[x] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets. This is followed by Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well,” as perfect a summer text as any.

“Flie with angels, fall with dust” –– Appreciating George Herbert

 

Angel guiding Joshua (detail, c. 1500), St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

The seventeenth was almost the last century to succeed in looking within without falling in head first and being submerged––probably because its thinkers had as a governing conception not reality conceived as within the individual consciousness, but, rather, the possibility of inner harmony with reality.

–– Rosemund Tuve [i]

When we find words of the right sort to ask about the divine––words like ‘delight’, ‘enjoy’, ‘pleasure’, and persevere’––God can do nothing better than answer us in our own vocabulary.

–– Helen Vendler [ii]

In his lifetime, George Herbert was appreciated for his attractive personal qualities, his pastoral sense and sensibility, and his faithful Christian practice. But his extraordinary poetry, a primary domain for his soul work, remained hidden from the world until after his death in 1633. I have written about Herbert previously (Heart Work and Heaven Work), and return to him often for devotional reading as well as literary pleasure. In celebration of his feast day (February 27), let’s take another look.

Many of Herbert’s poems do not feel entirely accessible today. His seventeenth-century language and syntax require some translation, while his inventively constructed metaphors and images assume a biblical and theological literacy no longer widely possessed. “[T]his change in the sensibilities of his audience,” laments Rosemund Tuve, “damages some of Herbert’s poems appreciably. The waste for us is more unhappy by far than the unfairness to him.” [iii] I myself find the extensive footnotes and commentary in Helen Wilcox’s magnificent edition of The English Poems of George Herbert to be immensely helpful in letting the poems speak with proper force and meaning.

But the form of Herbert’s poems is not the only hindrance for the modern reader. In the prevailing atmosphere of our secular era, we don’t even breathe the same air as the metaphysical poet. As a recent biographer explains, “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world . . . Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” [iv]

In contrast, even believers can find themselves acting and thinking like atheists these days, excepting the moments when they engage in conscious religious practice. We no longer live in a world––or a cultural consciousness––saturated with divinity. It is too easy to act as if God is neither necessary nor present. Herbert’s fervent I-Thou relationship with the transcendent can seem alien to the secular mind. Who’s he talking to anyway?

Compared to the modern flattening of human experience in a depthless and disenchanted world––no longer “charged with the grandeur of God” [v]––Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance. The gate of heaven might be anywhere, admitting the attentive soul to a luminous eternity beyond the self.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy. [vi]

Herbert’s passionate engagement with transcendence––among us, within us, over-against us––was not theoretical or abstract, but intimate and experiential, employing the first-person form of lyric poetry to open a clearing where his inmost feelings could show themselves to both the speaker and his readers. In his striking play of words, images and sounds, a consort of meanings both public and private, we overhear Herbert’s prayers, and witness the argument of his soul. The brilliance of his poetic invention is never for its own sake. He seeks not to show off his skill, but to surrender his will.

Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms. [vii]

Herbert’s humility was one of his most distinctive traits. He was hardly immune to ambition and acclaim, but renounced them for greater treasure. He would die, before his fortieth birthday, as a country priest far removed from the glitter of worldly success.

He seemed perpetually amazed that grace would take up residence in his “poore cabinet of bone.” [viii]

My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing els to do? [ix]

He prayed to be worthy of the gift:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave. [x]

And he never forgot to praise the Giver:

Blest be the Architect, whose art
Could build so strong in a weak heart. [xi]

Herbert’s life was not all sunshine and flowers. Five of his poems are called “Affliction.” The first of these begins happily enough:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no month but May.

But then come sorrow and woe, dissatisfaction and disappointment, illness and loss. After a long litany of troubles, the poem ends with a deceptively simple vow crammed with multiple meanings: surrender, self-doubt, anxiety, acceptance, and perhaps a hint of resistance to the demanding terms of the divine-human relationship.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. [xii]

Even worse than personal suffering was the experience of divine absence. For a faithful person in a religious world, such absence was nothing like the “out of sight, out of mind” of our secular age. If God does not “exist” in cultural or personal awareness, then the lack of divine presence goes unnoticed and unfelt. But for anyone whose heart belongs to God, the times of divine absence are excruciating.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse . . .
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing. [xiii]

As the Psalms so often remind us, God is not an easy partner. Luther supposed that God often “hides his grace” to teach us not to grasp the divine “according to our own feelings and reactions.”[xiv] If faith always needs evidence, how can it be faith? Or as Emily Dickinson described her own wrestling with “that diviner thing,” it does not always respond to our advances, but rather “Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves––/ Returns––suggests––“ [xv]

If it were otherwise, and Presence were always immediate, filling every place and every moment with plenitude, our journey would be over, and we would no longer be the “heart in pilgrimage.”[xvi] Herbert, like every saint, accepted God’s terms with faithful ambivalence. “I will complain, yet praise,” he said. “I will bewail, approve: / And all my sowre-sweet days / I will lament, and love.” [xvii]

And in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of thing be well: [xviii]

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev’ry where. [xix]

 

 

 

Related post: Heart Work and Heaven Work

 

[i] Rosemund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 194.

[ii] Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery(Princeton, 2005), q. in John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 336.

[iii] Tuve, 103.

[iv] Drury, 11.

[v] Gerard Manley Hopkns, “God’s Grandeur.”

[vi] “The Elixir.”

[vii] “The Holy Communion.”

[viii] “Ungratefulnesse.”

[ix] “Mattens.”

[x] “Christmas.”

[xi] “The Church-floore.”

[xii] “Affliction (I).”

[xiii] “Deniall.”

[xiv] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, q. in Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 219.

[xv] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below” (F285, 1862).

[xvi] “Prayer (I).”

[xvii] “Bitter-sweet.”

[xviii] I hope Herbert would appreciate the poetic conceit of combining fellow English artists the Beatles and Julian of Norwich in the same line!

[xix] “The Temper (I).”

“Deeper and deeper into the world”–– In Praise of Mary Oliver

Go not to the object; let it come to you….
What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.

–– Henry David Thoreau [i]

We need only unite our minds to the outer universe in a holy marriage,
a passionate love-match, and paradise is ours.

–––– M. H. Abrams [ii]

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

–– Mary Oliver [iii]

 

The poet Mary Oliver departed this world on January 17, 2019, in her 84thyear. But her acquaintance with heaven began long before, in the fields and woods of her childhood.

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught. [iv]

What Oliver would learn outdoors, in moments of grace, wonder, and the cultivated practice of paying attention, was the holiness and radiance of the natural world, the earthly paradise revealing itself to the receptive eye and heart.

What do I know
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly. . . [v]

I imagine her early experiences of nature to be as formative as those of the young William Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence . . . our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood. . .

Thus day by day my sympathies increased,
And thus the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me… [vi]

While Wordsworth’s epiphanies (“spots of time”) are ancestral to the sensibility of every modern nature poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence was even more direct in Oliver’s development. “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy,” she said. “He has taught me as deeply as any writer could.” [vii] Emerson’s voracious engagement with the visible world led his mind––and his readers––into its invisible depths, where “the aroused intellect . . . finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.” [viii]

Persuaded that she lived in a world eager to show itself, Oliver pursued the life of a beholder:

The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees––
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention. [ix]

Writing nature––translating the world around us into words––is a complex, nuanced dance between the subjectivity of the self who writes what she sees and the elusive otherness of the not-self. How much of what we see is constructed and colored by our minds, our feelings, our cultural and aesthetic presuppositions? Is it possible to lay all that aside and become pure receptivity, a “lens of attention” which renounces the perceiver’s interpretive shaping of visible phenomena? Can we look without naming? Can we receive what is outside us just as it is and not only as we see it?

“I long to be,” said Oliver, “the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.” [x] But the very fact of longing admits defeat––such pure emptiness is unattainable in this world. Even the most receptive poet brings the particularity of self to her encounters with the wider world. And that is how it should be: our own way of seeing, whatever the proportions between shaping and receiving, is itself part of nature’s multiplicity. We do not stand over against nature in a binary opposition, but dwell within it, adding our own unique perception, feeling and response to the mix of Creation’s dance.

This requires humility and reticence on our part, so that nature does not become eclipsed by our response to it. What happens to the self in the encounter does matter, but whatever nature is prior to––or in excess of––that encounter must be honored and reverenced as well. As Sharon Cameron says in her study of Thoreau’s explorations of the world beyond his mind, “nature has an identity separate from what is felt about it.” [xi]

California’s uncompromising poet Robinson Jeffers thought it best to renounce the human altogether for the sake of an impersonal and indifferent grandeur:

Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from
humanity,
Let that doll lie…
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself . . . [xii]

Without sharing the extremes of Jeffers’ chilly “inhumanist” philosophy, Mary Oliver also wondered about the hindrances of ego, and spoke of “vanishing” into the world. “Maybe the world, without us,” she suggested, “is the real poem.” [xiii] But as scholar Laurence Buell argues, the personal is just as much a part of nature as everything else. The goal should not be the eradication of the ego, but “the suspension of ego to the point of feeling the environment to be at least as worthy of attention as oneself and of experiencing oneself as situated among many interacting presences” [xiv]

Wendell Berry describes the inseparable relation between self and world as a dance. Contemplating an old sycamore tree on his farm, he says, “We are moving in relationship, a design, that is definite – though shadowy to me – like people in a dance.” [xv] Oliver’s poetry would devote considerable attention to this choreography of interacting presences. “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world.” [xvi]

As with any significant relationship, the self can grow anxious about getting lost in the other, or violating the other’s integrity through domination, or drifting apart into an irredeemable state of alienation. All these have in fact occurred in our relations with the natural world. That is why a poet like Mary Oliver is so necessary. Her deep feeling for the world about her helps to repair the broken connections, retracing the forgotten path back to the garden. She leads us besides the still waters; her poems restore our soul.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. . .
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.” [xvii]

It is not always a summer noon in her poetry. Her light is aware of the shadows, though her poems spend little time on her personal struggles. Writing only briefly of her parents’ toxicity, she says, “I mention them now, / I will not mention them again.”

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

. . . I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life. . .[xviii]

The shadows are deepest in “The Journey,” her most painful––and redemptive––poem.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice––

The feeling of a backward suction into a vortex of melancholy and suffocation is palpable and relentless. The way forward seems impossibly clogged with stones and fallen branches. It’s like a nightmare where you can’t escape because your body has forgotten how to run. The terror of it makes the poem’s redemptive turn all the more cathartic.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheet of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do––
determined to save
the only life you could save. [xix]

However autobiographical this poem may be, its impact is universal, and I suspect that “The Journey” has saved more than one reader’s life. But trauma is a rare subject for Oliver. In her writing, the more common counterpoint to joy is not pain but mortality. If you are going to write about self and nature, your subject­­s––“all that glorious, temporary stuff” [xx] ––are ever on the verge of disappearing. However much we may love what is mortal, we need to remember, “when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.” [xxi]

Accommodating ourselves to mortality is one of the primary spiritual tasks. We may not know why death needs to happen, but we can hold it within a larger theological container, trusting there is something more to our story beyond the horizons of earthly experience.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke. . .
He’s the ice caps, that are dying . . .[xxii]

I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement. . .[xxiii]

And still, whose heart is not broken every time a beautiful and beloved presence goes missing? Even an armful of peonies can bring tears, as we exclaim of their dearness, “their eagerness / to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are / nothing, forever? [xxiv]

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!” cries the poet, cherishing the priceless worth bestowed by impermanence, while at the same time suggesting something more lasting behind the veil of appearances.

The geese
flew on.
I have never
seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly. [xxv]

Thoreau, Oliver’s predecessor and kindred spirit, perfectly described the vocation of nature’s receptive and responsive beholders: “I am made to love the pond & the meadow as the wind is made to ripple the water.” [xxvi] Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the ripples you made during “your one wild and precious life.” They continue to carry us deeper and deeper into the world.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world. [xxvii]

 

 

All photographs by Jim Friedrich.

[i]Henry David Thoreau, Journal, September 13, 1852.

[ii]M. H. Abrams on the Romantic sensibility of William Wordworth, in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), 27.

[iii]“Terns,” in Mary Oliver, Devotions(New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 158. All Mary Oliver quotations will cite page numbers from this edition.

[iv]“Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer” (191).

[v]“Daisies” (176).

[vi]William Wordsworth,The Prelude(1799) 1.288-296 / 2.215-217.

[vii]Mary Oliver, “Emerson: An Introduction,” in Arthur S. Lothstein & Michael Brodrick, eds., New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 8.

[viii]Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecture on Dec. 19, 1838, q. in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8.

[ix]“Entering the Kingdom” (406).

[x]“Blue Iris”) 215

[xi]Sharon Cameron, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35.

[xii]Robinson Jeffers, “Signpost,” q. in Laurence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 162.

[xiii]“From the Book of Time” (234).

[xiv]Buell, 178.

[xv]Wendell Berry, q. in Scott Slovic, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 127.

[xvi]Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures(1995), q. in Christian McEwen, World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011), 167.

[xvii]“When I Am Among the Trees” (123).

[xviii]“Flare” (230, 231).

[xix]“The Journey” (349-50).

[xx]“On Meditating, Sort of” (22).

[xxi]“In Blackwater Woods” (390).

[xxii]“At the River Clarion” (86-87).

[xxiii]“Sometimes” (104).

[xxiv]“Peonies” (298).

[xxv]“Snow Geese” (180-181).

[xxvi]Journal,Nov. 21, 1850.

[xxvii]“Prayer” (84).

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope

12th-century saint effaced by time, Cloister of Saint-Trophime, Arles, Provence.

In “Last Song,” the opening cut of her album Impermanence, Meredith Monk chants a list of finalities over a series of wistful piano chords: Last chance, last dance, last minute, last laugh, last round, last inning, last exit, last ditch, last rites, last supper, last days, last judgment, last words, the last word, last rose of summer, last goodbye, last ditch, last time, last breath . . . 

Some of these are repeated quickly, over and over, as if to hold on to them just a little longer. Sometimes Monk’s voice erupts into a staccato of syllabic non-sense, as if language is breaking under the strain of mortality, dissolving into the chaos from which new meaning may be born. Then her final words: last breath, last breath, last breath. . . The voice surrenders to silence. The piano continues on briefly, then it too makes its last sound, fading to nothing.

At year’s end, I sometimes lapse into a retrospective melancholy, thinking of people, moments, experiences and places that have come and gone in my life, some for the last time. My sense of future will revive at midnight, when we will go outside to bang gongs, beat drums and blow kazoos and whistles to welcome the New. But until then, impermanence shall be my partner in the year’s last dance.

Pont du Gard, Provence (40-60 A.D.). Some things last, most things don’t. At least these stones from a vanished empire made it to the future.

I have written about temporality every New Year’s Eve since I began this blog 4 years ago. Thinking about time, memory and hope seems a ritual proper to the turning of the year. Here are links to a couple of those reflections:

The Angel of Possibility (2014)

Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve (2015)

But this year, anxious to get outside to enjoy the last sunny day of a rainy year, and not wanting to detain you too long from your own last things, I will simply share a bit of poetry which I discovered this week in Edward Hirsch’s marvelous survey, Poet’s Choice (2006).

In “I Take Back Everything I’ve Said,” Chilean poet Nicanor Parra offers a renunciation well suited to the New Year’s spirit of tossing out the old to make room for the new. Its brave act of repentance (more than mere regret) isn’t just for writers!

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
Generous reader
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.

No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.

Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace. I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.

Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Two Cousins (detail), 1716. Is she gazing at memory, or a gathering future?

Catherine Barnett’s “O Esperanza” lifts my spirit after a very rough year in the history of our country and our world:

Turns out my inner clown is full of hope.
She wants a gavel.
She wants to stencil her name on a wooden gavel:
Esperanza’s Gavel.
Clowns are clichés and they aren’t afraid of clichés.
Mine just sleeps when she’s tired.
But she can’t shake the hopes.
She’s got a bad case of it, something congenital perhaps. . .

Look at these books: hope.
Look at this face: hope.
When I was young I studied with Richard Rorty, that was lucky,
I stared out the window and couldn’t understand a word he said,
he drew a long flat line after the C he gave me,
the class was called metaphysics and epistemology,
that’s eleven syllables, that’s
hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope.
Just before he died, Rorty said his sense of the holy was bound up with the hope
that some day our remote descendants will live in a global civilization
in which love is pretty much the only law.

The Creator bestows a blessing above the baptismal font in Eglise Saint-Michel, Roussillon, Provence.

And finally, in “A Flame,” Adam Zagajewski provides a fine New Year’s blessing, which I share with you, dear reader, on this last day before whatever comes next:

God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride––before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.

 

 

All photographs taken by the author in 2018.

 

“A Christmas Carol”

Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), Rembrandt 1646

On this holy Eve, I wish you, dear reader, a most blessed and festive Christmas.
I will publish my Christmas sermon tomorrow,
but for now, as we hurry to Bethlehem,
take a moment to savor the imagery of Robert Herrick,
the 17th century poet-priest whose poem, “A Christmas Carol,”
was sung today to the music of John Rutter,
at the Kings College Lessons and Carols in Cambridge.

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day
That sees December turned to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn
Thus on the sudden? Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:

‘Tis he is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre, public mirth,
To heaven and the under-earth.
We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him, to welcome him.
The nobler part of all the house here, is the heart,
Which we will give him: and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath
To do him honor, who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

Magdalene: The Poetic Gospel of Marie Howe

Donatello, Mary Magdalene (late 1430s)

‘I have come to die for your sins,’ Jesus told a stooped figure passing him on the road. ‘Then what am I to die for?’ the old man asked. Jesus took a small notebook from his pocket and copied the question. ‘If I may have your name and address” he said, “an answer will be sent to you.’ 

 –– A. J. Langguth, Jesus Christs

Everyone wanted to pour his wine, to sit near him at the table.
Me too. Until he was dead.
Then he was with me all the time.

–– Marie Howe, “The Teacher”

 

Jesus Christs, A. J. Langguth’s little-known novel published in 1968, imagines Jesus turning up in a wide variety of situations both ancient and modern. In a series of short narratives, he’s a schoolboy, a prisoner, a Vietnamese soldier, a talk-show host, a priest, a prophet, and a host of other characters. Not limited to his biblical incarnation as a first-century Jew, he exists as a recurring phenomenon with an innate awareness, if not always complete understanding, of his unique nature and demanding vocation. Despite being thrown into a new time and place every page or two, the multiple Jesuses retain a semblance of self-recognition within the flux of ceaseless improvisation. But over the course of the novel, the struggles and hopes of all those Jesus Christs begin to seem indistinguishable from our own.

Langguth’s pluralizing of Jesus explores Gerard Manley Hopkins’ premise that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” wearing many faces, as if the Incarnation were not a singular event but a series of experiments––not only in the range of human possibilities, but in the very feasibliity of translating divinity into the syntax of creaturely dilemmas. Some of these experiments fail in sad or funny ways, but the ongoing repetition of the attempt suggests that there may be something––or Some One––whose desire for human flourishing remains eternally persistent.

Langguth’s quirky novel first appeared when I was a young seminarian immersed in biblical studies, and it had a lasting impact on the way I think about both the representations and the manifestations of the living––that is to say, ever-recurring––Jesus. The One who changes everything keeps coming again and again, and “the holy gospel according to us” not only reframes the way we understand our own stories, but the way we re-read the original biblical texts. Jesus lives, and so does Scripture, and the thing about living things is, they can’t be pinned down or dissected into fixed and final meanings. They keep surprising us with new revelations.

All this came to mind when I discovered, during Easter Week, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, a luminous and moving collection of poems in which two biblical figures, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, assume new identities in the deeply felt narratives and perceptions of a contemporary woman.

When the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the anonymous woman taken in adultery and the weeping sinner whose tears bathed the feet of her Lord, Magdalene became a compelling archetype for the forgiven sinner. The haggard penitent carved from a tree trunk by Donatello is famous for its rigorous rejection of idealized beauty. Both vanity and earthly delight have been stripped away. But this was an exception. Most depictions of Magdalene retain a robust sensuality, like the close-up of Joanne Dru’s tear-stained face, gazing up at her Savior in my father’s 1954 Jesus film, Day of Triumph. Her riveting Technicolor image made a lasting impression on my ten-year-old self.

Joanne Dru as Mary Magdalene in Day of Triumph (1954)

Through the long centuries of male-dominated biblical storytelling, the conflated Magdalene figure was typecast as a fallen women tainted by her erotic past. These days she is more accurately understood as an important disciple and primary witness to the Resurrection. But Howe, in voicing the complexity of feminine experience, candidly embraces the Magdalene tradition’s erotic themes while attaching new ones––particularly motherhood––as well. Instead of sticking to the original gospel scripts, she claims the authority of personal experience. “That’s what the story says, but that’s not what he told me,” insists the speaker of these poems.[i]

The collection contains some overtly biblical moments, such as “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” where “what he imagined was not his own torture, not his own death,” but the abuse and torture of “the others”––history’s countless victims. In “Calvary,” the shock of the Crucifixion is felt keenly in its defamiliarizing depiction as a distant, unnoticed thing:

Someone shaking out a rug from an open window
might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away
and thought little or nothing of it.

When the modern Magdalene puts her little girl to bed in “Christmas Eve,” she notices the baby Jesus is missing from the crèche they had set up in her room.

Later when I went to check on her, I saw she’d built a labyrinth of blocks,
a very high tower in the middle of the labyrinth. . .
and at the foot of the tower, the clay baby Jesus and a lamb.

Where was Mary, and Joseph?
Here, she pointed out from her bed––wandering through the seemingly
endless corridors of the labyrinth––looking for their lost child.

“Christmas Eve” could be a metonymy for the book’s overall interplay of the biblical and the contemporary, with the witty difference here of using the clay figures of a Christmas crèche instead of “real” characters. Even more representative of the whole is the poem’s image of endless search––not only for an absent Jesus, but for the inner truth of the seeker herself.

Explaining her attraction to biblical figures, Howe has said, “I grew up with these characters. They are us––flawed, faithful, frightened.”[ii] But in most of these poems, her Magdalene disappears into the everyday sorrows and joys of the poet, so that both Mary Magdalene and her modern counterpart become Everywoman, representing the many through the particularity of the singular and personal. Mary/Marie, like the Jesus in Langguth’s novel, becomes the “I” who contains multitudes:

Remember the woman in the blue burka forced to kneel in the stadium
then shot in the head? That was me.
And I was the woman who secretly filmed it.[iii]

Such unbearable imagery is countered by the vivid register of small delights, like resting her chin on her lover’s shoulder as their bodies entwine in the shallows of a summer sea, or binge-watching an Edith Wharton adaptation with her adopted daughter:

both of us, wrapped in blankets shouting No no no no
when the last most vibrant girl agreed to marry the rich sop.[iv]

Mary Magdalene, St. Luke tells us, was afflicted by seven devils, and the voice in these poems knows them well. “The first was that I was very busy.” The list grows; the demons become darker, more difficult. Halfway through the lengthy poem she admits that the first devil actually was that “I could never get to the end of the list.”[v]

In “Magdalene: The Addict,” her torment is naked and unashamed:

I liked Hell,
I liked to go there alone
relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone.
The worst had happened. What could hurt me then?
I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come.
Then nothing did, and no one.

And yet, to the biblical Magdalene, something––someone––did come. And to the poet as well, although her “Teacher” remains shadowy and elusive. Like the Christ who warned Magdalene, Noli me tangere (“Touch me not!”), her redemptive guide cannot be grasped. “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another.”[vi]

The turning point for the Mary/Marie persona is anticipated in a confessional lament, “What I Did Wrong.” After a painfully honest catalogue of personal failings, she shows a snapshot of her tormented soul: “Years holding on to a rope / that wasn’t there, always sorry . . .” But then, the crucial question:

Who would
follow that young woman down the narrow hallway?
Who would call her name until she turns?

Who indeed? We all know that hallway. We all long for that loving voice. The weeping Magdalene heard it by the garden tomb. “Mary,” he said. When she turned to respond, she rose from the dead.

Whoever he was––and is––the Teacher knows your hunger, your desire, but the finding you seek always means a losing as well. Desire is the prelude to surrender:

So, I thought I had to become more than I was, more than I’d been,
but that wasn’t it. It seemed rather that
something had to go. Something had to be let go of.[vii]

No cheap grace here; instead, the “hard and bitter agony. . . like death” endured by T. S. Eliot’s Magi in their own search for the Holy One. As Magdalene sums up the message in another poem:

How many times did he say it
Change doesn’t hurt he’d say,
as much as resistance to change [viii]

Howe’s haunting suite of poems, like Mark’s gospel, ends inconclusively. “What use / has it been? Somebody loved me / Somebody left. . .” And yet, “Whatever flooded into the world when / He died” relieves the wounding absence with traces of an impossible presence. This redemptive hope is perfectly expressed in “Magdalene at the Grave,” whose clear echo of the Easter appearance stories blesses us with a strange and consoling grace.

On a late summer afternoon, the poet is driving to a cemetery to mourn a departed loved one. Whether she’s Mary remembering Jesus or Marie mourning an unnamed contemporary doesn’t matter. All mortal stories converge at the remembering place. When a heavy rain starts to fall, she decides to turn the car around and head for home. But once she reaches her driveway, she feels a strong compulsion (“as if something were pulling me”) to go back and complete her pilgrimage to the grave of her beloved.

Ridiculous as it was to park and kneel where he’d been buried
––to kneel in the rain––I laughed out loud!

After a few minutes, I looked up and saw the other car idling,
the driver’s window rolled down.

It’s a moment radiant with resurrection mystery. The sudden appearance of the other car. The window rolled down, but is someone there or not? No running over for a closer look. No touch. Only this final, utterly persuasive testimony:

The tears I wept were not tears of grief.
How many times must it happen before I believe?

 

Giotto, Noli me tangere (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1304-6)

 

[i] Marie Howe, “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” in Magdalene: Poems (New York / London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 46. All of Howe’s cited poems are from this volume.

[ii] Interview in EDS Now (Spring 2013), p. 5. Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, MA, was my seminary.

[iii] “Magdalene Afterwards,” in Howe, 48.

[iv] “Adaptation,” in Howe, 79-80.

[v] “Magdalene––The Seven Devils,” in Howe, 16, 18.

[vi] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 69.

[vii] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 42-43.

[viii] One of 7 untitled interludes in Howe, 54.