The Increase of Existence: The Poetry of Marilyn Robertson

Deschutes River, Oregon, April 2121 (Jim Friedrich)

Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being. Each time we enter its word-woven and musical invocation, we give ourselves over to a different mode of knowing: to poetry’s knowing, and to the increase of existence it brings, unlike any other. 

— Jane Hirshfield[i]    

Spirituality and poetry share a common task: “the increase of existence.” This is holy work, and much of it involves coming to terms with time. Whether we waste it, use it, lose it or save it, it is never ours to keep. It is a gift that comes and goes. Whatever is meant by the increase of existence, it cannot be a matter of longevity. That would deny the fullness of time to those who die too soon, and I believe the universe to be kinder than that. No, the increase of existence is not in its length, but in its depth, what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” [ii]

Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described this depth as a relationship with the eternal: 

“For [the human person], eternity is not a specially qualified time that will arrive after temporal life, as an event in time itself; rather, it is the depth of [our] own being, a depth known in time and ceaselessly revealing itself. Eternity is [our] rootedness in God, and this eternal life both begins and is accomplished in temporal life.”[iii]

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a small boy tells his bemused parents, “You’re just lucky you don’t have your whole life looming in front of you.” I wonder if that becomes funnier, the older you get. Certainly the nature of time feels different when it starts to run out. Some of us would not mind a little more looming in our later years.

Marilyn Robertson, Santa Cruz, California, January 2018 (Jim Friedrich)

My oldest sibling, Marilyn Robertson, is a poet. In her latest collection, “Small Birds Passing,” time is on her mind. “I like the moreness of time at low tide,” she writes. “Time for a stretch, a sigh. / Time for nothing perfect.[iv] But the stillness of the unhurried moment, the sense of “moreness,” is not inherent to time itself. It is rather the product of our own attentive awareness.

Days won’t wait for us. 
Hours drift away.
Time never got the hang of lingering.

Yet what if we dropped everything,
Stood still.
Looked around.

That red leaf.
Those cloud-sheep.
All the small birds passing.[v]  

In the first hour and the last, and all the moments in between, pay attention. Sink into the depth of things. Increase existence. Such temporal depth does not come naturally to a society obsessed with speed and surface. We need teachers. 

Animals keep trying to tell me 
how to live: 

cat, sunning herself 
on the grape arbor, 

dog, bouncing along the path, 
in love with everything, 

and rabbit, 
the ardent listener, 

her soft antenna ears 
always tuned to the present.[vi]

In “One Thing,” Moon joins Rabbit in modeling a spiritual practice:

One thing about a rabbit, or the moon,
is that they don’t waste time fretting about
what to do with the rest of their days.

They are living them, one after another,
those tidy packages of hours with their beginnings,
their middles and their ends.

Rabbit, hopping along a path through woods,
into briars and out again without so much
as a scratch on its soft jumpy body,

and Moon, sailing across the infinite ocean of sky,
spilling her poetry of light
into every window she can find. 

And yet, no matter how adept at sounding the depths of the given moment, poets and pilgrims of a certain age cannot help glancing toward life’s horizon. There are too many goodbyes in our latter days, too many deaths, to let us forget the “tears of things.”[vii] 

All the farewells in a lifetime.
All the ships that sail away, becoming pinpoints.
Becoming specks.

“You just missed her.”
“He said to say goodbye.”

All the clicks of latches, shutting of lids.
“Stand back. The doors are closing.”

There are roads. We have feet.
What we leave behind will soon forget our names.

All the losses. All the last words.
The telephone ringing, ringing in the night.[viii]

The last line could signify the news of death, received by phone at an untimely hour, but I hear it as a call to someone who is no longer there to pick up. The unanswered phone is a heartbreaking image of disconnection—the permanent loss of a precious voice. And then what? Is everything, in the end, gone for good? Or does the eternity we experience in the “depth known in time” persist for us beyond the grave?  In “After,” the poet admits our essential unknowing in this matter.  

After the fire,
what will I be?

A thing with feathers?
Or that little pile of ashes

just there, where
the water heater used to be.

And though the poet in her reticence prefers to let the “Thick pages of theology fly / out the window,”[ix] she nevertheless intimates the possibility of resurrection. The title of the collection’s last poem, “The Story So Far,” locates the octogenarian poet in the middle, not the end, of her divine comedy:

old flowers 
tossed on the compost

doorway of loss
blown open by a sudden wind

water jar broken three times
still beautiful

in the heart of the mother
one hundred poems

we are not dying
we are just waking up



For more of Marilyn Robertson’s poetry, see my 2017 post, Running on Fast Forward.

[i] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), vii.

[ii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets. The poet goes on to say, “We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion …” In other words, deeper and deeper into God.

[iii] Sergei Bulgakov (1877-1944), The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008), 135. This classic in Christology was originally published in 1933.

[iv] Marilyn Robertson, “Low Tide,” in Small Birds Passing (2020). All her poems and excerpts are from this chap-book.

[v] “Taking Time.” 

[vi] “How to Live.”

[vii] This poignant phrase is from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I.462. The Latin, lacrimae rerum, lacks the preposition which English requires, creating the ambiguity in translation of “tears for things” vs. “tears of things.” Seamus Heaney’s rendering speaks to the immensity of our grief in this time of pandemic: “There are tears at the heart of things.”

[viii] “Endings.”

[ix] “You Say”

“No longer at ease here”

“No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” — Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (detail, 1481).

Three days before the 2016 election, I posted The Top Ten Reasons To Stop Trump Now. All of them, sadly, turned out to be valid forecasts, but three of them remain especially worrying over the next two weeks:

Nuclear threat      Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.

Fascism       Believe me. I alone can make America great. Everyone else is stupid. Trump is part of a worldwide erosion of democracy by a resurgent authoritarianism. Fear and hate have made many sell their souls to naked power. When fascism spread in 1930’s Europe, Americans were confident that “it can’t happen here.” Now we aren’t so sure.

Hatred     Racism, bigotry, misogyny, bullying, scapegoating and political violence have been making a shocking comeback, with Trump as their enthusiastic cheerleader. He has endorsed and normalized the most vile sins of the American shadow. God help us should he and his alt-right thugs and cronies ever come to power.

I wrote my warning on November 3, 2016. I wish I’d been wrong.

After yesterday’s insurrection, many are calling for the immediate removal of the President from power, and I add my voice to theirs. His seditious incitement of a coup may have been ridiculously futile, but it cannot be indulged as another childish tantrum. It was both physically dangerous and symbolically toxic. It will take our country a long time to live it down.

Breaking the law and shaming his country should be reason enough for immediate removal. But we should also be genuinely worried about the dangerous unpredictability of a cornered rat. He still controls the nuclear codes. He is still an unstable sociopath, a clear and present danger to America. As a Republican congressman put it today in calling for Trump’s removal, we need “to ensure the next few weeks are safe for the American people, and that we have a sane captain on the ship.”

One way or another, Trump will exit, but the venom that produced him will remain in our system for a long time to come. The alternative universes of social media continue to erode the very notion of a Union. It’s now all too easy to secede from consensual reality. Millions upon millions are joining delusional confederacies of bitterness and hate. And unprincipled, power-hungry cynics like Senators Josh Hawley (educated at Stanford and Yale) and Ted Cruz ( Princeton and Harvard) will continue to harvest money and votes from the killing fields of ignorance and bigotry.

For Christians, the defilement of the Capitol also tainted the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the manifestation, or revealing, of Christ’s light to the whole wide world. The Episcopal Collect for the Epiphany prays for the Beatific Vision: “Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.” Sadly, what the world beheld on Epiphany was not the Light of the world, but an eruption of darkness from the vilest murk of the American id.

As with any healing, you can’t begin treatment until you get a diagnosis. Could yesterday’s “epiphany,” revealing the seriousness of our affliction, be the beginning of a cure? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic who knows the sacred feasts, expressed this hope. “Let us pray,” she said, “that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.”

The bizarre coincidence of the insurrection with the culminating celebration of the Nativity calls to mind the famous ending of William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming:”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

All of us who were transfixed by the slouching horror on our screens yesterday feel the resonance of Yeats’ disturbing image. But my preferred poem for the day would be T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” a first-person account of the original Bethlehem Epiphany. Like every pilgrim, the speaker has tales to tell about the hardships of the quest. However, about the moment of revelation—beholding the Incarnate God face to face—he is curiously reticent, as though it would diminish the experience to put it into words.

Once he returns home, with time to reflect, the Magus finds himself “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” Having looked divine Love in the face, he finds a world without that love to be less than “satisfactory.” No longer able to settle for anything less than what he glimpsed in the Bethlehem stable, he finds himself “no longer at ease.” The journey to the Divine birth becomes for him a kind of death, a perishing of his old world and his old self.

In the light of the Epiphany—the revealing of ultimate truth—the Magus is transformed. He will never be the same. Dare we say the same about yesterday’s terrible “epiphany”? Has seeing our own darkness face to face shaken us to the core? Has it shocked us into renouncing its terrible sway? If we suddenly find ourselves “no longer at ease here,” thanks be to God! Our journey toward the Dawn can begin at last.

Words and Memories: Recollections on My Birthday

Kenneth Patchen, “Moon, Sun, Sleep, Birds, Live.”

Live long enough, and a single word can acquire a multitude of associations. Pick any word in Kenneth Patchen’s poem, for example. What images and narratives does it summon from your memory? What feelings does it unlock? I’ll get us started with the five large words.

Full moon rising on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch (July 16, 2019).

Moon:   Since the day of my birth, 912 full moons have risen into the evening sky. Whenever I am able and the sky is clear, I find an open view to the east and wait for its appearing. The moon’s predictability has never dulled the thrilling instant when its bright curved edge breaks the horizon. Over the four weeks of waning and waxing that follow, its slow dance of vanishing and renewal attunes us ever so gently to the temporal flow. The diurnal sequence of sunrise and sunset seems rushed in comparison.

I’ve had my eye on the moon since I was old enough to notice the sky. I remember specific moons the way one remembers luminous conversations: the Wyoming moon sparkling the fresh powder in a midnight ski run down Teton Pass; the Minnesota moon rising beyond the Mississippi River as we warm ourselves by a driftwood fire; the Florida moon shining down on the circus tent where 400 Episcopal collegians celebrate Epiphany all night till dawn; the Los Angeles moon traversing the sky behind a 7-hour performance of Indonesian shadow puppets; the glowing tip of a rising crescent climaxing a night of falling stars in the High Sierra; the lunar eclipse stunning three priests with wonder on a Northwest beach; the many moons lighting the way on mountain trails and desert dunes; and last year’s spectacular birthday moon, rising on the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first trip to the lunar surface.

The most recent full moon rises over Puget Sound on the Fourth of July.

When the full moon first appears, silence is best. It resembles the host of the Blessed Sacrament, a white disc lifted up before our contemplative eyes. The only words I can specifically recall from a moonrise were spoken by an American woman on the Scottish isle of Iona. “You know,” she said, “I’m 55 years old, and I’ve never seen the moonrise before.”

The sun sets over “the edge of the world” at Finisterre, the western terminus of the Camino de Santiago.

Sun:   The sun is a perennial symbol of life-giving energy and joyful radiance. And while climate change has certainly complicated both its literal and metaphorical meanings, we still welcome its warmth and light after a freezing night or a long winter, we still feel uplifted by its brilliance after a dreary stretch of sunless days. Even as we address the growing imbalance in our weather and our seasons, we remember to treasure in every moment the blessings we struggle to preserve.

A benevolent sun still has the power to cheer us, and the rhythms of night and day remain foundational for an embodied and temporal spirituality. Embrace each morning as the gift of creation’s new-made world, make each evening a vesper song of thanks. And in between, let us live as children of the light. Love whatever is good and beautiful and true, and work to transform whatever is not.

Sunlight, like our own breath, is easy to take for granted. Without it, life would be impossible. Even when night comes and goes, the transitions are gradual enough to ease the shock of the sun’s disappearance. We never experience the sun being abruptly switched off, except during a total eclipse. Watching the sun become a black disc, which can be viewed with the naked eye, is pure wonder, one of this world’s most unforgettable experiences. But the sudden disappearance of light from earth and sky is eerie and unsettling—so sudden, so absolute, like an apocalypse. Its return is equally swift, like the first moment of creation: Let there be light.

I shot this video clip of an Oregon landscape during the 2017 solar eclipse. I was gazing directly at the sun, of course, but the camera recorded what was happening on the earth. The shot is in real time. It only takes about 30 seconds for the darkness to vanish.

 

Sleep:  In 1979, after several days of sleep deprivation, I grabbed a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York to visit my brilliant friend Bob Sealy, a critical mentor to me in cinema, theater, the art of conversation, and all things New York. I arrived in Manhattan around 8 a.m., utterly exhausted. Bob was busy with revisions of his new play at Café La MaMa, and had arranged a place for me to nap while he worked––a windowless storage room in a seedy building reminiscent of Forties film noir. I stretched out on a dingy couch. When Bob closed the door I was left in total darkness, and soon fell into a dreamless sleep.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)

Hours later, the door swung open, awakening me from the depths of slumber into a confused state of mental fog. The room was still so dark. A faceless silhouette loomed in the doorway. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was, who he was, or what I was doing there. It was a nightmarish scene straight out of Fritz Lang. Then Bob switched on the light and my stupor began to fade. He led me out to the daylight world, the realism of city streets. But I had not entirely quit the darkness. The noirish image of that moment lingers to this day.

“Don’t watch the story,” Bob once told me about the movies. “Watch the image.” The story will go on its way toward a conclusion, but a vivid and suggestive image can detach itself from the plot to call up something deep and enduring in the psyche. Where is that dark room inside me? Who is at the door?

A goldfinch in our peach tree. They arrive at Easter and depart in the fall.

Birds:   As we shelter in place until the pandemic passes, our only regular visitors are the birds––robins, goldfinches, juncos, pine siskins, red-winged blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, spotted towhees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, house and purple finches, varied thrushes, cedar waxwings, sparrows, wrens, ring-necked pheasants, and a pair of mallards. More rarely, a bald eagle may perch atop a Douglas-fir, or a blue heron land on the grass.

A blue heron drops in for a visit.

But the specific bird that came to mind when I first looked at Patchen’s poem was a mountain chickadee in the summer of 1973. While backpacking in California’s Desolation Valley near Lake Tahoe, I had paused to stretch out in a green meadow, leaning back on my elbows with my knees sticking up. I was in no hurry, and had settled into the stillness of reverie when the little bird landed on my right knee. It perched there calmly for some time. I like to think it was being sociable, signaling across the gulf between species the underlying kinship of all created beings. Perhaps it just mistook me for a log. But I have never forgotten our brief communion.

The author at the family plot in Red Wing, Minnesota (June 2006).

Live:    My great-grandfather, John Michael Friedrich, immigrated to Red Wing, Minnesota, in the 1860s. He died young, only 47, and for his male descendants, longevity has been in limited supply. John Michael had two sons, Charles Edward (died at 67) and John Harry (34). Charles Edward had four sons: John (72), Edward (20), my father James (62) and his twin brother Louis (8 months). John had two sons, Jack (50) and Brad (75). I am currently the oldest living male of the line, and today I become the first to reach 76. It is a humbling milestone, and I feel my ancestors cheering me on.

In these latter days, to borrow a line from Blade Runner, I want “the same answers as everybody else: Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?” But meanwhile, more moons! More suns! More birds! More sleeping and waking! As long as God gives me breath.

And then? For the pilgrim, the road goes ever on and on, in this life and the next.

The road goes ever on and on … (Camino de Santiago, Galicia, 2014)

Time to Welcome Summer (and refuse the darkness)

The author watches the Solstice sunset from Friedrich Point on Lake Pepin, Minnesota.

For 150 years, James Thomson’s The Seasons was one of the most widely read books in the English-speaking world. Its ornate classical style and lack of emotional inwardness fell out of favor in the Romantic era, but it still sits on my shelf along with other great ruminations on the circle of time, like Edwin Way Teale’s quartet of road trips through the American seasons, the “spiritual biographies” of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter compiled by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch, and the four diminutive volumes of seasonal poetry selected by Robert Atwan.

Essential summer reading.

Thomson’s Summer begins:

From brightening fields of ether fair-disclosed,
Child of the Sun, refulgent Summer comes . . .
Hence let me haste into the mid-wood shade,
Where scarce a sunbeam wanders through the gloom,
And on the dark-green grass, beside the brink
Of haunted stream that by the roots of oak
Rolls o’er the rocky channel, lie at large
And sing the glories of the circling year.

But the poet’s encyclopedic survey of the world beneath the summer sun is not simply an inventory of its pleasures and beauties, for Nature is not uniformly benign. Storms, floods, drought and earthquakes are part of the mix. Et in Arcadia ego. Thomson’s description of a plague (“the great destroyer”) feels ripped from current headlines. Pandemic mutes “the voice of joy,” sickens human communities and empties public spaces. People shelter in place, hoping to escape the “awful rage” of pestilence, as “o’er the prostrate city black Despair / Extends her raven wing.”

The sullen door,
Yet uninfected, on its cautious hinge
Fearing to turn, abhors society:
Dependents, friends, relations, Love himself,
Savaged by woe, forget the tender tie,
The sweet engagement of the feeling heart.

Who among us is not “savaged by woe,” cut off as we are from tender ties and seasonal rituals? But the poet, trusting the Providence “of powers exceeding far his own,” does not leave us there. He envisions the evils of this world subdued within a larger harmony, and even in the time of trial faith knows, impossibly, that all shall be well. “Nature from the storm / Shines out afresh; and through the lightened air / A higher lustre and a clearer calm / Diffusive tremble;  while, as if in sign / Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy, / Set off abundant by the yellow ray, / Invests the fields, yet dropping from distress.”

Summer 2020 does not arrive robed in joy. Tonight’s dark and deadly Trumpist rally in Tulsa, a demonic parody of traditional Summer Solstice affirmations of light and life, seems to augur a summer of darkness. But we must not succumb to the pestilence without­­­­––or the pestilence within. We must live as children of the light, refusing the gloom and resisting the storm. Already, voices are rising across our tormented country, demanding “a higher lustre and a clearer calm.”  And each of us, in ways both great and small, must continue to welcome the light, and to remember our joy.

Enough for us to know that this dark state,
In wayward passions lost and vain pursuits,
This infancy of being, cannot prove
The final issue of the works of God,
By boundless love and perfect wisdom formed,
And ever rising with the rising mind.

 

 

Poetry excerpts are from James Thomson, Summer (1727), part of his quartet, The Seasons (1730).

Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: George Herbert’s “Denial”

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome (Siena Cathedral, 1661-1663). The saint holds the crucifix like a violin.

“Negative grace” . . . is experienced as a game of “take-away,” in which God strips us, removing things that are barriers to a naked confrontation. God takes away distraction after distraction, until our time and space take on the harsh contours of the desert.”

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. God can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. God consoles you and torments you at the same time. God heals you only to wound you again. God may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

Although “Lent” comes from a word for springtime, the season of fresh and abundant growth, its dominant metaphor is the desert, with its connotations of aridity and spareness. The spiritual journey back to the garden must go by way of the desert. Distractions, distortions and comfortable illusions must be stripped away to make room for a grace beyond our own cramped imaginings. As W. Paul Jones puts it, the desert is “a game of take-away.”

As every saint will tell you, the spiritual life is not always satisfaction. Sometimes it is deprivation, a “negative grace” that draws us (or forces us) out of our settled and static states into the disorienting vastness of divine imagination. No longer sheltered by the old complacencies, we experience a lack, an absence, a desolation, which nothing familiar can fill or assuage. In retrospect, we understand this as a necessary passage into a reality richer and deeper than our old “self,” but whenever we are in the midst of the Cloud of Unknowing or lost in the Land of Unlikeness, we are subject to the anguish of abandonment. My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?

George Herbert, whose feast day (February 27) follows Ash Wednesday this year, was a seventeenth-century poet-priest who wrote elegant and moving verse about the motions of the soul and the life of faith. Although honest about his own shortcomings and inner struggles, he was consistently conversant with the God of grace, and his poems were usually grounded in a sense of reliable­­––if sometimes challenging––reciprocity with his Maker and Redeemer.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in love. (“The Call”)

But even “the holy Mr. Herbert,” as his parishioners called him, spent time in the desert of divine absence and spiritual desolation.  “Denial” is one of his unhappiest poems, lamenting a God who is not only hidden, but unresponsive, seemingly deaf to Herbert’s prayers: “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To cry to thee, / And then not hear it crying!”

The brokenness of the meter matches the poet’s broken heart. As Herbert biographer John Drury notes, “iambs (short-longs) jostle discordantly with trochees (long-shorts). The lines of each verse are, apart from the two minimally two-feet lines, unequal in length (four, two, five, three, two feet). There is near-chaos.” [iii]

In all but the last stanza, the concluding line is dispiriting: “disorder. . . alarms . . . no hearing . . . no hearing . . . discontented.” And each stanza’s ending fails to rhyme with any other line, intensifying the sense of disconnection and alienation from a larger whole. Only the poem’s final line is granted the mending grace of rhyme.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

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.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

“But no hearing,” occurring twice at the poem’s center, poses deep crisis for a person of prayer. Yet faith teaches us to bear divine silence patiently. Silence does not always mean absence or indifference. It can, sometimes, be a profounder form of speech. But the fifth stanza adds the image of being unseen to the one of being unheard: “my soul lay out of sight, / Untun’d, unstrung.”

Herbert loved music. It is said that when he was near death, he suddenly rose from his bed and called for one of his instruments, so that he might play and sing for his God. According to Izaak Walton’s account, as he tuned the instrument he prayed, “My God, my God! My music shall find thee. And ev’ry string shall have his attribute to sing.”

So Herbert’s image of the soul as an instrument untuned and forgotten, like the abandoned harps hung on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:2), conveys a sense of utter forlornness. “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-ey’d love!” wrote Herbert in “The Glance.” Such a gaze shall “look us out of pain.” But in “Denial,” God’s “sweet and gracious eye” no longer rests upon him. It no longer sees him at all, as if he doesn’t exist.

Or so it seems to the disconsolate soul. And yet Herbert continues to speak as if God is still there, as if his prayer might still be heard. “O cheer and tune my heartless breast,” he cries, using his favorite musical image for the restoration of the soul’s lost consonance, when “thy favors . . . and my mind may chime” (like bells in harmony) and so “mend my [broken] rhyme.”

That final word puts an end to the discordant lack of rhymed endings in the previous stanzas. Just as the poem’s broken meter signifies the disorder in Herbert’s soul, so this restoration of missing rhyme anticipates the grace of a mended life. Furthermore, the double meaning of the last word (“rhyme” was sometimes spelled “rime,” which also means frost) suggests an additional connotation of renewal:  the heart’s long winter will soon be mended by the coming of spring.

 

 

 

[i] W. Paul Jones, A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000), 96.

[ii] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982, p. 45), cited in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1997), 31.

[iii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 331.

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.