Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Causley poem for Holy Week

Composer Jussi Chydenius's 
setting of "I Am the Great Sun" by Charles Causley,
a poem inspired by a seventeenth-century Normandy crucifix.
Hofstra Chamber Choir
David Fryling, Conductor

* * *

          I AM THE GREAT SUN

          I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
          I am your husband, but you turn away.
          I am the captive, but you do not free me,
          I am the captain you will not obey.

          I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
          I am the city where you will not stay,
          I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
          I am that God to whom you will not pray.

          I am your counsel, but you do not hear me,
          I am the lover whom you will betray.
          I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
          I am the holy dove whom you will slay.

          I am your life, but if you will not name me,
          Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

* * *

Thanks to a years-back recommendation from editor John Wilson, I've long been fond of Cornish poet Charles Causley--loved and admired in his lifetime by Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin--and this poem is one of my favorites. The sonnet is simple and profound, using a parallelism that invokes the Hebrew poetry of the Bible, particularly the beautiful language of the King James version, but also grasps at the idea of God as "the great I AM." 

Its Elizabethan-sonnet rhyme scheme is curious, eight of its lines depending on final identical rhyme that again invokes God. The six remaining lines add only one more final rhyme sound, so Causley gives us only two sets of end-word rhymes, both ending the lines on long vowels. Each line is a full, complete thought, framed by "I am" and one of those two long-vowel rhymes. 

Looking closer, we see that Causley has chosen to expand the scheme by rhyming the words that precede "me," the identical rhyme sound of eight lines. So we meet internal rhymes "see/free," "believe/leave," "hear/cheer," and "name/blame." The accent falls strongly on those penultimate words. Identical sounds also occur inside quatrains; particularly noticeable is the repetition of "do not" and "you will not" and "you will," reinforcing the idea of human free will, choice, and the swerving away from God that marks and informs the poem. 

The tightness of the rhyme scheme makes the couplet feel especially surprising because it breaks the shape of prior lines, completing the thought in two lines, and tying up the poem with another two-word rhyme-plus-identical-rhyme in "name me" and "blame me." In those last lines, the poem enters--just barely, and not with confidence--into a realm where another path is possible.

On the other hand, "if you will not name me" is an interesting thing to say in the final turn of thought. Recalling that "I AM" is one of the names of God, the reader may well think that he or she has indeed been naming God, though in fact naming God and admitting the rejection of God at once.

If you don't perceive why this is a remarkable poem, I suggest that you try reading it aloud three times. (Remember that you are speaking in the voice of God. As the poem was inspired by crucifix-and-inscription, you can even imagine that you speak the words from the cross.) And then if you don't feel in your bones that the poem is good, well, I guess it is not for you. Or as we might say, "I am your poem, but you do not know me."

* * *

Donation site for The Friends of Notre Dame: 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Gone to Carolina

Where? I've been away in the North Carolina mountains for more than a month: hiking on private (Dan Pitillo's flower trails are wondrous) and public lands; hunting for Oconee bells and spring beauty and trout lilies, etc.; helping my mother with various needs; celebrating my mother's 90th birthday (along with more family in Cullowhee for a week); thrifting; eating at Slabtown (best pizza in Cashiers), Café Rel (the oddly placed restaurant at The Hot Spot in Franklin), Frogtown, Kilwin's, Sweet Treats Highlands, and oodles of other places; exploring cabins and paths, and enjoying mountaintop views.

On the books front, I also had a lovely lunch with writer friend Nathan Ballingrud at Chai Pani in Asheville. (You can read about his new book and a movie here.) And I wrote a few poems in between adventures. I had great fun hanging out with my mother's friends from WCU's Hunter Library and remembering my high school days when I had the run of the place every day between school's end and five o'clock. Back then, the librarians talked to me about books, encouraged my wanderings in the shelves, and let me rummage wildly in the Horace Kephart archives. Hours rooting in the stacks helped make me what I am.

That picture (by Cullowhee photographer Etheree Chancellor) is me-in-many-layers on the chilly path to the 500-foot spill of Rufus Morgan Falls, with my mother in the background. Not many flowers were out there--just the halberd-leaved yellow violet and some hepatica. If you want to see a few more pictures from the trip, including the upper part of the falls, hop here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019