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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Poetry matters

New poems both online and in print for subscribers, if you happen to be one...

"The Library's Child" appears in the Canadian (from the Cardus think tank in Ontario) journal CommentThe Books Issue (Spring 2019), edited by John Wilson, one of the world's great readers and editors. Thanks to him for asking.

"The Master of the Embroidered Foliage" is published in the May 5th issue of The Living Church (Anglican Communion.) That one is an ekphrastic poem accompanied by the gorgeous image from The Clark Institute, a late fifteenth-century painting from the Netherlands. Thank you to Canon Theologian Jordan Hylden for the request.

Addendum: They appear to think that I live in South Carolina (born in Aiken), which is a pleasant thought, given that it has snowed three times in the past four April days.

* * *

And The Book of the Red King (Phoenicia Publishing of Montreal) should be out by summer! Updates on the book and related matters will appear first in The Rollipoke News and afterward here and elsewhere.

Winnowing the libraries

Nineteenth century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria
by the German artist O. Von Corven
Public domain, Wikipedia
Time is and always has been the great judge of the merit of books. Lost or long-forgotten books like the works of Edward Taylor and Emily Dickinson (left in manuscript) or John Donne (out of fashion for centuries) or Moby Dick (by heroic Melville, bravely writing on despite being wholly forgotten before his death) may be tossed into sight again. Whole fields of books are winnowed by the scythe of time and fall out of memory. Some books become unreadable or simply of no interest. Is this a perfect process? Probably not. Many minor but lovely works are read by fewer and fewer as time passes.

In our day, a librarian proposes that she is the one to judge, to do the winnowing: that she knows better than time, and that something more drastic than the library-sale practice of the culling of unread, inessential books is needed. Many applaud. But time winnows all things, and some day it will winnow us, including the librarian and the applauders and the current writers of books. Including me and including you. To usurp the work of time. It sounds fearsome, doesn't it? In fact, it is the work of hubris, a thing many classical works have warned us to avoid. But in striving to make libraries more open to a good cause--more writers of color, say--it appears that welcoming, open library borders swiftly turn into the desire to banish others.

Who needs to read these old white men, long dead? Who in the West needs the heritage passed down for centuries--who needs Ovid or Homer or the KJB or Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton? All those outdated foundational ideals (not always met, but yet our ideals), like the idea that every single human wandering the face of the earth was made in the likeness of God and so is valuable, no matter the sex or color and however much he or she mars that image... Why, we can send our children to be English majors at fine, much-heralded institutions where they can duck hearing those voices, these days. So who needs them?

I do. Young writers do. And that means young writers of any sex, any color. Do not deprive young writers of the legacy of the past because whether they like or dislike writers like Dickinson and Melville and Shakespeare, they need to climb up on their shoulders. They need to read with freedom, with no holds barred. And that reading should include not just people of color and people from fascinating and far-off countries but also those pesky dead white Western males like Donne and Herbert.

What results from the ability to put words together with high power and beauty is the rightful inheritance of us all, writers and readers alike. Despite the unchosen elements of race and sex that come with birth, writers are joined as one in the love of putting words together in the most stellar order, in striving to make something meaningful and marvelous where nothing was before. That is the work of the creator, to bring truth and beauty out of the welter that surrounds us.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Triduum greetings--

A lovely crucifixion in linden (12" x 16″) by the interesting Montreal icon carver, Jonathan Pageau. From "Understanding the Icons of Holy Week,"…/.  You may meet facets of him at Orthodox Arts Journal, twitter, and YouTube. Go to his gallery at Pageau Carvings to see more of his art. I'm fond of his writings and podcasts about symbology, perhaps because--human weakness!--I find them congruent with my own thoughts.

Ekphrasis for Triduum

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles
by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)
Wikipedia, public domain

And here's a little ekphrastic poem....

The Thursday of Mysteries   
   After Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles
              Meister des Hausbuches, 1475

Dim clashing measures like muffled cymbals
As halos make the music of the spheres…
The apostles are crowded on the pews,
Some watching and some not as Jesus Christ
In his halo leafing with three branches
Gestures upward and to the water bowl
That is like another halo, fallen
To the floor and waiting for the maundy
Foot of innocent and guilty alike.
The room looks like some holy carpenter’s
Medieval caravan, all fitted out
With paneling and mullions with crown glass;
In the unfolding distance, see the stairs
Slanting leftward over the black archway
That might mark entrance to a waiting tomb.
There’s Judas, all his facial lines tugged down,
And on a shelf a platter like some lost
Halo, unneeded, there for change of mind. 

                                      reprinted from Mezzo Cammin 

"For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning,
 that we should love one another."

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.