О weariness of men who turn from God
To the grandeur of your mind and the glory of your action,
To arts and inventions and daring enterprises.
To schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited.
Binding the earth and the water to your service,
Exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,
Dividing the stars into common and preferred.
Engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator,
Engaged in working out a rational morality,
Engaged in printing as many books as possible,
Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles,
Turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm
For nation or race or what you call humanity;
Though you forget the way to the Temple,
There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger…
Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they would like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
P.S. If you missed our “Possibly Insane Thoughts on Ash Wednesday” or “God Bless the Insomniacs”, they might be worth looking at today.
Excursions & Arrivals
The sign at the corner of the property
at the foot of the driveway—”No
eighteen wheelers allowed in the church
parking lot”—may be exactly the confirmation
I needed that I am currently passing
by a Baptist church a little to the south
of Chattanooga. Was it a recurring problem
that led to its posting? Did the congregation
rebel or reach the proverbial tipping point?
Even so, I’d like to think they would make
an exception, that every once in a great
while they might wave the driver toward them
with his truckload of passengers battered
bruiseful by all of the loveless difficulties
that make up so very much of this life,
not pallets of freight they’d come to expect
but many blemished ones hungry to the point
of being famished, urgent for the Son
rising with his big paper-carrier’s bag
of good news and promises or even simple
reassurances like, You are not going
to perish now, or You are mightily
welcomed here, even though you’re fully
known here, and so on. Against hope, I hope
sometimes that those Baptists are smiling
as they direct the eighteen-wheeler’s driver
forward, forward with the bird’s-wing flutters
of their sweet, inviting hands, as if saying
Pull yourself on in here now, buddy.
You take up as many spaces as you need,
while already his long trailer is being
unlatched and its metal door rolled up
so as to let that Tennessee light pour in,
clarifying its darkened conveyances,
especially brightened on Sunday morning
as I imagine it now, while driving slowly
on Spring Creek Road south of Chattanooga.
The above appears in the Mar/Apr issue of Books and Culture (and online here). For more from B&C, see here.
This comes from an essay Fanny Howe wrote, called “Keepers of the Image,” about her mentor, Ilona Karmel, and a short essay she wrote, also called “Keepers of the Image.” Howe describes Karmel, a Jew who survived the WWII Polish labor camps, as a woman of Dostoevskian realism, someone who sought to write about her experiences not for sentimental purposes, but for an exact depiction of abject human darkness. She wrote of the conflict in each person, between the self they know everyday, and the self they long to be, the “secret self.”
Like Dostoyevsky, Ilona Karmel pursued truth (without quotes)…
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As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
“To some people, I may seem calm. But if you could peer beneath the surface, you would see that I’m like a duck—paddling, paddling, paddling…” – Scott Stossel
You don’t have to have a therapist on speed dial to relate. You don’t need a prescription to Xanax or Ativan, or a shelf full of ‘dealing with anxiety’ books to know what he’s talking about. You don’t even need to be interested in mental health. If you have a pulse, you know. Of course, it helps if you have an Internet connection too. The skyrocketing rates of anxiety in America are no…
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From the “Chorale” section, which is part of “The Summons”:
Our Father, whose creative Will
Asked Being for us all,
Confirm it that Thy Primal Love
May weave in us the freedom of
The actually deficient on
The justly actual.
Though written by Thy children with
A smudged and crooked line,
The Word is ever legible,
Thy Meaning unequivocal,
And for Thy Goodness even sin
Is valid as a sign.
Inflict Thy promises with each
Occasion of distress,
That from our incoherence we
May learn to put our trust in Thee,
And brutal fact persuade us to
Adventure, Art, and Peace.
Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride
of thinking we invented sin ourselves
by our originality, that famous modern power.
In fact, we have it from the beginning
of the world by the errors of being born,
being young, being old, causing pain
to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God
by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,
by accident. Something is bad the matter
here, informing us of itself, handing down
its old instruction. We know it
when we see it, don’t we? Innocence
would never recognize it. We need it
too, for without it we would not know
forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,
that fund of grace by which alone we live.
Ever since I read John Harris Harper’s miraculous new book Witnesses to the Light, which has just been published in Birmingham, I have been thinking about what it means to do something that is not half baked. This is because Harper’s book is thoroughly baked, a completely realized achievement.
Sometimes, because I can be paresseux, a thing I do will be half baked. I cut a corner, or fail to corroborate a fact, or skip a step in the argumentation. It’s just a fact of my work, and John Harper’s new book is a timely call to me to be thorough.
This podcast concerns the “escapism” of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). In particular, it consists of a reflection on some lines that occur near the end of his poem “Adonais”. These lines connect with my Panopticon, and with an experience I had on May Day of last year.
We’ve “Gotta Get Away” (Rolling Stones) from this world, deep down, in order to engage. Like the nuns in “Call the Midwife”.
She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine
as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.
But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does,…
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at the foot of the universe
from this body
and pain (a condition
Clothed now in light
clothed in abyss, at the prow
of the desert
Mercy on us all
Sabbaths poem I from 1980.
What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.
The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.
The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.
PULL MY DAISY
TIP MY CUP
ALL MY DOORS ARE OPEN
CUT MY THOUGHTS FOR COCONUTS
ALL MY EGGS ARE BROKEN
HOP MY HEART SONG
HARP MY HEIGHT
SERAPHS HOLD ME STEADY
HIP MY ANGEL
HYPE MY LIGHT
LAY IT ON THE NEEDY
Here, in the final installment of “Mandelstam”, we end roughly where we began, with the poem echoed by Christian Wiman in his outstanding book “My Bright Abyss”. Wiman was my gateway into Mandelstam and his translation has proved to be both thoughtful and moving. This poem also serves as a excellent summary of Mandelstam and his quest to find light amid the darkness.
“Rough Draft” (1937)
Provisionally, then, and secretive,
I speak a truth whose time is not:
It lives in love and the pain of love,
In sweat, and the sky’s playful vacancy.
A whisper, then, a purgatorial prayer,
A testament of one man,…
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From the wonderful play The Cocktail Party, well into the poet’s Christian phase. A man’s wife leaves him and an Unidentified Guest – who is almost a bona fide theophany (Eliot’s God prefers gin) – gives the man, Edward, some advice on how to handle his crisis:
…to approach the stranger
Is to invite the unexpected, release a new force,
Or let the genie out of the bottle.
It is to start a train of events
Beyond your control…
Most of the time we take ourselves for granted,
As we have to, and live on a little knowledge
About ourselves as we were. Who are you now?
You don’t know any more than I do,
But rather less. You are nothing but a set
Of obsolete responses. The one thing to do
Is to do nothing. Wait.
But waiting is the one thing impossible.
Besides, don’t you see that it makes me look ridiculous?
Guest: It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.
Resign yourself to be the fool you are.
That is the best advice I can give you.
“Waiting is the one thing impossible” – in Eliot’s spirituality, activity and self-righteousness and pretension must be cleared from the minds of those who know only “a heap of broken images”, who are only that, and cannot be otherwise. For a man as attuned to grace and broken on the wheels of life as he, the one genuine spiritual vocation is the desperate plea, “teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still.”