Poem for Ash Wednesday: Denise Levertov

As is my custom on these Christian holidays of significance to me (and others), I try to find a poem to share and reflect on that will resonate in some particular way with folks who share at least some of my beliefs, but that will also speak to people of other faiths, or no faith.  I don’t know if I always succeed, but I always find the trying worth the effort for me, at least.  I hope it works for you, as well.  Today is Ash Wednesday, a day for reflecting on a lot of things: the frailty of being human, and its weakness.  Human resolve, that somehow will push back against these things in search of some more significant destiny.  Our need, both collective and individual, for mercy, for kindness, for forgiveness and grace, if these terms are not too loaded with theology to speak to us all in our simple humanity.  One of the poets who speaks to all these things most successfully for me is Denise Levertov, who I found this morning I had not gone to in almost three years for the blog—today I’ll rectify that, observing Ash Wednesday (or “Wednesday”, for those of you who don’t care a fig for all this Lent business) with a poem called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velasquez)”, from her collection The Stream & the Sapphire.  Since it is based, as the title suggests, on a work of art, I’ll share that image next to it here so that you can consider it as you consider the poem:

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
was his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

I won’t delve into the history of the painting, which you can read about on Wikipedia and other places, too, I’m sure.  Levertov clearly isn’t concerned with Velasquez, great as he is, but instead with what the painting allows us to glimpse.  The image and story come from the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, although the story may also appear (without a lot of identifying detail) in the Gospel of Mark.  The basics are quite simple—after the death of Jesus and the discovery that his tomb was empty, two of his disciples (one gets a name, but it never appears again in the New Testament; the other remains anonymous to us) are walking down the road to a small town called Emmaus talking about all that’s happened.  They meet a stranger on the road who apparently doesn’t know about any of these events, and they fill him in.  He then suggests that all of this is in accord with prophecies from the Tanakh (or Old Testament), and amazes them with his deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures.  They talk a long time on the road, and then they invite him to dinner once Emmaus is reached: at some point during the meal (maybe the beginning, maybe not; scholars disagree on how to interpret certain phrases) they suddenly recognize the stranger as a resurrected Jesus, whereupon he vanishes.

It’s a pretty good story, truth be told, even if for you that’s all it is—some fiction about people who either never lived, or who, if they did, didn’t have this literal experience.  The two travelers, sorrowful but also perplexed.  One of them has a name that we don’t recognize; the other is nameless.  A third person joins them and, despite seeming to be unfamiliar with the details of their lived experiences, amazes them by putting together ideas and events they already knew about in a way that fascinates and intrigues them.  They react with gratitude, and are rewarded with a sudden (and shockingly brief) glimpse of a friend they thought was lost forever.  And then he was gone, again.  Into this little tale Levertov (by way of Velasquez) inserts the figure of this young black girl, who gets the drop on our two travelers—before they quite recognize the man in front of them (since, once they do, he will disappear), she sees out of the corner of her eye something that immediately clarifies all of this for her.

What’s here for all of us, I think, including people of any faith tradition (or none), is the recognition of that kind of Emmaus moment in our own lives.  We know the breathless moment when suddenly something we hadn’t looked for appears to us.  We feel in our bones what it’s like to have your lived experiences—for this girl, something in the voice or hands that calls to mind almost-forgotten memories—call you to focus on something others will overlook, and to have our rapt attention pay off with a sudden glimpse of something true and important.  I love those last three lines, the suddenness of her turn (which Velasquez only anticipates, rather than depicting) and the light falling into her eyes, and with it, knowledge.  Especially powerful, then, is Velasquez’s choice (which Levertov reinforces) of an ethnic minority, a young person, and a woman, to be the one who sees before these older men (we can’t say “white” since no native of Palestine then really fits that admittedly weird and arbitrary racial category from modern America, but of a different race than the girl, and theirs is the majority race in that part of the world).  Maybe it can serve as a reminder to all of us that Emmaus moments are not just ours to receive individually—that, to learn all we should, we need to be attentive to how other people’s experiences, especially those different from ours, especially those marginalized by our society, may open up truths for them that we need also.  Truths that we, once we possess them, will carry in our hearts forever, even from just that one brief glimpse.  I think the poem and the painting, together, hit that message home for me, and it’s one I’m grateful for no matter what Wednesday it is.

But to add just briefly for others who may share some of my faith experiences, and for whom Ash Wednesday is a special day of reflection, I’ll say that the Emmaus tale is a powerful one for Lent, I think.  I love the namelessness of the second disciple because I think that disciple is each of us, all of us—whoever he (or she) may have been on the road that day.  I love the metaphor for Lent as a road—one we walk for a long ways while pondering the stories written in the New Testament, sharing with each other insights we may have—and one that may end in a startling and meaningful glimpse of the divine during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.  And so, for that reason, all I said in the last paragraph is magnified—the important of recognizing how people not like me, especially the marginalized and the ignored in my community, may have much more to draw on when they look for the form of the one who was despised and mistreated, rejected by almost all who knew him, in the end, and put to ignominious death as a hated criminal.  They may know much more than I do about his hands and voice, may see them much more alive and at work in the community around me, and may feel the warmth of light in places that are still dark to me.  Lent is a season for listening, then, at least for me—to Levertov today, and hopefully to the voices of many other people in the 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and the ringing of the Easter bells.  Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

Poetry Friday: Depression

I promise, this isn’t going to be a full blog post about a celebrity death you’ve probably read and seen enough about already this week, no matter whether you were grieving or indifferent to the news.  But Robin Williams filled the news feed on my social media platter, and probably yours too; and in the wake of the news of his suicide came an echoing rush of posts about depression, suicide prevention, and people generally reaching their hands out into the void to reassure whoever was listening that they were not alone, that someone cares and is ready to help them.  It certainly put those topics on my mind—my own experiences with depression and those of people I love, and what I’ve heard and read from people who went to the brink of suicide, even attempted it, and what that experience felt like.  So today, even though I’ve put aside WWI for now, it won’t really be a sunshine-and-puppies poem.  But it will, I assure you, be a good poem.

You see, I had a long L ride today to the doctor’s office—the cold that knocked me out last Friday (hence no PF post a week ago: my apologies) hung around this week until I had to see if I had strep or something—and I took along for the ride a book I haven’t read in many years.  It’s a title I picked off the remainder table in the basement of Village Books in Fairhaven, probably in about 2002, and it was my introduction to one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner.  Buechner is one of the nation’s greatest memoirists and essayists, in addition to a very fine novelist, but I haven’t had much call to mention him here.  He wrote (as far as I know) no poetry, and his greatest novel, Godric, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize but failed to win (losing to A Confederacy of Dunces, which, when I get there, had better be amazing, because Godric is one of the most moving and wise books I’ve ever read), so I have no real way to mention him here, except by horning him in to this post right now, which I hope you will forgive. In any case, I picked up Buechner’s Speak What We Feel; Not What We Ought To Say, in which he explores, sensitively and with the care of a man who loves words with a passion only exceeded by how much he loves those who write the words, four authors who wrote their way through some of the darkest feelings in their lives.  And the four authors he chooses are incomparably talented: G. K. Chesterton (featured on Poetry Friday only a couple of weeks ago), Mark Twain (who needs no introduction), William Shakespeare (ditto), and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hopkins is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps my favorite poet ever, but I haven’t brought him in here very often—only twice, in fact, in five years of Poetry Fridays (can you believe it’s been five years?).  In part that’s because he’s not American and we are America-obsessed here at FP, perhaps too much so.  And in part that’s because so much of his work deals with faith and the divine, and while that speaks to me I know it doesn’t to many of you, and I haven’t wanted to push that between us too much since the purpose of these posts is really just to make you love poetry and think about it more often.  But I’m going to risk it today, because I think the despair Hopkins wrestled with near the end of his life is universal enough to reach us all, and even when he is expressing himself in terms of his Catholic faith I think he says things that can mean something to anyone, and move them, if they listen.  So today we take on one of the “terrible sonnets”, named not because they are poorly written, but because they were birthed amid terror, and there is something terrible and awe-inspiring about how raw and real Hopkins is as he opens up his soul to our eyes.  None of them were ever given titles, and I think in some ways it’s because Hopkins was reluctant to give any name to poems, however brief, that spoke such real and fearful truths.  This is, then, just a sonnet written in the mid-1880s by a middle-aged Catholic priest who, unknown to him, is only a few years away from dying of typhoid fever:

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

Hopkins has his old demon by the throat, here—too close to be at ease but also strangely in command of himself.  Despair, he says, I’m not going to give in to you, not swallow you down like spoiled meat, dead flesh that will rot inside me.  I love the repetition of “not” in that first line, three times as though he’s having to shout back an advancing beast, and then even a fourth time to begin the next line as he holds depression at bay.  He pushes back against the suicidal impulse to “untwist…these last strands of man”, even referencing a Shakespearean figure by saying he’ll not “cry I can no more” which was the last line of Mark Antony before he commits suicide in Antony and Cleopatra.  Hopkins can, he tells despair, but he can do what?

Something, he says, knowing that it’s a near thing here, depression will have him if he can’t stay on his feet, stay agile and avoid the shadows; something, he says, like hope, or wish that dawn would break, or even (here comes that NOT like a swordpoint again) not choose not to be, as though he can turn the “no, not, never” voice of depression in his head, the voice that tells him to give up and give in, somehow against itself, that negativity suddenly negative about the notion of suicide.  He is grasping at straws, we know, but we are in his corner, aren’t we, cheering him on because we can see what he sees—that he has the fight in him and despair is starting to show its weak points, the soft hollow in its underbelly where, like Smaug the Magnificent, a keen-eyed blow might bring the monster down.

And then Hopkins wheels, shouting to the heavens now at “thou terrible” because it is God, really, who angers him, God who seems to have bet the house on Despair just when Hopkins thought he stood a chance.  Why, he implores to Heaven, would a God who made the Earth his footstool hold a man down when he’s at his lowest, why would the famed “Lion of Judah” slash out with a fierce paw, why do his bones creak and crack as though they are being prepared for a butcher to tear them open and why does the cold wind turn and toss him, fling him from his feet when he would be most ready to run away?  Hopkins, a devout man who had profoundly disappointed his family with his conversion to the Catholic Church and his choice of the priesthood, a poet who once burned all the verse he had (up to that point) written because he worried his pride in writing took too much of his attention from God, is saying some of the most awful and true things he can think of about someone he once (in an earlier poem) called his “first, last, friend”.  He has been in the den of a predator, deep in the darkness, for who knows how long, and he knows the pad of depression’s clawed feet and the stink of its breath, fresh from some other kill.  How, he asks, can he have been so abandoned?

And then the poem turns, even as we wonder how it possibly can, as we ask ourselves what words could come out of that tempest to give Hopkins a fair answer.  He looks at his life and sees that the winds have blown clear from him the things that do not matter and never did (this “chaff”), leaving him in possession of the only things he would have wanted to keep.  Something turned for him, we realize—out of all that crying into the wind, all those accusations levied against the monstrous figure of a silent and uncaring God, his hand found another hand in the darkness.  It was a kingly hand, to be sure—a hand to be kissed, holding a scepter to be kissed as well—but it moved something in him.  His heart began to take strength like an animal drinking from a calm pool, and from some unknown storehouse he came away bearing joy with him like a thief, because it can feel that way to find joy after the despair lifts, as though all the happinesses in your life couldn’t possibly have been earned, couldn’t be yours by right, and yet they are there and real and cheerful.

But this is no easy poem, no Precious Moments depiction of depression and Hopkins’ anger at God.  Because even as the cheer lifts from his throat, he asks himself who he is cheering for.  Is it this strangely doubled divine figure, the heroic hand that both saved him and flung him into the storm?  Or is it Hopkins himself, the man who in anger addressed the terrors he knew, despair and divinity both, and called them to account?  He wonders if somehow it can be both of them (or if not, which one it could possibly be).  He looks back now—and it is back, although we may not have understood it until this very moment—into a year of “now done darkness”, a fight he somehow survived, perhaps even won, and recognizes that in grappling with despair he wrestled also with God, as though he were some Old Testament patriarch.  And it shocks him (“my God!”) even as he affirms that it simply was the case (“my God.”)  And there the poet ends.

I think it’s one of the more convincing portrayals of depression I’ve read—it rings true for me, anyway.  Despair doesn’t lend itself to neat and tidy outcomes, to the “happily ever after” we seek in fairy tales or to the guns-blazing take-out-the-big-bad-guy finish of a big action film.  Coming out on the other side is always a struggle, and it leaves its mark—in the case of Hopkins, leaves him still fencing with Despair after the year of darkness ends, leaves him angry with God (while acknowledging God’s critical role in his escape), leaves him uncertain even how he feels about all that’s transpired and whether he should be thrilled by this tough, loud, litigious voice he hears himself flinging back at Heaven.  It’s also, I should note, a very convincing portrayal of what faith feels like to those of us inside it—not the cheesy, saccharine anecdotes of some twinkly-eyed minister who claims faith is all about happiness and the easy life (I’m sorry, Joel Osteen, but if you know anything about faith, it sure doesn’t come out anytime you’re on television), but the real battle of contending with an often cruel universe and a God who is certainly not present at all times and in all ways exactly as we would expect God to be.  Hopkins’ ambivalence—both about God’s role in his depression and his reclaiming his joy, and more generally about whether or not he sees himself or God as the hero of the piece—is what people who work at faith really experience.  He joins a long list of criers into the darkness and the storm, from Job of Uz to Elijah to a Nazarene carpenter and itinerant preacher who cried famously (and desperately) into the darkness from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I know this won’t all work for all of you.  Some of you—and I’m thankful for this—don’t know what it’s like to stare down Depression….not “depression” with a little d, which hits anybody who feels a bit down now and then, but Depression the serious, long-term, often crippling psychological condition.  And others of you don’t know what to make of my occasional words about faith, either because you use that word to mean something very different, or you really don’t use it for much at all because it doesn’t mean much to you.  I appreciate your reading this far anyway, and listening to Hopkins (and me) ramble on a little about these things that have made us who we became.  And for those of you who know one or both of these topics up close and personal, I hope something resonates here, whether it’s a sense of kinship with an experience you recognize, or else perhaps a sudden insight into a side of the experience that you hadn’t considered before.  What means most to me about the terrible sonnets, and this one in particular, is that, bleak as they are (another is, I think, much worse than this one, as it’s written before the despair had yet lifted), they helped me see a path out, and understand how to walk it.  I discovered Hopkins before Depression found me, and reading him was one of my ways through my year-plus of “now done darkness”.  He and I had different experiences in many ways, of course, and expressed it differently, but it was good to have him as a fellow on the journey.  I hope Robin Williams had someone like Hopkins for his 63 years, as I expect Depression was an old foe of his and not a recent discovery—I hope you, too, if you face the same enemy, have some good friends at your side.  And if you feel you don’t, I hope you know to reach out for hands beside you in the dark, or to call into that wind that seems to blow only in opposition to you: whether it’s me or someone else, I know there’s someone who could take your hand, or call back through the storm, and though that doesn’t complete your journey out it’s the only way I know of to get started.

Poetry “Friday”: Christmas 2013

The prolonged blog outage continues—my apologies to you faithful readers—as we continue to adjust schedules and devote ourselves to the raising of a now slightly-more-than-six-weeks-old daughter.  But I cannot leave December wholly unblogged, nor can I bear to skip my tradition of offering a little poem here as Christmas nears.  I strive, as I always do on these religious holidays that mean something to me but only to some of you, to find a poem that both captures what I love about the holiday and still has (I think) something that would speak to someone who doesn’t experience these days through the lens of my faith.  I am, perhaps understandably, musing this year on the idea of birth, of the arrival of a child, and that combines with my persistent interest in Christmas as a holiday where the earth is somehow nearer another realm—underneath the materialism and commercialism which it is almost cliché to descry, there is a still space where this world is moved by something else.  And I think this year, Edwin Muir captures these feelings for me as well as any poet, with his poem “The Annunciation”:

“The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.

See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time.  Immediacy
of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.”

I think the poem wins me fast, with that opening line.  A simple declarative statement—no names, as though “the angel” and “the girl” are the only angel and girl we could possibly imagine, as though no other angel or girl could occur to us now.  And the tension and anticipation in the simplicity of “are met”: have we been waiting for this news?  It comes to us as though whispered by the underground resistance—the two are met.  Something is on the move tonight.  The signal has been given.

And then the poem just tears into the idea of time, a recurring fascination here (see my entire series on Eliot’s Four Quartets, for instance)—the “destroying minutes”, the strangeness of an angel being “feathered through time” (what could that mean?), the idea that somehow the impossibility and rapture of the moment call a halt to everything surrounding.  We are looking into a fixed point, like gazing over the edge of a black hole or into a painting, but somehow it is all very real, very alive, almost more alive than we are in its frozen perfection.  Beyond us goes the world in motion, the grinding of sounds like a barrel organ, but something captures us in orbit at the edge here.  The poem does not resolve it for us—it leaves us caught there, observing.  The two never move on, do not so much as speak.  How many lifetimes will pass before the angel’s lips part and say “hail”?  The poem is unconcerned.

I will not try to unpack the implicit theology here (I am grossly unqualified, and anyway I like it better as poem than as theology).  What I think lingers about the verse, and what I think may work for those of you for whom Christmas is merely a day off, or perhaps a nice day with family but no larger implications, is the way it grabs hold of what it might feel like to have a meeting that changes your life.  Despite the poem’s total lack of eros, I think the “love at first sight” experience probably carries some of the same flavor.  I imagine even less “relationshippy” meetings might carry the same weight—what it feels like to be a person confronted with the moment your existence was meant for.  Churchill holding the telegram declaring that France had fallen.  A few brave passengers locking eyes in the back of United 93.  Lincoln, late in the White House evening, considering the South’s final peace offer before the firing on Fort Sumter.  I like the magic that Muir plays with, the feeling of time being stripped off of us and leaving us frozen.

And of course for me and for some of you there is that added layer, that sense of all that had led to that angelic encounter and all that would follow.  The sense that creation might, in fact, pause and give space to that moment because in some ways all of the planet’s existence pivots around it.  I hope to capture a little of that feeling in the few days ahead, and in the long run I hope to share it with my daughter as, each year, I watch her grow past one Christmas after another.

“You got a God. Don’t make no difference if you don’ know what he looks like.”

Sairy Wilson’s final conversation with “Reverend” Jim Casy resonated with me, hence my grabbing a quote from Sairy as the post’s title.  What’s interesting to me is how much Grapes of Wrath, which is in many ways as physical and material a book as possible (so rich with details about the natural world, about people’s bodies and possessions, etc.), is about the immaterial, and ultimately about faith and hope in things we do not see, or (in some cases) even believe in (yes, that’s a contradiction in terms, and an intentional paradox).  I’ll set aside Sairy and Jim for a moment and extend these thoughts out to other characters—I’ve gotten all the way over the mountains with the Joads now, and have reached the point where they’re looking down on the beautiful valley that, in this instant, is the California they’ve dreamed of, all along Route 66.

Ma’s faith is in “the family unbroke”, a remarkable phrase given that, in so many ways, all of these people are broken—the old ones too far gone to reach the Promised Land, the parents breaking down physically and emotionally as they go, the younger members of the family all afraid or lost or fragile.  Right after she expresses her willingness to rely on that concept—the family unbroke—the family begins to shatter as a unit.  We lose one more Joad to death, and another to the lure of freedom.  It’s increasingly clear that Tom’s commitment to stand up for himself come hell or high water will land him in trouble…likely either a California grave or a long ride back to an Oklahoma jail.  Will what’s left of the Joads, in a hundred pages or two, be enough for Ma to live by?  At what point does the gravity lose hold, the disc fan outwards into particles flung on tangents by centrifugal force?

Tom’s faith is, as far as I can tell, in himself—whatever he lived through in prison, it’s convinced him that there’s nothing he can’t handle.  He takes guff from nobody, not even men with authority and influence enough to put him back in jail.  He speaks with authority himself, now; Pa remarks to Ma about how Tom’s so “growed-up”, talking almost like a preacher now, and she agrees without hesitation.  He tells people like the one-eyed man at the wrecking yard what’s wrong with their lives and how to fix it—he sets Al straight and gets the family across the desert, insisting at one point that, if need be, they’d walk it.  Tom’s rule seems to be that if another man could do it, then by God Tom Joad is going to do it and there isn’t a soul on earth to tell him no.  I can’t tell yet what Steinbeck’s doing with this self-confidence….setting Tom up for a fall?  Revealing the inner dignity of the working man, no matter his background or circumstance?  Showing the false front so that later chapters can open up the wounded and vulnerable man underneath?  What is clear, anyway, is that Tom’s faith is in as hard-to-see a thing as Ma’s “family unbroke” or Jim Casy’s God.  He believes in a drifter, a parolee who broke parole the first chance he had, a man who murdered yet never seems to have learned caution from it.  He believes in the inherent worth of a man who will consistently be assessed as worthless by the people he meets, because of how he talks, how he looks, how he smells.  Time will alone tell if Tom’s put his faith in the right person.  Much as I admire him, I can’t rate his chances very high, given the environment he’s about to step into.

Jim Casy, then, to return to where I began.  That conversation with Sairy is so deeply moving—her quiet acceptance of her fate, her hopes for her husband, so piercing.  Ultimately Jim prays a prayer she cannot hear (does he pray?) to a God neither of them can see (is God there?) and then turns and walks “out of the dusky tent into the blinding light”.  What to do with J.C. is a challenge—as I alluded to in an earlier post (and as plenty of people have with this book, I expect….I really haven’t looked up critical essays about it), Casy’s initials obviously could be used to imply that he acts as a Christ-figure for Steinbeck’s novel.  There’s definitely material to work with—Casy as a man who takes on the suffering of others, Casy the one they all find they can depend on in a crisis, Casy who ultimately gives Sairy Wilson peace and then vanishes into the light (an ascension? a transfiguration?).  But I’m not sure I want to take him there.  More than anything else, Casy strikes me as Steinbeck’s alter ego.  He speaks rarely, but when he does, it’s usually a pronouncement of some kind—he asserts truths about who people are and why they move and what it all means.  For this reason, I find him alternately fascinating (he is the most philosophical character in a book full of wise but simple folk) and a bit irritating (his speeches sometimes feel forced on the narrative, especially since Casy rarely speaks on any other occasion….it’s easy to forget he’s still with the family some chapters).  Regardless, though, I have to deal with him, and this faith he does and does not seem to have.  He announces that he’s left God’s service, but no one else will let him.  His prayers for the dying and the dead are clearly significant moments to those around him, but he considers them of no real account.  What does Casy believe in?  Not himself—if nothing else is clear to me, that is.  He’s not like Tom in that way; he’s painfully conscious of having failed others in the past, and is wary of accepting responsibility for them now.  As the only person in the book right now who doesn’t have a family, it’s hard to see him agreeing with Ma that the unbroken family is the thing to trust in—he doesn’t exert any influence on the decisions where the family was about to split up (temporarily or permanently).  But is Casy, then, an argument for faith in God?  Who or what does he trust?

Shafter, Kern County, California. A view of th...

Whatever California looks like from a distance, this is what it will look like up close, for the Joads. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is getting intensely sad, and I’m uneasy about the arrival in California.  The struggles of keeping two old jalopies running down Route 66 will soon seem pretty minor in comparison with the squalor and the desperation of the picking fields.  The stories the Joads hear on the road are terrifying, especially the man whose children and wife starved to death (if we needed any evidence to understand what an impact the New Deal would have, and how desperately grateful the nation would have been to FDR for the idea of the “safety net”, this novel certainly makes a good case).  But as Tom says, the Joads have no other choice, no place to return to.  What do you do when you only have one choice?  You take it.  But what a terrible position to be in.  And even then, as people are suffering and dying because of the manipulations of the big growers and the landowners, you can hear the voices shouting down the slightest dissent—a man suggests for even a few moments that the workers are being taken advantage of, and suddenly he’s accused of being a “troublemaker”, a “labor faker”.  It’s announced loudly that these types stir up trouble and make people angry, and for the good of everybody they’ll all be rounded up and killed sooner or later.  It’s awful and true that most human societies run this way—it becomes strangely less unjust to cheat and starve the common people than it is to be the person pointing this out to the common people.  The more I read the novel (which is of course fiction, but which also of course strives to be true to that time in history, given when and for whom Steinbeck writes it), the more I realize how close we were in the 1930s to two different Americas—one America an oligarchy run by authoritarians protecting the moneyed interests and dragging the country into fascism to protect capital, and another America in a state of revolution, where workers throw their lot in with international communism for the furious and desperate reason that they cannot see another way to get bread for their children.  That we threaded the needle in that environment (to the extent that we did—obviously in some times and places both sentiments and scenarios prevailed to some extent) is a testament to something about America.  I haven’t yet figured out what.  We’re in California now, and maybe I’ll see clearer from this vantage point.  For now, it’s onward to the fields, and good luck to the Joads.

“Sometimes you do a crime, an’ you don’t even know it’s bad. . . .”

. . . Maybe they got crimes in California we don’t even know about.  Maybe you gonna do somepin an’ it’s all right, an’ in California it ain’t all right.

Steinbeck and the Joads are both increasingly interested in rules, in laws, in boundaries.  On the one hand, this development is not at all strange in American fiction—some of the most well-known American novels predating Grapes of Wrath deal with rules of one kind or another (The Scarlet Letter deals with the strictures of Puritan society; The Age of Innocence with the social obligations imposed by the old families of New York; etc.).  But the interesting thing for me about the considerations of rules and laws in Grapes is how distant and even mysterious the rules are for the characters we follow.  The Joads and the Wilsons engage in a dialogue at one point—is there a law against stopping along the side of Route 66?  Even when this idea is dismissed, Tom still insists on the notion of rules that bind human beings—when Wilson tells Tom he doesn’t own the roadside and can’t say anything about it if the Joads set up camp, Tom insists, “you got a right to say if you wan’ neighbors or not”.  Later, Pa Joad and several other folks engage in a long discussion about the death of Grampa—is it against the law to bury him themselves?  Why?  What will the consequences be if they break this law?

These events are preceded by the even more explicit conversation I quote from at the beginning of the post, where Tom is trying to assure his mother that breaking parole won’t be an issue, because they’ll only care if he commits another crime, and he’ll steer clear of that.  Ma is thorough in thinking about this—it’s one thing for Tom to have such an intention, but who knows what’s wrong or right?  What if it is right to do something in Oklahoma, but wrong in California?  Who can live in such a world?  All of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of confused rules that have forced the Joads into this position.  Somehow, without their knowing it, the rules changed.  They’ve done the same things they always did, but conduct that once was enough to keep them on their land and surviving (if not thriving) is now insufficient to keep them from being cast off it.  There seems to be one rule for them and their kind, and another rule entirely for the rich men who now own the land.  Steinbeck weaves again and again into this question of authority—the characters want to know what they are obligated to do, but seem to struggle in knowing whose laws they are to keep.  What is right conduct?  Socrates and Tom Joad have the same question.

There’s a moral and theological angle here, too, that I’m not quite ready to examine, but I think it bears mentioning.  Jim Casy, doing his best to pray for Grampa in the hour of his death, only gets to “forgive us” before death halts his prayer in its tracks—left unsaid is the “forgive those who trespass against us”.  Is this merely an accident, or does Steinbeck mean for us to understand the implication that these simple folk want to be forgiven but don’t understand how badly they are sinned against?  When Tom goes to write the note for Grampa’s grave, he settles on the opening of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  Why the emphasis on the Joads’ need for forgiveness?  (Side note: I loved the verse Tom initially picks at random out of the Bible—Genesis 19:18 “An’ Lot said unto them, ‘Oh, not so, my Lord.'”—which Ma rejects as not meaning nothin’.  As Steinbeck clearly knows, that verse is when the angels are taking Lot out of the city of Sodom to save him and his family from destruction, and he is begging them not to be sent so far away from his home.  The mountains, he said, were too far away, and he would die in traveling there.  The irony is dark, but revealing, I think, about what these characters do and do not understand.)  All of this will have to be made sense of eventually.

Missouri migrants living in a truck in Califor...

A Missouri family’s truck on the road to California — how on earth Al Joad could keep a thing like this from falling apart in the first 50 miles is a mystery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I read, the more emotionally powerful the scenes become—the sturdy kindness of the Wilson family to the Joads, the willingness of all these poor people to look out for each other, even the roadside waitress selling nickel candies at two for a penny to the scrawny Okie children.  There’s a sense of the goodness that characterizes America at its best—a society that, despite all the talk about rugged individualism on the frontier, embraces the notion that we are all our brother and sister’s keeper.  A society of simple folk who would never turn away a hungry stranger, who accept kindness with gratitude but are a little reluctant to receive anything they think of as “charity”.  At its best, it’s definitely the most moving Pulitzer novel I’ve read, and one of the most emotionally gripping books I’ve ever read, period.  It’s also so consistently good at providing genuine moments—Granma’s slow realization of her husband’s death, the boy’s excitement that drops instantly into nausea and sorrow at the death of the dog, Al’s quiet despair as he proves unable to maintain the cars to the standard he knows they need.  It’s not even that I’m in love with the characters (although I sometimes am): it’s that I believe in them so much I think I’m on the road with them.  I think they really happened.  And in other guises, under other names, they did happen, by the thousands, on the long roads like Route 66 through the Great Plains and onwards to the Pacific.

All right, I have heaped enough praise on Steinbeck for weeks now—it’s time to make one of my few criticisms, since after all no work of art is perfect.  I do get a bit impatient with some of the soaring impersonal rhetoric from Steinbeck, especially the passage where he speaks at length in praise of “Manself” and this notion of progress and aspiration and I don’t know what all.  You can almost hear him thinking as he writes, “Hot damn! This is good stuff!”  I’m not opposed to an author being obviously a little in love with how great their stuff is (see my praise of Melville, for one), but Steinbeck’s arrogance is at times a little intrusive.  He has so much power in the scenes he underplays that it’s especially grating to feel as though he’s now showing you all his cards.

The one criticism I keep expecting to unload, and can’t?  Steinbeck’s women.  Given my experience with him, I figured they’d be caricatures or worse, but so far they’re well-written and seriously portrayed.  They’re not (usually) the focus of the scene, but there’s a lot of complexity to Ma Joad, and he’s hinting at it with Sairy Wilson.  Even excitable “Rosasharn” (Rose of Sharon) seems the right mix of maturity and girlishness for a teenager facing pregnancy and possibility all at once on the long road to California (and, she clearly believes, economic freedom for her and her husband).  I wish they were given the chance to say a few more wise things, but honestly there isn’t that great an imbalance of wisdom on this road, and I think Steinbeck’s respect for the women, especially the older women, is clear.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for now I really can’t complain even a little bit.  Keep it up, John.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday Edition

It is an annual tradition here at Following Pulitzer to dive into an honestly Christian-themed poem for Good Friday, although I always strive to offer something I think can meaningfully reach as wide an audience as possible.  From a personal standpoint, this is a very powerful day—probably the most significant Friday of the year, most years, and one in which it is hard to give voice to all the thoughts I’m thinking.  Some of them thoughts I may not even be ready to give voice to.  I know that for some of you it is equally powerful, and for some it is a day of minor significance (perhaps something to note briefly and then turn away from), and for some it really means nothing at all beyond being a Friday much like any other.  So offering a poem that can speak to all of us is a challenge—something sincere enough in confronting the Christian story that it can touch the experiences Christians around the world are having today, but also broad and human enough to reach people for whom another faith tradition (or no faith tradition at all) establishes the rhythms of your days and months.  I’m going to do my best in discussing it to speak to all of you, whoever and wherever you might be, and I hope what I say resonates on some level.

This year’s poem is by a very talented modern poet, Denise Levertov, which I first read in a collection of hers called The Stream and the Sapphire, a very eclectic collection of the spiritual poems she wrote over a long series of years in which she moved from open agnosticism to a Christian faith that, if not entirely orthodox, isn’t quite what I think most expect from a late 20th Century mainstream poet.  The poem itself, entitled “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell”, illuminates one of the most powerful moments in the Jesus stories of the New Testament, and one that has always captured my artistic imagination—it is the long dark day in which Jesus, having died, descends to the dead to call them up to Heaven, before returning to his tomb for the resurrection.  The New Testament offers almost no ideas about exactly when or how or why this might have been, but the tiny fragments it half-suggests make up the texts for the beautifully solemn and meditative liturgy of the Holy Saturday service in the Episcopal Church (my chosen denomination)—the shortest service in the Book of Common Prayer, and one most Episcopalians who aren’t on their parish’s altar guild have never attended.  Without further ado, Levertov’s take on the image:

Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud: to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food—fish and a honeycomb.

Levertov is working with powerful, elemental images here—the ideas of death and life, of spirit and flesh—and she does so at first in phrases that could hardly be more understated.  She wants the intimacy of the event to touch us, and not its grandeur.  Where I think the poem perhaps reaches most openly across faith lines to all people is the moment where she uses the word “here” to describe the place where the “merciful dead” and the rest are waiting.  Here.  Because who among us has not known that kind of dark night—more than a night, for most of us, sometimes whole months and years swallowed up in the feeling of being among the unnumbered, the nameless, the forgotten and lost?  And the sheer joy of human connection, then, that pulls us out of that shadow, like these dead, dazzled and unwilling into the light—even if Good Friday means nothing to you on the level of theology, I hope it is a day to acknowledge the real grace that has touched your life in this way.  The people who have, with little self-regard or self-restraint, reached into your life to raise up what is dying in you, to restore what has fallen, for the sheer sake of loving you.  For me, as a Christian, it is a day to marvel at how that kind of action is at the heart of how I see the universe—that human existence and time and the structure of the universe are all caught up in that motion, an action whereby someone who loves me does something inexplicable and mysterious (in the true sense of the word) that I could not have done for myself.  Levertov captures that understanding in the way I think it, throughout the first half of the poem, by seeing these rising dead as real people and describing them as such.

The second half of the poem becomes harder to grasp, I think because the Christian understanding of these events makes them hard to put in human terms—what would it be like to give up freedom for the prison of a body again, to give up joy freely to re-inhabit a broken and wounded body?  All the analogies I have ready access to from my own life fall short.  I think there are human beings whose extraordinary lives give them an understanding of this kind of action—who have willingly cast aside all their privileges and liberties because they have a job to do, and they are willing to do it.  I think of the heroes of civil rights movements everywhere—not just in the United States (though of course here) but also South Africa, and the Soviet Union, and Burma, and countless other countries and times.  I wonder how they would read this poem: it’s beyond me to guess at it.

What I do connect with is the final few lines, because Good Friday is a hungry day for me—perhaps my hungriest.  I speak those words as an unbelievably comfortable citizen of a nation overflowing with food (although we too often forget that millions of Americans go to bed hungry every night).  While fasting on Good Friday, my mind goes to the many who feel this hungry every day—who wake with hunger and work in hunger.  My tiny fast helps me see them more clearly, and gives me more of a desire to touch their lives somehow.  And I think that’s what Levertov is trying to pin down at the end—the notion that the Incarnation may not be, after all, as much about some kind of complicated theological transaction as it is a faith acknowledging that, for God to truly reach human lives, God needed to be broken like us, hungry and troubled and anxious.  And, at the same time, to give others the opportunity to act—something I know I can be bad at, and that many of us are bad at.  We hide our pain from others, whether out of pride or fear or shame, and in doing so we not only endure the pain longer but shut out of our friends’ lives the joy of helping us.  Something as simple as the acceptance of a piece of fish and a honeycomb can be an act of grace—it can be as blessed to receive as to give, under the right circumstances.

This is the first time in years that I am without my faith community on Good Friday—Betsy and I will be together, but the many familiar faces next to whom we have sung and kneeled and prayed are thousands of miles away.  I think it makes me more somber in choosing a poem this year, but I hope it has also made me a little more open than usual about my feelings about this day.  And I hope it has touched your life, in whatever sense it can.

Another poem for Shrove Tuesday

Last year, I posted some brief reflections and a poem for Shrove Tuesday.  This year, while I recognize the importance of the things I said last year—how this day isn’t just loud music and beads and “Mardi Gras”, but how it is also a preparation for the time of growing and stretching that is the Lenten season—I think it’s worth acknowledging something else.  And that’s that Lent is only a season: that the real and “normal” touchstone of faith for me is not deprivation but abundance and joy.  So this Shrove Tuesday, while I do prepare mentally for a more serious time of reflection and self-examination, I think it’s worth leaping about, just a little, since this is a great day for stretching out into the world and feeling the happinesses that are there to be found.  With all that in mind, here’s a poem by Phyllis McGinley that captures those feelings I have of being on-the-brink—the awareness of the quiet and even somber time ahead, but the unwillingness to let that impair or restrain the exuberance of living now—and I hope that, regardless of your faith tradition, it has something to say to you, and something to call out of you that you will be glad to think on:

This is the day which the Lord hath made,
Shining like Eden absolved of sin,
Three parts glitter to one part shade:
Let us be glad and rejoice therein.

Everything’s scoured brighter than metal.
Everything sparkles as pure as glass—
The leaf on the poplar, the zinnia’s petal,
The wing of the bird, and the blade of grass.

All, all is luster. The glossy harbor
Dazzles the gulls that, gleaming, fly.
Glimmers the wasp on the grape in the arbor.
Glisten the clouds in the polished sky.

Tonight—tomorrow—the leaf will fade,
The waters tarnish, the dark begin.
But this is the day which the Lord hath made:
Let us be glad and rejoice therein.