Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2015

As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition.  I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all.  And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me).  For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:

“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”

Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver.  But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.

There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance.  One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state?  Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away?  Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost?  Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary?  The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.

For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended.  It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means.  Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present.  Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space.  But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together.  Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe.  The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up.  It is abandoned but not empty.  It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace.  There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another).  I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.

Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important.  What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die.  What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place.  To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended.  She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”.  She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time.  I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution.  Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained.  His mother was there.  Did they hold him close, any of them?  Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy?  Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms?  When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them?  I wonder.  Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s.  That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby.  I hope they did.

For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think.  Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery.  Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising.  I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring.  Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows.  I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2013

Apologies to regular visitors to the blog, which has lain fallow much of March.  I find these brief unplanned breaks from blogging are good for me, but I’ve missed sharing reflections and poetry (and hopefully at least a few of you have missed it too).  I return, though, because Good Friday is one of my favorite (and most challenging) annual traditions—tackling an explicitly Christian poem in a way that tries to make it accessible or meaningful on some level to people of all faith traditions and levels of interest in spirituality.  I’ve gone with more modern poets on recent Good Fridays, but this year I feel like reaching back a little to one of my all-time favorite poets, a writer so devout that he nearly gave up his gift for God’s sake and it’s only by happy chance that much of his work survived to be shared and read.  The whole story of Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fascinating one, but one I won’t belabor now.  For this solemn holiday (for me, at least), I just want to settle into the poem right away, and see what thoughts I have that may resonate with any of you.  This is “As kingfishers catch fire”, written in 1882 but not published until 1918, well after Hopkins’ death:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Another sonnet, of course, and a carefully crafted one: Hopkins begins with a world on the edge of something inexplicable and almost explosive, with a nimbus of flames wreathed around these tense, alive bodies and even the inanimate stones seeming to jostle actively.  This is the kind of theme he likes—he explores in a couple of his more famous poems, “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover“, the idea that just beneath or hidden among the physical world is this bright, fiery reality we can see if we attend to it—and his care with sounds is remarkable.  Hopkins’ best poems are, for me, better aloud than almost anyone else’s (except maybe Dylan Thomas, but this is no accident: the Welsh Whitman was definitely influenced by Hopkins’ style), and here the patterns are incredibly well crafted.  The kingfishers and dragonflies hide inside themselves the bursting “f” sounds that immediately catch “fire” or “flame”, the alliteration acting almost like sparks flying out from the hidden insides of these creatures and kindling Hopkins’ imagination.  The sequence of “r” and “o/ow” sounds in “over rim in roundy wells stones ring” rattling and echoing like real stones clattering down the sides of a deep well.  In the music of these sounds, Hopkins builds a world in the first half/octet of the sonnet, and one that expresses a simple and essentially secular message: the earth, he says, is full of things, all of which are at their best and almost startlingly alive when we let them be themselves.  There isn’t a division here between spirit and body so much as an important fusion, where those deep truths held inside everything, animate and inanimate, are meant to be expressed somehow.  Hopkins isn’t writing us a prescription here, of course, so much of this is shrouded a little by the poetic language—what does it mean that the birds and insects are catching fire in the opening line?  Is the bell singing out its “name” really a “mortal thing”?  He pushes past this, though, to conclude the octet with another characteristic flourish, verbing a noun in an unusual and thought-provoking way: in this case, the word “self” becomes a verb, “to selve”, to speak and spell what and who we are because this is what we were meant to do.  There’s something lovely and old-fashioned in the idea, and if the poem ended there that’s not a bad stretch to have walked: again, I think this isn’t particularly religious of him, and I feel like a lot of folks can identify with something there—the call to discover who we truly are and live that out unashamedly, as secure and confident in being us as a bird or stone or bell is in being and doing what it is.

The Christian turn, then, and the added layer I want to ponder on Good Friday, is the sestet, the final lines that make a sonnet a sonnet by upsetting the coziness of the poem’s opening 8 lines and showing us the man behind the curtain.  In this case, that “man behind the curtain” is almost a literal one: Hopkins is almost artless, plain-spoken, in urging us onward with that child-like statement “I say more”, as though we were about to turn away from him with his thought only half-completed.  It’s not enough to be human and to “selve” out that humanity.  We dig deep and find these extraordinary qualities within us that go beyond mere humanity—the thirst for justice that makes us “verb” it into the world (“the just man justices” — what does it mean to us to justice? What can or should we justice today?), the way that the grace we feel in our life can become a force that sustains all our journeys in the world.  They too go out of us into the wide earth.  And, here the explicit theological idea underpinning all of this, ultimately Hopkins sees us as people who have put on the form of God, who are dwelled in by God, and thus somehow we must break that into the world the way a bell rings out its name.  There’s a danger to this kind of thinking, of course—the man on the street corner who thinks he speaks for God when he lists off the hated, the judged, the ones who will be excluded from glory (in his mind)—and one I don’t want to minimize.  But I’ve also seen the beauty that Hopkins’ way of seeing the world can inspire, the way that people afraid of the earth’s great agonies and sorrows, people certain they are too small to really make a difference, put on that Christ cloak that urges them to be God’s hands in the world to heal, to help, to shield and to save.  Ultimately one of the most powerful messages in Hopkins’ poem is that message that is fully encapsulated by Good Friday: the notion at the core of Christian theology that to be human is to share an identity with the divine power underpinning the universe, and that to live out humanity fully in imitation of the divine example means to risk all for the sake of the world.  To risk pain and death, even, for the sake of love; to reject violence as a means of “solving” a problem even to the point of suffering violence with patient forgiveness in our hearts.  This is the theological core that inspired and steadied the civil rights movement, that helped Gandhi (who famously lacked much sympathy for Christianity, but who said that no one had done more for humanity than Jesus) articulate the ideas of non-violent protest and soul force that continue to change the world.

I recognize that not everyone will respond to this poem as I do, any more than that all of you will feel the same mix of emotions and reflections that I do on Good Friday.  What I hope does resonate, and move you on some level, is the reminder that the kind of self-expression Hopkins explores in the opening half of the sonnet isn’t meant to be self-indulgent or self-absorbed.  He’s opening us up to the beauty of that kind of surrender to live out our true purpose because he wants to then push us to find our truest purposes in service to that ideal of love, of grace for those who need it, of justice for those who have no one else to stand by them.  The selves we are, in Hopkins’ eye, are made for that kind of work.  If these Christian holidays are a part of your life this weekend, I hope they help center you (and me) on that true purpose, and the knowledge that love and hope are not alien to us, not strange clothing that ill fits us, but rather are the deep identity locked inside of us that we have always been meant to open up and bring into the world.  And if the holidays mean little or nothing to you, I hope at least that this season of spring, with the return of warmth and life and growth, of kingfishers and dragonflies soaring over nearby waterways, turns your mind to that kind of “selving” that reaches beyond ourselves and into the lives of those you can meaningfully bring help to.

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.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday Edition

I am sorry for having missed last Friday, where my intention to post a poem fell through a crack in a busy schedule—life does that to me at times, as happens to us all, I think.  Today is an important day for me, as always: a day of reflection and candor, a day of solemn hope.  I know it’s not a day that carries that weight for everyone—not even for everyone within my faith tradition (I know growing up the notion of “Good Friday” was a very dim and far-off thing), and certainly not for those without.  Last year my Good Friday poem was intentionally inclusive of other views…a take on spirituality by an author trying to see it from, if not quite outside, then certainly from the borderlands.  And that might have carried the day again this year too, out of my desire to get poetry into as many hands as possible, but then I read a friend’s poem about Good Friday and was really struck by it.  So I’m sharing it even though I’m not completely done processing it yet, and I don’t know how (or even if) it will touch all of you—it’s certainly written from inside the Christian experience, and honestly so.  I hope that it affects some of you as it does me—the language and the imagery are elemental and very powerful—and will say more, of course, after you’ve read it.  For now this is, with the kind permission of Randall Templin, a poem he called “a phenomenological Eucharist poem” and which appears to carry the title “fr.”:


circles circles round and round the altar and all their mouths wet and hot and
swollen with life and sins forgiven and bacteria

i touch their tongues with bready fingertips i feel the heat the wet take hold
of the bread and say words over and over

while i watch the bread soak through and be drawn into the wet hot dens of their
words i shape crosses in the air and blood trails behind me

i am a man of violence delivering violence to joyful creatures encircling the altar with their
several seedy tongues and practical knees

my clothing is all drapery and showy frugality very small children take only words
violence is the property of thinking people

it is a short sprint from the railings here to the carven oak doors don’t ask how i know
but there are mouths to feed

so let the blood wrap round and round in the blank noise of frenzied solemnity
wrap the altar in wine

wrap me in drapings and knees sickening tongues to the altar and sink to our knees
may we all sink down into the violence and the passion

I have to be up front: my first reaction to the poem was not verbal or reasoned at all. I felt the poem inwardly, a deep sense of resonance and gratitude, and not many words came with that feeling. Having reflected a bit, I have a few things to say, but this is a poem I’m still digesting and will for some time, I think. Randall fuses the intense physicality of taking communion—the tactile griminess of a gathered community of people, the rustle of priestly robes and the muttered prayers—with the obscure, foreign notion that underlies communion….that on some level blood and body are consumed in this seemingly simple action. That’s not the way American Christians like their faith. No matter what your theological stripe or denominational affiliation, we tend to keep faith pretty sanitized. Our crucifixes look very clean, almost happy. I grew up drinking grape juice out of an individual cup (no shared chalice for us Baptists). We see faith as a private thing, something an individual can sort out for themselves and, really, ought to. And we have a tendency to want to demystify the mysteries of our faith—either by explaining them away, as liberal theologians prefer, or by tacking down long chains of logic that tie together the whole faith with a neat little bow, as conservative theologians have a tendency to do. Walking this middle path—one open to community and mystery, one that acknowledges the humanness of faith, that is willing to remain tensed between paradoxes—is hard, almost too hard.

And there is paradox here, that I struggle with. I want to wrestle more with Randall’s use of the word “violence” and the shades of meaning it brings with it. I want to tease out the grammar that underlies the poem, to see how phrases are stacking on each other and what they mean. But more than that I like just being with the poem right now, and allowing it to show me a different side of a rite I participate in weekly—like looking at a Cubist portrait of your own mother, like seeing a landscape of your hometown painted by Hieronymous Bosch. I don’t have to get (or even “like”) all the pieces of the painting to know that it’s showing me a side of myself I had forgotten, a place from which I come without always knowing why. I hope it does that and more for some of you. Regardless of what you do or don’t celebrate this weekend, I hope you find peace.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday Edition

I went looking for a Good Friday poem, and found many, of course.  But I couldn’t find one that struck me right—until I found this.  I’m not sure what it says or what she meant by it, but I think that’s what a poem ought to do, even today, perhaps especially today.  Give us words to dwell on, dig into…eventually find ourselves in.  So, for Good Friday, Anne Sexton’s “With Mercy for the Greedy”:

For my friend, Ruth, who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession

Concerning your letter in which you ask
me to call a priest and in which you ask
me to wear The Cross that you enclose;
your own cross, your dog-bitten cross,
small and wooden, no thorns, this rose—

I pray to its shadow,
that gray place
where it lies on your letter . . . deep, deep.
I detest my sins and I try to believe
in The Cross. I touch its tender lips, its dark jawed face,
its solid neck, its brown sleep.

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes.
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.

All morning long
I have worn
your cross, hung with package string around my throat.
It tapped me lightly as a child’s heart might,
tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.
Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.

My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
with mercy
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.