A Poem for Post-Christmas

20181224_123008 (1)This year, I spent Christmas in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and in all honesty, it was hard. It was sweet that Alex and I finally got to spend our very first Christmas together and it was sweet to have quality time with his family and take part in different traditions. But for the first time in many years, I didn’t get to take a starlight walk through a field and imagine the chorus of angels behind the silence. I didn’t perch atop a hay bale under a barn roof and journal with half-numb fingers about the glorious implications of lesser-known Christmas carols. There are no fields here, of course, and certainly no hay bales. What’s more to the point, there is no space for solitude in nature, and I’m finding more and more that productive reflection and rest is really difficult for me to achieve indoors.

One thing I did do was spend two full afternoons in an upscale shopping mall, hiding out in a bookstore and looking for some soul peace. On Christmas Eve, I was there the whole afternoon, thumbing through poetry books, vaguely looking for something to anchor my anxious heart.

The triviality of the world can be stifling and I think we all feel it at different times and in different ways. I feel it most when I’m in the presence of hopeless materialism, when I’m watching people get bogged down and burdened by the tightening chains of things that are without longevity, purpose or meaning. And of course, there’s nowhere like the mall if you want to get yourself a load of that.

One of the books I explored that afternoon in the bookstore was Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems For Hard Times. In his introductory notes, Keillor explains why he thinks poetry has something to contribute to people who are suffering. “The meaning of poetry,” he says, “is to give courage.” And that stuck with me. Because ah. That is what I chiefly need.

Since I couldn’t find any poems that spoke to what I was feeling, I started scratching out a brand new one, pouring my sadness and frustration into lyrical words. But, as so often happens, hope happened at the end of it.

This poem is meant to push back on the dangerous idea that what we’re up against today is somehow worse or less conquerable than what has been in the past. For a traditional artist like me, whose heart beats faster at the sight of hard-copy letters and old-fashioned style and the texture of paper, who feels a sadness in the pit of my stomach when I see isolation creeping into culture or the price of postage going always up; well, this is vital.

It’s vital that Jesus came into a horrible, horrible, world where nothing made sense and everyone was confused. Where truth was murky and beauty was treacherous and self-preservation was central. These things have always been, taking one form or another. And that’s vital.

It’s vital for post-Christmas, when we’re trying to get ready for the new year, for the sorrows that are inevitable, for the loneliness of being human, for the days when faith doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.

Star Of Bethlehem FlowerThe title of the poem refers to the ornithogalum flower, also known as the “Star of Bethlehem.” I took an interest in it earlier this month when I was working on the January edition of the Letters From the Sea Tower. I wanted to make a little illustration for a striking line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In his exploration of the mythos of King Arthur, Tennyson employs the phrase, “wearing the white flower of a blameless life,” and I chose the small, unobtrusive, starry ornithogalum to be my model for the white flower. But as I began to write this poem, it came to me that if a white flower is a representation of a blameless life, there is someone who wore it far better than even King Arthur. Here’s to Him.

And without further ado, here’s my little poem. May it bring you some courage to face the shallowness of the world with limitless grace and cheerful defiance. May your life in some kind resemble the humble, white-flower life of Jesus.

STAR OF BETHLEHEM [Ornithogalum]

The world was just this way
 	when
Baby Jesus bloomed in the
 	crisp winter and the frost
 		couldn’t wilt him.
People then as now
 	were lost in the unnavigable maze of the self
little guessing there was
 	around any corner
a turn into a passage fragrant
 	with fresh air
 	 	and the urgent invitations of the gulls.
People then as now
 	were shelling out their small, limitless lives
 	for those briefest of commodities:
		pleasure and applause
when Christ came low and
 	behold
the white flower of paradise opening
 	gently in the carpet
 		of the grass.

			

Kilmurvey House

kilmurvey
I’m not in Ireland today, but the grey sky in West Texas has been pouring steady water for over twenty-four hours. When I went running down the flooded little streets in the drippy dusk earlier, I lingered over my memories of wet days in the Aran Islands back in March.

And I decided to post this little poem that I wrote earlier this week in Dr. Bob Fink’s creative writing workshop. The poem was an attempt to distill the essence of my experience at Kilmurvey House, a lovely historic stone home that serves as a lodging-place for island visitors.

The photo included here is not my own, but it is just how I remember Kilmurvey House. The lighted window on the right side of the picture is the window into the “rose tea-room” mentioned in the poem – a room where my now-fiancé and I read a little book of W.B. Yeats’ poetry on a wet, wet day much like this one.

IMG_0567The poem I most clearly recall reading was “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” because we discussed it at some length and questioned whether cynicism is a natural accompaniment for age and, if so, whether it must be?

Yeats famously visited the Aran Islands in 1896 and told J.M. Synge: “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” Kilmurvey House was standing when Yeats was on the island, but no one in our group was certain whether he ever went there specifically.

When I first set out to write this poem, I wanted to know for sure – I thought it was important to the poem. But as I began to think about it more deeply, I realized that this small fact is immaterial in the scheme of things. What matter is that I was there, reading Yeats and wrestling with what he said and I wanted to give words to that experience. So this is my best attempt.

KILMURVEY HOUSE


No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
       (W.B. Yeats, Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?
)

I don’t know if Yeats ever came here or not
on a pitching ferry passing
the wild atlantic way the saltgrass air in his nose
the gulls wheeling.

There are always red coals in the rose tea room
the kettle about to bubble
and the little warm milk pods in the bowl on the
ancient piano.

Why should not old men be mad? Even the ocean
is white with rage
throwing beaten egg stones up on the beach
howling in the boulders.

Yet will you sit with me here in the circle
of bodhran thunder and light?
Sometimes the mind breaks and spills
birdlike solos.

We Should Talk More About The Country

Nasmith
We walk roads that seem endless but we know they’ll be tapering off like a candle with a thread all out of wax. And if you’re on a trail of tears, the finish line might seem like a release. But if this little jaunt has been a party, the fact that it gives way to long strings of funerals sometimes makes everything seem like a pretty expensive waste. I wish we would talk more about the country we’re coming home to – in friend groups speculating about the future and in worship and at work and with the scores of somebodies on the street.

I tried to express this some months ago in a little poem. This week, that poem won a quite special prize over Utmost Christian Writers, and so I thought I would share it with all of you.

Have a glad week, all you born-abroad ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven!

WE SHOULD TALK MORE ABOUT THE COUNTRY

I.
The summer had besieged us like armies, like slow wildfire, like cruelty
and when the high sea broke open and bled white water it was high time.
We did not see it like that: with eyes greedy for justice and gaping.
We were growing older, expected less and less, and celebrated everything:
the crinkled white leaves in the wet hearts of beans, bellicose mosquitoes,
gnats like stardust in the fire-wind, charred asparagus needles,
thin tea, and the yellow teeth under the tongues of purple snapdragons.
We were old enough to be thoroughly happy about the pond hosting
black-winged whistler ducks with beaks like bursts of flame, the garden
making a home for rugged white parsnips and the green pebbles of peas;
to relish donuts like spun sugar, trees shedding water like tears,
nightbirds in the moonful sky, and the steady drip of rain through our dreams.

II.
After a time, even drought-break and jubilation begin to taste of sadness.
When we stand in the pool of our contentment, wearing each other’s presence
like a coat of many smiles, we will never stand here again, never with the
water hurtling off of the shingles, and the ants chewing our naked toes,
never with the baby tangling his pink fingers in our hair and our mouths
glad with songs, and our hearts full like hosed cells of celery.

III.
We should talk more of the country we are coming home to, and less
of the land we are living in like unhomed swallows on the waves of the sky,
like beached sailboats straining at the bar, their wings clapping the salty air.
Talk of the houses that are waiting behind yellow curtains to be filled
with laughing and the lilting piano, and puddled crushed citrus spiking the rooms.
Swaying in our rocking-chairs and wrapped in our respective twilights,
we should not speak of our histories as though we stood before the banquet
of delights and were too easy on our dinnerware. We should not speak
of what has been and will never be again. We should talk about what has
never been, though we have been waiting for it all our lives. Talk of the gold
city that shall break on our sight like rain on brittle grass, when we shall go
up from the house of slavery and swing over the threshold of the promised land.

On Volition and the Atheistic Literary Style

Illustrated_London_NewsAn interesting essay,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in the Illustrated London News a hundred years ago, “might be written on the possession of an atheistic literary style.”

In spite of possessing all of the faults that accompany reckless and impassioned writing, G.K. Chesterton had a penchant for the most powerful of all literary capabilities: he could express in dazzling terms the deeply buried knowledge that everyone already holds in their hearts, but does not know how to explain.

When a reader comes across a statement so expressed, he takes ownership of the idea. He cries in his mind, “I have always known this, only I have not known how to put it together!” This is the highest level of communication, and it may be argued that it is the only form which is of any lasting use.

Thus, when I came across these words of Chesterton’s, I knew at once that there was such a thing as an atheistic literary style, and that I had always known about it, and had been trying to find just those words to tell of it. And Chesterton beat me to it, as he so often does.

He continues,

“There is such a thing. The mark of it is that wherever anything is named or described, such words are chosen as suggest that the thing has not got a soul in it.

Thus they will not talk of love or passion, which imply a purpose and a desire. They talk of the ‘relations’ of the sexes, as if they were simply related to each other in a certain way, like a chair and a table.

Thus they will not talk of the waging of war (which implies a will), but of the outbreak of war – as if it were a sort of boil.

Thus they will not talk of masters paying more or less wages, which faintly suggests some moral responsibility in the masters: they will talk of the rise and fall of wages, as if the thing were automatic, like the tides of the sea.

Thus they will not call progress an attempt to improve, but a tendency to improve.

And thus, above all, they will not call the sympathy between oppressed nations sympathy; they will call it solidarity. For that suggests brick and coke, and clay and mud, and all the things they are fond of.”

These words are no less true now than when they were penned in a past century. The difference is that in the present era of televised journalism, the mechanized passivity and rigidity of communication has been largely exported from the page to the screen. Anyone who has suffered through a White House press conference or had the misfortune of listening to Jay Carney for even a few minutes is a witness to the modern meaninglessness of language.

What is missing in the automated soullessness of the atheistic literary style? What is it that strips from language its power and its glory?

I thought at once of a short video I saw some years ago when I was little more than a child, and the word that I learned while watching it. A word at once terrifying and cheerful, like a gift of courage. For oh! courage is found in unlikely places.

noun: volition
1. the faculty or power of using one’s will.

Within the context of atheism, a man may have the illusion of decision-making. Honest atheists, of which there are an alarming number, will admit this is only an illusion, and that a man acts only according to the ways he has been acted upon. However, the thing is not whether a man has a choice or not, but whether the choice that he makes has any meaning, which it can’t. For nothing shall be saved, and nothing shall be ruined. Not only because a man’s choice shall not save or ruin anything, but because there is nothing to be saved or ruined. Everything is ruined already. Or, rather, there was never any hope of anything being saved.

But the sobbing Nazi officer spitting a cigarette into the gutter, he may be saved. He has come to know his own wretched weakness and the weighty shame of the world. What stands between all of this and the hard relief of purity is a stand. A will waking up and doing.

“They will not talk of the waging of war,” warned Chesterton, “which implies a will.”

Well, shall we wage a mighty war against the culture of happenstance?

On Dorian Gray, Pre-Raphaelitism & The Treason of All Clerks

Dorian GrayKnown for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, 19th century Irish author Oscar Wilde was one of the best-known personalities of his time. A lavish and expensive character, he tackled his personal life in a cavalier manner and his many homosexual affairs brought about his two-year imprisonment in 1895. An aestheticist and a worshipper of beauty, Wilde wrote in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,

Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.

These words he puts into the mouth of his character, Lord Henry, a luxurious, sensual, amoral, and dangerous dandy, who reminds the reader sharply and distinctly of Wilde himself. Indeed, Wilde is often identified with dozens of the quips and one-liners uttered by the cynical Lord Henry, who babbles incessant, destructive foolishness in a markedly eloquent manner.

But as Dorian Gray drags on, it becomes apparent that Lord Henry is the novel’s antagonist and the villain who is ultimately responsible for the tale’s tragic ending. Even Wilde, who created him in his own image, hates him. In fact, the end of Dorian Gray is a firm and frightful condemnation of everything its author stood for in the real world. It is as though this book is Wilde’s message to us from the other side of his own experiences. Like he is standing over there crying, “don’t come this way!” Crying, “it’s not what you think it is!” The author of Dorian Gray was full of wisdom.

Why, then, the absurd folly that followed him all his days? Why, when we know the truth, do we not go free? This is not a question that I mean to answer, but a question that is in itself an answer to the myth that knowledge is an answer of any kind at all.

The great end of life,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “is not knowledge but action.”

Poor old Oscar Wilde was vivid, devastated proof of the way that knowing, divorced of doing, is deceitful, is death. There are other examples, of course. And sadly, they throng in great numbers around the canvas and the colors, the paints and the pens, the poetry and the publishing-houses. Because art is a medium of theory, and one may hold a theory forever without doing anything about it.

found-rossettiIn April I had an opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and was fortunate enough to be there at the same time as a touring Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. A long-time Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast, I was looking forward to this exhibit eagerly, but even I was not prepared for the full splendor of the vibrant colors, fascinating imagery and deep symbolism portrayed.

All of the artists represented had crafted brilliant and meaningful representations of redeeming love in a number of varied settings. Their works were weighty with truth, sparkling with beauty, truly magnificent. And yet I knew well that none of them had lived up to the ideals they so devotedly espoused.

300px-William_holman_hunt-the_shadow_of_deathAt the bookstore, I purchased Laurence Des Cars’ informative, illustrated volume about the Pre-Raphaelites, and over the next two days of the trip read it in other, less-interesting museums. All of my preconceptions about the artists’ tumultuous personal lives were proven correct, as were all of my suspicions that their art (for the most part) represented the glory they refused to incorporate into their own lives.

There is, of course, something disappointing about this realization. But, what is more important, there is in it a grave warning for the world of “creatives” and writers and thinkers and every form of artist and everyone who deals regularly with theories and with thoughts. As Ann Voskamp says so memorably, “The words must always become flesh. Else they aren’t words but lies.”

The journals that have housed my thinking and my ponderings for many long years are wide with words. I have kept them in very good repair, have lovingly glued loose bindings and washed stains from their leathern covers and looked after them. Why? Because my soul is so easily unsettled, so quickly ruffled. Writing has been a way for me to anchor my anxious and wandering mind. “Nothing has really happened until it has been described in words,” said Virginia Woolf. I have lived according to this motto and have hundreds of pages of tiny calligraphic script to show for it. The books are beautiful to look upon, and my heart laughs when I read through them. And yet, like anything built upon an untruth, this habit of obsessive chronicling hasn’t been accompanied by satisfaction.

Because it isn’t true that things haven’t occurred unless we tell of them. (Indeed, the telling of a thing very often makes it other than it was when it happened.) On the contrary, the only time a thing does not occur is when we don’t do it.

Our 26th president knew this. “I have a perfect horror of words that are not backed up by deeds,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt. Theoretically, we all share his disgust with hypocrisy. And yet, is our horror deep enough yet? Is our horror so deep yet that we understand that the wretched innocence of ignorance is to be preferred over the deathly disobedience of the learned?

C.S. Lewis wrote, in a letter to Arthur Greeves,

It is a shock to realize that the mere thinking it may be nothing, and that only the tiny bit which we really practice is likely to be ours in any sense of which death cannot make hay.

What is everything going to look like on the other side of the rain-curtain? Will our art be enough to outweigh our days in the solemn scales of justice? Hardly.

W.H. Auden knew this well, and At The Graves of Henry James bemoans it hauntingly.

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

What, then? What shall we do about this? Since it becomes increasingly evident that it is the doing which counts, after all.

Perhaps it is not as important as we thought it was that we publish ten books or express our inner struggles in pages of private prose or compose a symphony as stupendous as the Fifth, or paint a masterpiece that will endure for a thousand years.

Not to say that there is no importance accompanying these things, but only that there may not be. Because after a thousand years, what then? Because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?

The misused, deceived Dorian Gray gets the last word. He says it to his betrayer, Lord Henry, in defiance, in anguish. In his careless, offhand way, the story’s villain has told the tortured protagonist of an encounter he had with a street-preacher. Lord Henry says,

“I thought of telling the prophet that art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.”

“Don’t, Harry,” says the younger man, the scales dropping from his artificial, gorgeous eyes, his evil eyes, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect.”