Friday, March 12, 2010

Inspired by Eliot and other things

This poem emerged from a tumultuous period in my life, following the break-up of a 24-year relationship (yes, my BFF still, now over 32 years of friendship, so this is not a tragic story, though it was a painful period). Themes struggling within me included the following:

What new things come to birth following death or fallowness? How does one discern what they are?

There is, early on, the echo of a friend's description of a stunning reddish-purple clematis blossom as a "whore of a flower." So easy to behold the obvious. But what delight to see shoots just coming up from the earth and recognize which plants will spring from them! I love to be around growing things.

So, what lies ahead?

How can we possibly know?

I had a wild and short affair - the requisite madness after divorce, no? - by every common-sense standard it was ill-advised. Yet it helped me stay alive and, in some respects, come back to life.

My body and soul were trying to hang in there as anxiety and depression threatened to tear me apart. I hardly slept at all. I wrote tons of poetry to help process my emotions and my emotions were raw and out there for all to see.

By the grace of God, the love and prayers of friends, faith, and therapy (and some medication), I survived.

As I began this theme of trying to make out a pattern I had no idea where it would go. This, for me, is part of the fun of writing acrostics. There is the discipline of a set number of lines starting with precise initial letters and beyond that: who knows? What emerged was the image of me as an icon being written by Christ. The concrete task of having written an icon of the Baptism of Christ not too long before all this made the process quite vivid.

That icon, "He Fills All Things with Blessing," hangs in St Cuthbert's Episcopal Church, Oakland, California. The wonderful batik with dancing and drumming now hangs in my bedroom. At that time it hung above the computer in the office at the church. It was a present of the aforementioned BFF and I framed it with complementary silk borders. Both are shown here in the body of the poem.

Dreams, visions, moments of agony and ecstasy, spiritual direction, and lots of anxiety all went into this.

As I reflect on Burnt Norton in this Lenten series, here is one earlier reflection, the most complex poem I have ever written.
--the BB



Dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

Emergent glories yet unrecognized, do they startle or confuse?
Xs formless at first, small seeds that blossom in elegant cross-stitch,
Cryptic till we see the hints of pattern—how to decipher or discern?
Eyes trained, dulled, by habit grasp the whorish flower, understand its gaudy
Pigments and display—that reveling in hue, curve, scent, allure—
Teasing, tantalizing, shameless in the cry: I am alive! Behold!

For children untrained, for weathered souls with wandering mind
Or the true gardener, wonder is allowed: to catch at first emergent greens, to
Rest and pay respect at breaking soil, at hints of configuration, before

The secret discloses itself, the plant is known. What clue lies in the
Heart’s unknowing, the futility of the mind’s appetite? Should
Each creature, moment, place explain itself? Would it matter?

Perceiving beyond knowledge—in the bone, the pulse, the breath—
Or simple ignorance: how do they differ? My sureties and
Insecurities both speak of what I wish I knew but don’t really.
Nothing, we acknowledge often, is so well known as the fact
That we know so little of this world, of ourselves, of God.

This being the case, how have I come to think that I can turn
Hints of the moment into knowledge of what must pass,
Ever planning, predicting, adjusting, seeking readiness?

Surprise overtakes me always. There is no certain knowing
This side of the veils, my eye-binding grave clothes,
Illusions wrapping me Lazar-like against the day’s blinding
Light as I struggle free of the enclosing stone. Shall I trust this
Luminous brilliance woven in the fierce voice of my Friend?

Plunged deep in swirling I never set in motion and cannot still,
Overcome, not by saltwater sobs but the great ocean’s womb
In which our life is formed, tossed in cosmic contractions,
Not sensing above, below, behind, before, beside,
Turned constantly about by waters I cannot grasp,

Tasting the wet death of bloody birth, the tearing terror,
Have I the faintest inkling of the way? I am lost in joy.
Earth and Heaven bring me forth, costly delight! Deep
Rightness! The wheel turns as it should, again and again—
Everlasting newness in the repetitions, inexhaustible grace.


What of the searing death, the birth of fire? Swirling tongues
Of flame now leaping, soaring, rising in exultant roar,
Up, up, linking worlds, sucking the air into its consuming ecstasy!
Lungs released from the waters cry for this breath, craving
Draughts of life even as each residue is burnt away.

Bereft of direction, possession, place, and certainty, I strike my feet on
Earth in rhythms only partly mine and mostly not. The drum calls.

Now I look up at batik dancers, total motion and abandon. There is
Only pulse and movement, nothing solid: action not quite frozen in fabric.


Do I have the slightest hint of what emerges now, in this place
And moment, this specific intersection of roads within the sacred hoop?
No sure knowing of my own self (desperately deceitful heart), no
Certainty of what comes to birth in me. And yet I dare trust that
Each moment, action or inaction, is part of God’s pattern,

Ancient and novel realities surpassing terms of our defining,
Now colliding, colluding, combining, creating, expressing life,
Defeating death through its acceptance—cruciform marvel!

The vision, O Christ, you gave me of yourself a year ago—
Halo of red flame amid the waters of baptism—only began to
Emerge with the painting of the ikon. You continue to unfold
Riches of meaning to my too small heart, painting yourself with
Every pain I must endure, each joy, each stroke of faith and hope and love.

I am now the maple boards, hewn and milled and cut,
Sanded smooth and joined by Nazareth’s son, sized with hide

Of rabbit, wrapped in linen (your shroud, surely),
Next closed in seemingly endless layers of gesso, sanded smoother still,
Lined with graving steel, your message and image carved into me,
You having first engraved my name upon your palm.

Then there is the guilt when gilded over with gold, fearing my
Heart cannot deserve such adornment. You reassure, knowing better than I
Each fault and flaw in the material you made and chose.

Does it seem likely that all creation and the creator’s presence
And blessing can appear in me? Your Gospel tells me, Yes!
Not understanding is no barrier to my formation in your image, gracious
Christ, I need but trust you in and above all, yes, and within me.
Even the deaths of earth and water, fire and air, are but birth in you, your birth in me.

July 31, 2002


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.


—From T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” stanza II, in Four Quartets

6 comments:

author said...

Beautiful, Paul. Even ecstatic. And I LOVE your icon! (And I am an icon lover.)

Paul said...

Thanks, Janine.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Paul, your poem is powerful. So you start with the acrostic letters, then? Yes. That makes sense.

Your icon is beautiful, and the batik is so full of life. The dance!

Paul said...

I enjoy writing acrostics, Mimi, and did many that year. Most are too private to share, spelling out names.

Grandmère Mimi said...

If I were Joe McCarthy, I'd say, "I want the names! Name names!" But I'm not Joe McCarthy, so I won't say that. :-)

author said...

You know, acrostics are a wonderful idea for working out problems, things you ponder, etc. I may try it myself for writing poetry, thank you...

(Janine, but you know that)