Each Holy Week I try to pull together some poems that evoke the mystery, pain, confusion, hope, silence, whispers, tragedy, exhaustion and expectation of this dark time of the year. For many theologians this is a time where we become bankrupt in language and reasoned resources with which to approach this time-between-times. You cannot rush through the week – the days will not go quicker for us nor will Easter become brighter if we ignore Good Friday and Holy Saturday. No, we have to sit in this time and what makes all this a bit more bearable is that in the midst of the pain of loss we are not alone. The gathering of the brokenhearted is what this strange, odd time is about. People stumbling under the weight of grief crossing the threadbare carpets of our homes and churches and finding more than answers – they find fellowship for the rest of the journey this weekend. Whether you are traveling this dark season of Christian faith with others or merely watching the flickers of the fire while perched on some rock looking at all this at a save distance, do take a moment and sit with some fellow sojourners who also find themselves bankrupt with meaning for such a time as this yet still need to write something, say something, feel something.
“Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
—from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)
You can hear Sylvia Boorstein read the poem at the show’s website:
Stop All The Clocks
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
Prevent the dog from barking at a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message “He is dead”
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves
He was my north, my south, my east and west
My working week and my sunday best
My moon, my midnight, my talk, my song
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong
The stars are not wanted now, put out every one
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
- Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) “Stop All The Clocks”
The More Earnest Prayer of Christ
and being in an agony he prayed more earnestly… Luke 22:44
His last prayer in the garden began, as most
of his prayers began – in earnest, certainly,
but not without distinction, an habitual…what?
Distance? Well, yes, a sort of distance, or a mute
remove from the genuine distress he witnessed
in the endlessly grasping hands of multitudes
and often enough, in his own embarrassing
circle of intimates. Even now, he could see
these where they slept, sprawled upon their robes or wrapped
among the arching olive trees. Still, something new,
unlikely, uncanny was commencing as he spoke.
As the divine in him contracted to an ache,
A throbbing in the throat, his vision blurred, his voice
grew thick and unfamiliar, his prayer – just before
it fell to silence – became uniquely earnest.
And in the moment – perhaps because it was so
new – he saw something, had his first taste of what
he would become, first pure taste of the body, and the blood.
- Scott Cairns, “The More Earnest Prayer of Christ”
After The Last Words
By now I’m dead. Make what you will of that.
But granted you are alive, you will need
to be making something more as well. Prayers
have made, for instance, but (trust me)…
Settle instead for food, nice meals (thick soup);
invite your friends. Make lively conversation
among steaming bowls, lifting heavy spoons.
If there is bread (there really should be bread),
tear it coarsely and hand each guest his share.
for intinction in the soup. Something to say?
Say it now. Let the napkins fall and stay.
Kiss each guest when time comes for leaving.
They may be embarrassed, caught without wit
or custom. (see them shifting from foot to
foot at the open door?) Could be you will
repeat your farewells a time or two more
than seems fit. But had you not embraced them
at such common departures prayers will
fall dry as crumbs, nor will they comfort you.
- Scott Cairns, “After the Last Words”
Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.
- Denise Levertov, “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis”
The Theology of Doubt
I have come to believe this fickleness
of belief is unavoidable. As, for these
backlot trees, the annual loss
of leaves and fruit is unavoidable.
I remember hearing that soft-soap
about faith being given
only to the faithful – mean trick,
if you believe it. This afternoon,
during my walk, which
I have come to believe is good
for me, I noticed one of those
ridiculous leaves hanging
midway up an otherwise naked oak.
The wind did what it could
to bring it down, but the slow
learner continued dancing. Then again,
once, hoping for the last
good apple, I reached among
bare branches, pulling into my hand
an apple too soft for anything
and warm to the touch, fly-blown.
- Scott Cairns, “The Theology of Doubt”
Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death –
A word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life; conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfection in compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.
But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle
Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal…
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,
Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler from Ireland,
Another played the eternal fool
By riding a circus mule
To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After
Doing what they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you
Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice.
- Wendell Barry, “Testaments”
The Morning’s News
To mortalize the state, they drag out a man,
and bind his hands, and darken his eyes
with a black rag to be free of the light in them,
and tie him to a post, and kill him.
And I am sickened by the complicity in my race.
To kill in hot savagery like a beast
is understandable. It is forgivable and curable.
But to kill by design, deliberately, without wrath,
that is the sullen labor that perfects Hell.
The serpent is gentle, compared to man.
It is man, the inventor of cold violence,
Death as waste, who has made himself lonely
Among the creatures, and set himself aside,
so that he cannot work in the sun with hope,
or at peace in the shade of any tree.
The morning’s news drives sleep out of my head
at night. Uselessness and horror hold the eyes
open to the dark. Weary, we lie awake
in the agony of the old giving birth to the new
without assurance that the new will be better.
I look at my son, whose eyes are like a young god’s,
they are so open to the world.
I look at my sloping fields now turning
green with the young grass of April. What must I do
to go free? I think I must put on
a deathlier knowledge, and prepare to die
rather than enter into the design of man’s hate.
I will purge my mind of the airy claims
of church and state. I will serve the earth
and not pretend my life could better serve.
Another morning comes with its strange cure.
The earth is news. Though the river floods
And the spring is cold, my heart goes on,
faithful to the mystery in a cloud,
and the summer’s garden continues its descent
through me, toward the ground.
- Wendell Barry, “The Morning’s News”
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
into sacred places;
a quick glance, and away – and back,
I have long since uttered your name
I elude your presence.
I stop to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?
- Denise Levertov, “Flickering Mind”
Variation and Reflection on A Theme by Rilke
If just for once the swing of cause and effect,
cause and effect,
would come to rest; if casual events would halt,
and the machine that supplies meaningless laughter
ran down, and my bustling senses, taking a deep breath
and left my attention free at last…
then my thought, single and multifold,
could think you into itself
until it filled with you to the very brim,
bounding the whole flood of your boundlessness:
and at the timeless moment of possession,
fleeting as a smile, surrender you
and let you flow back into all creation.
There will never be that stillness.
Within the pulse of flesh,
in the dust of being, where we trudge,
turning our hungry gaze this way and that,
the wings of the morning
brush through our blood
as cloud-shadows brush the land.
What we desire travels with us.
We must breathe time as fishes breathe water.
God’s flight circles us.
- Denise Levertov, “Variation and Reflection on A Theme by Rilke (The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 7)”