Catgut my tongue

One of these days, I keep thinking, I’m going to write one of my snarky posts for this blog; I mean, it’s not like I don’t have anything to be salty about. But today is not that day.

The approach of Christmas is always one of those prismatic times, where we touch the meridians of previous experience and feel them thrum. I wound up plucking and strumming a lot of my own inward strings this week, some for the sake of sermon composition and some because, well, because it’s just the nadir of the year and I wind up doing that in the holy dark. So for my post this week I will just share two of the things in the cedar box of my heart and let them stand as commentary on the whole.

The first is a poem I wrote several years ago, as a response and counterpoint to Psalm 80. That psalm is one of the readings for this day, and while I was working on my sermon I remembered that I had written the poem, remembered the inward aridity that had begged for expression; and so afterward I dug the poem out and reproduce it here.

Flower Cross (Psalm 80)
The real problem with determinism
Is the hardening of allegory into concrete.
All those lessons I failed to learn,
All those unhappy endings that meant even less
Than I thought, all the glacial grooves of pathology
That started before me and will not end with me,
And which I fought so feebly and uselessly,
Become the antarctic mutterings
Of ice shelves scouring themselves
Over and over. In heat or in cold
The aridity is all.


I could crumble to dust where I stand.
At one time I could taste the hot salt
Of my own tears; then I could taste
Only the memory; then nothing at all.


Oh, look at me, look at me,
Let your face open to me in recognition
Like the doors that do not exist
For me to beat my fists on.
If you know me, tendrils will rise
And curl over the dust, running
With warm green sap, twining about me,
Threading below my fingers and over the palms
Of my open hands outstretched, dripping
In pale green finials of blossoming filigree,
Heavy with nectar, ringing with scent
Like the cicada’s song from where I stand
To the sun-sparked newborn shore.


Like new evening and new morning I would be
In the moment you saw me.

Yet even in such a time, one can be shaken into real tears without warning: I remember during that same period, one morning close to Christmas, I was driving alone on a country road eastward into the rising sun, and NPR was interviewing Eric Whitacre about his virtual choir. Then they played the piece he had written for it, and all of a sudden I was shedding uncontrollable tears, the gold-white light flaring as I wept and listened.

This kind of thing is so not like me. I am contained whether I want to be or not, my emotional reaction time slow, my sense of awe or worship or grief always slightly out of orb with my surroundings. Even music, which often reaches me uninhibited, doesn’t unhasp my control. Except, obviously, for a very few pieces. I don’t know what it is about this piece that does it to me, but it nearly always does. I get the sense sometimes, when people talk about this piece, that it fails to be truly highbrow in some unspoken way — a little embarrassing, maybe, a little overearnest. That could all be true. But it will never matter, not to my guts and tear ducts.

May the light break over you, like the songs of the morning stars, this holiday.

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