For today’s Advent window, I went seeking for a poem I hadn’t read before.
It’s easy enough to come up with poems that are my favorites — no doubt I’ll post some of them before this is done — but I also want to get outside my regular round. So I went looking for a poet I hadn’t read much of before. Did you know that when you google “women poets,” the results show a large preponderance of poets from the 20th century? I can only suppose that modern poets have better distribution and less of the loss that the older ones did — the oldest poets are known only by fragments, and in our age one has to work a little harder to suppress those pesky female voices.
Here’s a poem new to me, by Denise Levertov.
A voice from the dark called out, ‘The poets must give us imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar imagination of disaster. Peace, not only the absence of war.’ But peace, like a poem, is not there ahead of itself, can’t be imagined before it is made, can’t be known except in the words of its making, grammar of justice, syntax of mutual aid. A feeling towards it, dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have until we begin to utter its metaphors, learning them as we speak. A line of peace might appear if we restructured the sentence our lives are making, revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power, questioned our needs, allowed long pauses . . . A cadence of peace might balance its weight on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence, an energy field more intense than war, might pulse then, stanza by stanza into the world, each act of living one of its words, each word a vibration of light—facets of the forming crystal.
Sometimes that happens. I can’t avoid every headline, damn it.
What is Sin?
I can point you to what catechism you choose Or I can tell you this. The unnamed man Who vandalized and killed the Holy Thorn Distilled an act of speech with just one aim: To hurt its lovers’ hearts. In actual fact The worst things ever said to me were things I heard said to my mother. To profane A thing someone holds holy is to take Their soul in effigy and burn it, so it does Not matter then if you were only careless. Paradise has been wiped off the map. The inferno’s wave swept over, and the still- Frame frames of burned-out cars mid-flight Still sign their silent testament of ash To what carelessness means. Do you hear me? But it gets worse. All I can do is write A verse as blank as my expression is On contact with the boasted atrocities Done in my name. They would, quite literally, Destroy the world sooner than have to see People they hate escape their suffering. The people they hate are holy. Nero burns His tiki torches in Charlottesville, and thinks He’s good, cause Snopes debunked that faulty tale That said he fiddled while Rome burned. He’s not. Those torches were people, and now they’re witnesses. Thick clouds of witness boil across the sun. Don’t spit your decalogues at suffering souls, Don’t pour contempt on how they name themselves, Don’t roadblock their escapes from cruelties, Don’t jeer and scoff, lest you turn and find yourself An arsonist, or an idiot with a match.
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.