Advent calendar #13, 14: Donne and Art Conservation

Yesterday, all plans I had were completely scuppered within ten minutes of getting up, as what appeared to be ordinary vertigo revealed itself as a full-on norovirus of some kind. I spent the entire day sleeping off nausea and a mild fever. I’m still not 100% today, but I did manage to get out and do things I needed to do. The cat food is not going to buy itself!

December 13th is St. Lucy’s Day, which is still celebrated in Sweden, I believe. It used to be the shortest day of the year — i.e., the solstice — until we changed calendars; now the shortest day of the year falls on St. Thomas’s feast day. Make of that what you will. Before the change, John Donne used the occasion to make a poem of his grief in the darkness, so I include that here.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
         Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

For December 14, I give you the sort of calming entertainment that is pleasant to watch while stressed or to doze with while sick: art conservator extraordinaire Julian Baumgartner.

Check out his YT channel for more mesmerizing restoration videos, including ones without the narration in case you’re into ASMR. (Explanations of ASMR always give me a you-had-to-be-there vibe, like I don’t know if the significance of it is something I can really get. Sort of like the Transfiguration, really.)

And that’s…about all I’m up for, today. I’m seriously considering going back to bed.

Advent calendar #9: Denise Levertov

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.

Making Peace

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.

I got mad and wrote a poem

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.

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.