Hildegard of Bingen: A Sonnet

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine.

The photo below is by Margot Krebs Neale

I wrote this sonnet at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire where I shall be giving an Advent retreat next year. It is published in my new volume of poetry The Singing Bowl, Canterbury Press,  available on Amazon in both the US and the UK

As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.

 

Mother from mother earth and Magistra, 

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.

 

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

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A Quartet of sonnets for Mary

The Theotokos of vladimirOn September 8th many churches across the world, both Catholic and Anglican, keep the feast of the Blesed Virgin Mary, fulfilling the scripture that says “All generations will call me blessed”, remembering the one who bore our saviour for us, who was full of grace.

It is true that some Christians have disagreed with one another bitterly about her, but equally, in every age and every church she has been, for many Christians, a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.

In a strange way, which I will write about one day, she was a sign of hope to me even before I was a Christian, and it was something numinous and beautiful in the paintings and poetry she has inspired that helped lead me to her Son.

I thought for this feast day, I would offer a quartet of sonnets in her honour, gathering together  the four sonnets about her which are part of my wider collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’. They take us, from the Annunciation and her ‘yes’ to the angel, through the Visitation, with its beautiful magnificat, to the birth of Jesus, and then to her presence with him on the via dolorosa and at the foot of the cross.

As always you can hear the poems by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears, or clicking on the title.

Annunciation

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

 


The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

 

Theotokos

You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.

Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,

Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,

Call me again, for I am lost, and  wild

Waves suround me now. On this dark sea

Shine as a star and call me to the shore.

Open the door that all my sins would close

And hold me in your garden. Let me share

The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.

Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery

And bring me to the One you bore for me.

Jesus meets His Mother

This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.

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First Fruit of my time at Duke

My poet's eyrie in North Carolina!

My poet’s eyrie in North Carolina!

I have at last begun my Sabbatical term, and it starts with three weeks as Artist in Residence at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, a wonderful place which is doing pioneering work in  linking Theology and the Arts. I am writing, and giving, some lectures on Herbert and Coleridge but I am also here to practice my art as a poet, and so I am posting here the first poem I have written since my arrival. I am hoping to make a new collection of sonnets about the sayings of Jesus to be called ‘Parable and Paradox’, and this one is the first to emerge, I hope you enjoy it.

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button

 

 

‘He who has ears to hear let him hear’

 

How hard to hear the things I think I know,

To peel aside the thin familiar film

That wraps and seals your secret just below:

An undiscovered good, a hidden realm,

A kingdom of reversal, where the poor

Are rich in blessing and the tragic rich

Still struggle, trapped in trappings at the door

They never opened, Life just out of reach…

 

Open the door for me and take me there.

Love, take my hand and lead me like the blind,

Unbandage me, unwrap me from my fear,

Open my eyes, my heart, my soul, my mind.

I struggle with these grave clothes, this dark earth,

But you are calling ‘Lazarus come forth!’

 

Whilst I am here I will also be doing some poetry readings/performances which are all open to the public, so if you are in the vicinity do come along to some of them, here is the full list as it currently stands:

September 8 at 5:45-7:15 pm – “A Conversation with Malcolm Guite;” AEHS; York Room
September 11the Song/poetry performance in the Weatherspoon art Museum Auditorium, Greensboro 6:30-8pm
September 15 at 7:00pm – Dean’s Songwriter Series Concert featuring Malcolm Guite; Dean’s Office / DITA; AMCR
September 17th Poetry Reading with John Balaban at the Regulator Bookstore, 9th Street Durham 7pm
September 18 at 11:25am – Preaching in Goodson Chapel
September 24 at 7:00pm – “Mariner!  Malcolm Guite on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’;” DITA; AMCR

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Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

As I prepare to begin a sabbatical, with both a great deal to recover from and a great deal to look forward to, I am drawn again to immerse myself in the healing poetry of John Keats, so I repost this poem of mine, as a reminder of what I owe him.

Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens,  a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.

This poem is published in  The Singing Bowl my most recent volume of poems, which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

Gold

 

The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,

Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.

The old house is in shadow and still keeps

It’s treasures from the searching light of day.

I found it once, when I had lost my way,

Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,

Long years ago in Rome. But from that day

Everything turned to gold, even my pain,

Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.

 

I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,

But standing by the window, near his bed,

I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’

On which his words were forming. As I read

I felt things shifting in me, an old dread

Was somehow being brought to harmony

Taught by his music as the music fled

To sing at last, as by some alchemy

Despair itself was lifted into poetry

 

I spent that summer there and came each day

To read and breathe and let his life unfold

In mine. Little by little, made my way

From realms of darkness into realms of gold,

Finding that in his story mine was told;

Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there

Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old

Enduring crucible, that furnace where

Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.

 

 

Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage

To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,

For I have lived to more than twice his age

And year-by-year his words have helped me bear

The black weight of my breathing, to repair

An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps

His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…

So, with the words of one who mined the depths,

I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.

The house where Keats died, by the Spanish Steps, now a memorial, museum and library

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How To Scan A Poet

Be still and I will pass you through the ring

Be still and I will pass you through the ring

I have recently had to undergo a series of tests and scans in my local hospital, and whilst I found the hi-tech paraphernalia and strange clinically detached and isolated atmosphere of the hospital itself a little disturbing and alienating, I found the language that clustered around the scan itself strangely familiar; words like image, contrast, resonance, clarity, all seemed right and familiar to me as a poet, so in the end I got through it by, as it were submitting myself as a poem to be scanned. I haven’t had a firm result from these scans  yet, though I am assuming no news is good news, but at least I got this poem out of it.

As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the play button

How To Scan A Poet

 

My doctor tells me I will need a scan;

I tap a nervous rhythm with my feet,

‘Just count to five’, she says, ‘and then sit down.

 

The gist of it is printed on this sheet,

So read it over when you are at home.

We’ll have a clearer picture when we meet’.

 

I read the letter in a waiting room,

It’s language strangely rich for one like me

Image, Contrast, Resonance; a poem

 

Slips into view amidst the litany

Of Latin terms that make our medicine

A new poetic terminology.

 

The door is opened. I am ushered in

To lisp my list of symptoms, to rehearse

The undiscovered art of naming pain.

 

‘Its called deep inspiration, says the nurse,

‘Draw deep for me then simply hold your breath

And stay composed.’ So I compose this verse.

 

She says ‘We dye for contrast, to unearth

Each hidden image, which might bring

Some clue that takes us closer to the truth.

 

Be still and I will pass you through the ring,

Three passes, all in rhythm, and you’re free,

The resonance will show us everything’

 

And now my Muse says much the same to me,

Scanning these lines, and calling me to sing.

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St. Clare: a Sonnet

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

This Monday, August the 11th is the day the church remembers St. Clare, but I am posting my sonnet today as some churches might like to use it on the  Sunday nearest her feast. She was the friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the Poor Clares. Her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.

Clare wrote:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

So here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on the meaning of her name, and life as light and clarity. This sonnet is taken from  The Singing Bowl my most recent volume of poems, which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

Clare

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,

Shining through you as Holy Caritas,

Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection

The girl whom Love has called to call us all

Back into truth, simplicity and grace.

Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,

Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.

Christ holds the mirror of your given life

Up to the world he gives himself to save,

A sacrament to keep your city safe,

A window into his eternal love.

Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,

Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.

 

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A Sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration, when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest, so I am posting this now, for any individuals or churches who might like to make use of it this Sunday or on the day itself.

The transfiguration is also sometimes remembered in mid-Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:

I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.

The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:

As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.

Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.

I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.

I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies also available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

Transfiguration

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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