Category Archives: imagination

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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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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Mary, Martha and Lazarus

Today the church remembers Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the family at Bethany who became close friends with Jesus and whose stories became intimately bound up with his.

John 12 1-8 tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus.I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worth while, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.

This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all 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 are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. 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.

I am grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above and to Margot Krebs Neale for the one below. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

The Anointing at Bethany

Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

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Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

22nd July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and continuing my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.

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 are shortly to be 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.



Mary Magdalene

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to  cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you  with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.

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A sonnet for St. Benedict

20130710-093249.jpg

On July the 11th the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, the gentle founder of the Benedictine order and by extension the father of Monasticism. A moderate and modest man he would have been astonished to learn that his ‘simple school for prayer’, his ‘modest rule for beginners’ led to the foundation of communities which kept the Christian flame alight through dark ages, preserved not only Christian faith, scripture, and culture,but also the best of Classical Pagan learning and culture, fed the poor, transformed societies, promoted learning and scholarship, and today provides solace, grounding, perspective and retreat not only to monks and nuns but to millions of lay people around the world.
Here is my sonnet for Benedict, drawing largely on phrases from the Rule, I dedicate it to the sisters at Turvey Abbey. It appears in my new book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

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

Benedict

You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found

You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.

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A pair of sonnets for St. John and St. John’s Eve.

So keep his fires burning through the night
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.

In our poetic journey through the sacred seasons of the year we have come to midsummer! The traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us  that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!

The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.

I have written two sonnets,  one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.

I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry  for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.

Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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.

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

St. John the Baptist: 1 St. John’s Eve

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill

Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:

‘He must increase and I diminish still,

Until his sun illuminates my night.’

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”

So keep his fires burning through this night,

Beacons and gateways for the child of light.


St. John the Baptist: 2 Baptism

Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,

A wide womb floating on the breath of God,

Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift

Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,

And under-girded with an unheard song,

Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,

Calling us to the life for which we long,

Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters

In whose reflecting face our candles shine,

Again he draws from death the sons and daughters

For whom he bid the elements combine.

As living stones around a font today,

Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.

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