Saying the Names by Faye Hall, from a photo by Lancia Smith
The painting above is one of an sequence of three by the remarkable Canadian artist Faye Hall. This one was made in response to my poem Saying the Names, which I give below. Saying The Names celebrates the remnant fishing fleet in the little Northumbrian harbour town of Amble. The poem chants the lovely names of these vessels as part of a meditation on the power of language, of naming itself, and as an evocation of the unique atmosphere and history of that part of England. Faye has created a remarkable work, using a photopraph by Lancia Smith for the portraiture and encorporating lines of my hand-written text for the poem, in different scales, into the fabric of the painting, so that my words about sky and sea and light become part of her evocation of those same things in colour and texture. Faye has written an article about these paintings, and her collaboration with Lancia and with me in the Mennonite Brethren Herald here, but she has also given me permission to post the photo of her painting here on my blog, where I thought it would be good to set it alongside the poem and also a recording of my reading it.
In fact this is not the first artistic colaboration inspired by this particular poem. It was picked up in 2002, shortly after it was first published, by Kevin Flanagan and his Riprap Quartet and they played a jazz setting of it in the royal Festival Hall. we have since performed it together on several occasions and, fter the text of the poem I will embed a youtube video of one such performance. (If you are in or near Cambridge and would like to hear Riprap, and also have a chance to hear the great Beat writer and biographer Gerry Nicosia, then do come to the Unitarian church for a jazz-poetry concert on 8th September at 8pm. full details here.)
As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Dawn over Amble, and along the coast
light on the tide flows to Northumberland,
silvers the scales of fishes freshly caught
and glowing in their boxes on the dock,
shivers the rainbow sheen on drops of diesel,
and lights, at last, the North Sea fishing fleet.
Tucked into harbour here their buoyant lines
lift to the light on plated prows their names,
the ancient names picked out in this year’s paint: Providence, Bold Venture, Star Divine
are first along the quay-side. Fruitful Bough
has stemmed the tides to bring her harvest in, Orcadian Mist and Sacred Heart, Aspire,
their names are numinous, a found poem.
Those Bible-burnished phrases live and lift
into the brightening tide of morning light
and beg to be recited, chanted out,
for names are incantations, mysteries
made manifest like ships on the horizon.
Eastward their long line tapers towards dawn
and ends at last with Freedom, Radiant Morn.
Sunset on Brant Lake in the Adirondacks. photo by Kevin Belmonte,
Occasionally some friends and I challenge one another to write a poem inspired by a common starting point, a phrase, a form, an image. this weekend we were given this fine photograph of a sunset, taken by the writer Kevin Belmonte. Here’s what I came up with. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. As a bonus you can also click the link after my sonnet and read the sonnet Holly Ordway wrote in response to the same image!
We’re looking west to where our setting sun
Already out of sight, looks back at us, to fling
His dying splendour to these clouds. They burn
With borrowed gold and crimson, not their own,
Like strips of silk torn from his royal robe,
These flags of hope left by our solar king,
Who sinks for us below the dark horizon
That he might yet encompass all this globe.
He leaves us with the promise of his rising
For all we face the west of his decline,
Already some where else are voices praising
As on the east they glimpse a kindled line.
His setting is a herald of the morn,
We watch the sunset, but we tread the dawn.
August 13th is the day set aside by the Church of England to remember with gratitude the life and writings of Jeremy Taylor. Taylor, one of the classic Seventeenth Century Anglican Divines, has been called The Shakespeare of the Pulpit for the beautiful poetic prose of his sermons. He was also a great Spiritual Director and advisor, distilling gret wisdom into books like Holy Living and Holy Dying. Yesterday at St. Edward’s I preached a sermon celebrating those particular gifts and insights of his that i believe the church most needs today.
Here is the link to the sermon, which is preceded by a reading from a passage of Taylor’s work:
And here are the two passages to which I refer in the sermon:
Taylor’s image of the upland Valley:
‘It is in some circumstances and from some persons more secure to conceal visions and those heavenly gifts, which create estimates among men, than to publish them, which may possibly minister to vanity; and those exterior graces may do God’s work, though no observer note them, but the person for whose sake they are sent: like rain falling in uninhabited valleys, where no eye observes the showers; yet the valleys laugh and sing to God in their refreshment without a witness
Taylor compares St. Paul and St. Mary:
And it is not altogether inconsiderable to observe, that the holy
Virgin came to a great perfection and state of piety by a few, and
those modest and even external actions. St Paul travelled over
the world, preached to the Gentiles, disputed against the Jews,
Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest, and sometimes 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.
The whole series, of seventy sonnets is now finished and will be published this December, under the title ‘Sounding the Seasons’ by the Canterbury Press, so if you have been enjoying, and perhaps making liturgical use of these sonnets on my blog, do look out for the book itself. I will post full details here about where and how to buy it as soon as I have them!
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 this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
Martin Freeman does a good impression of me running to catch my plane
I have recently had the (for me) thrilling, and (for others) entertaining experience of emptying my pockets in public! I am just back from an adventure in America attending the wonderful Kindlingsfest on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest, a gathering of inklings-minded vagabonds and assorted poets and artists. But in order to get ‘there and back again’ I was obliged to pass through all kinds of searches and high security electronica at various airports. Now I had forgotten I would have to do this and had set off on the adventure, like a certain middle aged hobbit before me, without so much as a pocket hankerchief, but with the usual assortment of bits and pieces in the pockets of the trousers, waistcoat, and old tweed jacket I happened to be wearing when, at the bidding of Dick ‘Gandalf’ Staub, I dashed for the plane. Needless to say when I walked through the electronic arch I set alarm bells ringing. (what a pleasure to do literally what I have so often done metaphorically!) so I was obliged to retrace my steps and empty my pockets (all of them!) into one of their capacious plastic tubs. I was of course just as intrigued and curious as the various security officials as to what I would find there. As I began to retrieve the assortment of pipes, pipe-cleaners, unfinished poems, odd coins, pocket-knives, songs, fountain pens, guitar-picks, bottle-tops, tobacco-pouches, wine-corks, etc., I was suddenly reminded, as I often am, of two great literary moments. The first was of course Gollum’s famous question, to Bilbo, ‘What has it got in its pocketses?’ and I thought it was just as well the orcs hadn’t built Gollum any body scanners (these security devices are very orcish things – and to be honest some of the security guards looked pretty orcish too!) or he would never have got away with the ring. And the second literary recollection was of GK Chesterton’s wonderful essay ‘What I found in my pocket’. I dont think GKC would have fared too well with airport security either, in fact I’m not sure he would actually have fitted through the scanner at all, and as for explaining the sword-stick he habitually carried, well…
GKC. will he fit that body scanner?
Anyway, let me pass discretely over the growing pile of oddments with which I filled their plastic trays and tell you a little more of what GKC discovered in his pockets, and his reflections on those contents. The scene is set as GKC sits in a railway carriage and is asked by a ticket inspector for his ticket, so begins his epic quest:
I have only once in my life picked a pocket, and then (perhaps through some absent-mindedness) I picked my own. My act can really with some reason be so described. For in taking things out of my own pocket I had at least one of the more tense and quivering emotions of the thief; I had a complete ignorance and a profound curiosity as to what I should find there.
I’m with him all the way here, I was surprised and delighted with some of my ‘finds’ though I fear the security guards were less amused.
The first thing I came upon consisted of piles and heaps of Battersea tram tickets. There were enough to equip a paper chase. They shook down in showers like confetti. Primarily, of course, they touched my patriotic emotions, and brought tears to my eyes…
The next thing that I took out was a pocket-knife. A pocket-knife, I need hardly say, would require a thick book full of moral meditations all to itself. A knife typifies one of the most primary of those practical origins upon which as upon low, thick pillows all our human civilisation reposes. Metals, the mystery of the thing called iron and of the thing called steel, led me off half-dazed into a kind of dream. I saw into the intrails of dim, damp wood, where the first man among all the common stones found the strange stone. I saw a vague and violent battle, in which stone axes broke and stone knives were splintered against something shining and new in the hand of one desperate man. I heard all the hammers on all the anvils of the earth. I saw all the swords of Feudal and all the weals of Industrial war. For the knife is only a short sword; and the pocket-knife is a secret sword. I opened it and looked at that brilliant and terrible tongue which we call a blade; and I thought that perhaps it was the symbol of the oldest of the needs of man. The next moment I knew that I was wrong; for the thing that came next out of my pocket was a box of matches. Then I saw fire, which is stronger even than steel, the old, fierce female thing, the thing we all love, but dare not touch.
I had a little bladed pipe-tool for cleaning my pipes and I tried to share with the security guards who were asking me about it, some of GKC’s beautiful exposition of the mystery and symbolism of iron and the sword, but they were unconvinced, and sadly it had to be left behind. But let’s return to Chesterton in the railway carriage:
The next thing I found was a piece of chalk; and I saw in it all the art and all the frescoes of the world. The next was a coin of a very modest value; and I saw in it not only the image and superscription of our own Caesar, but all government and order since the world began. But I have not space to say what were the items in the long and splendid procession of poetical symbols that came pouring out. I cannot tell you all the things that were in my pocket. I can tell you one thing, however, that I could not find in my pocket. I allude to my railway ticket.
Ah well, unlike GKC, I did eventually come across my boarding pas and passport, and I was allowed to keep my pipe and pipe-cleaners, on strict promises of good behaviour!
Now I have a treat for you! I know where all the lovely things in GKC’s pocket, and indeed on his desk-top still are! As they would never get through airport security you will have to come and find them, when they are assembled next year in their new home in Oxford. I am a trustee of the GK Chesterton Library and soon, very soon, you will be able to come and see many of his personal effects and his own library of books full of his wonderful annotations, and his chalk drawings and his toy theatre, and so much more. You can read about the library trust here, and through this page you can support us, if you wish, in our efforts to get these treasures properly displayed and housed. You can also connect with the library on facebook here, and follow us on twitter here.
In my pockets I also had an iphone, which would have fascinated GKC, a natural born blogger and communicator. He once sent his wife a telegram saying ‘Am in Market Harborough. Where should I be?’ what might GKC have made of GPS?