Monthly Archives: October 2012

All Hallow’s Eve; A Sonnet of reclamation

The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed

Even here in England, where the tradition is less strong, Hallowe’en seems to be creeping up on Christmas in the crass comercialism stakes! Halloween itself simply means the eve of all Hallows, and All Hallows is the Christian feast of All Saints, or All Saints Day’ a day when we think particularly of those souls in bliss who, even in this life, kindled a light for us, or to speak more exactly, reflected for us and to us, the already-kindled light of Christ!,  It is followed immediately on November 2nd by All Souls Day. the day we remember all the souls who have gone before us into the light of Heaven.  It is good that we should have a season of the year for remembrance and a time when we feel that the veil between time and eternity is thin and we can sense that greater and wider communion of saints to which we belong. It is also good and right that the Church settled this feast on a time in the turning of the year when the pre-Christian Celtic religions were accustomed to think of and make offerings for the dead. But it was right that, though they kept the day, they changed the custom. The greatest and only offering, to redeem both the living and the dead, has been made by Christ and if we want to celebrate our loving connections we need only now make gifts to the living, as we do in offering sweets to the ‘trick or treaters’ in this season, and far more profoundly in exchanging gifts at Christmas.

Anyway given that both these seasons of hospitality and exchange have been so wrenched from their first purpose in order to sell tinsel and sweeties, I thought I might redress the balance a little and reclaim this season with a sonnet for All Souls/All Saints that remembers the light that shines in darkness, who first kindled it, and how we can all reflect it.

I am posting this sonnet now as some churches who keep the feast a little earlier, on this coming Sunday, the 28th, may wish to make use of sonnet. Do feel free to print the words or use the recording.

The image which follows this poem, and takes up one of its key lines, is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

All these sonnets are being published together this December by Canterbury Press in a book called Sounding the Seasons, which will be launched at St. Edward’s Church Cambridge on December 5th at 7:30pm.

All Saints

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards

Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,

It glances from the eyes, kindles the words

Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright

With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,

The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.

Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing

He weaves them with us in the web of being

They stand beside us even as we grieve,

The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,

Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above

The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,

To triumph where all saints are known and named;

The gathered glories of His wounded love.

‘Each shard still shines’ image by Margot Krebs Neale

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Keening for the Dawn; an Adventure with Steve Bell

Steve Bell playing guitar in the place where I write my poetry

As we begin to approach the season of Advent I want to tell you the story of an unexpected adventure. An adventure is, literally, something that comes to you, that’s what the word means, it’s built around the latin word Veni, to come. Adventures are what come towards you out of the future, which is why the knights in Mallory’s Morte D’Artur so often (and so wisely) say ‘Let us take the adventure that God sends us.” The other place we see the true roots of the word adventure is of course in the word Advent. Advent is the season in which we look towards the One Who comes towards us, Jesus Christ the great Adventure whom God has sent and is sending.

Any way the advent of my Advent adventure was the arrival in Cambridge in theSummer of 2011 of the Canadian singer song-writer Steve Bell. He had come as one of the presenters and musicians at the CS Lewis Foundations Oxbridge Conference at which I was also a speaker. I was interested to hear him as I love the singer-songwriter genre but to be honest I was also a bit wary. Whilst many supposedly ‘secular’ singer songwriters have deeply nourished my faith, especially in its encounter with darknes or pain, I have often found specifically ‘Christian’ contemporary music glib, bland, and frankly a bit naff. Well when I got to hear Steve perform I had my preconceptions blown away! For starters he was very good, with brilliant guitar technique reminiscent in places of Richard Thompson and in places Joni Mitchell, and a fine clear compelling tenor voice over which he had complete mastery. But much more to the point was the content and feel of what he played. He did some wonderful reworkings and recastings of the psalms of lament, gritty music dealing with pain and despair, with unfulfilled longing, as well as the psalms of praise. He did an amazing version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and between the songs he spoke with real honesty about the pains as well as the joys of our pilgrim path. It was the exact opposite of the ‘shiny happy people’ Christian triumphalism I had been fearing.

So I sought him out later in the conference to tell him he had a new fan when it turned out that he was looking for me because he had found my Advent Sonnets and they had struck a chord with him! As Charles Williams said when he found that the fan letters he and CS Lewis had sent to each other had crossed paths ‘You have to admire the staff work of he Omnipotent.”

Now the reason my Advent Sonnets had struck a chord with Steve was that, like me, he was uneasy about the bright, baubly, tintel-town approach we have to Christmas, the advent of our greatest adventure. Like me he wanted to deepen our aproach to Christmas, help us understand its true Joy and beauty by rediscovering the preparatory season of Advent, the time we wait in darkness for the coming light.

Then early in this year I got an email from Steve to say that instead of doing a ‘Christmas Album’ with all the usual trimmings he wanted to an Advent Album and he wanted to weave the Adven sonnets into it. I was very happy with that, but there was more to follow. Steve had begun to work musically with other poems on my blog, and in an amazing feat, had taken my sonnet Epiphany on the Jordan and combined it with phrases from my sermon on that subject and turned it into a totally new song with an unforgettable tune. There was more to come. In the spring Steve flew over to England with a bunch of further notes and ideas and stayed with me in Cambridge for a few days of intense and exciting work and collaboration, out of which came amongst other things, the transformtion of my short Christmas poem Descent, into a new song with a strong tune and extra verses.

I do my own bits of singing in pubs but this was the first time I’ve worked collaboratively with a full time professional singer-songwriter and it was a compelling and instructve experience. We also benefited from the presence and advice of Jeremy Begbie who spent an evening wih us as we played back our efforts giving really incisive commentary and advice on both the music and he theology and especially on the way the music and the theology worked together.

Well now the Album, Keening for the Dawn is complete and is being released on November 12th which is, by sheer co-incidence, my birthday. (but in my experience middle-aged waistcoat wearing, pipe-smoking folk always have adventures on their birthday.) I have heard an advanced copy of the album and it is really beautiful.

If you want to know more, check out Steve’s own account of our collaboration here,

Plus you can now hear Emmanuel, the song which weaves in my reading of a couple of the Advent Sonnets here

And there is a first review of the whole album here.

In a later post I will tell you in a little more detail about the making of the song Descent and post up the lyrics. If you’re in Cambridge you may like to know that we will be playing some tracks from the album at the launch of my book of Sonnets Sounding the Seasons which will take place in St. Edwards Church at 7:30pm on the 5th December.

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A Sonnet for St. Luke the Evangelist

St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox

Continuing with Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year, here is a sonnet for St. Luke. My sonnets, in that series, prsents the four evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced  by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the Four Evangelists. For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote below. For the purpose of my ‘live bloggng’  of the festivals, in the course of this year, here is St. Luke, restored to the chronological sequence. As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, and the artist Rebecca Merry is in the course of producing four re-interpretations of the traditional illuminated gospel images. The book with these sonnets is being published by Canterbury Press this December and I can announce here that the Book Launch will be here in Cambridge at St. Edwards on December the 5th.

‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘  St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (ca. 120-202 AD)  –  Adversus Haereses 3.11.8

 Luke

His gospel is itself a living creature

A ground and glory round the throne of God,

Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature

And One upon the throne sees it is good.

Luke is the living pillar of our healing,

A lowly ox, the servant of the four,

We turn his page to find his face revealing

The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.

He breathes good news to all who bear a burden

Good news to all who turn and try again,

The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,

A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,

The voiceless find their voice in every word

And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for this image

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iOde; a little poem for my iPhone

sadly this is neither a nightingale nor a Grecian urn, but I wrote it an Ode anyway

Here’s a further reflection on my ambivalent relationship with all things Apple, an ambivalence I suspect many of my readers may share, wonder at what can be done, awarenes of loss as well as gain, an occasional reflection on whether a device that brings so many freedoms might also turn out to be a form of bondage. Anyway, here it is a light(ish) companion piece, I suppose to my earlier iPitaph on an iPad.

as always you can hear the poem via audioboo by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. I must say that there was a strange frisson in reading into my iPhone, or perhaps to my iPhone a poem which was in fact addressed to it!

iOde

My private portal to a world between,

My placeless place of virtual exchange,

I see through you though you remain unseen

And make familiar what you once made strange.

 

You make a stranger means to make me ‘friend’

Whom I can ‘touch’ to ‘like’, to show I care.

You make a means to every unknown end

And make one little screen an everywhere.

 

I am familiar with a hundred faces,

All famished for their fifteen minutes fame,

I am half present in a hundred places

But never present in the place I am.

 

I pull you from my pocket when you call

I touch and swipe as I am bid to do,

You do my bidding too, you do it all,

What will you make of me, or I of you?

 

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Transmutations; an act of thanksgiving

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.

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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