Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

There was a former soldier, now a homeless man, who used to come sometimes into the back of our church in Cambridge. Dressed in camouflage and carrying an imaginary rifle he would squat behind the pews, take aim at the pulpit, or edge his way round the side of the church, clearly frightened and looking for cover. We knew he was reliving things we could scarcely imagine and we did our best to calm him and make him feel welcome (as well as dealing with the alarm he sometimes caused to members of the congregation.) It was meeting with him, and other former soldiers like him, that led me to write this Sestina, which is part of a sequence called ‘Six Glimpses’ in my book The Singing Bowl.

As a form, the Sestina insists that the poet return again and again, but in a different order, to the same six words with which the first six lines of the poem end. Of its very nature this form explores, repetition, return, trappedness, circularity, the very things with which so many soldiers with PTSD and their families are having to deal, so it seemed the right form to try and express a little of what I could see. I post this now so that we might remember, pray for and find ways of helping those who have been through the trauma of battle and cannot find their way back into ‘normality’ yet. I hope and pray that as awareness grows there might be more in the way of help and counselling provided both by the Military and the NHS, and perhaps more understanding from the general public.

Fire

 

He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.

 

They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

They told him it was ‘all inside his head’,

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.

 

But that’s what he’s afraid of. He will break

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead

 

And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.

 

He’s left his family. ‘Oh its a shame’,

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

-You cant live with a man whose shouting ‘Fire!’

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

And in the end she had to change her Name.’

‘They’ll never fix what’s wrong inside his Head.’

 

‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

He couldn’t cope.’ Now he has lost his name

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.

 

And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.

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Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day

As we approach Remembrance Sunday I am reposting this sonnet about the two minutes silence, which was first published in my book Sounding the Seasons.  I’m posting it a few days early so that any one who wishes to, can use it in services or events on this hundredth anniversary of the armistice in which Remembrance Sunday falls on Remembrance day itself.

So here is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title.

The striking image above is ‘Poppy Day’ by Daliscar and the one below is ‘Silent Cross’ by Margot Krebs Neale

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

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All Saints and All Souls: A Last Beatitude

‘the faithful server’s on the coffee rota’

At this season of the year, on the 1st and 2nd of November, the Church ‘keeps the feast’ two days running, with a pair of feasts; All Saints and All Souls, each of which begins with that wonderfully Biblical and inclusive little word  All. I remember the effect that little word had on me, coming again and again in the verses of psalm 145, when I read that psalm a little before my conversion, how as each ‘all’ seemed to widen the circle of God’s love, till I began to wonder if even I might be included in one of those alls.. Do you remember them?

9The LORD is loving to everyone *

and his compassion is over all his works.

10All your works praise you, O LORD, *

and your faithful servants bless you.

….

14The LORD is faithful in all his words *

and merciful in all his deeds.

15The LORD upholds all those who fall; *

he lifts up all those who are bowed down.

16The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *

and you give them their food in due season.

17You open wide your hand *

and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

18The LORD is righteous in all his ways *

and loving in all his works.

19The LORD is near to all who call upon him, *

to all who call upon him faithfully.

In the end it was those two little alls in verse 14 that included me; ‘The Lord upholdeth all such as fall: and lifteth up all those that are down.’

Anyway to return to the two lovely alls of these feasts, All Saints and All Souls, I have been reflecting on how easy it is for us to be partial and selective, where God is generous and inclusive, and especially of how when we think of great saints and holy souls, we tend immediately to think of already prominent people, the writers and teachers of the church, the priests and prophets, the big historical figures, people who already have a bit of the spotlight, people whom the world also admires. So in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and of Psalm 145, I thought I’d add to my sonnet sequence for this season, a little sonnet about the ones we overlook, but whom God knows and loves intimately. Its called A Last Beatitude. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I borrowed the lovely image of serving coffee from the website of St. Laurence church Cowley Rd

This sonnet is  from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press,

If your church is marking all saints or all souls day do feel free to print the words or use the recording.


A Last Beatitude

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;

The faithful servers on the coffee rota,

The ones who hold no candle, bell or book

But keep the books and tally up the quota,

The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,

The quiet ones who organise the fete,

Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,

Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.

God knows the depths that often go unspoken

Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,

Or the slow healing of a heart long broken

Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.

Invisible on earth, without a voice,

In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

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All Hallow’s Eve; a sonnet of reclamation

The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed

Halloween seems to be creeping up on Christmas in the crass commercialism stakes, even here in England, where the tradition is less strong! 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.

If your church is marking all saints or all souls day 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.

This sonnet are  from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press,

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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Birthday Drinks and a Book Launch!

An Invitation!

I am happy to say that my new book ‘In Every Corner Sing’, is now out and in the world as a handsome little hardback. It is a collection of 73 of my little ‘Poet’s Corner’ pieces published each week in The Church Times. Each piece is short – between five and six hundred words, so its good for dipping into and taking up again without any fear of losing one place or the thread of things. So this post is to say that, though the book is already available from the publisher and from book shops we are going to have an official launch in the Fellows Drawing room at Girton College Cambridge on November 12th (my birthday!) from 7-8:30pm, and anyone who is in or near Cambridge and is free that evening is very welcome to come along. but do let me know if you’re coming, by emailing me at malcolmguite@gmail.com so I can make sure there is enough in the way of wine, cheese and other refreshments. There will be copies available at a discount at the launch, which I would be happy to sign.

To whet your appetite, here is the little preface I’ve written to the whole book, which is itself about the same length as most of the individual pieces. See you in November!

In Every Corner Sing: Preface

It has been a pleasure to gather together these fugitive pieces, little glimpses and reflections from all corners of the country, curious corners of my mind, and a few of the odd corners and alleyways of our rich literature, the corners where the poets repose, sometimes confer, but always and everywhere, sing.

I was both honoured and daunted when the Church Times asked me to follow on from Ronald Blythe’s wonderful back page column ‘Word From Wormingford’. Nobody can follow Ronnie Blythe, but I was willing to try at least to fill the space, and I knew I shared with him some feeling for the beauty of the world around us and some common companionship with the poets whose music undergirds all our songs, especially George Herbert and Thomas Traherne, so my weekly column, gathered together here, was christened ‘Poet’s Corner’.

Reading through these pieces again is like being given back a little of my own life, seized back from seizing time, letting me repose again on a bench in Aldeburgh, a book room in Hawarden, a bridge in my lovely village of Linton.

Though each piece was written in and for its own moment, I see that certain themes and motifs have emerged and played with one another across the weeks of the year. One is the gift and grace of running water, so beautifully pictured in Roger Wagner’s lovely cover painting, ‘The River Of God’. For flowing water always gives me some sense of the hidden wellspring from which we all arise, the fresh renewing fount of all things, just upstream of utterance, a sense that though time never ceases to flow from and through us, we are as close now, as we will ever be, to its eternal source. And that motif itself speaks of another, emerging clearly as I read these pieces through: the sense that everything we see ‘out there’ is also somehow hidden deep with in us: the trees, the hills, the dewdrops on a blade of grass, are emblems of our inner life which could not be expressed or known without them: everything ‘out there’ is also ‘in here’. A third theme to emerge is a sense of companionship with other poets and writers, present and past. And in that sense it really has been ‘Poets’ Corner’. In that corner of Westminster Abbey we can see the monuments to all the great poets and writers whom we know and love, but it is not the outward and visible, the letters carved in stone, that count, it is the inward and spiritual: the poems written, and then sung in the heart. Time and again as I was writing these pieces, I sensed George Herbert, in one corner, and Seamus Heaney in another, giving me the words I needed just when I needed them. William Hazlitt was there when I reflected on the pleasure my books give me on a winter’s night, and Thomas Traherne met me with wisdom on London Bridge on the night that such terrible violence was inflicted there.

I hope that all these themes and motifs: the play of and grace of water, the gift of an emblem, the companionship of the poets, will be as richly and happily available to readers of this volume as they were to me when I wrote these little corner-pieces, and that something in each of them will stir and sing.

 

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a birthday sonnet, and a book!

SamuelTaylorColeridgeThe great poet, philosopher, and Christian sage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on the 21st of October in 1772, so I am posting this sonnet for his birthday!

I should also mention that in 2017 I published Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge which has been well and widely reviewed and examines coleridge’s life and faith in fresh ways, through the lens of the rime of the Ancient Mariner, his most famous poem.

I could not begin to reckon the personal debt I owe to Coleridge; for his poetry, for his personal and Christian wisdom, above all for his brilliant exploration and defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty which participates in, and is redeemed by the Logos, the living Word, himself the Divine Imagination. We are only now coming to appreciate the depth and range of what he achieved, his contemporaries scarcely understood him, and his Victorian successors looked down in judgement at what htey saw as the shipwreck of his life. Something of that experience of rejection, twinned with deep Christian conviction, can be seen in the epitaph he wrote for himself:

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

From my teenage raptures when I was first enchanted by Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner, to my struggles and adventures in the middle of life STC has been my companion and guide.In the chapter on Coleridge in my book Faith Hope and Poetry I have set out an account of his thinking and made the case for his central importance in our own age, but what I offer here is a sonnet celebrating his legacy, drawing on that epitaph I mentioned above, one of a sequence of sonnets on my fellow christians in my  book The Singing Bowl,  published last year by the Canterbury Press.

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!’

You made your epitaph imperative,

And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad

To stop with you and start again, to live

From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,

Whose living power is imagination,

And know myself a child of the I AM,

Open and loving to his whole creation.

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,

To let his light transfigure all my seeing,

To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,

And make with him the poem of my being.

I follow where you sail towards our haven,

Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

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A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

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

This Thursday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist, and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year.  My sonnets in that series, include a mini-sequence on 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.

‘...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

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 above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. In this iconographic tradition Luke’s emblem is the ox, the lowly servant His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.

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, in this case one taken by her son Oliver.  The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press  and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.

 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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