The Milky Way: a little burst of midwinter glory

The Milky Way from an Indiana back road

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am working on a new sonnet sequence responding to each I turn of the twenty-seven images in George Herbert’s glorious sonnet ‘Prayer’, and today I have come as far as ‘The Milky Way’, the twenty-second image. I have thought a little of what made the Milky Way an emblem of prayer for Herbert, but I have also availed myself of images he could never have seen, but would have loved: the glorious pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. So here, in a dark time of year, but as part of the glory of the twelve days of Christmas is something that might offer us all a little burst of light and colour. I hope you enjoy it. As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking the title or the ‘play’ button.

The view from Hubble (courtesy of NASA)


The Milky Way

It’s always there, but when our lights are low,

Or altogether out, we see it shine;

Only when things are darkest here below

Do we discern its soft pearlescent sheen,

Gracefully traced across the midnight sky,

In whose light Herbert saw the path of prayer.

Though pale and milky to the naked eye,

The view from Hubble, far above the air,

Shows us a star-field rich with many colours

‘Patines of bright gold’ and blue and red,

Abundance of a hundred billion stars

Whose centre lies in Sagittarius,

Darting their glory, like the myriad

Of saints and angels who all pray for us.

 

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Christmas (1) by George Herbert

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

In my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 30th, is  Christmas (1a remarkable sonnet by George Herbert in which he imagines discovering Jesus in a local Inn. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

If you are feeling over indulged and replete with food and drink, this is the poem for you. Once again we return to the truth that even while we are far off, perhaps like the prodigal son, eating, drinking and over indulging, there is always a summons to examine our conscience, to look beyond the ‘fling and bling’, as Malcolm often describes this aspect of Christmas. The image for today is a very simple watercolour: a lone figure walks towards a simple shelter from which a radiant light emanates. The light comes from above and radiates out of the shelter where Christ is born, towards the figure. The figure walks towards the light, leaving behind a long dark shadow.

The history of the people of the Bible and of Christianity is stained by the corrupt idea that God is like us, full of disapproval and ready to punish. This idea keeps us away from God and we might even think that we are so bad, we might as well be a little more bad because truly, we have blown it with God. This is our ego talking, and if we listen to it we will find only self blame, self punishment and self loathing. The image tells us that we can turn at any moment and walk into the mystery of love and presence. It is not for us to perfect ourselves before we turn, God is the one who redeems. ‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Christmas (1)

After all pleasures as I rid one day,

My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,

With full crie of affections, quite astray,

I took up in the next inne I could finde,

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,

My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief

Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there

To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,

Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;

Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,

To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have

A better lodging than a rack or grave.

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For Luci Shaw on her Birthday

Luci Shaw

Luci Shaw

Here is a sonnet I wrote for the wonderful American poet Luci Shaw, celebrating her birthday to day, December the 29th. Readers of my anthology Waiting on the Word will have read her brilliant poem Kenosis, and she also has poems in my book Love Remember. She is the author offer thirteen volumes of poetry highly prized for their lucid style, close observation of nature, and the beautiful way in which she evokes rich spiritual truth in and through her particular attention to earthly detail. She was very encouraging to me when I was first publishing my own poems and my first poem in an American Journal was one she chose for Radix, of which she is poetry editor. I hope the following sonnet will give you some idea of the qualities I most admire in her work, and, Luci, I hope you are pleased with it.

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

For Luci Shaw on her birthday

 

Luci I love the gift you have for green:

Green fingers in your garden, a green art

In writing too, a feel for life and growth,

Kindly encouragement and yet a keen

Eye for the form, for what needs weeding out

To give a poem room to breathe and grow.

I sense your patience when that growth is slow,

Knowing that slow growth bears a fuller fruit.

 

I love your eye for detail too, the rich

Particularity of earthy things,

The way you strike the right note till it sings,

And all you have withheld is within reach;

The poem opens for us, and makes room

For fleeting apprehensions to come home.

Hellebores, in Luci's front garden

Hellebores, in Luci’s front garden

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For Our Lady of Guadelupe by Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe - given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe – given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

For today’s poem in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word we return to the poet Grevel Lindop with an honest meditation on a visit to Mexico entitled ‘For our Lady of Guadelupe’. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. After the Waiting on the Word anthology was published, for which Grevel had kindly given me permission to include this poem,  we met up and he actually gave me  the image he had bought on his visit and which is part of the subject of the poem and of my reflections on it. I was very moved by the gift and the little statue sits on my desk, so as Linda had not done an image for today I have included a photo of it here.  As I wrote about that statue in the commentary:

We know too, from this first verse, that this mind-changing journey is one the poet himself has to make himself. Those lines,

where I will buy her plastic image later

garish, I hope, and cheap,

 

are highly significant, implying that when he first arrived he might have disdained the stalls of plastic images. It is only after his actual encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe that he understands their value and comes back to buy one….What we learn on the journey of this poem is that the devotion of the poor may transfigure cracked and broken, even poor and shoddy material more effectively than the finesse and fine taste of the sceptical rich

You can find the whole of my short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

For Our Lady of Guadelupe

 

The taxi windscreen’s broken,

lightning-starred with a crack from one corner:

signature of a stone from the Oaxaca road.

It drops me by the shanty-town of stalls

where I will buy her plastic image later –

garish, I hope, and cheap,

for kitsch is authenticity.

 

A jagged rift of space

splits the old basilica’s perfect Baroque,

an intricately-cracked stone egg

atilt on sliding subsoil where the Aztec

city’s lake was carelessly filled in.

Crowds pass its listing shell without a glance,

heading for the concrete-and-stained-glass

 

swirl that mimics

Juan Diego’s cloak, where she appeared

and painted her own image on the fabric

to show sceptical bishops

how perfect love could visit a poor Indian

after the wars, and fill his cloak with roses.

Now the cloak’s under glass behind the altar.

 

A priest celebrates Mass,

but we walk round the side

to queue for the moving pavement that will take us closer,

its mechanical glide into the dark

floating us past the sacred cloth

and her miraculous, soft, downcast gaze:

not Spanish and not Indian but both,

 

lovely mestiza Virgin, reconciler

who stands against the flashbulbs’ irregular

pizzicato of exploding stars,

and while we slide on interlocking steel

opens for us her mantle, from which roses

pour and pour in torrents, like blood

from a wound that may never be healed.

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The Holy Innocents (Refugee)

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem from my Anthology Waiting on the Word reflects on the fact that today, the fourth day of Christmas, is the feast day of the Holy Innocents. It is the day the Church remembers the story, told in Matthew’s Gospel of the appalling cruelty and wickedness of Herod in ordering the massacre of innocent children, in a bid to protect his own power-base. Appalling, but only too familiar. What Herod did then, is still being done by so many present day Herods. This scarred and wounded world is the world into which Jesus was born, the world he came to save, and amongst those brought by his blood through the grave and gate of death and into the bliss of Heaven are those children of Bethlehem who died for his name without ever knowing him. But he knows them, as he knows and loves every child in Syria, and he says of them, to every Herod, ‘Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do it unto me.’

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. she writes:

Last year we thought nothing could be worse than seeing the bodies of refugees wash up on the beaches of Europe. This year the awful news of the destruction of Aleppo and its people breaks in upon our TV screens and hearts. Sometimes we feel that our own personal safety and comfort should be denied, after all, with so many millions of people suffering, do we have a right to personal happiness? It must be a question that so many of us ask ourselves. Of course we do not have the right to personal safety and happiness but these events give us the opportunity for generosity and gratitude.

The image is self explanatory, a nameless and homeless family, and Malcolm reminds us in his sonnet that Jesus was born into just such a situation. There is nothing new in murderous power and bloodshed and we must allow the pain of it to sing in our blood as we pray the psalms on behalf of our refugee brothers and sister, “O Lord my God, in You I have taken refuge; Save me from all those who pursue me…deliver me.”

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

This sonnet has been adapted and set powerfully to Music by Steve Bell on his Album Keening For The Dawn.

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

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

 

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A Sonnet for 27th December: the Feast of St. John

The soaring glory of an eagle's flight

The soaring glory of an eagle’s flight

Two days after Christmas, on the 27th of December, the church keeps the feast of St. John the Evangelist. It is fitting that the Gospel writer whose prologue delves so deeply into the mystery of Incarnation, and whose words ‘The Word was made flesh’ are read at every Christmas Eucharist, should have his feast-day within the twelve days of Christmas.

In my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons I have gathered my sonnets for the four Evangelists into one sequence at the beginning. But here, in its proper place in the liturgical year, is my sonnet for St. John, the evangelist whose emblem is the Eagle. (for an account of the four emblems see here. I love John’s Gospel and you can hear the five talks I gave on Logos, Light, Life, Love and Glory in John’s Gospel via links on this page.)

Sounding the Seasons and my new book The Singing Bowl are both available from Amazon or on order from your local bookstore

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

John

This is the gospel of the primal light,

The first beginning, and the fruitful end,

The soaring glory of an eagle’s flight,

The quiet touch of a beloved friend.

This is the gospel of our transformation,

Water to wine and grain to living bread,

Blindness to sight and sorrow to elation,

And Lazarus himself back from the dead!

This is the gospel of all inner meaning,

The heart of heaven opened to the earth,

A gentle friend on Jesus’ bosom leaning,

And Nicodemus offered a new birth.

No need to search the heavens high above,

Come close with John, and feel the pulse of Love.

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Nativity by Scott Cairns

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

We return to Scott Cairns in my series of readings of the poems in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 27th, is  Nativity, a beautiful reflection on an icon of the Nativity and how it draws us in. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. Linda writes:

As I read this poem I discerned a kind of radiance and inwardness that fascinated me. Again there are glimpses of the Divine that may be missed if we are not attentive or prayerful. We lean in and see a “tiny God.. slip briefly out of time.. miss the point or meet there”.

In the image, I created a fissure in the virgin blue, and beyond that there is a brightness that cannot be touched. It is a secret brightness, obscure and transcendent and cannot be possessed by us. All of life is potentially prayer that deepens us and makes our ‘ordinary’ time more loving and creative. But prayer is not an intellectual activity but an activity of love where we learn to be near God and learn too, never to leave the holiness of his nearness as we go about our daily duties.

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Nativity

As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend

the tiny God is wrapped

in something more than swaddle. The God

 

is tightly bound within

His blesséd mother’s gaze—her face declares

that she is rapt by what

 

she holds, beholds, reclines beholden to.

She cups His perfect head

and kisses Him, that even here the radiant

 

compass of affection

is announced, that even here our several

histories converge and slip,

 

just briefly, out of time. Which is much of what

an icon works as well,

and this one offers up a broad array

 

of separate narratives

whose temporal relations quite miss the point,

or meet there. Regardless,

 

one blithe shepherd offers music to the flock,

and—just behind him—there

he is again, and sore afraid, attended

 

by a trembling companion

and addressed by Gabriel. Across the ridge,

three wise men spur three horses

 

towards a star, and bowing at the icon’s

nearest edge, these same three

yet adore the seated One whose mother serves

 

as throne. Meantime, stumped,

the kindly Abba Joseph ruminates,

receiving consolation

from an attentive dog whose master may

yet prove to be a holy

messenger disguised as fool. Overhead,

 

the famous star is all

but out of sight by now; yet, even so,

it aims a single ray

 

directing our slow pilgrims to the core

where all the journeys meet,

appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,

 

where crouched among these other

lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers

receive that creatured air, and pray.

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