Category Archives: literature

Christina Rosetti: I wish I could remember

rossettiApril 27th is the day the Anglican Church remembers Christina Rosetti, one of the church’s and of England’s most gifted poets. I have included some of her powerful devotional poetry in my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word, but today I want to remember one of her many beautiful love poems. I want to remember it because it is a poem about forgetting! A poem that freely admits forgetting the first moment of meeting, the first touch of hands. Yet even in that admission she does remember what was forgotten and she recognizes, looking back, how we fail to recognize the really significant moments when they are just budding, like the half hidden leaf on a tree in early spring. Only when they have blossomed do we look back and say, ‘ah back then, even then, came the first hint of green, that I was to ‘dull to mark’, back then I was given the promise whose flower and fruit I am enjoying now. I take great comfort in knowing that something happening now that ‘seems to mean so little’ might one day ‘mean so much’. Her poem ‘awakens my minds attention,’ as Coleridge says all poetry should, and makes me look around me with fresh eyes, eager at last to ‘mark’ what I might dully have missed.
I hope you enjoy this. as always you can hear me reading the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

6 Comments

Filed under literature

Parable and Paradox: Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

In the run-up to the launch this June my new collection of poetry Parable and Paradox, I am posting some of the poems in it in advance. Today’s poem is the sonnet which goes with the painting on the cover of the new book. Jacob Wrestles with the Angel is one in a suite of five sonnets on the theme of Wilderness which were originally composed in response to a set of paintings by Adan Boulter and exhibited in Lent 2015 at St. Margaret’s Westminster . I refer to that in the lead-up to my reading of this sonnet.

My poem is voiced for Jacob in his life-changing encounter, that long wrestle in the dark that will change his name to Israel and change his future and ours for ever. This meeting with an angel is the harbinger of his dramatic encounter and reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, the brother-victim he had deceived but in whose face he now recognises the face of God. Though I have voiced this poem for Jacob, it is written in full consciousness that his story is also ours, that we too, in our brokenness and alienation must also wrestle with, and be changed by the Love that wounds and heals.

Parable and Paradox is available to order on Amazon here and in the USA and will be available from May 30th

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

2 Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

 

I dare not face my brother in the morning,

I dare not look upon the things I’ve done,

Dare not ignore a nightmare’s dreadful warning,

Dare not endure the rising of the sun.

My family, my goods, are sent before me,

I cannot sleep on this strange river shore,

I have betrayed the son of one who bore me,

And my own soul rejects me to the core.

 

But in the desert darkness one has found me,

Embracing me, He will not let me go,

Nor will I let Him go, whose arms surround me,

Until he tells me all I need to know,

And blesses me where daybreak stakes it’s claim,

With love that wounds and heals; and with His name.

10 Comments

Filed under christianity, literature, paintings

A Sonnet for the Annunciation

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings

The feast of the annunciation usually falls on March 25th, but this year, because that day was also GoodFriday, it has been transferred to April 4th. The Annunciation, the visit of Gabriel to the blessed virgin Mary, is that mysterious moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time. In my own small take on this mystery I have thought about vision, about what we allow ourselves to be aware of, and also about freedom, the way all things turn on our discernment and freedom.

As always I am indebted to Margot Krebs Neale for the accompanying images, and she has kindly offered the following note for the images that accompany this sonnet:

‘As I was making suggesting a picture for another sonnet, Malcolm said he was working on the Annunciation sonnet. A little cheeky I sent a picture of a beautifully blurred lily wondering if it might help. Malcolm liked it and could see angel wings in it, I thought we needed a face. A young woman of sixteen. One of the many 16 years old I know and love or…myself. I remembered and found this picture of me taken when I was 16 or 17. Why me? Because of the “We” of the first strophe, I read it like an “I” : We see so little, only surfaces, and yet we have a choice.

« Quel fruit lumineux portons-nous dans l’ombre de la chair? » What luminous fruit do we carry in the shade of our flesh?

« un fruit éternel enfant de la chair et de l’Esprit ». An eternal fruit, child of the flesh and the Spirit »

May we be granted the joy of giving it to the light.’

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 available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. It is 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. You may also like to check out Steve Bell‘s wonderful Snippet eBook The Pilgrim Year, in which this sonnet also appears, together with some of my reflections on Fra Angelico’s great fresco of the Annunciation.

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Annunciation

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

but on this day a young girl stopped to see

8 Comments

Filed under imagination, literature, Theology and Arts

Holy Saturday: Stations XIII and XIV

Holy Saturday is a strange, still day, hanging in an unresolved poise between the darkness of the day before and the light that is not yet with us. It has its own patterns and rituals that take up a little of that empty space of waiting. Children come into church to make an Easter Garden, exhausted clergy give themselves the space to venture a walk with their families and draw breath before tomorrow’s big declamations, those who have passed through the intense experience of a Good Friday three hours watch service feel strangely dislocated from the crowds of Easter Bank holiday shoppers that surge around the Saturday markets, and all the while for all the faithful who have made this journey through Holy Week together, there is a kind of emptiness and expectant stillness within.

I have tried to reflect a little of this in these two sonnets, which follow in sequence from the ones we had on Good Friday. I was conscious as I wrote them of how these great Christian festivals, especially Easter and Christmas, draw up and carry with them some of our deepest family memories. If we are going to remember and miss someone we have loved and lost, we will do it now. So in the second sonnet I have moved from a contemplation of the women bearing spices and wishing they could at least anoint the one they miss, to focus on the many people who will visit graves and memorial plaques over this weekend, ‘Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth’. All those ‘beautiful useless gestures’, all that ‘love poured out in silence’ is, I believe, somehow gathered together in these three days and sown deep in the ground of God’s love, ready for the day when he will make all things new again.

Please feel free to make use of these poems in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. 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.

The Images above are by Lancia Smith, those below are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

 

Stations Of the Cross

 


XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

XIV Jesus is laid in the tomb

Here at the centre everything is still
Before the stir and movement of our grief
Which bears it’s pain with rhythm, ritual,
Beautiful useless gestures of relief.
So they anoint the skin that cannot feel
Soothing his ruined flesh with tender care,
Kissing the wounds they know they cannot heal,
With incense scenting only empty air.
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.
The love that’s poured in silence at old graves
Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all love is found
And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.

7 Comments

Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Meditation, Poems

Good Friday: the first 12 Stations of the Cross

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

In my Anthology of poems for Leant and Holy Week The Word in the Wilderness, I set just one of my Stations of the cross sonnets for Good Friday, Station XII, but as this blog is not so constricted for space I thought I would share with you the first 12 stations. We will read the 13th and 14th tomorrow on Holy Saturday and then on Easter Morning we will have the 15th’ resurrection’ station and also a new villanelle that I have written for easter Morning.

The Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are intended to be read on Good Friday. If you are in Cambridge today do come and join us for the three hours service at St. Bene’t’s, where we will be using some of  these sonnets. The service starts at 12.

Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are also available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle.

The Image above is courtesy of Lancia Smith. The Images below are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

These sonnets have been used by a number of churches in different ways and Dr. Holly Ordway has given a series of excellent podcast talks based on these sonnets.

Stations Of the Cross


I Jesus is condemned to death

The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice

With which he speaks in judgment, all his powers

Of perception and discrimination, choice,

Decision, all his years, his days and hours,

His consciousness of self, his every sense,

Are given by this prisoner, freely given.

The man who stands there making no defence,

Is God. His hands are tied, His heart is open.

And he bears Pilate’s heart in his and feels

That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts

It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.

He gives himself again with all his gifts

Into our hands. As Pilate turns away

A door swings open. This is judgment day.


II Jesus is given his cross

He gives himself again with all his gifts

And now we give him something in return.

He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,

Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,

And from these elements he forged the iron,

From strands of life he wove the growing wood,

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

He saw it all and saw that it is good.

We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,

We took the axe and laid it to the tree,

We made a cross of all that he has made,

And laid it on the one who made us free.

Now he receives again and lifts on high

The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.


III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

And well he knows the path we make him tread

He met the devil as a roaring lion

And still refused to turn these stones to bread,

Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,

This darker path into the heart of pain.

And now he falls upon the stones that bruise

The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.

He and the earth he made were never closer,

Divinity and dust come face to face.

We flinch back from his via dolorosa,

He sets his face like flint and takes our place,

Staggers beneath the black weight of us all

And falls with us that he might break our fall.

20110418-125224.jpg

IV Jesus meets His Mother

This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.

20110418-125536.jpg

V Simon of Cyrene carries the cross

In desperation on this road of tears
Bystanders and bypassers turn away
In other’s pain we face our own worst fears
And turn our backs to keep those fears at bay
Unless we are compelled as this man was
By force of arms or force of circumstance
To face and feel and carry someone’s cross
In Love’s full glare and not his backward glance.
So Simon, no disciple, still fulfilled
The calling: ‘take the cross and follow me’.
By accident his life was stalled and stilled
Becoming all he was compelled to be.
Make me, like him, your pressed man and your priest,
Your alter Christus, burdened and released.


VI Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Bystanders and bypassers turn away
And wipe his image from their memory
She keeps her station. She is here to stay
And stem the flow. She is the reliquary
Of his last look on her. The bloody sweat
And salt tears of his love are soaking through
The folds of her devotion and the wet
folds of her handkerchief, like the dew
Of morning, like a softening rain of grace.
Because she wiped the grime from off his skin,
And glimpsed the godhead in his human face
Whose hidden image we all bear within,
Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain
The face of god is shining once again.



VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

VIII Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again

But still he holds the road and looks in love

On all of us who look on him. Our pain

As close to him as his. These women move

Compassion in him as he does in them.

He asks us both to weep and not to weep.

Women of Gaza and Jerusalem,

Women of every nation where the deep

Wounds of memory divide the land

And lives of all your children, where the mines

Of all our wars are sown: Afghanistan ,

Iraq, the Cote d’Ivoire… he reads the signs

And weeps with you and with you he will stay

Until the day he wipes your tears away.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay

When all your staying power has run out

You can’t go on, you go on anyway.

He stumbles just beside you when the doubt

That always haunts you, cuts you down at last

And takes away the hope that drove you on.

This is the third fall and it hurts the worst

This long descent through darkness to depression

From which there seems no rising and no will

To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.

Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,

And you could almost wish for that defeat

Except that in the cold hell where you freeze

You find your God beside you on his knees.


X Jesus is stripped of His garments

You can’t go on, you go on anyway
He goes with you, his cradle to your grave.
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love
For he began his letting go before,
Before the worlds for which he dies were made,
Emptied himself, became one of the poor,
To make you rich in him and unafraid.
See as they strip the robe from off his back
They strip away your own defences too
Now you could lose it all and never lack
Now you can see what naked Love can do
Let go these bonds beneath whose weight you bow
His stripping strips you both for action now


XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.


XII Jesus dies on the cross

The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Meditation, Poems

St. Patrick: A Sonnet

PilgrimYear_SaintPatrickMemeI have written a  sonnet for Saint Patrick’s day! It is in my anthology Word in the Wilderness and will also be collected in Parable and Paradox but here it is for the day itself. This particular poem was prompted by my good friend Steve Bell who was writing a fascinating multi-media ebook called the Pilgrim Year and who wanted me to write something for St. Patrick’s day. I can strongly commend Steve’s ebook!

While Patrick is of course primarily associated with Ireland where he flourished as a missionary in the second half of the fifth century, he was not Irish to begin with. He seems to have been a shepherd on the mainland of Great Britain and was in fact captured there, at the age of sixteen, by raiding pirates and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. He was six years in captivity before he finally made his escape and returned to Britain. And this is where the story takes a truly extraordinary turn. While he was enslaved in Ireland, working as a shepherd for his masters, Patrick became a Christian and when, having made good his escape, he returned home he had a vision in which a man gave him a letter headed ‘The Voice of Ireland’, a letter urging him to go back to the very place from which he had escaped and bring the Gospel to his former captors! That Patrick obeyed such a vision seems to me a greater miracle than any of the others subsequently attributed to him, and it is on this return that my sonnet turns. That capacity to return, face and forgive former oppressors or enemies seems a particularly vital gift for Ireland’s patron to bestow. As well as alluding briefly to ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate’, my sonnet also touches on the story that wherever Patrick planted his staff to pray, it blossomed.

As always you can hear the sonnets by clicking o the title or the play button

Patrick

Six years a slave, and then you slipped the yoke,

Till Christ recalled you, through your captors cries!

Patrick, you had the courage to turn back,

With open love to your old enemies,

Serving them now in Christ, not in their chains,

Bringing the freedom He gave you to share.

You heard the voice of Ireland, in your veins

Her passion and compassion burned like fire.

 

Now you rejoice amidst the three-in-one,

Refreshed in love and blessing all you knew,

Look back on us and bless us, Ireland’s son,

And plant the staff of prayer in all we do:

A gospel seed that flowers in belief,

A greening glory, coming into leaf.

7 Comments

Filed under literature, Poems

Dante and the companioned journey: De Magistro

Dante with mount Purgatory in the background

Dante with mount Purgatory in the background

This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book  The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent.  In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. You can read the first poem in my dante sequence (which is not in Word in the Wilderness, by clicking on this title: In Medias Res, If you would like to read through and listen to all nine poems in my Dante Sequence, which is published in the Singing Bowl, you can do so by starting HERE and then following links to subsequent posts.

Today I am posting the Fourth, De Magistro.’ This poem is set for Thursday in The Word in the wilderness and the introduction is taken from that book.

Many of us can probably point to a figure like Virgil in our lives, not only an author, but a living friend and teacher, who meets us at the right moment, sets us on a good path and guides on our journey. In this poem, I celebrate someone who did that for me, the teacher, in fact, with whom I first read Dante. My poem takes its point of departure from the moment of transition we considered in Wednesday’s end of the Inferno when the poets emerge at last from the dark and see again the sky and stars, and their preparation to begin the painful and yet joyful ascent of Mount Purgatory.

Again and again I find Dante’s poem gives me glimpses of places I have been, and places I may well yet find myself, and in doing so it gives me a map, and with the map, a way forward. When I wrote this poem I was emerging from period of depression. I was grateful to be past the worst but I realized that I had work to do, things to redeem, an ascent to make. To do so I had to call to mind all the resources available to me, and I found myself summoning the powers of the poetry I had read, the insights and example of the teachers who had guided me, and above all concentrating, as they had done, on the joyful task of teaching itself. The title of this poem, ‘De Magistro’, means ‘Of the Teacher’ and it is also the title of a little book by St Augustine, co-written as a dialogue with his beloved son Adeodatus, in which father and son explore together what it means to learn and to teach and come to the conclusion that at any moment when we suddenly ‘recognize’ a truth, and make a glad, inner assent to it, it is not the outward and visible teacher, the person in the room, who is the ultimate source of that truth and that assent, but rather an ‘inner’ teacher, deep within us, a source of light and truth to whom we have brought each proposition for confirmation, and that teacher, said Augustine is Christ, himself, the Logos, the Word in each of us, who guides us through the wilderness. At such moments of joyful recognition both teacher and pupil discern the Word in and through one another, and in and through the words they share.

Dante’s poem begins ‘in a dark wood’ in ‘midmost of the path of this life’. Sometimes words themselves can seem like a tangled wood, but a good teacher can show us the path, and guide us gradually to find the true source of all language and meaning in Christ the logos, and I have tried to evoke that experience in this poem, in the lines:

 

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path

That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.

You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

 

You showed me how my halting words might reach

To the mind’s maker, to the source of Love,

And so you taught me what it means to teach.

 

Perhaps, in the midst of this Lenten journey this is a good time to remember, give thanks and pray for those teachers, official and unofficial, through whom Christ has ‘brought us safe thus far’.

 

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

 

 

As always you can hear my poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button’. I am grateful to Oliver Neale for the contemporary image that follows the poem.

4 De Magistro

I thank my God I have emerged at last,

blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars

bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

 

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours

pacing your study, chanting poetry.

The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,

 

removed the daily veil, and let me see,

as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,

that words are windows onto mystery.

 

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls

in music, from the tower of ivory,

and from the hidden heart, He calls

 

in the language of Adam, creating memory

of unfallen speech. He sets creation

free from the carapace of history.

 

His image in us is Imagination,

His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath

upon the letters of His revelation.

 

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path

that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.

You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

 

you showed me how my halting words might reach

to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,

and so you taught me what it means to teach.

 

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove

climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.

Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

 

as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.

photo by Oliver Neale

photo by Oliver Neale

2 Comments

Filed under literature, Poems