Category Archives: Poems

I am the Vine; a sonnet

How might it feel to be part of the vine?

How might it feel to be part of the vine?

Here is a poem intended as a kind of comment or illumination on the beautiful gospel from John 15 which is set for this Sunday, and which I post in advance in case anyone would like to use it in a service. It is from my book Parable and Paradox,  the last in a sequence of seven sonnets on the ‘I AM’ sayings in John’s gospel. this one is on one of my favourites ‘I Am the Vine, ye are the branches’.

Parable and Paradox is available on Amazon here and in the USA

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

I Am the Vine

John 15:5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

How might it feel to be part of the vine?

Not just to see the vineyard from afar

Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,

But to be grafted in, to feel the stir

Of inward sap that rises from our root,

Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,

To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,

As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give

A little to the swelling of the grape,

In gradual perfection, round and full,

To bear within oneself the joy and hope

Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.

What might it mean to bide and to abide

In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad?

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A Sonnet for St. Mark’s Day

A winged lion, swift immediate

The 25th of April is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, but the Church of England is celebrating it on the 26th this year as the 25th falls on a Sunday.  So I  am posting again my sonnet on St. Mark’s Gospel, one of a set of four sonnets on each of the four evangelists. As I re-read it during this lockdown, as we too make the shift ‘from grand to intimate’, I am struck afresh by the transition in Mark from Christ’s action to his passion, from doing to suffering, from being in control to experiencing with us and for us what it is to depend, patiently, on the actions of others.

For each of these sonnets I have meditated on the traditional association of each of the evangelists with one of the ‘four living creatures’ round the throne, and how that helps us to focus on the particular gifts and emphasis of that Gospel writer. For a good account of this tradition click here. Mark is the lion. There is a power, a dynamic a swiftness of pace in Mark’s Gospel, his favourite word is ‘immediately’! and that suits the lion. His Gospel starts in the wilderness and that suits it too.

But the great paradox in Mark is that the Gospel writer who shows us Christ at his most decisive, powerful, startling and leonine is also the one who shows us  how our conquering lion, our true Aslan, deliberately entered into suffering and passion, the great ‘doer’ letting things be done unto him. In this sonnet, I am especially indebted to WH Vanstone’s brilliant reading of this aspect of Mark in his wonderful book The Stature of Waiting.

For all four ‘Gospel’ sonnets I have also drawn on the visual imagery of the Lindesfarne Gospels, as in the one illustrated above.

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. The book is now 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.

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

Mark

A wingèd lion, swift, immediate

Mark is the gospel of the sudden shift

From first to last, from grand to intimate,

From strength  to weakness, and from debt to gift,

From a wide desert’s haunted emptiness

To a close city’s fervid atmosphere,

From a voice crying in the wilderness

To angels in an empty sepulcher.

And Christ makes the most sudden shift of all;

From swift action as a strong Messiah

Casting the very demons back to hell

To slow pain, and death as a pariah.

We see our Saviour’s life and death unmade

And flee his tomb dumbfounded and afraid.

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This Breathless Earth: a recent sonnet

The reading set in many churches for this first Sunday of Easter is the account in John 20:19, of how Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room where they were cowering behind locked doors, and how he brought them peace, and breathed on them, saying ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ and sent them out, renewed into the world. Meditating on that scene I have made a new sonnet, voiced for one of the disciples in that room, but written also from our present context where we are all fearful and so many of us are struggling even to draw breath. I am posting the new poem here in case anyone finds it useful, either for a virtual church service on Sunday, or for reflection during the week. Please feel free to reproduce this poem but if you can include a link to this blog that would be great.

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

This Breathless Earth

We bolted every door but even so

We couldn’t catch our breath for very fear:

Fear of their knocking at the gate below,

Fear that they’d find and kill us even here.

Though Mary’s tale had quickened all our hearts

Each fleeting hope just deepens your despair:

The panic grips again, the gasping starts,

The drowning, and the coming up for air.

Then suddenly, a different atmosphere,

A clarity of light, a strange release,

And, all unlooked for, Christ himself was there

Love in his eyes and on his lips, our peace.

So now we breathe again, sent forth, forgiven,

To bring this breathless earth a breath of heaven.

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Easter Day: an Aubade

the sun is on the rise

Continue reading

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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.

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

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.

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.

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On the feast of the Annunciation, A Quintet for Mary

The Theotokos of vladimirFor today we will pause our progress through Herbert’s Prayer, because on March the 25th many churches across the world, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican, keep the feast of the Annunciation, and though we can no longer keep the feast outwardly and visibly in our churches, I would like to keep it inwardly and spiritually here with you.

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.

The scripture that says of Mary that “All generations’ will call her “blessed”, It is true that some Christians have disagreed with one another bitterly about her, but equally, in every age and every church she has been, for many Christians, a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.

In a strange way, which I will write about one day, she was a sign of hope to me even before I was a Christian, and it was something numinous and beautiful in the paintings and poetry she has inspired that helped lead me to her Son.

I thought for this feast day, I would offer a quintet of sonnets in her honour, gathering together  the four sonnets about her which are part of my wider collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’. and then adding a fifth, based on the antiphon O Virgo Virginum. The first four take us, from the Annunciation and her ‘yes’ to the angel, through the Visitation, with its beautiful magnificat, to the birth of Jesus, and then to her presence with him on the via dolorosa and at the foot of the cross. The final sonnet invokes her prayer and aid for the many women exploited and betrayed in our own age.

As always you can hear the poems by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears, or clicking 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.


The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

Theotokos

You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.

Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,

Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,

Call me again, for I am lost, and  wild

Waves suround me now. On this dark sea

Shine as a star and call me to the shore.

Open the door that all my sins would close

And hold me in your garden. Let me share

The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.

Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery

And bring me to the One you bore for me.

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.

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?

For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Who are the daughters of Jerusalem,

Who glimpse you still as you transform their seeing?

Whom have you called to this mysterium,

And bathed in the blithe fountain of your being?

Daughters of sorrow, daughters of despair,

The cast-aside, the overlooked, the spurned

The broken girls who scarcely breathe a prayer

The ones whose love has never been returned.

O Maid amongst the maidens, turn your face,

For when we glimpse you we are not alone,

O look us out of grief and into grace,

Lift us in love made stronger than our own,

Summon the spring in our worst wilderness,

And make us fruitful in your fruitfulness.

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?

Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.

Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?

Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

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Week 5: prayer that pierces

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

Here is my usual Sunday posting resuming our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.

The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith

Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.

But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’s beautiful poem The Incarnate One

The Incarnate One   Edwin Muir

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,

And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.

I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,

Christ, man and creature in their inner day.

How could our race betray

The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake

Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

 

The Word made flesh here is made word again

A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.

See there King Calvin with his iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book,

And there the logical hook

On which the Mystery is impaled and bent

Into an ideological argument.

 

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,

And truer sight was theirs outside the Law

Who saw the far side of the Cross among

The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,

In ignorant wonder saw

The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,

Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

 

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,

Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,

The auguries say, the white and black and brown,

The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all

Invisibly will fall:

Abstract calamity, save for those who can

Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

 

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown

Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well

The bloodless word will battle for its own

Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.

The generations tell

Their personal tale: the One has far to go

Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

 

MONDAY

 

Golgotha   John Heath-Stubbs


 

In the middle of the world, in the centre

Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;

A stake stemmed in the rubbish

 

From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull

Gasped up through the garbage:

‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,

Ground down again to the red dust,

The obliterated image. Create me.’

From lips cracked with thirst, the voice

That sounded once over the billows of chaos

When the royal banners advanced,

replied through the smother of dark:

‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-

All things, once more, are good.’

Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.

 

TUESDAY

 

The Agony   George Herbert


 

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,

Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states and kings;

Walk’d with a staff to heav’n and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious thins,

The which to measure it doth more behove;

Yet few there are that sound them, ‒ Sin and Love.

 

Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,

His skin, His garments bloody be.

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

 

Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike

Did set again abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like,

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Gethsemane   Rowan Williams

Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

 

Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.

 

THURSDAY

 

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day   G. M. Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.

 

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

 

FRIDAY

 

God’s Grandeur   G. M. Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs ‒

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

SATURDAY

 

Love’s as warm as tears   C. S. Lewis

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Week 3: Dante and the Companioned Journey

As usual, on each Sunday in Lent I am posting a week’s worth of recordings from from my book The Word in the Wilderness, for those who are following that this Lent.I am providing the texts of the poems and you can find my commentaries on those poems in the book itself. I am also taking the opportunity to correct one or two errors which crept into the printed book, in transcribing passages from Robin Kirkpatrick’s beautiful translation of Dante, which is used here with permission. The wonderful pilgrim image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith and was taken by her on a recent visit to share in the life the church in South Africa.

As always you can hear me read the poems by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button

SUNDAY

 

Late Ripeness Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004)

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year

I felt a door opening in me and I entered

the clarity of early morning.

 

One after another my former lives were departing,

like ships, together with their sorrow.

 

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas

assigned to my brush came closer,

ready now to be described better than they were before.

 

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.

We forget ‒ I kept saying ‒ that we are children of the King.

 

From where we come there is no division

into Yes and No, into is, was and will be.

 

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago ‒

a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror

of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel

staving its hull against a reef ‒ they dwell in us,

waiting for a fulfilment.

 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,

as are all men and women living at the same time,

whether they are aware of it or not.

 

MONDAY

 

Meeting Virgil

‘There is another road’ Dante

 

As I went, ruined, rushing to that low,

there had, before my eyes, been offered one

who seemed -long silent- to be faint and dry.

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,

to him I screamed my ‘miserere’: ‘Save me,

whatever – shadow or truly man – you be.’

His answer came to me: ‘No man; a man

I was in times long gone. Of Lombard stock,

my parents both by patria and Mantuan.

And I was born, though late, sub Iulio.

I lived at Rome in good Augustus’ day,

in times when all the gods were lying cheats.

I was a poet then. I sang in praise

of all the virtues of Anchises’ son. From Troy

he came ‒ proud Ilion razed in flame.

But you turn back. Why seek such grief and harm?

Why climb no higher up at lovely hill?

The cause and origin of joy shines there.’

‘So, could it be’, I answered him, (my brow,

in shy respect bent low), ‘you are that Virgil,

whose words flow wide, a river running full?

You are the light and glory of all poets.

May this serve me: my ceaseless care, the love

so great, that made me search your writings through!

You are my teacher. You, my lord and law.

From you alone I took the fine-tuned style

that has, already, brought me so much honour.

See there? That beast! I turned because of that.

Help me ‒ your wisdom’s known ‒ escape from her.

To every pulsing vein, she brings the tremor.

Seeing my tears, he answered me: ‘There is

another road. And that, if you intend

to quit this wilderness, you’re bound to take.’

(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 61−93)

 

TUESDAY

 

Through the Gate   Malcolm Guite

Begin the song exactly where you are,

For where you are contains where you have been

And holds the vision of your final sphere.

 

And do not fear the memory of sin;

There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,

Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain

 

Into translucent colour. Loose the veils

And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,

Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,

 

The hopeless gate that holds in all the fears

That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide

And open to the light that finds, and fares

 

Through the dark pathways where you run and hide,

Through all the alleys of your riddled heart,

As pierced and open as his wounded side.

 

Open the map to Him and make a start,

And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark,

His light will go before you. Let him chart

 

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache

To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind

Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk

 

And muted gloom in which you cannot find

The love that you once thought worth dying for.

Call him to all you cannot call to mind.

 

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your

Well-guarded fortress let his love descend.

The icy ego at your frozen core

 

Can hear his call at last. Will you respond?

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Towards A Shining World   Dante

Dante and Virgil emerge from hell and begin the ascent of mount purgatory

So now we entered on that hidden Path,

my Lord and I, to move once more towards

a shining world. We did not care to rest.

We climbed, he going first and I behind,

until through some small aperture I saw

the lovely things the skies above us bear.

Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.

To race now over better waves, my ship

of mind -alive again- hoists sail, and leaves

behind its little keel the gulf that proved so cruel.

And I’ll sing, now, about the second realm

where human spirits purge themselves from stain,

becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven.

Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.

for now, you secret Muses, I am yours…

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung

by night, which fled before it. And far away

I recognised the tremblings of the sea.

Alone, we walked along the open plain,

as though, returning to a path we’d lost,

our steps, until we came to that, were vain.

Then, at a place in shadow where the dew

still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,

had scarcely yet been sent out into vapour,

my master placed the palms of both his hands,

spread wide, lighty and gently on the tender grass.

And I, aware of what his purpose was,

offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.

At which, he made once more entirely clean

the colour that the dark of Hell had hidden.

(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno,canto34  lines 133−end, and II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 1−8 and 115−29)

 

THURSDAY

 

De Magistro   Malcolm Guite

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

 

FRIDAY

 

The Refining Fire Dante

Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned

just staring at the fire, imagining

bodies of human beings I’d seen burn.

And both my trusted guides now turned to me.

And Virgil spoke, to say: ‘My dearest son,

here may be agony but never death.

Remember this! Remember! And if I

led you to safety on Geryon’s back,

what will I do when now so close to God?

Believe this. And be sure. Were you to stay

a thousand years or more wombed in this fire,

you’d not been made the balder by one hair.

And if, perhaps, you think I’m tricking you,

approach the fire and reassure yourself,

trying with your own hands your garments hem.

Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness.

Turn this way. Come and enter safely in!’

But I, against all conscience, stood stock still.

And when he saw me stiff and obstinate,

he said, a little troubled: ‘Look my son,

between Beatrice and you there ‘s just this wall….’

Ahead of me, he went to meet the fire,

and begged that Statius, who had walked the road

so long between us, now take up the rear.

And, once within, I could have flung myself ‒

The heat that fire produced was measureless ‒

For coolness, in a vat of boiling glass.

To strengthen me, my sweetest father spoke,

as on he went, of Beatrice always,

saying, it seems I see her eyes already.’

and, guiding us, a voice sang from beyond.

So we, attending only to that voice,

came out and saw where now we could ascend.

Venite, benedicti Patris mei!’

sounded within what little light there was.

This overcame me and I could not look.

(The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio, Canto 27 lines 16−32 and 46−60)

 

SATURDAY

 

Dancing Through the Fire   Malcolm Guite

Then stir my love in idleness to flame

To find at last the free refining fire

That guards the hidden garden whence I came.

 

O do not kill, but quicken my desire,

Better to spur me on than leave me cold.

Not maimed I come to you, I come entire,

 

Lit by the loves that warm, the lusts that scald,

That you may prove the one, reprove the other,

Though both have been the strength by which I scaled

 

The steps so far to come where poets gather

And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.

I thank God for the ones who brought me hither

 

And taught me by example how to bring

The slow growth of a poem to fruition

And let it be itself, a living thing,

 

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition

And still to try the tautness of each line,

Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

 

And trace in dust the face of the divine,

Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian,

That drawing water turns it into wine.

 

Now I am drawn through their imagination

To dare to dance with them into the fire,

Harder than any grand renunciation,

 

To bring to Christ the heart of my desire

Just as it is in every imperfection,

Surrendered to his bright refiner’s fire

 

That love might have its death and resurrection.

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WEEK 2 Deepening the Life of Prayer

WEEK 2

Deepening the Life of Prayer

Here is another week’s worth of recordings in which I read the poems I selected in my anthology for Lent The Word in the Wilderness. I hope you enjoy these recordings, just click on the title of the poem or the ‘play’ button if it appears. Once again I am grateful to Lancia Smith for providing the two lovely images to go with this week’s readings.

SUNDAY

Postscript Seamus Heaney

MONDAY

Prayer (I)   George Herbert

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

TUESDAY

Homecoming   Gwyneth Lewis

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won

by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home

to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found

in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.

WEDNESDAY

 

Prayer/Walk   Malcolm Guite


 

A hidden path that starts at a dead end,

Old ways, renewed by walking with a friend,

And crossing places taken hand in hand,

The passages where nothing need be said,

With bruised and scented sweetness underfoot

And unexpected birdsong overhead,

The sleeping life beneath a dark-mouthed burrow,

The rooted secrets rustling in a hedgerow,

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow,

A track once beaten and now overgrown

With complex textures, every kind of green,

Land- and cloud-scape melting into one,

The rich meandering of streams at play,

A setting out to find oneself astray,

And coming home at dusk a different way.

THURSDAY

 

How I talk to God   Kelly Belmonte Read more about Kelly Belmonte on her great poetry site All Nine

Coffee in one hand

leaning in to share, listen:

How I talk to God.

“Momma, you’re special.”

Three-year-old touches my cheek.

How God talks to me.

While driving I make

lists: done, do, hope, love, hate, try.

How I talk to God.

Above the highway

hawk: high, alone, free, focused.

How God talks to me.

Rash, impetuous

chatter, followed by silence:

How I talk to God.

First, second, third, fourth

chance to hear, then another:

How God talks to me.

Fetal position

under flannel sheets, weeping

How I talk to God.

Moonlight on pillow

tending to my open wounds

How God talks to me.

Pulling from my heap

of words, the ones that mean yes:

How I talk to God.

Infinite connects

with finite, without words:

How God talks to me.

FRIDAY

 

The Pains of Sleep   S. T. Coleridge


 

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

But yester-night I prayed aloud

In anguish and in agony,

Up-starting from the fiendish crowd

Of .

shapes and thoughts that tortured me:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,

Sense of intolerable wrong,

And whom I scorned, those only strong!

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed.

Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!

And shame and terror over all!

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which all confused I could not know

Whether I suffered, or I did:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child;

And having thus by tears subdued

My anguish to a milder mood,

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin,

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

SATURDAY

 

Batter my heart   John Donne


 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This and my other sonnets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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