Category Archives: Poems

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,  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. For each of these sonnets I have meditated on the way the traditional association of each of the evangelists with one of the ‘four living creatures’ round the throne 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 and physical copies are also available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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 deserts 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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What I Saw In America

With the Theologian David Taylor in front of a Texan Bishop's Taco Truck!

With the Theologian David Taylor in front of a Texan Bishop’s Taco Truck!

With Pastor and Theologian Matt Russell, sampling a local delicacy!

With Pastor and Theologian Matt Russell, sampling a local delicacy!

I thought I would tell you a little bit about the fortnight’s trip to America from which I have just returned, and have cheekily borrowed at title from one of GK Chesterton’s later books. I can’t claim that my account will be as witty as his, though I must say many of his bon mots came to mind, not least, as the American Election looms large, his observation, in the chapter titled ‘Presidents and Problems’ that

‘All good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen.’

My trip, like Gaul was divided into three parts: Houston Texas, Grove City Pennsylvania and Gloucester Massachusetts.

I flew to Houston to take part in a wonderful poetry initiative there called Iconoclast, which is not only taking poetry into tough schools and ‘lock down’  units where young people are incarcerated, but also drawing poetry and new poets out of these places. I was delighted to work with my old friend Matt Russel and with the excellent poet Marlon ‘Marley’ Havikoro. We did a joint poetry reading one evening, whilst also hi-lighting the work of some of his young students, and that seemed to go down very well.

this was fun!

this was fun!

We hear so much that is negative in reporting from the States, so much about haters, about dividing lines, about oppression, so it was good for me and an eye-opener to witness some of the excellent and unreported work of bridge-building, healing to which so many churches, of all denominations in America are fully committed. Alongside my work with this project and my preaching at St. Paul’s Houston, I got to meet up with local Bishop Andy Doyle, who rightly guessed that having a Taco Truck pull up at his house would deepen the conversation. I was delighted to catch up there with another old friend David Taylor, currently enabling, (and filming!) conversation between Bono of U2 and Eugene Peterson, of the Message, on the rich topic of the Psalms 

An April Morning in Pensylvania!

An April Morning in Pensylvania!

After Houston I flew to Pittsburgh whence I was driven through the beautiful rolling, densely wooded countryside of Western Pennsylvania to Grove City College where I was the main speaker for a three day Christian Writers conference organised by Sarina Moor from the English Department there. The College was founded in the late nineteenth century, and looks remarkably similar in places to my own college Girton, founded at a similar date, and is set in the most enchanting small town with woodlands around and a little creek running through. They still get black bears roaming the woods and one even crossed the campus at night not long ago, though the closest I came was a pint of ‘Black Bear Porter’ from the local microbrewery.

I gave two substantial lectures, taught a couple of seminars, and preached in the chapel, but the hi-light for me was a poetry reading at a substantial coffee house called Beans on Broad, which I shared with some students from the college poetry group. They read some very good poems and the place was absolutely packed – so it looks like poetry is flourishing in Pensylvania and in good hands with the rising generation. Another unexpected treat was a visit to some Amish families which included the sight of ploughs being drawn, straight and beautiful by expertly guided and patient horses and a visit to some beautiful furniture workshops. As it was cold and the snow was falling I also ended up buying a wonderful Amish coat which makes me look rather like a time-travelling highwayman!

The Dry Salvages, just below the horizon to my right!

The Dry Salvages, just below the horizon to my right!

The ordinary saints in Bruce's studio

The ordinary saints in Bruce’s studio

Then it was on to Gloucester, in the beautiful Cape Ann. There I glimpsed Eliot’s Dry Salvages, thus completing my collection of Four Quartets visits and then settled in to some rich and stimulating days in the studio with the painter Bruce Herman, with whom I have begun a new collaboration. Bruce is working on an astonishing series of portraits of family and friends entitled ‘Ordinary saints’ and invited me to make a series of ‘ekphrastic’ poems in response to them. I am now six poems into this new endeavour and finding it hugely stimulating, as together we discern how God works in and through, indeed discloses himself through the mystery of the human face, itself always grounded in the deepest mystery of all, the love of God shining in the face of Christ. Bruce has written:

the face of any person is infinitely worthy of our sustained gaze. We know in our bones that persons are irreplaceable. And faces are like fingerprints. There are no two alike. We live in this mystery of this ordinary miracle––the recognition that we live among immortals.’

Here as a taster, is an opening poem for the collaboration, written in response to the portraits he has already completed as I saw them around the walls of his studio:

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

Ordinary Saints

 

The ordinary saints, the ones we know,

Our too-familiar family and friends,

When shall we see them? Who can truly show

Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?

Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold

That is and always was our common ground,

Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold

To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound

From which the light we never noticed fell

Into our lives? Remember how we turned

To look at them, and they looked back? That full-

-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,

Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.

But one day we will see them face to face.

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The Good Shepherd: a new sonnet

an early depiction of Christ the Good shepherd from a mosaic in Ravenna

an early depiction of Christ the Good shepherd from a mosaic in Ravenna

This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Gospel set in the Lectionary is John 10:22-30, which contains Jesus’ beautiful saying ‘My sheep hear my voice and I know they follow me, I give them eternal life and they will never perish’. These verses are in fact a continuation of verses earlier in chapter 10, in which Jesus develops the image of shepherd, and declares, in one of the seven great ‘I Am’ sayings in John, ‘I Am the good shepherd, the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep’.

Reflecting on these linked verses, prompts me to post another poem from the ‘I Am’ sequence in my forthcoming book Parable and Paradox. When I came to write this poem, I found that what came out was a cry of pain, a lament. Jesus’ picture of The Good Shepherd suddenly brought out, by sheer contrast, the dreadful images and memories of all the bad shepherding, the abuses of clerical power for sexual and other purposes of which we have all become belatedly aware and which has done so much not only to hurt all the individual victims but to cast a shadow for many people over the church as an institution and even over the gospel itself. Though the gospel in all its love and freedom is just the opposite of all that clerical abuse. But the cry of pain which forms the first half of my sonnet turns to prayer, and to a return to the true essence and understanding of the word ‘pastor’ in Jesus’ promise to be our shepherd, that Christ himself will in the end rescue and heal all those who have suffered, and especially perhaps those who have suffered at the hands of false shepherds.

(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)


I Am the Good Shepherd

 

John 10:11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 

 

When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,

So many pastors hopelessly astray,

The weak so often preyed on by the strong,

So many bruised and broken on the way,

The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,

The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,

The lambs we left to face all we have feared

Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.

 

Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,

One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost

Out in the darkness and the icy dew,

And no one knows how long this night will last.

Restore us; call us back to you by name,

And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.

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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?

Continuing in my series offering some glimpses from my forthcoming book Parable and Paradox, here is the last in a sequence of seven sonnets on the ‘I M’ 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 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

 

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?

Parable and Paradox hi res

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Two New Sonnets for the road to Emmaus

Christ appears to the Apostles on the road to Emmaus. Mosaic (6th)

Christ appears to the Apostles on the road to Emmaus. Mosaic (6th century)

As we walk together into the beautiful Easter season I thought I would post two new sonnets reflecting on the encounter two disciples had with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The story is told in Luke 24:13-35. This beautiful story helps to unfold the meaning of Christ’s resurrection and itself leads to a resurrection of joy and hope in the grieving disciples.

These two sonnets form part of a new sequence of fifty sonnets on the sayings of Jesus called Parable and Paradox. They will be published in a book of that title this June and it is already available for or-order on Amazon Here.

Parable and Paradox

Parable and Paradox

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

Emmaus 1

 


Luke 24:17 ‘He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast’.

 

And do you ask what I am speaking of

Although you know the whole tale of my heart;

Its longing and its loss, its hopeless love?

You walk beside me now and take my part

As though a stranger, one who doesn’t know

The pit of disappointment, the despair

The jolts and shudders of my letting go,

My aching for the one who isn’t there.

 

And yet you know my darkness from within,

My cry of dereliction is your own,

You bore the isolation of my sin

Alone, that I need never be alone.

Now you reveal the meaning of my story

That I, who burn with shame, might blaze with glory.

 

Emmaus 2

 


Luke 24:25-26 Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

 

We thought that everything was lost and gone,

Disaster on disaster overtook us

The night we left our Jesus all alone

And we were scattered, and our faith forsook us.

But oh that foul Friday proved far worse,

For we had hoped that he had been the one,

Till crucifixion proved he was a curse,

And on the cross our hopes were all undone.

 

Oh foolish foolish heart why do you grieve?

Here is good news and comfort to your soul:

Open your mind to scripture and believe

He bore the curse for you to make you whole

The living God was numbered with the dead

That He might bring you Life in broken bread.

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Easter Day: Station XV and a new Villanelle

 

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

The Lord is Risen! He is risen indeed Alleluia!

For this Easter morning I am posting the fifteenth and final sonnet from my Stations of the Cross sequence, but also adding a new poem, a villanelle for Easter which I composed one dark morning whilst out walking my dog. Lancia Smith has made a beautiful image with lines from the new poem.

This sonnet, and the others I have been posting for Holy Week are all 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 shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. 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 poems by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

XV Easter Dawn

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

 

On Easter Day 

As though some heavy stone were rolled away,

You find an open door where all was closed,

Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.

 

Lost in your own dark wood, alone, astray,

You pause, as though some secret were disclosed,

As though some heavy stone were rolled away.

 

You glimpse the sky above you, wan and grey,

Wide through these shadowed branches interposed,

Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.

 

Perhaps there’s light enough to find your way,

For now the tangled wood feels less enclosed,

As though some heavy stone were rolled away.

 

You lift your feet out of the miry clay

And seek the light in which you once reposed,

Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.

 

And then Love calls your name, you hear Him say:

The way is open, death has been deposed,

As though some heavy stone were rolled away,

And you are free at last on Easter Day.

 

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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.

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