Category Archives: Poems

Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

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

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

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

Fire

 

He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.

 

They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

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

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.

 

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

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead

 

And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.

 

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

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

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

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

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

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

 

‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

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

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.

 

And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.

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A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

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

This Friday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist, and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year.  My sonnets in that series, include a mini-sequence on the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced  by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.

‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘  St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (ca. 120-202 AD)  –  Adversus Haereses 3.11.8

For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. In this iconographic tradition Luke’s emblem is the ox, the lowly servant His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver of his brother Luc.  The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press  and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.

 Luke

His gospel is itself a living creature

A ground and glory round the throne of God,

Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature

And One upon the throne sees it is good.

Luke is the living pillar of our healing,

A lowly ox, the servant of the four,

We turn his page to find his face revealing

The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.

He breathes good news to all who bear a burden

Good news to all who turn and try again,

The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,

A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,

The voiceless find their voice in every word

And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for this image

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Hugh Latimer Martyred 16th October 1555

Latimer’s Pulpit, you can touch the wood.

A few years ago, on the exact anniversary of his Martyrdom by fire in 1555, I stood in the very Pulpit from which Latimer had preached, to preach a sermon celebrating his memory and re-affirming the gospel for which he died. On this aniversary therefore I am posting again the Sonnet I wrote called Latimer’s pulpit. It is part of a sequence of St. Edward’s sonnets you can read here, but I republish it on its own, for Latimer’s day.

Here first is a preliminary note about the pulpit:

Ours is known as Latimers Pulpit,  for Hugh Latimer the great Saint and Martyr preached there often, and it was in this pulpit that he preached the famous sermon of the card, to which my sonnet alludes.

In that sermon he imagines that we are losing a card game with the devil. One after another he lays out the black suit of our sins, he holds all the cards and is ready to take the ‘trick’ of our souls, but Christ leans forward and lays on top of all those sins the trump card that wins us back; the king of hearts, for in a universe where God is love, then love is always trumps. At the end of the sermon he exhorts his hearers to do for others what Christ has done for them. When people deal you cards of malice, hate, or envy always and only reply by trumping hate with love. His great love, even of his enemies, shone through when he was burned at the stake for his faith in 1555. It is an extraordinary experience to touch the wood, and to stand in that pulpit and preach as I do each week.

And here is the poem, as always you can hear it by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title:

Latimer’s pulpit

Latimer’s pulpit, you can touch the wood,
Sound for yourself the syllables of grace
That sounded and resounded through this place;
A quickened word, a kindling for good
In evil times; when malice held the cards
And played them, in the play of politics,
When knaves with knives were taking all the tricks,
When Christendom was shivered into shards,
When King and Queen were pitched in different camps,
When burning books could stoke the fire for men,
When such were stacked against him –even then
Latimer knew that hearts alone are trumps.
He gave the King of Hearts his proper name,
He touched this wood, and kindled love to flame.

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‘Heaven in Ordinary’ and a book launch invitation!

I am happy to announce that the official launch of my new poetry collection After Prayer will take place in the church of St. Edward King and Martyr, Peas Hill in central Cambridge on the 8th of November from 8-9:30pm. There will be wine and other refreshments, a reading of some poems from the new book and the chance to buy a copy at a discount and have it signed. All the readers of this blog are warmly invited. I know that for many of you there are oceans and various other impediments between you and Cambridge, but if you are anywhere near do come along if you can. If you are coming could you let me know at malcolmguite@gmail.com so I can make sure there’s enough wine!

If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.

Mean while here is another ‘sampler’ poem from the collection. As you know the opening sequence is a series of meditations on the phrases in George Herbert’s poem Prayer, so here is the sonnet I wrote in response to the most famous phrase in that poem: ‘Heaven in Ordinary. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Heaven in Ordinary

Because high heaven made itself so low

That I might glimpse it through a stable door,

Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,

And call me through the voices of the poor,

Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through

Amidst the clutter of the every day,

Illuminating things I thought I knew,

Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.

 

Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,

A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,

The moment holds me in its strange surprise,

The gates of paradise are drawn apart,

I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,

And nothing can be ordinary now.

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Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

The 22nd of July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and continuing my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.

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.



Mary Magdalene

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to  cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you  with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.

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A Sonnet for Petertide.

 

The 29th of June is St. Peter’s day, when we remember the disciple who, for all his many mistakes, knew how to recover and hold on, who, for all his waverings was called by Jesus ‘the rock’, who learned the threefold lesson that every betrayal can ultimately be restored by love. It is fitting therefore that it is at Petertide that new priests and deacons are ordained, on the day they remember a man whose recovery from mistakes and openness to love can give them courage. So I post this poem not only for St. Peter but for all those being ordained this weekend and in memory of my own ordination as a priest on this day 28 years ago.

This poem comes from my collection Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. You can also buy it on Amazon Uk or US or order it in any bookshop.

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

St. Peter

Impulsive master of misunderstanding

You comfort me with all your big mistakes;

Jumping the ship before you make the landing,

Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

I love the way you step out without knowing,

The way you sometimes speak before you think,

The way your broken faith is always growing,

The way he holds you even when you sink.

Born to a world that always tried to shame you,

Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,

I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,

Before you knew how to deserve that name.

And in the end your Saviour let you prove

That each denial is undone by love.

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After Prayer: a little taster from my next book

I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I have been working on a new book called ‘After Prayer’ which will come out with Canterbury Press in late October, and you can see above a little preview of it’s lovely cover.

The title sequence is a series of sonnets written in response to Herbert’s poem Prayer, and as I say in the preface to the book:

I learnt many things by doing this, but perhaps the most telling was the discovery that Prayer is not a random compendium, but rather a soul-story, a spiritual journey. Usually the images flash by us so fast in such dazzling array that we have scarcely time to consider their order, their narrative arc. But by slowing the poem down and reflecting on each image both in itself and in its place in the sequence I found myself taken on a journey from the feasting and fecundity of the opening image of the Church’s Banquet, through mystery and variety and then, with the Christian plummet,down into unsounded depths and uncharted waters, into the painful battle fields and the wounded places of engine against the almightie, sinners tower, Christ-side-piercing spear, and then eventually up again through a kind of chastened recovery, a training of the ear to hear new music, a kind of tune,until one glimpsed the bird of paradise and caught the scent of the land of spices, until one was brought at least to the brink of something understood. The journey, I soon realised, was not just Herbert’s but had, necessarily, to be mine as well. And I found that, paradoxically, by following Herbert’s trajectory so closely I was also enabled to recognise and tell something of my own story too.

So every so often I will be posting some poems from the new collection to give you an idea of what’s in store. So here is the opening poem of the sequence, reflecting on Herbert’s opening image: ‘Prayer the church’s banquet’. As usual you can hear me reading the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

 

 

The Church’s Banquet

Not some strict modicum, exact allowance,

Precise prescription, rigid regimen,

But beauty and gratuitous abundance,

Capacious grace, beyond comparison.

Not something hasty, always snatched alone;

Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease,

Not little snacklets eaten on the run,

But peace and plenty, taken at our ease.

Not to be worked for, not another task,

But love that’s lavished on us, full and free,

Course after course of hospitality,

And rich wine flowing from an unstopped flask.

He paid the price before we reached the inn,

And all He asks of us is to begin.

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