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.
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
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!
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)
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.