A shadow his father makes with joined hands
And thumbs and fingers nibbles on the wall
Like a rabbit’s head. He understands
He will understand more when he goes to school.
There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.
Two rafters and a cross-tie on the slate
Are the letter some call ah, some call ay.
There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right
Way to hold the pen and a wrong way.
First it is ‘copying out’, and then ‘English’,
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.
Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina,
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.
For he was fostered next in a stricter school
Named for the patron saint of the oak wood
Where classes switched to the pealing of a bell
And he left the Latin forum for the shade
Of new calligraphy that felt like home.
The letters of this alphabet were trees.
The capitals were orchards in full bloom,
The lines of script like briars coiled in ditches.
Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.
He learns this other writing. He is the scribe
Who drove a team of quills on his white field.
Round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab.
Then self-denial, fasting, the pure cold.
By rules that hardened the farther they reached north
He bends to his desk and begins again.
Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth.
The script grows bare and Merovingian.
The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves
Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept
Watch above each door, the good-luck horseshoe.
Yet shape-note language, absolute on air
As Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO
Can still command him; or the necromancer
Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight
When he walked abroad. As from his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum -
Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.
What our habit has obtained for us appears
a somewhat meager view of mystery.
And Latinate equivalents have fared
no better tendering the palpable
proximity of dense noetic pressure.
More familiar, glib, and gnostic bullshit
aside, the loss the body suffers when
sacrament is pared into a tidy
picture postcard of absent circumstance
starves the matter to a moot result, no?
Mysterion is of a piece, enormous
enough to span the reach of what we see
and what we don’t. The problem at the heart
of metaphor is how neatly it breaks down
to this and that. Imagine one that held
entirely across the play of image
and its likenesses. Mysterion is
never elsewhere, ever looms, indivisible
and here, and compasses a journey one
assumes as it is tendered on a spoon.
Receiving it, you apprehend how near
the Holy bides. You cannot know how far.
From his book Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. Reprinted with permission.
(So I guess this book is out of print, but he has a new one entitledCompass of Affection. Can’t wait to read it!)
Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek
is not so much invisible as we
are ill equipped to apprehend His grave
proximity. Suppose our fixed attention
serves mostly to make evident the gap
between what’s apprehended and what’s here.
The Book there on the stand proves arduous
to open, entombed as it is in layers
of accretion, layers of gloss applied
to varied purpose, hardly any
laudable, so many, guarded ploys
to keep the terms quite still, predictable.
Which is why I’m drawn to—why I love—the way
the Rabbis teach. I love the way they read—
opening The Book with reverence for what
they’ve seen before, joy for what lies waiting.
I love the Word’s ability to rise again
from chronic homiletic burial.
Say the One is not so hidden as we
are kept by our own conjuncture blinking,
puzzled, leaning in without result. Let’s say
the meek, the poor, the merciful all
suspect His hand despite the evidence.
As for those rarest folk, the pure in heart?
Intent on what they touch, they see Him now.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay;
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day.
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.
A star was bound upon her brows,
A light was on her hair
As sun upon the golden boughs
In Lorien the fair.
Her hair was long, her limbs were white,
And fair she was and free;
And in the wind she went as light
As leaf of linden-tree.
Beside the falls of Nimrodel,
By water clear and cool,
Her voice as falling silver fell
Into the shining pool.
Where now she wanders none can tell,
In sunlight or in shade;
For lost of yore was Nimrodel
And in the mountains strayed.
The elven-ships in haven grey
Beneath the mountain-lee
Awaited her for many a day
Beside the roaring sea.
A wind by night in Northern lands
Arose, and loud it cried,
And drove the ship from elven-strands
Across the steaming tide.
When dawn came dim the land was lost,
The mountains sinking grey
Beyond the heaving waves that tossed
Their plumes of blinding spray.
Amroth beheld the fading shore
Now low beyond the swell,
And cursed the faithless ship that bore
Him far from Nimrodel.
Of old he was an Elven-king,
A lord of tree and glen,
When golden were the boughs in spring
In fair Lothlorien.
From helm to sea they saw him leap,
As arrow from the string,
And dive into the water deep,
As mew upon the wing.
The wind was in his flowing hair,
The foam about him shone;
Afar they saw him strong and fair
Go riding like a swan.
But from the West has come no word,
And on the Hither Shore
No tidings Elven-folk have heard
Of Amroth evermore.