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No. 96
Gregory Wolfe
Ronald Austin
Scott Cairns
Robert Coles
Denis Donoghue
Carolyn Forché
Gordon Fuglie
Mary Gordon
Patricia Hampl
Ron Hansen
Mark Helprin
Andrew Hudgins
Thomas Lynch
Paul Mariani
Mary McCleary
Barry Moser
Marilyn Nelson
Kathleen Norris
Theodore Prescott
Richard Rodriguez
Dan Wakefield
Jeanne Murray Walker
Wim Wenders
Rowan Williams
Lauren F. Winner
Christian Wiman
Larry Woiwode
Mary Kenagy Mitchell
Suzanne M. Wolfe
Sophia Ross
Roger Feldman
Jennifer Maier
Sonya Bilocerkowycz
Sara Arrigoni
Luke Farquhar
Savannah Hadley
Annesley Moore-Jumonville
Sarah Pruis
On the cover: Strangers & Other Angels, 2005. Compagnia
de’ Colombari in Orvieto, Italy. Karin Coonrod, director.
Trazana Beverley (God), Peter Ksander (light designer),
Patrice Johnson (Mary). Photo: Massimo Achilli.
IMAGE (ISSN 1087-3503) is published quarterly for
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Spring 2018, Number 96. Copyright 2018 by the Center
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Periodical Verse.
S P R I N G 2 018 Ž N U M BE R 9 6
Gregory Wolfe
The Redemption of Hester Prynne
Gershon Ben-Avraham
Yoineh Bodek
Paula Bohince
Vespers, Gordes
Blue Fig
The Egg of Anything
Graham Hillard
Slaughterhouse Pond
The Censor
Jean Janzen
Walking on Water in Venice
Mennonite Wings
Yerra Sugarman
James Harpur
Ashley Wong
Margaret Gibson
R iverkeeper
Night Thoughts
Luci Shaw
Sometimes a Prayer
Cortney Lamar Charleston
Your Face Has Always Been...
Psalm for P.
Betsy Sholl
House of Sparrows
K nock
Thinking of Jonah...
118 Allison Seay
Bishop (of air)
Bishop (of robes)
120 Scott Cairns
[ 1 ]
John Skillen
Fierce Mercy:
The Theater Art of Karin Coonrod
John A. Kohan
On the Border of East and West:
Searching for Icons in Lviv
Edward A. Dougherty
A Conversation with Margaret Gibson
Jacqueline Osherow
Scott Cairns
Zeina Hashem Beck
Edward Hirsch
Linda Gregerson
Kimberly Johnson
Alicia Ostriker
Lorna Goodison
Sydney Lea
Repeatable Surprise:
Poets on Their Favorite Hymns
and Spiritual Songs
Timothy P. O’Malley
Thomas H. Troeger
Emmett G. Price III
W. David O. Taylor
Lauren F. Winner
The Impossible Song:
Poetry and the Longing
for Perfect Praise
121 Contributors
[ 2 ]
The Redemption of Hester Prynne
ECAUSE IT HAS BEEN A STAPLE of the high school classroom, it is
nearly impossible to approach The Scarlet Letter with the sort of wonder
and respect it deserves. Somber and at times melodramatic, The Scarlet
Letter is an altogether quieter book than, say, Moby Dick, which can make it feel
tame by comparison. But that is an unfortunate misperception. In this tale of
American origins and purposes, Nathaniel Hawthorne found the form that he
had sought for so long: a historical tale of “human frailty and sorrow,” tinged
with tragedy, rich in ambiguity and symbolism, and supported by a profound
understanding of the philosophical undercurrents running beneath the surface
of American life—a book that continues to speak with urgency to us today.
The tendency has been to reduce The Scarlet Letter to a morality tale pitting a
passionate feminist heroine, Hester Prynne, against the repression and hypocrisy
of theocratic Puritanism. This view looks upon the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale,
with whom Hester committed adultery, to be at worst a cowardly hypocrite and
at best a romantic poet trapped in Puritan garb. And it largely ignores Roger
Chillingworth, a scholar whose dabblings in the murky zone between science and
magic are overlooked in favor of his conventional role as elderly cuckold.
But in the story of Hester Prynne it is possible to see how Hawthorne, a writer
with a deeply theological imagination, responded to the cultural conflicts of his
time, particularly in the ways that nature and grace had been riven from each other.
In most readings of the novel, Hester’s tale is about liberation: “nature”
breaking free from the bonds imposed by “grace,” insofar as grace is defined
as a transcendent force of spiritual or civil law. This is made clear in the most
startling change that the 1995 film version makes to the novel’s plot. At the end
of the film, Hester, her daughter Pearl, and Dimmesdale ride out of town in a
carriage whose wheels grind the discarded scarlet letter into the mud. In this
vision, Hester becomes Huckleberry Finn, lighting out for the territories, rather
than the protagonist of Hawthorne’s novel, who voluntarily chooses to live out
her life within the community that once condemned her.
The Scarlet Letter has been misinterpreted for a host of reasons, but perhaps the
most salient is that Hawthorne intended it to be misinterpreted. He was aware
that, even in the relatively strait-laced world of 1850, Hester would be viewed as
the heroine of the novel. But for all the language that conveys her beauty, passion,
and independence, there are hints that she is flawed, given to temptations far more
insidious than sexual desire.
This is not to suggest that Hawthorne’s indictment of religious fundamentalism
isn’t a central part of the story, nor that he lacked sympathy with Hester. But
as poisonous as Hawthorne believed Puritan fundamentalism to be, he was
equally preoccupied with the rise of modern ideologies. In particular, he became
a searching critic of transcendentalism, a form of philosophical and political
idealism epitomized by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller,
and Henry David Thoreau. These writers inherited the Enlightenment belief in
the self-sufficiency of human thought as the organizing principle of society, but
they couched their vision in romantic rather than neoclassical terms. Instead of
extolling reason, they used words like soul, intuition, and spontaneity.
In his public statements, Hawthorne treats Emerson with deference and lightly
veiled irony, but in his notebooks and fiction, the sage of Concord looms as his most
significant antagonist. Emerson’s gospel of nature freed from the dead hand of human
history is evident in the opening words of “Nature”: “Our age is retrospective. It
builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism.
The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their
eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
Like the early British romantics, Emerson saw nature as a truer source of wisdom
than the biblical revelation that underpinned western civilization. “In the wilderness,”
he wrote, “I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.”
One of the most famous scenes in The Scarlet Letter takes place in the wilderness.
Hester takes Pearl into the forest in an attempt to intercept Dimmesdale and tell
him of Chillingworth’s plot to uncover him as Pearl’s father. As they set out,
they move into “the mystery of the primeval forest,” which Hester feels is an apt
metaphor for the “moral wilderness” in which she has wandered for years. When
she and Dimmesdale spot each other, they “questioned one another’s actual and
bodily existence, and even doubted their own,” looking to one another like ghosts.
But as they talk, Hester overcomes Dimmesdale’s moral self-criticism and selfdoubt with the single-mindedness of her passion. Having returned to the scene
of their lovemaking, they warm to their subject, transforming from ghosts into
embodied beings. They agree that Chillingworth’s sin is worse than theirs, because
he has attempted to violate “the sanctity of the human heart,” whereas they have
not. “What we did,” Hester says, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it so!”
As she makes her declaration, all nature seems to approve the choice: a flood
of sunshine illuminates the forest gloom. Hester removes the scarlet letter for the
first time and throws it away. Letting her hair down, she removes the last vestige
of social restraint.
But just at this moment the action begins to shift. The narrator’s comment on
the sunbeam contains a hook: “Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild,
[ 4 ]
heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by
higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits!” In addition to the reminder
that we are in the realm of nature untouched by law or grace, Hawthorne uses the
word “spirits” to refer to Hester and Dimmesdale. They are souls as well as bodies.
The next step in the conversation is also perfectly modulated. For just as Hester
reveals her womanhood in all its sensuality, she immediately thinks of the fruit
of their love, Pearl. Hawthorne reminds us that Pearl is herself the embodiment
of their love. And it is Pearl who, for all her wildness, remains adamantine that
her mother put the scarlet letter back on. Hester explains to Dimmesdale that it
is merely because Pearl has never seen her without the letter, but the perceptive
reader senses that something else is going on. In the previous chapter, Pearl
created her own letter A out of green things, a symbol of hope that nonetheless
acknowledges the “higher truth” that nature has in some mysterious fashion been
marred by sin and error.
Hester has become a disciple of Emerson. What she says in the forest is what
Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe your own thought, to believe that
what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” Hester
wants the private truth of the passion she and Dimmesdale shared to be true for
all. Because the world seems to resist her, her only alternative seems to be escape.
In joining with the spirit of the emancipated intellect, Hester assumes “a freedom
of speculation.” But the positive aspect of this freedom—the need to reconstitute
society in a way that is more just to women—is shadowed by a darker problem.
In withdrawing from society, Hester moves away from her embodied nature and
becomes an abstracted intellect, ironically becoming like her estranged husband.
Emerson separated nature and grace in a way that mirrored what the Puritans
had done before him. As Hawthorne makes clear, the Puritans look upon nature
as not only wild and heathen but inherently evil. In denying the natural world the
goodness that enables it to become the sacramental bearer of grace, the Puritans
fell into the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees the created order as evil, trapping
the pure spirit in matter. Alienation from nature led them to elevate industry as
the highest civic virtue, paving the way for the rise of pragmatism as a powerful
force in American thought and culture.
According to the critic Marion Montgomery, Emerson shared with the Puritans
a type of “inverted Platonism”: the belief that the world is the shadow of the
mind. Emerson, according to Montgomery, “transfers Calvinistic election from
the province of God to that of Nature.” Dispensing with evil, the past, and human
institutions, the Emersonian “great man” divinizes himself. But to maintain his
divinity, the “great man” must abandon passive faith and engage in a constant
round of activity and domination. In this sense, Melville’s Ahab is a better portrait
of the Emersonian superman-gone-bad than the parasitical Chillingworth. But
there can be little doubt that Hawthorne sees Chillingworth, a Faustian figure
[ 5 ]
who has sold his soul to reductionistic scientism, as the kind of monster that the
mild-mannered Emerson would unleash on the world.
Hawthorne sensed that the Puritans and transcendentalists split nature from
grace. Did he also have an inkling that both schools of thought would feed directly
into the frenetic pace of modern life, our worship of technology, our desire to
manipulate the environment, our preoccupation with moralistic, ideological
posturing, our temptation to idolize the great man as conqueror or redeemer?
More to the point at hand, why does Hawthorne tempt us to misinterpret his
story and side with the Hester Prynne of the forest scene, the Emersonian heroine
who would liberate nature from the clutches of grace? Perhaps it is because, as
R.W.B. Lewis writes in The American Adam, the constant pattern of Hawthorne’s
novels is one of attempted escape and the absolute necessity of return. But return
does not necessarily mean capitulation, the triumph of the social order over the
individual. The Scarlet Letter makes it clear that social and ecclesiastical institutions
can and will become repressive and unimaginative. What Hawthorne opposes to
this is not rebellion or revolution, but art, penance, and sacrifice.
Even while Hester is dreaming about becoming the prophetess of a new social
order, she is experiencing an inward change, and she is already bringing about
change in her society, albeit in a quieter way. Her needlework is described in
terms that suggest consummate artistry. Her “rich, voluptuous” nature becomes
incarnate in handkerchiefs, collars, baby clothes. It shows up in the least likely of
places: scarves worn by soldiers, the ruff of the governor himself. Domestic though
this form of artistry may seem, it nonetheless becomes a pervasive influence, in
daily contact with human flesh.
Then there is penance. When Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest she tries
to assuage the guilt that gnaws at his heart. She tells him that he has exorcized it
through good works. But Dimmesdale points out that for all his works, nothing has
changed within his soul. So long as his sin is concealed, he is unable to achieve the
spirit of penitence. His death on the scaffold, after his public confession and embrace
of Hester and Pearl, takes place in accord with the Puritan tradition he represents.
Hester’s way will not be so conventional. The model she decides to follow is not
the single moment of conversion, so beloved of our American religious culture,
but a lifetime of quiet sacrifice. By choosing to remain in the community and
wear the scarlet letter, she does not merely capitulate to society; rather, she brings
about change in the only way lasting change can ever be achieved: in her daily,
ordinary encounters with others. She will not be self-reliant but will exist in a
web of mutual interdependence. “Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and
here was yet to be her penitence.”
In Hester’s return, her refusal to escape from the flawed community she inhabits,
and her infusion of beauty into the mundane, she weaves nature and grace back
into the seamless garment they were always intended to be.
[ 6 ]
Yoineh Bodek
The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works.
—Psalm 145:9
N THE AUTUMN OF 1854, in the village of Grezhiv, in what was then
known as the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Yoineh Bodek, aged six, in his
second year of cheder, decided to become a vegetarian. At the time of his
decision, Yoineh, the only son of the town’s ritual slaughterer, was listening to
his teacher, Reb Chaim, chanting the first chapter of the first book of Moses.
After chanting the chapter’s twenty-ninth verse—the one in which God tells man
what is to be his food—Reb Chaim noticed that Yoineh was crying. After class,
as the boys were gathering up their things to leave, Reb Chaim asked Yoineh to
stay behind.
“Yoineh,” he said when they were alone, “I saw you crying earlier. Is something
bothering you?”
Yoineh did not look at his teacher, but held his head down and stared at a
knothole in one of the floor’s pine planks. Leaning forward, Reb Chaim placed
a hand under Yoineh’s chin and gently lifted the boy’s face to his own.
“Yoineh, tell me. What’s bothering you?”
The boy looked at his teacher. Again tears began to flow.
“I...I have eaten animals,” he confessed, turning his head aside.
“Oh, Yoinehle! Is that it?” the teacher asked, leaning back in his chair. “Is that
what’s bothering you? Yoineh,” he said, “you have done nothing wrong. What we
learned this morning was from a long, long time ago, from the time when our
first parents were living in the Garden of Eden. We no longer live there. After
the flood, the Holy One, blessed be he, gave us permission to eat animals. He
allowed it. We will learn this soon. You will see.”
The teacher looked at his student and knew that what he had said had not made
the boy’s heart stop hurting. He leaned forward and whispered: “Yoineh, even
though what I have said is true, it would be good for you to speak with your father
about this. He is a righteous man, your father, and a learned one. He will know
what to tell you so that you understand and feel better. But know this, Yoinehle:
You have done nothing wrong. You have not sinned. You needn’t worry.”
The teacher reached into his pocket, pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped
the boy’s face. “Now,” he said, smiling, “off with you.”
Yoineh returned to his desk, picked up his things, and said goodbye to his
teacher. He walked down the front steps of the school. At the bottom, he stopped.
Rather than cut across the fields, his usual way home, Yoineh decided to take the
longer path that ran along the river. The air was cool. The trees on the banks were
dressed in their autumn colors. At a bend in the river, where the water tumbled
over several boulders, Yoineh stopped. He squatted down at the edge, careful not
to place his books on the ground. He looked as hard as he could at the surface of
the water. Whenever he noticed bubbles that appeared to rise from beneath the
water, he would say aloud, “I am sorry. Please forgive me.” He did this for quite
some time. At last he stood up and continued his way home.
At home, Yoineh found his mother in the kitchen. He told her what he had
learned in school. When he finished, he said, “Mama, I don’t want to eat animals
anymore.” His mother looked up from her cooking.
“What? Don’t be silly. Now how would that look—the son of the town’s shochet
not eating meat?” When she saw her son’s face, however, she immediately regretted
what she had said. “I’m sorry, Yoinehle. Forgive me. I understand. You need to
talk with your father about this.”
In the middle of the afternoon, Yoineh’s father took a break from his work and
came in to wash his hands and to say the afternoon prayers. When he had finished
praying, Yoineh asked if he could speak with him. He told his father what he had
learned in school, and that he no longer wanted to eat animals.
His father paused before speaking. “Yoineh,” he said, “you are a good boy. I
understand what you have said, but I think it will help if you learn more. This
Sabbath, between the afternoon and evening prayers, we can talk about it. In
the meantime, I will speak with your mother and tell her not to prepare you any
meat dishes, or chicken, or fish.”
That night in bed Yoineh’s father told his wife that he was confident that Yoineh
would soon miss eating meat and return to his former ways.
“We should not rush him, though. He needs time to come to his own decision,”
he said.
The Sabbath talk with his father did not change Yoineh’s mind. Days passed,
turned into weeks, and still Yoineh ate no flesh foods, no meat, no chicken, not
even fish from the river flowing by the village, teeming with fat Polish trout and
After Yoineh’s bar mitzvah, his father arranged for him to study privately with
Rav Aaron, the village’s rabbi. The rabbi found Yoineh to be a ready and apt
pupil. With Rav Aaron, Yoineh learned the laws of shechita, ritual slaughter, as
contained in the Talmud tractate Chullin, and in the Yoreh De’ah section of the
[ 8 ]
Shulchan Aruch. This theoretical study was balanced by practical experience under
the guidance of his father from whom he learned the anatomy of animals, how
to recognize illness and disease, how to maintain the tools of his trade, especially
the sharpening and testing of the knife, and how to make the cut in the right
spot, in the right manner.
One morning, not long after Yoineh turned eighteen, he arrived at the rabbi’s
home for his lesson as usual. Instead of learning indoors, however, as they
customarily did, the rabbi suggested that they go for a walk. Before leaving, he
selected a book from his library to take with them. Side by side, teacher and pupil
walked to the very place on the river where over ten years earlier Yoineh had told
the river’s fish that he was sorry. A large limb, broken off one of the trees and lying
on the riverbank, provided a convenient, comfortable place for them to sit and talk.
“Yoineh,” the rabbi began, “I want to share something with you, something
from a book you and I have not learned together, the Sefer HaBahir. It is an
ancient kabbalistic work. When you are older and are ready to learn Kabbala, you
will study this book.” He opened the book he had brought from his library and
read aloud: “Rabbi Amorai asked: Where is the Garden of Eden? He replied: It
is on earth.”
Rav Aaron closed the book and looked at Yoineh.
“Do you understand what this means?”
Yoineh closed his eyes. He began to breathe deeply, slowly, and rhythmically.
He could hear the water singing, the song of a mourning dove in a nearby tree
calling to its mate, feel the warmth of the sun on his face. He opened his eyes
and looked at his teacher.
“I do understand what it means,” Yoineh replied.
The rabbi nodded and rose. “Good,” he said. “Let’s go talk to your father.”
The three men sat in the front room of the ritual slaughterer’s home.
“There is nothing more for me to teach your son,” Rav Aaron said. “It is time
for him to receive his diploma, and time for us to find him a wife.”
Three months later, Yoineh married a young woman from a nearby village. Her
name was Shaina. The entire population of both villages turned out for Yoineh
and Shaina’s wedding. After their marriage, Yoineh began to work full-time with
his father. Two years later, Yoineh’s father died, and Yoineh became the ritual
slaughterer of Grezhiv. It was at this time that the Satan first took notice of Yoineh.
Contrary to what many people believe, much of the work of the Satan is purely
legal in nature, similar to the work of a prosecuting attorney, for example. He
collects information, reviews it, builds a charge sheet, and presents it to a jury. His
objective is to measure a man against the standard of God’s law and to determine
whether and, if so, where the man falls short. This he did in the case of Yoineh
[ 9 ]
Bodek. Standing before the court convened to hear his charges against Yoineh
Bodek, the Satan began.
“Who decides,” he asked, “what is right or wrong, good or bad, permitted or
forbidden? Is it a creature formed out of the dust of the earth, who returns to dust
and becomes the food of worms? What if two of these creatures disagree? Does
the one who is larger, or stronger, or more intelligent, or more sensitive, whatever
that means, determine what is right? Would deciding in this manner not lead to
moral chaos, to a world in which each man becomes the measure of all things,
a world in which there is no true measure, no unchanging standard, no right or
wrong? Rather, is it not God, the Holy One, blessed be he, the Omniscient One,
who decides—or, I ought to say, should decide—what is permitted and what is
forbidden? Yet this man, this Yoineh Bodek, arrogates to himself the decision and
determines that what the Holy One has permitted to him should be forbidden.
What pride is this, what arrogance, in a creature formed from dust!
“However, this is not enough. Not only does Yoineh Bodek decide that flesh
foods should be forbidden to himself. No. Rather he sets as a condition of his
marriage this: he would not marry any woman unless she too agreed to abide
by his decision. So it is that we find a poor, beautiful young girl, in love with
a slaughterer’s son, agreeing to abstain from the eating of flesh foods. Has her
husband not placed a stumbling block before his blind, innocent, ignorant wife?
Does he not lead her into sin along with himself, and drag her into the same pit?
“Finally, I ask, why should Yoineh Bodek, a man who has chosen to abstain
from eating meat, choose to be a ritual slaughterer? It makes no sense. Be a
cobbler, be a tailor—not a ritual slaughterer. Surely, judges, this man Yoineh is
a base hypocrite. He wears two faces: one when he cuts the throat of an animal;
the other when on the street. What is the purpose of this second face, this street
face? Is it to assuage his guilt, to allow him to feel better about himself, about
who he is and what he does? Others, he thinks, can eat meat, but not me, not
Yoineh Bodek. I am different. I am sensitive. I am holy.
“Honored Judges, based on these charges alone, I ask you to issue a decree
against Yoineh Bodek and his wife Shaina. Deny them children. Such people have
no right to children and would lead them into the same sticky moral morass in
which they find themselves.”
The judges retired to consider the Satan’s request. When they returned, their
foreman replied to the Satan.
“Again, Satan, you have brought us a strong case. We appreciate your diligence.
Nevertheless, we have some reservations. At this point, we feel that we do not
have sufficient evidence of wrongdoing by Yoineh Bodek to issue, as a permanent
decree, what you have requested. We will issue a provisional decree, pending a
final decision on this case. It is on you to bring the necessary evidence.”
[ 1 0 ]
The Satan bowed. “Thank you, your honors,” he replied. “I understand. I will
bring you all the evidence you need.”
Two small gravestones in the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Grezhiv bore
witness to the power of the Satan’s charges and the effect of the court’s provisional
decree. They marked the resting places of two girls born to Yoineh and Shaina.
Neither girl lived into her second year. It was now five years since the last marker
had been put in place. There had been no more children.
The farmer awoke to the sound of birds arguing outside his window. He rose,
washed his hands, and said the morning prayers. In the kitchen, he heated water
and made tea. He took some kasha from the pot on the stove. After eating, he went
out. He crossed the yard to the barn. When he opened the barn door, the smell of
hay and animals and the soft sounds of creatures roused from sleep greeted him.
He gave them fresh water and fed them, working his way, in order, to the last
stall on the left. Opening its gate, he found his ewe Baila with her lamb. They
were lying down, the lamb’s head resting on the belly of her mother. The ewe
stood up as if to greet the farmer when he entered.
“Good morning, Baila. How are you this morning?” He handed her some hay.
She took it gratefully. Patting her on the head he said, “So, finally you have done
your duty by me. I was beginning to worry about you. I know it was wrong of
me. I should not have. What a lovely lamb you have brought for Zeff.”
The lamb had risen and was standing next to her mother.
The farmer took down a rope hanging on a nail on the side of the barn. With
it, he made a slipknot. He placed the looped end over the lamb’s neck and pulled
it tighter, being careful not to draw it too tight.
“Come with me, little one. You and I have a trip to make.”
The farmer led the lamb out of the stall and closed the gate behind him. Baila
walked to the gate and, peering through it, pushed her head between two slats
and watched the farmer lead her lamb out of the barn.
The morning was beautiful. The sun shone brightly, and a breeze carried the
thick scent of wildflowers growing on both sides of the road. The lamb enjoyed
the walk. Occasionally she would stop, then leap into the air, land, pause, smell
the earth, and nip some grass. “Come, come,” the farmer said, tugging at the
rope. “There is a lot to be done today.” Then he thought the better of it. Let her
take her time, he thought.
When he got to the shochet’s home, he knocked on the door. Shaina answered.
“Good morning, Shaina. Is Yoineh available?” the farmer asked.
“Good morning, Hersh. I will get him,” she said. “Please, just wait here.”
Shaina walked down the hall to Yoineh’s study. She knocked lightly on the
door. “Yes?”
“Yoineh, Hersh is here to see you. He has a young lamb with him.”
[ 1 1 ]
“Ah,” he said. He closed the book he had been studying, kissed it, and placed
it back in the bookshelf.
“Good morning, Hersh. What can I do for you?”
“I have brought a lamb for you to slaughter and butcher. It is for my Zeff’s
Yoineh bent down to inspect the lamb. He looked closely, checking her teeth,
gums, and eyes. Then he felt her bones, those in her legs and those in her ribs.
“Well?” Hersh asked.
“She seems fine. I will take care of it. She will be ready this afternoon. Before
you leave, though, please ask Shaina to make you some tea. She also has something
for you to take to Brina.”
Yoineh led the lamb towards his work shed.
“Finally,” Hersh called after him, “my Baila delivered one that lived.”
In the shed, Yoineh thought about what he had just heard. Baila? Baila, ah yes,
she’s the one who had two unsuccessful pregnancies, he remembered. This one
was successful. This lamb lived. He tied the lamb to a bench in the shed and went
to speak with Hersh. He found him sitting in the kitchen talking with Shaina.
“Well, that did not take long,” Hersh said.
“Hersh, I’m sorry. I can’t do it,” Yoineh replied.
“Can’t do it? Why not? Did you find a problem?”
“No. There is no problem; but I am wondering if you would mind taking her
to the ritual slaughterer in Rymanow?”
“Rymanow? To Zindel? Why? That’s a good distance. I have a lot to do, and
besides, Zindel is not nearly as good as you. Please, Yoineh.”
Yoineh knew that what Hersh said was true.
“You said she is all right. Please. Can’t you do it?”
Yoineh took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I will take care of it,” he replied.
“Oh. By the way,” Hersh said, “Brina told me to be sure to tell you that she
has prepared special food for you and Shaina for the wedding.”
Yoineh found the lamb still standing where he had left her. She seemed not
to have moved at all. He walked to his workbench, picked up his knife, and ran
the blade along his thumbnail. There were no nicks in it. He set the knife back
down on the table.
He removed the rope from the lamb’s neck. He bent over her and spoke to
her softly. Then he stood up. He led her to the drain trough beside the table. He
stood on her right side and placed his left hand on her back. He rubbed her gently
and slowly worked his hand around the left side of her head under her neck. He
rubbed her there, feeling his way carefully. He found the spot. The lamb raised
her head in response to Yoineh’s stroking. With his right hand Yoineh picked up
the knife, covering as much of it as he could with the palm of his hand. He bent
[ 1 2 ]
over her, whispered in her ear, and in one quick motion drew the blade across
the lamb’s exposed neck. Blood came pouring out of her. Her knees buckled.
Yoineh supported her as she fell. He placed her so that her open wound was over
the trough. Her soul left her.
He worked on her the rest of the morning. Zeff came for the lamb in the
afternoon. He carried her back on the same path she had walked with the farmer
that very morning.
Yoineh undressed and got into bed. He thought back on his day.
“Father,” he said, “please forgive me. I am not ungrateful to you. You have
been good to me and to Shaina. You have allowed me to care for us. I am also
thankful that even now, still I have the feelings of a human when you send me
one of your creatures whose life I must take.”
He thought of the ewe Baila, sleeping alone now in Hersh’s barn. Did she know
what had happened to her little one? Did she suspect it? He turned on his side
and listened to the slow, steady breathing of Shaina. She, of course, knew what
had happened to her little ones; but neither she nor he knew why.
“Father,” he said in the dark, “I do not understand your ways.”
After the death of their second daughter, Shaina had come to Yoineh with a
request. She had heard of a holy man who lived in a remote village in Ruthenia.
Could they go to him? He was a healer. Perhaps he could help them. Yoineh did
not want to go. He believed that the Holy One had his own reasons for what
he did, and that he, Yoineh, would never understand them. However, when he
looked at Shaina, he could not say no. The shochet in Rymanow agreed to take
care of Yoineh’s business while he was away.
Yoineh and Shaina were gone two months. For several months after they
returned, Yoineh would find Shaina bending over a pot on the stove, the house
filled with a strange aroma. She told Yoineh that the healer had instructed her on
what to do, had given her recipes for healing potions. In time, though, Yoineh
noticed that Shaina stopped making the potions. He never asked her why.
He turned on his back, said the Shema, and closed his eyes. Soon asleep, he
dreamed of his two dead daughters. In his dream they had grown up and were
beautiful young women. They were walking in a field outside the village. Behind
them was a toddler, a young boy. It seemed he was learning to walk. He would
stumble along a few steps, fall forward on his hands, right himself, and begin
again. Yoineh did not recognize the boy.
With Yoineh’s slaughter of Baila’s lamb, the Satan felt that he now had the
evidence required by the heavenly court in his case against Yoineh. He asked the
court to reconvene and to finalize the decree.
“See,” he argued, “this arrogant man who has no children, who knows what
[ 1 3 ]
it is like to have no children, still this man could take an only surviving lamb
from its mother, cut its throat, and then go to a wedding feast where its body
was eaten. Surely,” he concluded, “a man like this deserves no children. There is
nothing more that needs to be said.”
Before the court left the room to consider its decision, one of the judges asked,
“Is there anyone else who would like to speak?”
A lamb stepped forward.
“May I say something?” she asked.
The Satan smiled.
“Yes, of course,” the head of the court replied.
“Since it is my death,” she began, “that the Satan is using to condemn the
slaughterer, please allow me to tell you about it. On the day of my death, I was
awakened by the sweet, warm scent of my mother. She was licking my face and
neck. ‘The farmer is coming,’ she said. ‘You need to wake up.’ She rose when the
farmer entered our stall. When she saw him take a rope from a nail on a wall of
the barn, it seemed to me that she grew frightened. She did not say so, however,
but only whispered to me, ‘I think you are going for a walk. It is a beautiful
morning, little one. Enjoy it as much as you can.’ And I did.
“We arrived at the slaughterer’s home. I was placed in his work shed, tied to a
bench there, and left alone. I did not know what to expect. The air in the shed was
cool. Dust floated on beams of light shining through chinks in the walls of the
shed. The room had a sweet smell about it, too sweet, really. Flies were buzzing
all over the place. I wanted only to be outside again, in the sunlight.
“When the slaughterer entered, he removed the rope from my neck. I was
glad for that. He began to rub me. He was gentle, like my mother. I wondered
what she was doing. I raised my head as the man rubbed under my neck. It was
then he bent down and whispered in my ear, ‘Please, forgive me.’ That is the last
thing I remember.”
“Clearly,” the Satan said, turning to the judges, “there is nothing here affecting
my case.”
The judges looked at the lamb. The foreman asked, “Is there anything else
you want to tell us?”
“There is,” she replied. “When I was a little over a week old, my mother told
me a strange story, not like her other ones, the ones she would tell me when she
wanted me to sleep. It was about a man, a learned man, and a calf. Like me, the
calf had been taken to be slaughtered; but, unlike me, it had escaped. It ran to the
learned man, hid its head in the skirts of his robe, and began to cry. He did not
save the calf. Instead, he told it to go to the slaughterer, that it was for slaughter
that it had been created. The man was punished.
“I asked my mother why he was punished. Was he wrong, perhaps, when he
said that animals are created for slaughter? She told me she did not know, that
[ 1 4 ]
in the end, the reason for the man’s punishment lies with God alone. It seemed
possible, though, she said, that while the man was not wrong in saying that animals
are created for slaughter, he was wrong in not saying that they are also created
for good. He had forgotten something important, that good does not belong to
man alone, and that good, all good, is rewarded by God. He was punished, she
thought, not for what he said, but for what he didn’t say.
“God’s peaceable kingdom is coming. All of you, including you, Satan, know
this. The Holy One himself told Isaiah that a time will come when the wolf and
the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The slaughterer
Yoineh Bodek believes this. He believes it with all his heart. Is it wrong for him
to desire to live even now as though that time had come? Was it wrong for him to
want a wife, a helpmate, a companion, who would walk the same path he does? Is
the path Yoineh Bodek walks not, after all, the one the Holy One desired in the
beginning? I believe the slaughterer chose the path he is walking not out of pride,
but out of humility, not out of arrogance, but out of compassion. Humankind,
after all, was not commanded to eat animals; it was only permitted to do so.”
The Satan stepped forward.
“Enough of this,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal, “what can a lamb
possibly know of the plans of the Holy One, or of the confused musings of a
man’s heart?”
“Be patient, Satan,” the foreman said, then, turning to the lamb, “Please,
“The path Shaina walks with her husband need not be seen as a stumbling block.
Indeed, it can be seen as a step, a step on a ladder leading her to a greater love of
God’s creatures. I believe that Shaina was not blinded by her love of Yoineh, far
from it; she was given a new vision by it, a vision of Eden on earth.
“As for the charge that the man Yoineh is a hypocrite, answer me this: Is there
anyone better fit to take the lives of the Holy One’s creatures than someone who
truly loves them? Yoineh Bodek was kind to me, gentle with me. He made my
passing as easy as such a thing can be made. There is nothing more I could have
asked for in my death.”
In time, Yoineh was laid to rest in the village’s cemetery next to his wife Shaina
and their two daughters. On that day, a young couple stood beside the grave. The
man was thin with a thick black beard. The woman had delicate features. A few
months later they were blessed with a son. They named him Yoineh.
[ 1 5 ]
Vespers, Gordes
Sentient, it seemed, the snowflakes’ descent,
making a midair lake, hovering in the somewhere
between weakness and ghost, careless
as orchids after Christmas. Beyond the veil
of a twelfth-century statue, one
congregant took off his Reeboks to pray
more ardently in the aisle. The monks
were in agreement, voice-wise, with the twilight,
the work of harvesting lavender in late
summer over, the empty field lying in fog.
In Latin, white birds soared. Observe, it seemed,
was the holiest of words.
At lunch, six teaspoons of saltwater
were eaten with oysters. After that,
the small front leg of a lamb. Now the kneel
and rise to dancerly postures of candles
on the nave, where one moth chases another.
A widower sits glossily, immobile as a door
painted to its frame, the brush like a lullaby,
locking it in sleep. A snail watches from under its
hood, as frailty evident, acknowledged.
B O H I N C E :
Blue Fig
In creased coat, body
beggar-curled, colored not the sky blue of Christ’s
robe on the mount, nor his mother’s
in the manger before she was haloed forever, but a bruising
blue, indigo as blood
trapped beneath flesh. What the drowned
last see, sunk past light’s reach.
[ 1 7 ]
B O H I N C E :
The Egg of Anything
is holy, molten in its calcium
cup, sun and moon mixed, hot
in its prison, cells’
incentive to fuse firing, no
second to loiter, calling
now to a predator’s jaw. How
the genetic vow is kept.
Jellied not-yet,
hard as thought becoming
belief, little o
in hope or love, unumbilical one, cast into air,
mother gone, father
long gone, uh-huh goes your
heart, that dummy yes said from
a soul agog at such splendor.
[ 1 8 ]
Slaughterhouse Pond
Sleepless, the fish wait
for the steer’s head,
a ceremony they have learned
to require—primordial
as the filaments of gills
but honed in this economy
of flesh: the apprentice’s arcing
heave, the silvery shattering
of the surface, then, slowly,
their prize’s descent. By the time
it reaches them, its mute bewilderment
has relaxed into nothingness, and even that
is soon lost to the fever of
their feeding. Stripped clean, the husk
glides to the pond bed, awaiting its
dredging, rescuing, bleaching,
sale. Their memory will be
of its gaze and that only:
its watchfulness like a god’s
as they circle and finally school.
Its unbearable, unbearing patience.
H I L L A R D :
The Censor
When an Iranian Jew tells me that, in the nineties,
the man who censored films for the regime was blind—
that his assistant, a teenage boy, had to describe
to his master every frame that might make imperfect
their revolution—I think, of course. What better metaphor
could there be to explain such foolishness? How else
might God express what must be, what has to be,
his outrage? Only later do I think of the boy’s terror,
if terror he had, about what slipped by him—what he,
in his innocence, in his carelessness or shame, must sometimes
have failed to report. With what relief, what unburdened
joy, he must have sunk to his prayers at the call
of the muezzin. How he must have opened his eyes
to a newer, sweeter sightedness, swore to witness
all that came before him, and meant it.
[ 2 0 ]
Fierce Mercy
The Theater Art of Karin Coonrod
Tables covered with flying white cloths and laden with food appear out
of nowhere for a crowd of several hundred in a piazza at the edge of the
cliff, in the oldest part of this old city. Strings of dazzling lights stretch
across the square as a dove flies up and the bells of the thousand-year-old
church of San Giovenale clamor in the black night. Actors in white linen
shower the crowd with tiny flower petals. This night’s itinerant theater
performance has transformed into a banquet in which actors and audience
are no longer separated, the barriers gone. All are invited. This is the
culmination of our journey through the streets of Orvieto, our revivification
of medieval city theater.
conclusion of a sequence of medieval sacred dramas performed in 2006
for the festival of Corpus Christi in Orvieto, Italy.
The works were selected from the cycles of so-called mystery plays often performed
during Corpus Christi in England. They were configured so that the play in which
Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus frames the others. Instead
of explaining “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself,” as he does
in Luke’s Gospel, in the play, Jesus sings a new song, “Don’t you remember?”
Coonrod explains: Jesus “takes the disciples—and by extension, the audience—
on a passeggiata during which he asks them to remember five moments of divine
intervention: creation and fall, the flood, the sacrifice of Isaac, the nativity, and
the descent into hell.” When the resurrected Christ reveals himself to the two
disciples in the breaking of the bread, the audience is invited to join the supper—a
real supper supplied by the women of the San Giovenale parish.
This ongoing project is quintessential Coonrod. It exhibits elements that have
marked her approach to theater throughout her career: forming a close-knit
ensemble among the actors, musicians, and tech team; drawing the audience
into the action; designing stagecraft with a choreographer’s eye; and remaining
faithful to the text while revealing its timeliness.
But let me come clean. Karin Coonrod and I have been close friends since our
college days in the early 1970s. Our shared love of medieval and Renaissance
literature and Shakespeare led us both into vocations that deal with premodern
European culture. I suspect I have seen as many of her plays over the past thirty
years as anyone (excepting her husband, Jonathan Geballe), from the earliest
plays of her first company, Arden Party, to her recent production of Shakespeare’s
Merchant of Venice. And I have been Coonrod’s collaborator for all her productions
in Orvieto, having helped conceive her second theater company, Compagnia de’
I knew her beloved parents and their story of courtship and marriage in Trieste
after the Second World War, when Karin’s war-vet father Roger fell in love with
the polyglot Florentine Anna-Maria who was teaching war brides English. The
young couple went to Paris, where Roger studied art history at the Sorbonne,
and Anna-Maria studied drawing and painting at the Louvre. Once back in
Roger’s home state of Indiana, Karin’s mother became a professor of French at
the University of Indiana and her father began a career in insurance, eventually
taking the family to New Jersey.
“At the breakfast table I sat down with two continents, with America and with
Europe. To the very end of their fifty-four years together, my parents had love for
and a loyalty toward each other, but had very different approaches to life, almost
diametrically opposed,” Coonrod told Romanian playwright Andràs Visky in an
Perhaps Coonrod’s familial breakfast table helped make possible the remarkable
mixed cuisine of her work, from adaptations of works by American writers Walt
Whitman, Anne Sexton, Gertrude Stein, and Flannery O’Connor to productions
of modern European masterworks such as Pirandello’s The Giants of the Mountain
and Enrico IV, Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Vitrac’s Victor, or Children Take
Over, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Visky’s I Killed My Mother
and Juliet, Charles Mee’s A Perfect Wedding—and of course the ancient Greeks:
Sophocles’s Antigone and Euripides’s Phoenician Women.
Then there’s the medieval-Renaissance English stuff, including most of the
Shakespearean canon. Coonrod is widely recognized as one of her generation’s
leading interpreters of Shakespeare. She was invited by Shaul Bassi, Shakespeare
specialist at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, and American Shakespeare
scholar David Scott Kastan to direct an enormously freighted production of
Merchant of Venice for two coinciding commemorations in 2016: the fivehundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice and
the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Coonrod’s first job, after studying medieval literature at the University of
Durham (UK), was teaching drama at a Catholic boys’ school in New Jersey
where the gymnasium doubled as a theater. In an interview, Coonrod recounts her
[ 2 2 ]
final production at the school, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing
Technicolor Dreamcoat.
I didn’t know much about basketball but I knew there’s a space in the
middle where two tall players jump for the ball. That’s where I wanted
to start the play. I wanted to baptize it for the theater, so that the
gymnasium will be seen as a gymnasium but would never be forgotten
as a theater. We bought white sports jerseys with the brothers’ names:
Levi, Benjamin, Joseph, and so forth. The art department created a huge
camel that Joseph came in on; the objet de résistance. But everything
else was very simple and it flew. In the round, on the floor of the gym
where they had only ever seen basketball, they were now seeing a play.
And the people, at the last performance, they lifted me up. They were
so excited, and they knew they’d done such great work. It shifted their
whole imagination. They never saw the gym the same way again.
With that success, Coonrod understood her calling. She made her way to
Columbia University’s graduate program in directing. In her second year her
production of Aristophanes’s The Birds caught the attention of Liviu Ciulei, the
great Romanian director, who invited her to be his assistant and would become
her mentor. She used her thesis production to start her first company, Arden Party.
Shaping the Team
In December 2004, John Heilpern, longtime theater critic for the New York
Observer, wrote:
I had gone on an impulse to see Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba
at the theater of Riverside Church. A favorite director of mine, Karin
Coonrod, was directing a group of sixteen Columbia University acting
students, and I was interested to see what she and the playwright
Nilo Cruz could bring to the great drama that was written in blood
and bitumen black. My, my! The Lorca ensemble sent sparks off the
stage from their opening flamenco of awesome power and fury. They
brought to the play such vitality and discipline and maturity that I
was left astonished. To say these talented youngsters were as good as
any professional ensemble would be patronizing. The Award for Best
Ensemble of the Year gladly goes to the Columbia University School
of the Arts MFA Acting Class.
Coonrod’s early strategy of shaping groups of actors and technicians into
tight-knit ensembles became a constant in her approach. Instead of secondary
actors moving as planets around a main star, she sees all the actors as “stars in a
[ 2 3 ]
single constellation.” She inspires such loyalty in her team that their focus and
concentration spread over every square inch of the stage. The energy field is
palpable. Every body, every sight line among the actors, is equally taut. Nor is the
ensemble just the actors. Her technicians and stage staff often do their work out
in the open as participants in the play, as do the musicians—not invisible in the
orchestra pit but figures in the action.
A major challenge in mounting the low-budget mystery plays in the streets and
piazzas of Orvieto was the lighting, since laying electric cable all through town
was impossible. “Designer Chris Akerlind found a solution,” Coonrod writes.
“He used powerful hand-held spotlights in the piazza to sculpt entire scenes. For
the intermezzo movements, Chris devised twelve long, portable battery-powered
light sticks to illuminate the moving actors.” For the nativity scene in Piazza della
Repubblica [see front cover], lighting designer Peter Ksander directed his lamp
up through Mary’s arms from below:
Patrice Johnson (playing Mary) gently cradles and rocks the light. All
eyes are on Mary’s strikingly serene face. The nativity star is held high
by a young Orvietana actor while the Holy Trinity and the angels look
on.... The baby in arms becomes the source, rather than the object,
of the light.
That’s Coonrod’s inventiveness: using a pragmatic necessity to illuminate the theme.
If the ensemble approach began as a means of unifying the team, it matured
into a mode of interpreting the text. For her production of Flannery O’Connor’s
short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Coonrod observes:
The guiding principle...was to allow the stories to speak out for themselves.
Instead of representing a “Flannery O’Connor” character narrating off
to the side of the stage (or at her typewriter), I wanted to present the
narration emerging from a community of voices by splitting it among
the company of actors. In this way the actors both play the roles and
tell the story.
When in the mystery plays, the same actor plays Eve and then Mary—the
disobedient Eve inversely mirrored in the obedient Mary—the effect is to help a
modern audience experience the typological imagination that informed medieval
theater. The reverse—multiple actors playing a single character—opens up innovative
ways of exploring character. There are five Shylocks in Coonrod’s production of
the Merchant of Venice. As she explains:
Rather than concentrating the dimensions of Shylock on one actor’s
interpretation, I went a different direction, and one consistent with my
ensemble company: opening up the character to five actors of different
[ 2 4 ]
age, size, race, and gender, each actor playing one of Shylock’s five
scenes. The point was not to ignore Shylock’s Jewishness, nor to divide
his complex character, but to unlock and unveil the common humanity
of his being.
Drawing in the Audience
In the summer of 2014 in the garden courtyard of a fifteenth-century private
palazzo in Orvieto, Coonrod directed Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (first
performed in 1607 in the Gonzaga court in Mantua). Before launching into the
opening toccata, music director Gina Leishman announced to the audience that
they themselves would join the cast in singing the final chorus. A rehearsal ensued
until Leishman was satisfied. As a member of that audience, I experienced the
entire opera to some small but important degree in anticipation of my own role
in it. At the conclusion of that final chorus, instead of shuffling out to the foyer of
a conventional theater, the audience leapt two steps forward into the garden itself
to join the singers and musicians in shared celebration of a beautiful event—with
trays of prosecco passed around.
Coonrod’s dissolving of the “fourth wall” separating actors from audiences in
proscenium theaters takes many forms. The simplest is for performers to reach the
stage by singing and talking their way down the aisles of the theater, connecting the
separate spaces. For her Hamlet at the California Shakespeare Festival, “Coonrod
used the entire amphitheater,” wrote reviewer Pat Craig. “The ghost of Hamlet’s
father, for example, comes in from the top of the theater and wanders through
the audience, and Hamlet delivers most of his ‘To be, or not to be’ speech while
sitting on steps in the middle of the audience.”
Considerably more provocative was Coonrod’s staging of King Lear at Fordham
University’s theater at Lincoln Center in 2000. Reviewer Paul Pierog describes
the audience’s experience:
Entering spectators…immediately have a different and difficult choice.
Casual, light, portable seats are grouped in islands of six to twelve
throughout the high-ceilinged auditorium. Individual seats in each
island face in different directions…there is no indication of where any
play will be played.... As it turns out, the presence of other spectators
becomes a visual element of the production.... There is no “place”
to look; instead, there are actors moving in changing shafts and pools
of light.... The opening suggests theater in the round—in reverse. The
cast surrounds the audience.... The audience is hostage in the middle
of the family tragedy.
[ 2 5 ]
Coonrod both activates and interferes with the convention of audience-asuninvolved-spectators in her production of Shakespeare’s King John. As New York
Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote: “The man in the front row, the one with the
heavy black eyeliner, can’t believe what he’s seeing. Actually, he’s a character in
[the play], but he has decided to join the audience to get a clearer perspective on
what’s going on between the play’s title monarch and the king of France. It is,
he has decided, a pretty disgusting spectacle.”
Brantley appreciated the opposite strategy employed by Coonrod in her highly
regarded production of Henry VI at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York.
Instead of bringing actors into the audience, she seats a portion of the audience
on the stage and involves them in the action. The Duke of York, “like practically
everyone else in Henry VI, wants the power of the throne of England,” writes
In an effort to enlist his onstage audience as confederates [my italics], he
unrolls a big sheet of paper, pulls out a felt-tip marker, and delivers a
lecture on his family tree…tracing the kingly line of succession, spewing
out and scribbling down names with the fervor of a history teacher on
speed. When he reaches the bottom of the chart, he scrawls one word
in bold capital letters: ME. … With the prodigiously inventive Ms.
Coonrod…the scene, against the odds, simply flies.
But Coonrod (I think) is most happy when she can set plays in places naturally
inhabited by the audience, and to which the audience brings its own set of lived
resonances—like the boys at the prep school performing in the gymnasium as
gym—or where the play’s action naturally dovetails with the place—like performing
the Merchant of Venice in the piazza of the very neighborhood where Jews were
once locked in at night.
The town of Orvieto is chock-full of such opportunities. Its rich but largely
forgotten tradition of sacre rappresentazioni was revivified in Coonrod’s Strangers
& Other Angels. The creation and fall episodes were performed against the façade
of the Duomo, with its stupendous panels narrating the same events in bas-relief
marble. The altar in the church of San Giovenale was used (with permission from
ecclesiastical authorities) to enact Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, rendering vivid the
typological resonance between Abraham’s son and the other only-begotten son
whose completed sacrifice is re-presented in every Eucharist performed at that
altar. Parishioners still remember the occasion.
For the episode of Christ’s harrowing of hell, Coonrod chose a steeply
descending crossing where five streets merge, infernally dangerous for drivers
and pedestrians alike [see Plate 1]. Months afterwards, a local friend told me that
she now associates the place with the play, and that each safe crossing feels like a
small escape from hell.
[ 2 6 ]
Such strategies are not gimmicks but rather means of revivifying for our time a
central feature of medieval religious drama: the interpenetration of characters from
scripture and ordinary folk, of identity and sacred narrative. The water-carriers
guild is responsible for the episode of the flood; the shepherds in the nativity play
in the English Wakefield cycle speak the local rural dialect.
As Coonrod says of the nativity play, “To convey the radical nature of Jesus’s
birth, the nativity scene has to be carved out of the crowd. For an audience to be
involved in the abject poverty and emotional richness of the event, the birth has
to happen suddenly right in their midst—out of nothing.”
But Coonrod’s boundary-crossing is hardly relegated to the production of
medieval religious plays. Her ongoing project has been to create theater that
resonates with the audience’s experience of their own settings of life, activating
moral and spiritual dimensions to which we, sometimes deliberately, numb
ourselves. Performing Merchant of Venice in the Ghetto was powerful, but even
more profoundly moving to many in Coonrod’s ensemble was their follow-up
performance in the high-security prison in nearby Padova—only actors and inmates
in a bare room—where the themes had visceral grip.
This approach informs what many of Coonrod’s fans see as one of her masterworks:
her own adaptation of Walt Whitman’s long and (to most modern readers) gangly
“Song of Myself” into the exuberant mix of dance, music, and spoken word entitled
More or Less I Am. Ian Crouch described it in The New Yorker:
It was a chilly evening, and grew more so as the sun slinked away up
the Hudson. But the performers, lighted from below on a rudimentary
set, came in close to the audience, and the ruckus they kicked up
seemed to keep everyone warm. I can’t do the performance justice here;
Whitman’s own manic enthusiasm might be required to describe the
joyous jamboree that occurs when you combine a fiddle, flute, cello,
guitar, and steel drum with readers from the audience, an opera singer,
the sounds of jets flying overhead and bells ringing at Riverside Church,
the guy who played Brother Mouzone on The Wire, and a terribly cute
little girl—to name just a few of its many jangly moving parts....
And Whitman would have been delighted by the crowd—a baby,
the aged, young artist-looking types, a jogger in a knee brace who’d
doubtless been drawn in by all the barbaric yawping, a guy in a suit
who took calls on his cell phone. For an hour…it felt as though we’d
created, audience and performers together, a real community. To risk
sounding trite, we’d become Whitman’s Americans living in his America.
This drawing together of performers and audience in shared joy (or grief or
repentance) is captured in Patrice Johnson’s account of what happened to her in
the Orvieto:
[ 2 7 ]
When I first got to Orvieto with the other Americans and Michael
Rodgers who is also Caribbean [Patrice is of Jamaican descent], it was
obvious that there were not many black people there. Though people
were polite, I would inevitably catch the stare of children who would
either want to touch me or were actually frightened. All that changed
the night we performed for the community….
The people gave us their hearts and took in the cast, including the
black actors, as we traveled through the streets and led them through
hell and back into the open piazza.... At the end we broke bread and
shared wine with the citizens of Orvieto.
At the banquet, Johnson recalls, the people of Orvieto “started hugging and
kissing me effusively on my face and forehead, at times lifting me off my feet. I was
no longer some stranger to fear. That was one of the most exhilarating moments
in theater for me, and I have done a lot.”
Designing the Space
“Ms. Coonrod calls directing ‘staging sculpture,’ and it is her twin loves of
great narrative and pictorial form that drive her esthetic ideas.” So wrote reviewer
Steven Drukman of her Henry VI trilogy.
In her 2014 production of Tempest (at La MaMa in New York) Coonrod
placed the audience in several rows along two sides of a plain black floor, with
the minimal separation between audience and action typical of her set designs.
White stripes painted in the middle of the floor inscribe a square within a square
within a square, each pivoted so that its corners bisect the sides of the outer
square. The only object—it is more than a prop—is a large, heavy-looking ball
suspended inches above the floor from a cable attached somewhere high in the
darkened rafters [see Plate 7].
The play begins when the entire cast processes across the space from end to end.
They are suddenly backlit by bright spotlights. Prospero sends one of the actors
out to set the pendulum ball moving in a wide slow arc. The lights go out; the
ball is lit from the inside, and hundreds of small holes in its surface appear like
stars and constellations. We feel the vertigo of the entire cosmos swinging. We
hear the cries of those on the ship sinking in the hurricane. Miranda, holding a
lantern, cries out to her father in pity for the souls about to be lost. Listening to
her appeal, Prospero paces slowly and exactly along the lines of the middle square
on the floor, finally answering Miranda that none will perish, and it is now time
for her to know her past. Is Prospero’s walking the lines of the sacred diagram a
means of conjuring his magic? Perhaps the lines themselves suggest the alignment
of his actions with the choreography of divine providence.
[ 2 8 ]
The diagram on the floor is unusually explicit for Coonrod, but such hidden
geometries inform all of her staging design. “When I look at Fra Angelico’s
painting of the Last Judgment, I hear jazz,” she says. “Check out the angel at far
left with hand on hip in a syncopated jazz pose, leading the blessed into heaven
in the painting in the Museo di San Marco, Florence.” In the painting, the angels
are gathering the just-raised souls of the saved into a circle in order to dance their
way through the gate of heaven. The pattern is formal, but Coonrod loves how
the fingertips of this particular angel’s raised hand almost but not quite touch
those of her human partner—we can feel the electricity between them.
Prospero’s square and the angels’ circle may have to stand in for my faltering
efforts to describe Coonrod’s principles of design, which are on the order of
ballet. The title of Margaret Visser’s wonderful book about early church design,
The Geometry of Love, puts it in a nutshell, as does T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”:
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting,
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle…
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
…both a new world
And the old made explicit.
In theater of joy and celebration, of concordia, when things can be made right,
the harmonies are visibly present. In the theater of sorrow, the discord in human
hearts too is visually present as broken or unresolved patterns. When Shylock knows
that his daughter has eloped and betrayed him, all five Shylocks make their way
across the piazza-stage and gather in a circle. Here is Coonrod’s own description:
At the call of a haunting trumpet…wafting from the rooftop, the five
actors playing Shylock emerge for the first time together, forming a huge
circle in the Ghetto’s playing space.... They are ritualistically dressed by
the “black angels” (our visible performing crew) with cloaks and thick
golden silk sashes wound around their torsos to mark them as the Jew.
The Venetians circle around the five Shylocks, hurling ethnic epithets,
demeaning, vulgar and vicious.... The third Shylock is played by a woman
(Jenni Lea Jones), who turns to break the unbearable cacophony of
mockery with a howl that slams the Ghetto into silence [see Plate 3].
Coonrod’s directorial eye—and the audience’s eye, once trained—sees each
actor’s gestures, comportment, and movement in relation to everyone else on
the stage. The movement is like a constellation of stars—her own metaphor. The
usual considerations of stage right, stage left, down stage, up stage, are irrelevant.
An entire empty stage becomes resonant with the arc of words through the air.
[ 2 9 ]
Critics often comment on Coonrod’s spare stages. There are few props, mainly
chairs. The actors in her staged performance of Flannery O’Connor’s story
“Everything that Rises Must Converge” arrange their chairs to create the bus
wherein most of the action occurs [see Plate 5]. For texts&beheadings/ElizabethR
the only props on the square black stage are four identical high-backed chairs
(designed by John Conklin, an elder statesman of opera set design who accepts
every opportunity to work with Coonrod). These are constantly rearranged by
the four Elizabeths, moved in patterns, stacked up, used as a dressing screen, a
prison. The changing dispositions of Elizabeth are signaled by how the actors sit
in these chairs, by how they handle them.
The costume design of her productions is likewise spare and restrained. Although
she has said little about her sartorial aesthetic, she did write of the joy of finding
skilled Venetian Stefano Nicolao who (for Merchant of Venice) could “push past
the heavy period costumes, and move into a more fluid aesthetic that honored
the Elizabethan silhouette with a very light modern touch. I wanted this ease in
the clothing, since the audience would witness all the costume changes.”
To me, Coonrod’s costumes are poised between the fictional or idealized and
the believably, naturally worn. For texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, Romanian
costume designer Oana Botez (a regular member of Coonrod’s team) created
four differently cut and patterned silver gray gowns for the four Elizabeths—a
gorgeously subtle feast for the eyes. None had the ornate weight of the dresses seen
in famous portraits of the queen, but each alluded to an element of Elizabethan
courtly fashion.
But in that play the pièce de résistance of costuming is heard and enacted but
not seen. It is the vesting of Elizabeth in the costume of sovereignty by the other
three, as ladies in waiting [see Plate 6]. The inventory of unseen items, beginning
with “a fine camis smock of white linen,” numbers no fewer than eighteen pieces
of clothing whose increasing weight—the necessary but uncomfortable weightiness
of the role she must play—is signaled in Elizabeth’s comportment.
Coonrod’s staging might be called minimalist, but not in the sense that the space is
empty of meaning. Rather, there is a careful excising of interferences. It is more like the
condensation and concentration of liturgical actions, no extraneous movement, each
object “taking its place to support the others” (as Eliot writes in “Little Gidding”).
Performing the Text
Ms. Coonrod is an experimental director who begins and ends with the
text, the narrative sweep, words—and thank goodness for that. She and
her immensely skillful ensemble are actually unafraid of Shakespeare!
[ 3 0 ]
It is such a pleasure to see (and hear). They do not treat the text as
sacred; they respect it. And in respecting it—and dusting it off—they’ve
brought it back to life.
John Heilpern’s words about Coonrod’s King John could be said of all her work.
Let’s start with her not treating the text as sacred. In several ways, Coonrod tampers
with the text in order to remain answerable to it. Especially with Shakespeare, she
subtracts, edits, and reconfigures, as with her acclaimed production at the Public
Theater of the densely long, boring-for-we-moderns three-part Henry VI. Ben
Brantley of the New York Times described it as a “galloping six-hour production…
that left audiences panting.”
At other times Coonrod adds to the text, as in the medieval mystery plays,
inserting poems including James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” and others
by Erik Ehn, Carl Hancock Rux, and Pope John Paul II, along with a passage
from a sermon found in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
Same with the music, which blends gospel and jazz with modern classical elements
played on an eclectic mix of instruments. In Coonrod’s phrase, “the dramatic
trajectory of the original fused together the new and the old.” The effect is to
render the archaic discourse of the texts equally contemporary, dissolving any
sense of museumized costume drama.
As I’ve said, Coonrod splits characters into parts. The part of King Lear (in her
production of 2000) is divided up among the whole cast. Her Shylock is played
by five actors. This dividing of a single character into parts constitutes the “play
itself” in texts&beheadings/Elizabeth R, whose script was composed by Coonrod
herself mainly from private and public documents by and about Queen Elizabeth
I. The four Elizabeths employ four rhetorical modes (or zones of discourse, as
we might say) that were the stuff of the educational training of the age, namely:
Strategy (negotiating political minefields); Survival (making an appeal without
losing self-mastery); Prayers (the eloquence of transparency); and Sovereignty
(exercising the authority with which one has been invested). By distinguishing
these, Coonrod presents a single character who must move with breathtaking
versatility in a world where all’s a stage, deftly and courageously adapting her verbal
costume in order to manage the one role that she accepts as her deep identity:
married to no one but her people.
Coonrod’s textual play is at its most sophisticated in her staged version
of O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” As a condition for
performance, Coonrod was obliged by the trustees of the O’Connor estate to keep
strictest fidelity to the text, neither adding nor subtracting a word, performing
even the “he saids” and “she saids.” Yet by dividing the narration among the
actors, Coonrod modifies how the audience experiences the text.
In an astute discussion of the play in the Flannery O’Connor Review, Susan
[ 3 1 ]
Srigley describes how, “instead of defining the text through O’Connor’s perspective
as author, the text inhabited by the actors becomes multivalent.... No longer
attending to an interpretation of O’Connor, the audience is free to watch the
story unfold.” While Julian is mortified by his mother’s condescending racism, it
is his own cynicism and lack of love that the shared narration highlights.
By the end of the ensemble’s telling of the story, Julian has become the subject of
the audience’s hope for the sort of fierce mercy that is the hallmark of O’Connor’s
fiction. And we get it, as he stoops over his collapsed mother. “He looked into her
face and caught his breath. He was looking into a face he had never seen before.”
Julian calls out (or whispers, under Coonrod’s direction), “Mamma, Mamma,”
finally vulnerable in the hour of her death to the potential of conversion, to his
entry, however “postponed,” “into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
Heilpern calls her work “a pleasure to see (and hear).” In her conversation with
Visky, Coonrod notes how “in English we typically refer to the audience, from
audio; we hear a play. But in Italy, it is spettatore; as spectators we see the play, the
spectacle.” She agrees with Visky’s comment: “To watch a play and to hear, to
listen to a play, those are not two different ways of approach. They are different
sides of the same perception of the play as a whole.”
Sometimes Coonrod plays with each side of the coin. At the end of the outdoor
production of Merchant of Venice in the Jewish Ghetto, the word Mercy in English,
Italian, and Hebrew was projected on the façades of the ancient townhouses that
ring the piazza, a visual echo of the theme that Coonrod brings front and center.
At the beginning of Coonrod’s production of Tempest, as the pendulum ball
of the cosmos swings across the darkened stage, we hear, but do not see, the
sailors’ and passengers’ cries for help from the sinking ship. At the moment of
melodramatic spectacle, Coonrod shuts down the eyes—we listen acutely; the
words sink in as words.
The entirety of Coonrod’s approach to theater is designed to help us hear and
see the words afresh, with new understanding and with softened hearts. Perhaps
we can say that Karin Coonrod reaches toward a performance of the word like the
one Jesus gave on the road to Emmaus. At the end of the play, when the actors
disappear, we leave the theater saying to one another, like the two disciples, Did
not our hearts burn within us?
See more images and read Karin Coonrod’s essays on her work at www.artfaithhistory.
org/strangers and
Karin Coonrod on her new production of Babette’s Feast
[ 3 2 ]
P LATE 1. Strangers & Other Angels, 2006. Compagnia de’ Colombari in Orvieto, Italy. Karin Coonrod, director.
Gianluca Foresi (Satan) with company and audience. Photo: Massimo Achilli.
P LATE 2. Babette’s Feast, 2018. Theatre at St. Clement’s, New York. Karin Coonrod, director. Actors: Abigail Killeen,
Michelle Hurst, Juliana Francis-Kelly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
P LATE 3. The Merchant of Venice, 2016. Compagnia de’ Colombari in the Venice Ghetto. Karin Coonrod, director.
Actors: Ned Eisenberg, Andrea Brugnera, Adriano Iurissevich, Jenni Lea-Jones, Sorab Wadia. Photo: Andrea Messana.
P LATE 4. Love’s Labor’s Lost, 2011. The Public Theater, New York. Karin Coonrod, director. Actors: Robert Stanton,
Francis Jue, Reg E. Cathey, Steven Skybell, Mousa Kraish. Photo: Richard Termine.
P LATE 5. Everything That Rises Must Converge, 2001. New York Theatre Workshop. Karin Coonrod, director.
Actors: Laura Hicks, Ledlie Borgerhoff, John McAdams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
P LATE 6. texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, 2017. Compagnia de’ Colombari at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine,
New York. Karin Coonrod, director. Actors: Helga Davis, Juliana Francis-Kelly, Adina Verson. Photo: Paula Court.
P LATE 7. Tempest, 2014. La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York. Karin Coonrod, director.
Actors: Reg E. Cathey (Prospero), Joseph Harrington (Ariel). Photo: Ken Van Sickle.
Walking on Water in Venice
The whole city floats beneath our feet.
Arched bridges hold it together, we say,
lulled into dreams and into each other’s arms,
window open to soft lapping.
And at dawn a dove coos, two eggs
loose on the bare windowsill.
We arrived by air in Rome, then the train
on rails over wooden posts driven into sand.
A safer journey than our own conceptions,
that wild ride inside our mothers until
we entered her warm sea. Now the sun flashes
from the bay, as from a thousand broken
mirrors as we walk, a shimmering that blurs sight,
as when at birth we closed our eyes against
the glare and cried out, our lungs lifting.
And yet, the weight, the way we breathed
against our mother’s breast, held in her arms.
The way Peter, sinking, stepped back into the boat.
Somebody had felled a tree, sawed
and bent the boards, sealed them with pitch.
Somebody rowed him to shore.
J A N Z E N :
Mennonite Wings
He shaped them out of balsa wood,
one model plane after another,
a boy during Word War II.
With sharp blade in his small hand
he carved the curves for what
could hover over his bed at night,
until a whole fleet of planes
hung from the ceiling, breezes
through the window rustling
them into a dry rattle.
Years later he builds dollhouses,
cuts each shingle for the roof,
then glues the layers to shelter
the children in their miniature beds,
his hands trembling now.
He stocks the kitchen with bread
and apples, buys tiny lamps, connects
the wires. Lets them burn all night.
Wings for our history of flight
and cover, the armies and the refusals,
houses in flame. In our central hallway
he hangs an icon of Saint George and the Dragon,
and a large portrait of my father’s family,
the ones we lost in war and famine,
my grandfather sitting tall in the center,
his long arms around the baby.
[ 3 4 ]
in memory of Agha Shahid Ali
The wind perused the street and the debris,
then thumbed through leaves that scraped the air.
Nothing was in order or in bloom, but you
stood on the sidewalk, streaked by noon’s light,
making a shield from your sheaf of poems.
You wanted even the trash the wind parsed
to mean something. And it didn’t void the boy
still in your head or climb inside your vanishing body.
Instead, it reeled itself in, all its weight
on the balls of its feet, and sat down beside you.
While you spoke, it eased; the serrated leaves
stopped cleaving; the fast-food wrappers stopped
wheeling in the street. And the wind stood up
to explore, on the bodega’s rickety stalls,
the perishables you loved to cook and eat,
fingering the onions, okra, and persimmons’ meat.
Single-mindedly, it broke a clove of garlic
from a braid and sampled purple grapes,
spitting out the seeds. It dropped the clove
and one big grape into your hands, as if wanting
to remind you to grip the bitter and the sweet.
In “Lycidas,” Milton asks who wouldn’t praise
his friend who knew how “to sing” and write
startling rhymes, a schoolmate who drowned
in the indifferent Irish Sea without his name
inscribed, starling-dark, on the leaves of books,
although he’ll always float in bloodshot waters.
Through the reeds, a white amaryllis glows
in his tangled, sea-weedy hair.
And I think I see his jet-black shroud,
but no ship, only ropes unknotted,
a mast broken into matchsticks, shredded sails.
But I still don’t see why the singer must always be
slackened, then unfastened from the song.
(Or, in other words, remember this:
the hospital’s simple vase of violets,
yellow cowslips, and pansies “freak’d with jet”;
how all the straight men in the room kissed you
on the lips; the saffron rice and curry
your sisters cooked for those of us who couldn’t
accept, as you did, that it is death
that makes us possible; the surgery that blinded you
and the bandage snug as a cap on your head;
that you wanted nothing you couldn’t lose
and were devoted to your own heart.
But how did you make room,
in those small chambers,
for another sadness?)
[ 3 6 ]
On the Border
of East and West
Searching for Icons in Lviv
LONG THE ROAD INTO TOWN from the sleek new glass-sheathed
terminal of Lviv International Airport, a finger-wagging Uncle Sam
recruits residents for a high-end housing complex with the Cyrilliclettered appeal, AMERICA AWAITS YOU. On other signs, long-legged models hugging
pink pool inflatables remind you of the seemingly self-evident truth (in English)
SHOPPING IS FUN. In the city center, the fin-de-siècle façade of the Theater of Opera
and Ballet displays the banner of a local hotelier welcoming you to LUXURY IN
This Ukrainian metropolis of 730,000, located some forty-five miles from the
country’s border with Poland, may not be the faux-western consumer paradise
of its hard-selling advertisements, but it has certainly undergone an eye-popping
makeover from the drab late-communist city I first visited in June 1990 as a
Moscow-based correspondent chronicling the breakup of the Soviet empire. There
are more types of beer now on the menu of the Pravda Beer Theatre microbrewery
on Market Square (including a Trump blonde ale) than could be found then in
all of Ukraine.
Such trendy watering holes in the Old Town draw tourists as well as techies
from the over two hundred IT service companies (with cheeky names like
GeeksForLess) that have turned Lviv into Ukraine’s Silicon Valley. Its architecture
largely untouched by the world wars, this city of baroque churches is poised to
become the new Prague for travelers seeking unspoiled destinations once behind
the Iron Curtain. Visitors could easily forget Ukraine’s continuing conflict with
Moscow-backed separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic some
650 miles to the east, were it not for the toilet paper bearing Vladimir Putin’s
portrait in souvenir-shop windows.
In this age of new freedoms, the church scene in Lviv is an especially varied
mix of Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Ukrainian Autocephalous
Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyivan Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox
of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Apostolic Armenians, to say nothing of numerous
Protestant and nondenominational faith communities. In the twenty-five years
since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, new sanctuaries, many looking quite
literally like mushrooms, have sprung up in the once religion-free communist-era
housing developments surrounding the historic city center.
Delineating the border between East and West may be something of a cliché
of historiography, but if any place can claim to lie on this quasi-mystical line of
demarcation, it is certainly Lviv, a city that has found itself more than once (under
various names) on opposite sides of the great divide between the Latin culture of
the West and the Byzantine culture of the East.
Founded in the thirteenth century by a prince of Kievan Rus’ who named
the settlement after his son, Lev, it passed into Polish hands a century later as
Lwow. When Poland was partitioned off the map of Europe in the late eighteenth
century, Lwow was rechristened Lemberg, capital of the Austrian kingdom of
Galicia and Lodomeria. Tsarist Russian troops held Lemberg for less than a year
at the beginning of World War I, and with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire
in 1918, the city was fleetingly capital of a West Ukrainian People’s Republic until
a newly restored Poland took it back. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939,
Lwow passed to the Soviet Union as the Russified Lvov under the terms of the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and was then occupied by the Germans in 1941. The
Red Army reentered the city in 1944, and Lvov was firmly fixed in the Soviet
Empire for most of the next half-century. The city became Lviv after Ukraine
declared independence in 1991.
The old Eastern Bloc penchant for renaming cities and thoroughfares has
been taken to hilarious extremes by local cinema buffs, who have turned one
unprepossessing Old Town side street into the junction of Hollywood and Cannes.
What was probably the original metal sign identifies the roadway as Yuri Ilyenko
Street, honoring a Soviet Ukrainian film director. Six other markers in different
lettering and alphabets, attached higgledy-piggledy to the same corner building,
also proclaim it be S. Parajanov Street, F. Fellini Street, Francois Truffaut Street,
An. Tarkovsky Street, Charles Spencer Chaplin Street, and I. Bergman Street.
Despite the constant traffic through this cultural crossroads, Lviv has preserved
enough striking examples of Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, Vienna secessionist,
art nouveau, art deco, and early modernist architecture to earn its historic center
a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but the diverse mix of peoples
who gave this melting-pot metropolis its cosmopolitan flavor is gone. In 1939,
Poles were the largest ethnic group in the city, with Jews representing a third of
the population. Ukrainians made up a substantial minority along with smaller
Armenian and German communities. The ethnic cleansings of Hitler and Stalin
turned Lviv into a homogeneously Ukrainian city.
In front of the gutted remains of the late-sixteenth-century Golden Rose
[ 3 8 ]
Synagogue, a row of irregular dark stone slabs etched with grainy photographs
and quotations from onetime Jewish residents evokes a confining cityscape and
a densely packed graveyard. Dedicated in 2016, the “Perpetuation” monument
to Lviv’s annihilated Jewish community is a belated gesture of reconciliation by
post-communist city officials. It comes at a time when the anti-Semitic, ultranationalist World War II leader Stepan Bandera, a onetime ally and later prisoner
of the Nazis, has been lionized by the younger generation as a hero of the antiMoscow underground, fighting for an independent Ukraine.
The only historical markers I can find of the almost 140,000 ethnic Poles forcibly
“depatriated” from Lviv to former German territories in the West during the
Soviet Union’s redrawing of boundaries after World War II are the hand-painted
signs of former Polish shops whose black Latin lettering still bleeds through
postwar whitewashings. Enjoying a more robust economy than those living on
this side of the Stalin-imposed border, Poles on tourist excursions bump elbows
in the narrow streets of the Old Town that was once theirs, shopping for cheap
cigarettes to take home at the end of a day’s outing .
Ukrainians are also counted among the victims in the middle-European vale of
sorrow running from the Baltic to the Black Seas. As many as ten million perished
in the great Holodomor (death by hunger), a famine engineered by the Kremlin
during its brutal campaign to collectivize farming in 1932 and ’33. A generation
of Ukrainian intellectuals and artists was wiped out in the Stalinist years in what
has come to be known as the Executed Renaissance. Soviet repression came later
to Lviv, but most families in the city have stories to tell of a great-grandfather sent
to Siberia for supporting anti-communist partisans or a great-uncle schoolteacher
denounced for keeping a home library of Ukrainian literature.
Strings of white origami doves in a side aisle of the seventeenth-century Saints
Peter and Paul Garrison Church in the Old Town turn gently in the air above a
makeshift memorial to those who gave their lives in what Ukrainians consider to
be contemporary battles in their centuries-long struggle to break free of Russian
domination. A poster of headshots honors the “Heavenly Hundred” protestors who
died in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv that ousted pro-Moscow President
Viktor Yanukovych. Pictures newly pulled from photo albums on another bulletin
board remember soldiers killed in the bloody civil war in the eastern borderlands.
Past and present history press heavily on you in Lviv. I have to remind myself that
I have come back to the city not as a journalist but as a collector of contemporary
sacred art. I am in search of a new kind of icon I discovered while hunting for
modern Madonnas on the internet. The website of the Iconart Contemporary
Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv popped up, displaying intriguing new variations on
traditional tempera-painted holy images. There were also sacred art pieces on
unusual grounds like glass, found materials, and steel-and-copper-wire tapestry,
[ 3 9 ]
all in an eclectic mix of abstract, neo-Byzantine, and Ukrainian folk art styles. A
large number of artists in the listings were women.
Christ Ruler of All by Lviv artist Lyuba Yatskiv epitomized what was new in
these icons [see Plate 8]. Frontal portraits of Christ, who offers a blessing with
his right hand and holds the closed book of the Gospels in his left, can be found
in thirteenth-century mosaics in the Hagia Sophia church museum in Istanbul
and on modern icons in Orthodox homes. In Yatskiv’s distinctive variation, warm
earth and fire tones replace the conventional palette of reds and blues. Christ
still engages you with his eyes, but he is turned in three-quarter profile, his hair
numinously wind-blown. The subtle changes invest the static prototype with
palpable emotive energy.
Icons have long been the special patrimony of Eastern Orthodoxy, where they
function in personal prayer and corporate worship as “windows into heaven,”
material manifestations of the spiritual beings they depict. One fascinating
recent development in ecumenism is the way icons have crossed over into Roman
Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other liturgical communities. Even emerging
church groups have found a place for them in their selective borrowings from
Christian tradition. Innovations in this sacred art form based on the copying of
time-honored prototypes can only broaden their appeal for the universal church.
This was something I wanted to see for myself.
A bit of research revealed that Iconart had begun as the thesis project of local
businessman Kostyantyn Shumsky, who had enrolled in the business school of
Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University to get an MBA degree after more than a
decade in the clothing trade. Shumsky wanted to buy a contemporary Greek
Catholic icon, found none to his liking, and consulted theologian and art historian
Markiyan Filevych. They both saw the potential in opening a niche gallery devoted
to modern sacred art, defined more broadly than traditional church images. The
idea became a reality in 2010, when Iconart opened its doors with Shumsky as
owner and Filevych as curator.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic connection was particularly interesting for
me. My father was baptized in Saint Mary’s Greek Byzantine Catholic Church
in Cambria City, Pennsylvania, in 1920, a first-generation American whose
parents were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a
heritage I share with Andy Warhol). We never really talked about that side of the
family. Orphaned in his teens, my father was “born again” into fundamentalist
Protestantism, married my Scottish Presbyterian mother, and raised me in
Baptist Sunday schools. I must have sensed some call of the blood, since I came
to journalism by way of Slavic languages and literatures.
Greek (Byzantine) Catholics straddle the East-West divide, claiming allegiance
to the Holy See in Rome, while worshipping in the Orthodox way. The Ruthenian
Uniate Church, as it was originally known, was born in the late sixteenth century
[ 4 0 ]
out of political expediency, to shore up the threatened social standing of Orthodox
bishops in Polish territories caught up in the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Membership in this hybrid confessional group ultimately became a key marker
of ethnic identity for stateless Slavs like my grandparents in borderlands ruled
by Orthodox Russia or the Catholic nations of Poland, Austria, and Hungary.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholics were a special case. Stalin may have dismissed
the pope for having no military divisions, but the Kremlin was suspicious of this
“Latinized” Orthodox faith community in the west Ukrainian regions it annexed
after World War II. It orchestrated a one-sided merger of the Ukrainian Greek
Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches in 1946 with Ukrainian property
passing to the Moscow Patriarchate. The outlawed church managed to function
underground for close to forty-five years, regaining its legal status only in 1989
in Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign to liberalize the Soviet system.
During a heroic half-century in hiding, priests and deacons of the Ukrainian
Greek Catholic Church learned the tricks of spy craft to conceal their clandestine
worship services. Firemen proved especially suitable candidates for ordination, since
their work schedules afforded blocks of free time to study in secret seminaries.
The church’s sacred art holdings had been confiscated, and aesthetic issues were
not on the curriculum. As I would hear during my time in Lviv: “When you are
struggling to keep an accident victim alive you don’t fuss over how they look.”
The rehabilitation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church sparked a conflict
over confiscated property. Ground zero was Lviv’s landmark Saint George’s
Cathedral, the mother church of Greek Catholics, reconsecrated by the Russian
Orthodox. I had gotten an earful from an embittered band of Greek Catholic
babushkas encamped in protest outside the church on my first visit to the city.
It was returned to them. As the new majority faith in Lviv, Greek Catholics also
took over historic Roman Catholic sanctuaries—once warehouses, state archives,
and a museum of atheism—with Counter-Reformation decor not entirely suited
to Orthodox worship.
Soon after arriving in Lviv, I wander into the former Bernardine Church, now
the Church of Saint Andrew of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Order of Saint
Basil. Saints, angels, and precariously perched putti struggle for cloud space in a
trompe-l’oeil ceiling fresco of the kind you would expect in a baroque interior.
Then, I spy something new and disturbingly out of place on a huge pilaster to the
left of the altar: a framed, tri-color Saint Faustina Christ of Mercy reproduction
print and, just below it, a white porcelain Madonna encircled by blue and yellow
day-glo lights. The mass-market artifacts are in such appallingly bad taste I feel
an odd compulsion to revisit them, like the scene of a horrible traffic accident.
Located a short walk from Market Square in the old Armenian quarter of Lviv,
the two small storefront rooms of the Iconart gallery become my congenial home
base for exploring the sacred art scene. Iconart is the primary venue in Lviv for
[ 4 1 ]
the new style of iconography, having hosted close to ninety shows in eight years.
Exhibitions like Unfading Flower: The Folk Tradition in Modern Iconography have
combined the old and the new. Others are quirky and modern. The Light in the
Darkness show invited visitors to view icons in a darkened room with flashlights.
I have arrived just in time for the opening of the solo exhibit of Natalya Rusetska,
one of the icon-makers whose works I have admired online.
I need answers, first about all the Latin Catholic kitsch art I see in Greek
Catholic churches. Ivanka Krypyakevych-Dymyd, a contemporary icon-maker
whose solo show launched the Iconart gallery, pours me a bracing glass of red
wine (newly arrived in a plastic jug from Odessa) and goes off to find a family
heirloom in her attic studio that will explain everything. The photo album she
shows me once belonged to her grandfather, a priest in the underground church.
It is filled with dozens of holy cards of first communions, good shepherds, and
sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary in such a syrupy-sentimental, Saint-Sulpice style
that I am relieved to see at least one bad reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Return
of the Prodigal Son.
For a faith community in hiding, these small-format, mass-produced religious
images—passed from hand to hand, slipped into pockets, and concealed between
book pages—filled in for lost icons and served as documents of baptisms and
funerals. Krypyakevych-Dymyd was fortunate to have a Soviet-era art teacher
who treated iconography as a historic school of art to be studied and reworked
in drawing assignments. Such encounters with lost sacred imagery were rare in
the underground years. Two generations of clandestine Greek Catholics entered
freedom largely ignorant of their cultural heritage and emotionally bonded to
bad art.
As I listen to Krypyakevych-Dymyd retell recent history, the epigraph to a favorite
novel, E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, comes to mind: “Only connect.” A faith as
rooted in tradition as Ukrainian Greek Catholicism cannot move forward without
looking back to its past, but when historical ties have been as ruthlessly cut as
they were in the Soviet period, the search for connecting links among the frayed
loose ends can be done in a deliberate and selective way. Perhaps, contemporary
Greek Catholics now have the rarest of all historical opportunities—a chance
to recreate a different kind of sacred art for themselves. This must surely be the
mission of the new iconographers.
I try out my theory in Iconart circles during my week in Lviv, experiencing
again the kitchen-table conversation culture I had enjoyed as a Moscow journalist
in the perestroika years, when impassioned debates on the future of reform were
always fueled by food and drink. Talk is served up this time with stuffed cabbage
and flavored vodka in an old monastery beer cellar, and with finger food and
village moonshine at the backyard screening of photos from a local installation
artist’s recent visit to the Venice Biennale. A few of my hosts insist, at first, on
[ 4 2 ]
speaking broken English or Ukrainian in translation, but our lingua franca soon
becomes Russian.
All agree that something must be done. “We are Catholic but not Roman,
Orthodox but not Russian” seems to be the consensus view of where to set new
sacred cultural boundaries. Some consider the fifteenth century to be the golden
age of their inherited Byzantine tradition. Others think contemporary icon-makers
should pay less attention to copy books and historical prototypes and work with
the earliest Christian symbols of the catacombs. Taras Lozynsky, an art collector
who paints icons on glass, talks about “going all the way back to the Gospels”
to ensure that any new visual aesthetic is grounded in the Christian faith of its
This is heady stuff for a visitor from a world where religious images are largely
treated as fashion accessories, decorative but not essential to church life. I also need
to be reminded that icons are not just beautiful objects for a collection. Trained
as a watercolorist, iconographer Ulyana Tomkevych makes sacred images with a
subtle, pleasing color palette, neither fifteenth-century nor ultramodern in style,
incorporating details from Ukrainian folk art. Her rule of thumb in icon-making
is whether she can pray before her finished pieces. “Icons fulfill a function,” she
tells me. “You can design a beautiful chair but you have to be able to sit in it.”
Holy images in a uniform style line the walls of the art studio at the seminary
campus of the Ukrainian Catholic University, where Solomia Tymo directs
the Radruzh Icon Painting School. She explains how the chemical analysis of
pigments in fifteenth-century icons has helped modern iconographers to revive a
national style of sacred art-making characterized by bright colors and “the joy of
Christian living.” Students work from photo enlargements of historic prototypes,
beginning with studies of angels. Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival
of a Vatican visitor interested in an icon. There is no need for me to ask Tymo
what she thinks of holy images that can be recognized as the work of individual
artists who sign their panels.
To learn about the new iconography, I go to the Lviv National Academy of
Arts, making my way along dimly lit Soviet-era corridors with squeaking wooden
slats to the sacral art department, where the director (and icon-maker), Roman
Vasylyk, ushers me into a room filled floor to ceiling with year-end student art
projects in an anything but standardized style. The six-year study program,
begun in 1995, ensures that future sacred-art makers graduate with a hands-on
knowledge of traditional icon painting with tempera on wood, life drawing and
plein air painting, fresco and graffito work on plaster, encaustic painting, mosaics,
stained glass, and iconostasis design.
The brother of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop, Vasylyk taught himself
iconography and made antimins for the underground church out of silk printed
with images of the descent from the cross. These consecrated panels of cloth
[ 4 3 ]
served in place of altars in clandestine celebrations of the Eucharist. The work
was so secret that he could not even tell his wife. Vasylyk and his onetime teacher,
Ukrainian modernist Karlo Zvirynsky, recognized the crisis that would come for
Greek Catholics in the visual arts once the church was legalized. They pushed the
new sacral art project through the Kyiv bureaucracy, where leftover communist
apparatchiki kept wondering why a religious art program was necessary “to learn
how to draw heads.”
Vasylyk and I meet again at the Iconart gallery for the opening of the Rusetska
solo show, where he has a few congratulatory words for this 2008 graduate of
his department. In Agape: From Creation to Salvation, Rusetska depicts the first
six days of creation on muted panels of geometric shapes and delicately sketched
figurative forms. The seventh day is illustrated by an ethereally refined icon of
Christ in glory, leading to imagery of the passion. The twinned themes of Christ
as maker and redeemer of the universe come together in a crucifixion scene set
among the wonders of creation [see Plate 10]. Her seemingly weightless images
combine the intimate mark-making of manuscript miniatures with the abstract
iconography of Polish modernist Jerzy Nowosielski [see Image issue 61].
Tram no. 8 takes me southeast from the city center to the Soviet-era residential
district of Sykhiv in my search for a church building which by all accounts is the
best example of new Greek Catholic architecture in Lviv. With its five gilded domes
and pure-white walls, the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos
stands out against a backdrop of matchbox-modernist housing blocks that are
prime examples of how less is often just less. Canadian-Ukrainian architect
Radoslav Zuk has combined variations on the egg, the cube, and the tube in
an understated contemporary church design whose dimensions conform to the
ancient golden ratio. Theology meets geometry in contours both strange and
familiar [see Plate 12].
Iconographer Sviatoslav Vladyka waits by the entrance under a plaque
commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit to the newly built church in 2001. He
guides me through the wall paintings and mosaics he designed for the interior
[see Plate 13]. Looking up at three tiers of images on the sanctuary walls—Christ
and the angels, the apostles and prophets, and the festival days of the church
calendar—I am enveloped in diffused light that is channeled down rectangular
tower wells from slit windows and clerestories under the five domes. It reflects
off countless golden tesserae in the mosaics of the apse and the ovoid-shaped
cupolas. Their placement, Vladyka tells me, was calibrated with state-of-the-art
computer imaging.
Behind the altar, Vladyka placed a red-and-gold mosaic of the Mother of God
with hands raised in prayer, an homage to the eleventh-century Virgin Orans in
the mother of all Ukrainian churches, the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. His wall
paintings in understated tones of gray, blue, coral, and gold are pure art deco in
[ 4 4 ]
their streamlined forms, easy to read from ground level while remaining visually
harmonious. The onetime student of the National Academy’s sacral art department
reserves more radical holy imagery for individual icons like his minimalist King
of Glory, where the features of the suffering Christ appear as a photonegative
imprint on what might be a Kazimir Malevich geometric study in black, white,
and red [see Plate 11].
Lyuba Yatskiv, the maker of the modern icon that brought me to Lviv, is now
working on the interior decoration of the Holy Wisdom Church on the new campus
of the Ukrainian Catholic University, another important commission for the new
iconographers. We talk about the ancient theme of Sophia (Greek for wisdom)
depicted in one of her icons in my collection [see Plate 9]. Holy Wisdom often
takes feminine form in sacred art. In Yatskiv’s version, Sophia is a crowned angel
with the features of a woman, encountering Christ at the Eucharistic table. For
Yatskiv, the sacred pair embody the male and female dimensions of God, who,
as creator of the cosmos made humans “in the image of God…male and female
he created them.”
Yatskiv believes this is one icon “women will understand.” The high proportion
of women in the Iconart listings led me to wonder if there might be a feminist
school of iconography emerging in Lviv. There is certainly a gender gap in student
enrollment in the National Academy’s sacral art department and Radruzh Icon
Painting School, with women outnumbering men. The reason I am given has
a decidedly patriarchal clang. Women follow sacred art “vocations,” while men
pursue careers in digital design. The new freedom to develop individual styles and
sign finished pieces has given women who were always anonymous icon-makers
the chance to come out of the shadows and be recognized.
Innovations on historic prototypes, like Yatskiv’s Holy Wisdom icon, are welcome
at the Iconart gallery, but not always so well received by conservative Greek Catholics
who prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic
kitsch. As a founding mother of the new iconography, Krypyakevych-Dymyd met
head-on the first wave of hostility from post-underground faith communities who
dismantled her icon screens because the images were considered too different,
rejections she describes as “my wounds.” Acceptance is coming with time, but
Yatskiv is criticized for her unconventional use of color and dynamic depictions
of holy beings who, it is thought, ought to be presented as eternally unchanging.
I was not surprised to learn that Russian bloggers launched an internet attack
against the Yatskiv icon of the Mother of God with prophets given by the Ukrainian
Greek Catholic Church in Paris to Notre Dame Cathedral in 2013. It hangs
side by side with a modern copy of the historic Virgin of Vladimir presented by
Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church. One self-styled art critic
claimed that in contrast to the serene Vladimir Virgin the “infernal” color palette
and expressionistic manipulation of figures in the Ukrainian icon incited violence!
[ 4 5 ]
While the battle of the Blessed Mothers may rage in cyberspace, the Yatskiv icon
has already won acceptance by the people of Paris, as witnessed by the signs of
wear from the touch of praying pilgrims.
Ivanka Demchuk, a promising twenty-something iconographer, and her husband,
Arsen Bereza, who makes sacred art from found objects, stop by Iconart when I
am there. Demchuk has brought a painted panel showing Christ before Pilate [see
Plate 14]. It was supposed to be the first image in a Stations of the Cross cycle
commissioned by a Roman Catholic community in Poland, but was rejected by
the parish priest as “too Orthodox.” The painting is astonishing in its sense of
transcendence. The mockers of Christ occupy a sepia-toned moment of sacred
history, torn like a scroll to reveal the eternal whiteness of divine purpose underlying
human affairs. Prejudice is alive and well, it seems, on both sides of the great
divide. What is unwelcome in Warsaw will find a worthy place in my collection.
One person who can put art and religion in present day Lviv into proper
perspective for me is Myroslav Marynovych, a Soviet-era human rights activist
once sentenced to seven years of hard labor and the grandson of a Greek Catholic
priest. Now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Marynovych believes
the initial shock of freedom for the underground church was followed by a time
of triumphalism, when post-communist civil liberties were viewed as a means
of defending “us from them.” When the now toppled pro-Moscow government
in Kyiv showed favoritism to the Russian Orthodox Church, other confessional
groups rallied together in support of the Revolution of Dignity, realizing that
religious pluralism protected the interests of all.
As we sip coffee in the new university campus cafeteria with its wall of
windowpanes, I look out at the new Holy Wisdom Church in the inner courtyard,
where Yatskiv is now working on the interior art. I wonder how she will get on.
To my eyes, the building is a disappointing pastiche of traditional onion-domed
Orthodox sanctuaries with a nod to rural Ukrainian wooden churches. Marynovych
was a member of the committee that approved the final design. He tells me they
began with a very modern concept. Once everyone in the group had removed all
the features in the original plan they did not like, they ended with what he wryly
terms “the golden mean of all our preferences.”
Marynovych compares the process of change in post-communist Ukraine to the
biblical story of the wandering of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, where entry
into the promised land was only granted to a generation that had not sojourned
in Egypt. “We have passed twenty years,” he says, “and we have another twenty
years ahead of us.” He wonders as the country draws closer to the European
Union whether the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy are sufficiently prepared to
give moral guidance in dealing with conflicting western values without resorting
to the harsh, defensive rhetoric they are hearing these days from their brethren
in the Russian Church.
[ 4 6 ]
Ukrainian Greek Catholics can claim one truly exceptional cleric to serve as a
moral compass in changing times. The son of Polonized Ukrainian aristocrats,
Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky guided the church for over forty years, through
two World Wars and the Soviet and German occupations, dying after the Red
Army entered Lviv for the second time in 1944. Drawing on his family wealth,
the metropolitan founded a health clinic and hospital, a land mortgage bank, rural
cultural education societies, and a museum and art school, enough accomplishments
to fill a delightful A to R Sheptytsky alphabet book for Ukrainian schoolchildren.
Sheptytsky has one blot on his record. In the opening days of the Nazi invasion of
1941, he welcomed the Germans as liberators from the Soviets, who had slaughtered
over four thousand political prisoners before abandoning Lviv. The metropolitan
reversed his position when the new reign of terror began, pleading on behalf of
Galicia’s Jews in letters to Hitler and Himmler and forbidding Greek Catholics
to commit political murder in his 1942 pastoral epistle, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”
With his brother Klementy, a Greek Catholic monk, Sheptytsky found safe havens
for Jews in churches and monasteries. Klementy is counted with the “Righteous
Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial; Andrey is not.
Pope Francis issued a “decree of heroic virtue” for Sheptytsky in 2015, opening
his path to sainthood. In the words of Bishop Borys Gudziak, the Ukrainian
Greek Catholic Eparch of Paris, Sheptytsky lived in a house of the Lord with “a
high roof, open doors, and open windows”—and plenty of art on the walls to
inspire the new iconographers. He not only gathered together the icons, dating
back to the twelfth century, that make up the core of the Ukrainian liturgical
art collection at the Lviv National Museum, he also provided financial support
for leading artists of his time, including the fin-de-siècle Viennese stylist Modest
Sosenko; the art nouveau–influenced Petro Kholodny; the symbolist and Nabis
disciple Oleksa Novakivsky; and Mykhailo Boichuk, a modernist, neo-Byzantine
painter murdered in the Executed Renaissance.
The metropolitan is still a vital presence in Lviv’s art scene, peering out
magisterially from a banner near Saint George’s Cathedral, announcing the plein
air children’s art festival, Golden Easel: In the Footsteps of Metropolitan Andrey
Sheptytsky. Over a hundred art-makers, aged under eighteen, gathered in the summer
of 2017 in Lviv for what organizers described as a “monumental painting-praying”
event. Each youth contributed an image to a canvas mural on the theme “Art
Wave of Peace,” extending down a slope from the church to the city center. There
are plenty of aspiring new iconographers among the youthful painters, judging
from all the Madonnas, angels, churches, and religious processions I see. Such a
public display of sacred imagery would provoke lawsuits in the US!
Seeking the assistance of saints through prayer with holy images comes naturally
to Ukrainian Greek Catholics. I feel awkward at first when Krypyakevych-Dymyd
tells me that as the son of a baptized Byzantine Catholic I should find myself
[ 4 7 ]
an intercessor to help in my mission of collecting and promoting contemporary
sacred art. Who, she says, could be a better mentor than the now Venerable Andrey
Sheptytsky? On impulse, I cross some inner East-West border of my own and ask
her to make me an icon of the metropolitan. Before I leave Lviv, we meet to look
over sketches she has made from photos of Sheptytsky. Now I am committed.
Ukrainian Greek Catholics often feel impatient with the Vatican’s slow process of
making saints. Soon after Pope John Paul II was canonized, sacral art department
director Vasylyk made an icon of the pope, bordered by portraits of twenty-six
Greek Catholics who gave their lives for the faith in the modern era, all beatified
by the Polish pontiff on his 2001 visit. I was intrigued to learn that Vasylyk’s
students are taught how to create icon-like images from live models. Ukrainian
soldiers and the Heavenly Hundred protesters have already been incorporated
into an icon above the altar in the Greek Catholic chapel of the Protection of the
Mother of God where the owner of the Iconart gallery worships.
In this city that has passed between the powers-that-were seven times in recent
history, there is a sign posted above an information board outside my favorite
Catholic kitsch art church, where a map shows Russian tank and troop positions
in the eastern war zone. The text, in Ukrainian and English on a blue-yellow
background, reads: Pray for Ukraine. The urgent appeal for divine help resonates
among all Ukrainian Greek Catholics (and their God-fearing friends), whether they
seek the intercession of the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky through a contemporary
icon, Saint George the Dragon Slayer through a copy of a fifteenth-century
original, or the Virgin Mary through a day-glo-light-encircled ceramic statuette.
They have more than enough modern martyrs to remember.
More contemporary Ukrainian icons are on the Iconart website:
[ 4 8 ]
PLATE 8. Lyuba Yatskiv. Christ Ruler of All, 2015. Acrylic on gessoed wood. 23½ X 23½ inches.
P LATE 9. Lyuba Yatskiv. Sophia of Christ, 2015. Acrylic on gessoed wood. 21½ X 23½ inches.
P LATE 10. Natalya Rusetska. Crucifixion, 2017. Egg tempera
on gessoed wood. 11¾ X 8¼ inches.
P LATE 11. Sviatoslav Vladyka. King of Glory, 2015. Mixed
media on gessoed wood. 15¾ X 11 inches.
P LATE 12. Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. Lviv, Ukraine.
Architect: Radoslav Zuk.
P LATE 13. Interior of the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos.
Designer: Sviatoslav Vladyka.
P LATE 14. Ivanka Demchuk. Christ before Pilate, 2017. Mixed media on gessoed wood. 19¾ X 15¾ inches.
Icon of the Trinity, Andrei Rublev, Tretyakov Gallery
We had gone to Moscow on a journey
from the suburbs of Dublin
and scattered townlands of West Cork,
flying eastward into darkness,
a night of prehistoric stars,
millennia of Christianity evolved
in our names: Joseph, John, and James.
And then we came, at last, to stand
in timelessness before our heritage,
forgetful of belief and unbelief.
We had the icon to ourselves,
like three angels, invisible, or making
the crowds in the gallery invisible;
conforming to a gentle communion,
sharing thoughts, bits of knowledge,
subsiding to color, inherent gold,
the inner circularity of the tableau,
we felt our selves dissolving…
three strangers in the desert of Mamre,
sharing the freedom of wanderers
rejoicing in the chance events
and small miracles of life—
an oak tree spreading out its shade,
a little water, morsels of bread—
and snatches of words and sounds
that stir to life the unpredictable:
the whispers of Abraham at his tent,
Sarah’s mocking gasp of laughter—
the prospect of a birth,
two becoming three,
three becoming one.
For they considered not the miracle of the loaves:
for their heart was hardened.
—Mark 6:52
I understand now how the disciples could touch thousands
of pieces of bread with their hands and still not get it,
how so many salt fish could shimmer only in the periphery
of their consciousness. Life schleps on. Katie had surgery
last Wednesday. They harvested the sick lung
from her body and left a ditch next to her heart.
The world inside flickered into night. She lost oxygen
for twenty-four minutes. We thought she had died
when she opened her eyes and began to nod. I know
what it’s like to be hardened in the face of a miracle, for some
insane part of me to care only about checkboxes on a list,
dust forming clouds underneath the couch, my sleep,
my needs, when someone is rocking the line between life
and death, pressing to see one square of light
each morning. Is this what it means to be human?
The light rinsing me when I step outside and say,
I don’t care. Whose night is it anyway? The disciples
gathered the leftover pieces of bread and fish
and stumbled away from that hillside astoundingly
the same as when they had arrived.
A Conversation
with Margaret Gibson
Margaret Gibson is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently Broken
Cup, and a memoir, The Prodigal Daughter. Her second book, Long Walks in
the Afternoon, was a Lamont Selection (now the James Laughlin Award) of the
Academy of American Poets in 1982, and Memories of the Future in 1986 was
co-winner of the Melville Kane Award given by the Poetry Society of America. The
Vigil was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993, and One Body was the
winner of the Connecticut Book Award in 2008. A new collection, Not Hearing
the Wood Thrush, is forthcoming from LSU Press in 2018. She was interviewed by
Edward A. Dougherty.
Image: It seems that questioning is central to you, and it goes hand in hand with
self-inquiry. Why is questioning so important to you?
Margaret Gibson: I love the word question. There’s a quest in it, a seeking. Sometimes
one asks a question, looking for a specific object, something lost perhaps—the
grail quest. Or questions can be so open we’re not sure what we’re looking for,
only that it’s essential to ask and to remain in a state of not-knowing for as long
as possible, to give all of the mind a chance to respond.
I grew up in Virginia during the Cold War, at a time of segregation and social
resistance. Sides were taken, lines drawn. My parents were Presbyterian of the
southern stamp; everything in the Bible was literally true. We worshipped this
way, not that way, and our way was right. So much certainty invites questions,
don’t you think?
Actually, at first I was given the questions—in the catechism—and taught
the answers. While the aim of this process is to train the child within orthodox
boundaries, it’s essentially hearsay: hear what I say and repeat after me. Eventually,
you have to ask your own question and then live into an answer that is embodied
rather than theoretical. And sometimes you have to question the questions.
But there was an early, first question that arose out of a mysterious depth I
knew nothing about. The family had driven home from the country, arriving late,
after dark. I’d been asleep on the rear-window shelf of the old Chevy—I was small
enough to fit there, so I was perhaps six. I remember standing on the front porch,
I N T E R V I E W :
waiting for my father to unlock the door, and looking up at the summer stars in a
very black sky. And out of nowhere came this question: What if there is Nothing?
I remember being stunned by the possibility, and I was afraid. This was my
first experience when thinking stopped and the stunned mind was still and
empty. Was my question about death? Was it about God? Was it a sense that I was
myself nothing? Whatever it was, I didn’t stay long in that not-knowing—almost
immediately I answered my own question: “How can there be Nothing if I’m
here thinking nothing?” That was my rescue thought; I embraced words as a way
of establishing presence—my own. God and the world perhaps came tumbling
after, back into assured being.
I consider images to be tacit questions; certainly they lead to investigations
one might not have pursued had not the image provided the magnet. I’ve never
forgotten that girl on the night sky porch and her question. The poem “Beginner’s
Mind” in Out in the Open concludes: “Suddenly I hold everything I know, myself
most of all, in question.” In “The Garden,” the speaker says: “Spirit of the Garden,
hear guesswork / or if questions are prayers, these prayers.” Among the questions
are these: “What are the names of the resurrection? Whose eyes have I borrowed
from darkness? How can the soul be separate? Why don’t you touch me? Why
don’t you speak?”
You might call these questions part of a personal catechism. I don’t mean to imply
that a poem is an answer—it’s really the ground where image and inquiry meet.
Image: The Irish poet Eamon Grennan has said, “Every poem is a memory of some
kind, a celebratory elegy.” Your poems often enact this paradoxical “celebratory
elegy.” How do the two impulses arise in you? How is the fusion accomplished
in your life and in your work?
MG: Your question brings to mind an image in an early poem, “A Simple Elegy.”
There had been a death in the family, and my mother had called me to say, “Don’t
come home. There’s nothing really to be done.” The occasion is death, but the
poem also marks my sense of a transition from being under the sway of my family
and its directives. Since my mother purposely called me too late for me to get
home for the funeral, I traveled there by way of the poem.
Here’s the image: after a death, the family has gathered together around the
table. When the preacher says, “All flesh is grass,” the speaker says, “And I heard
glass, seeing all of us / suddenly in the lamplight / transparent figures / who
could never hide anything.”
In the poem, loss, once it’s surrendered to and reflected on, produces a vision.
A very hopeful one, to say the least. As it turns out, that image of glass continues
throughout my work—although it alters. That’s the lovely thing about images.
They change as we do.
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Traditional elegies move from anguish to affirmation, often with a corresponding
“breaking open” within the maker of the elegy. The world shatters; putting it back
together differently is transformative. What’s affirmed is the power of ongoing
Elegy says that life force and death force spring from an unknown, perhaps
a common, source. I call that place holy—though I can’t name it. The agent
for fusion in the poem is the image. The agent for fusion in one’s life? In mine,
perhaps it’s the willingness to bear and lay bare—to stay with the grief until
there is disclosure. Elegy is a practice that cradles our deepest fears and deepest
longings in an embodied moment or series of moments. The occasion may be
momentous—a death. Or it may be ordinary—simply one moment passing into
the next.
In that latter sense, Grennan is right—all poems are elegiac. Our words may
turn us back to what has passed and will never again return, not in the same
form, unless the poet calls up memory and finds the words to recreate the loss.
Language, particularly figurative language, is the echo of a particular moment’s
presence and its passage. What was it Robert Hass said? “A word is elegy to what
it signifies.” Poems, as constructs of words, establish or reestablish presence. Often
the poet’s choice to use present tense to recreate a past event is rooted in just this
wish to preserve, to present, to be present once again.
Image: You draw from both Christian and Buddhist traditions. How do their
spiritual practices or theology inform your poetry?
MG: In my early years I was grounded in Christian ritual and in the literature of
the Bible—those images and cadences became part of me. Over the years, I’ve
been drawn to meditative traditions—at first the faith and practice of Quaker
meetings, then Zen practice, and these led me back to the Christian contemplative
tradition, to Meister Eckhart in particular. Buddhist practice has led me to an
interest in the way the mind works as it investigates the causes of suffering; the
practice of zazen and mindfulness I have found indispensable.
Christianity led me to look for revelation, transfiguration, epiphany—big
moments that might convert or perfect my sinful self. For a long time, sitting on
my cushion, I was looking for a big experience. Now, after more practice, I ask
questions and sit with them until an intuitive response awakens in the mind—
perhaps a sense that one is a great being already.
Of course, sitting practice isn’t at all about perfecting or saving the self, or even
thinking about the self in a metaphysical way. Western Christianity points to a
transcendent self; Buddha wasn’t interested in metaphysics. Zazen leads to the
sense that an independently existing, unconditioned and inherent self is a fiction
despite this mysterious sense of being “someone.”
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There’s a poem of mine called “Glass Elegy,” which I wrote years before I began
Zen practice and zazen, which describes this shattering of the sense of self. The
poem describes a woman who goes for a walk in the woods, and something in her
secure sense of self snaps. “Hold still!” she commands the world. The poem says
this: “She’d been so long in front of mirrors, an image in glass, a glass bloom / in
a bowl— / and when she broke through / the woods moved in quick, everything
out there / verb, quicksilver changes. And these swallow you / unless you turn
mirror yourself, and the world / flashes from you each moment.” The woman in
the poem doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. Nor did I, the writer of
the poem. The poem knew something I didn’t. But that fortuitous phrase “turn
mirror yourself,” which came on its own in the writing of the poem, suggests how,
when the fictive (solid, transcendent, fixed, separate) self shatters, and the mind
quiets, one turns outward, filled by whatever is reflected of the world in the mirror
mind. One can welcome the peace of that emptiness and its simultaneous fullness.
“Dwelling in emptiness,” which is what Buddha said he did, turns out to be
a way of life in which one is connected to “all my relations,” as I think I put it
in a poem.
Immersion in both Christian and Buddhist traditions and asking questions can
drive one further into the mind and its fascination with puzzling words and shining
abstractions; one lives in the holy world of words. Or the asking can become a
way to quiet the mind in the face of the unanswerable. Either way, it’s a patient
attempt to plumb the mystery of being alive, here, moment by moment, breath by
breath. Writing poems, I’ve set out (without knowing it) to write my own story
as I live it. And I live it in images. I don’t know the plotline. Perhaps I set out to
write my own litany and liturgy, to redefine things according to “my own” light,
to experience or embody salient abstractions and to reenact them in words. The
list of abstractions includes revelation, co-arising, impermanence, transfiguration,
awakening, emptiness, self/soul/no-self, confession, beginner’s mind, sin/error/
forgiveness, intimacy. Meanwhile, I wash my cereal bowl.
Image: The image of being a threshold ends the poem “The Door” in your
forthcoming collection, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush. Why is this threshold
condition so important for you?
MG: Whether we notice it or not, each of us lives on a threshold, breath to breath,
image to image, word to word, sensation to sensation. Watching the mind, one
sees how each perception arises, then comes a gap, then the next perception. To
stay mindfully in that gap allows for the possibility of a response that is more
appropriate, rather than a quick, habitual reaction. If I stub my toe, there’s a sliver
of a threshold I balance on before I either react angrily and call myself clumsy,
allowing name-calling to shadow the moment and dump me into a bad mood.
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Or I might say ouch! and choose a response that is fresh, innovative, creative. I
might even laugh! That threshold interval is where freedom of response is possible.
To live alertly, on a threshold, pretty clearly reveals that we have no idea what’s
coming next. Writing a poem is like that, too. You think you know where it’s going,
and there’s a turn. Openness, uncertainty, not-knowing—are all parts of living
on the threshold, or living as a threshold. We think of thresholds as borders we
cross from one way of life into another, but we are thresholds by nature. We’re the
meeting place between inner and outer, the point where they open to each other.
Image: How has your conception of God changed so that you now address the
absolute as “No one”?
MG: In Not Hearing the Wood Thrush there’s a series of poems that speak to “No
one.” They are prayer poems, in the sense that they reach from the deep heart
of solitude toward a felt (but not physically manifest) presence. The words “No
one” assert absence of form, and yet the fact of personal address, of saying “you,”
establishes relationship and a presence. “What if now I say you and intend that
/ to frame a space the holy / might inhabit?” one poem asks. My experience of
God, like the experience of love, is of a felt presence that at times crosses into a felt
absence. It’s like my sense of self—traceless, a fiction, no doubt, but an odd sense
of something there nonetheless. No one means no one, but if you talk to that no
one, an energy of presence arises, if only from the speaker’s intensity of desire to
be heard. “No one” is as close as I can get to doing without personification of
the holy; it’s not an absolute negation, more of an attempt to reach to the God
behind God, and to hear myself in moments when, after being in silence, words
insist on arising.
One of the poems in the collection says, “There is nothing to pray to, yet
everything is prayer.” Prayer allows me to hear more clearly and intimately. It’s a
way to embrace both suffering and joy, a variation on inquiry, a way of attention.
In that sense, poetry can be a prayerful attention to what needs to be refreshed:
one’s life, or, for that matter, words like “God,” “soul,” or “Be here now.” Words
get stale, laden with the dust of casual usage and abstraction. They need to be
re-felt and re-thought, re-experienced.
“Soul” makes more sense to me as a verb. Specifically: to pay attention in a way
that is open, compassionate, healing. I understand “spirit” as an intense vibration
on a continuum of energy, rather than the opposite of flesh. In another poem,
the image for self is a window. The speaker is looking out the window on a bright
moonlit night and says, “What I used to call the self is a windowing of / light /
in the flood plain of the boundless.” That sounds a little fancy to me now.
I try not to think in terms of absolutes. The final poem in the sequence addressed
to “No one” says, “Some days / I only am that I am / when known by what I do
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not know. And that mystery, No one? You.” The phrase “some days” is important;
I try to be provisional.
Image: You say you were raised a Presbyterian of the southern stamp, with a literal
way of reading the Bible. What have your conceptions of God become now?
MG: Ideally I’d just remain silent in response to that question—not a Cheshire
cat silence, and certainly not the silence of one who knows and isn’t telling. I’ve
moved a great distance from the religion of my early years. I find spiritual teachers
across many traditions—one of whom, Lao Tzu, says, “The Tao that can be told
/ is not the eternal Tao.” The question for me is not so much how I conceive of
God (what concepts I hold) but how to live.
Sacred teachings are essential, and I value those teachings which, while being
clear, retain enigma, mystery, the unspoken. There are so many gleanings:
“Everything that lives is holy.” “God is love.” “The wise shape their lives.” Or
these words of Lao Tzu: “Use your own light / and return to the source of light.
/ This is called practicing eternity.” These are words that have to be lived, that
have to be opened further by inquiry and event, experience, even story and poem
perhaps; they have to be embodied. Concepts can be divisive. A tender gesture,
an appropriate statement, an open heart: these bypass concept. Concepts have
to be clothed in flesh and image: that’s the way of incarnation, the way of the
poetic imagination.
Image: I know you love to garden and to take walks. How has engaging with and
reflecting on the natural world urged your development as a person?
MG: I have lived for over forty years in a house in the woods, down a lane a third
of a mile off a country road. Even though I’d never lived in the woods before,
when I came here I realized that this was where I belonged. It was a choice to live
here, but it felt more like the flowering of an innate intention—it was that swift
and sure a recognition. I’d written “The Garden” and had tended a faculty garden
where I taught outside DC—I was a city girl—but there I was, in the woods, in
a house with a garden, and in love with the man who had built the house and
made the garden. My life changed along lines that had already been appearing in
my poems. I just knew I’d come home—and I was miles from anywhere I’d ever
been and knew no one but David, whom I’d just met at Yaddo, a writer’s retreat.
And I’m still here.
Annie Dillard once said something like, “If you stay in one place long enough,
you’re bound to learn something.” Antonio Machado said, “The deepest words
/ of the wise men teach us / the same as the whistle of the wind when it blows
/ or the sound of water when it is flowing.” Those lines could just as well have
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been said by a Zen monk. By the way, I still stand out under the night sky and
look up at the stars. I’m still that kid. I don’t repeat her experience, of course.
Now the intent is to restore perspective, for ego to see just what a speck it is. To
see is to learn. So I go to school here in the woods, in the garden.
Image: Has the way you employ images of the natural world changed over the
course of your writing life?
MG: Some of the learning continues to be empirical—how to tell one bird call
from another, also bird nests, wildflowers, weeds, stars, or moths. And what I
learn naturally flavors the stew I make for dinner and the poems I write. The hike
I take into the woods becomes a metaphor for what’s emerging through me, life
at that moment unfolding, transformations great and small. You become the pond
you watch, and the hawk, and the fox. When the deer dies and you find its body
in the woods, and return daily to stand by it and watch, it’s your body that’s eaten
slowly by coyote and company, and when you put the skull on your wall, it’s your
skull, too. The images that accompany you become you. It’s seamless in the same
way that writing doesn’t just happen at your desk, mindfulness and meditation
don’t just happen on your cushion. Our lives can be moving meditations—and
for me, more easily so in some places than in others. Perhaps that was what I
recognized when I first came here and chose to live in the woods.
I have always used images from the natural world, but the longer I live here—
dwelling, in Heidegger’s existential sense—the less I use metaphor and symbol
as emblems of the spirit behind nature; the images now more likely point to
what things are as themselves. And I write about nature now more for its own
endangered sake, and ours.
Image: How has your concept of nature changed over the years?
MG: I’m more liable to refer to nature as “the living world” now, “nature” being
another word, like “God,” that carries so many questionable, even false, ideas—a
suitcase word that too many people have packed stuff into and then locked and
left unopened, unexamined.
Nature is not separate from the human—although a class of mine, to a one,
when asked to define nature, wrote: “what’s separate from the human” or “not
me.” We need to shift from that kind of thinking by separation and division; we
need be able to speak of wholeness with its many parts. “Not one, not two,” as
a Zen phrase has it; we need to think inclusively.
The religion I grew up in separated creation and creator, flesh and spirit, body
and mind. What if the creation is the creator? What if being “withed” in the world
is our actual experience, rather than being set apart?
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We need to hear earth speaking in the words we speak; we need self-mastery,
not empire; we need to see the lovely thusness of each thing, its intricate and
unrepeatable being; we need to learn we are mutual, not exclusive. We need to
know “earth I am” and let the resonance of that shimmering implication reach far
along the continuum to Spirit. Poets have always known that the more exact the
language, the more mystery is embodied and released, and that the well-wrought
poem mirrors the harmony and beauty and surprising connectivity of the cosmos
itself. For me, a poem is the verbal meeting ground of earth and mind—perhaps
that is what “nature” (as a concept) is. A poem conjures and enacts, insofar as
words can, the transformations that occur around and within us all the time.
Image: Many of your poems culminate in transformation, sometimes an expansion
or enrichment, a becoming; other times a loss. Can you speak about this aspiration
to transform, to disappear into something else, or altogether?
MG: At the end of a life, the breath stops, the heart stops. At the end of a poem,
the voice stops speaking. Not until a life has ended do we see the plotline of that
life—the form emerges with the sense of an ending. Lifeline or plotline, we move
breath to breath, or word by word. In a poem, the writer, and also the reader,
tend to like surprise, shift, change; in actual life, change is often feared. We’re
attached to the static, because we think we know it, and we think knowing makes
us safe. That attachment makes for bad art—it makes for an uncomfortable life,
also. Impermanence governs this life, but so do resonance, interconnection, and
transformation. One form succeeds another, merges and continues, alters and
dissolves, on and on. So when the speaker in “To Say Nothing of God” contemplates
day after day the body of a deer decomposing, being eaten by coyote, its antlers
and hooves a feast for squirrels, it’s not just death the speaker watches as the deer
literally disappears; she’s watching a transfer of energy, the continuation of life
as it changes shape.
You make the distinction in your question between transformation as a becoming
(hence enriching, positive) and transformation as disappearance, a loss. I suppose
the distinction depends on which side of the moon one’s on at the moment. The
via negativa calls for subtraction, letting go—but it is also a becoming. It leads to
a new condition of being. The via positiva effects change through metamorphosis,
through becoming—but there’s no burgeoning without a shedding of a previous
skin. All these metaphors have to do with helping us to accept impermanence, and
more than that, to use impermanence skillfully, especially when the impermanence
appears to be an ending.
Perhaps some of my poems end on moments when there is a transparency of
insight, when the grace to see more clearly is offered. Krishnamurti, in his often
abrupt and stern manner with questioners, says that to see—to see completely
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and truly—is to be changed. Seeing is transformation. The old self disappears. It
is our nature to change, continuation and loss swirling together in an unending
dance of being.
Image: If a book could have a patron saint, then Gerard Manley Hopkins would be
the patron of your 2001 collection Icon and Evidence. The language is so deeply
charged and musical. How did that come about? Is Hopkins a touchstone for you?
MG: I love Hopkins’s poems and his notebooks, in which his language is also
charged and musical. But I also love Robinson Jeffers’s poems, and his view of
the living world is so different, he who loved the mysticism of stone. Hopkins
walks out into the world of rushing clouds and surges of wind in the meadows,
ginger-colored leaves aswirl in the road—and he sees intrinsic patterns emerging
in the movement and transience, shifting formal pattern, structure (all this before
chaos theory); he sees inscape, and the glory of God shot through each artful form
making and unmaking itself. His language was able to enact the joy and energy
he felt as a witness to the world in all its fullness around him.
When I began to write the poems that would gather into Icon and Evidence,
I had just completed Autumn Grasses, a book whose project was writing poems
in the quieter mode of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and whose poems reflect an
effort to move away from the “I” of so much lyric narrative poetry of our time.
That book had been a practice of restraint and simplicity. In Icon and Evidence
I think I decided to let ’er rip, so to speak. I love arcane and difficult words and
complex sentence structures, and in my tributes to Hopkins, Keats, and Jeffers in
that book, as well as in many of the other lyric poems, I followed Hopkins into
the deep verbal thickets and open fields of rapture.
You used the word “charged.” You might as easily have said “passionate.” I say
in “Epistle to Gerard Manley Hopkins” in that book, “What keeps me / from
blank despair is just this word-tumbled world of ours.” Perhaps imagination keeps
faith by way of word-passion—enter it and one might just touch the hem of the
holy as it rustles across the field.
Image: What’s your process in composing a collection?
MG: I do like the whole of a book to read like a single poem—and that sense of
the whole evolves gradually. If a title occurs to me early on, having it in mind
may accelerate my insight into how the collection might be unified—not just
sequence, but substance. In books where there is narrative and persona, the missing
substance might be factual, or a missing scene, a different point of view, further
development of character, possibly more research. I did six years of research on the
photographer and Marxist Tina Modotti before writing Memories of the Future,
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and even a single lyric poem may require research. Writing “To Say Nothing of
God,” I not only watched that lovely corpse decompose daily, I did background
reading on deer, their anatomy, habits, the color shift in their coats.
With the lyric, there are tonal shifts that matter as much as a shift in story
matters to a longer narrative poem. One poem might raise a question that another
poem will take up and investigate further. In the primarily lyric collections, I like
to arrange the poems with a sense of the speaker’s inner development in mind. I
like to think that the speaker in the last poem isn’t identical with the speaker in
the first: poems change us, both writing them and reading them. This process is
clearly part of Not Hearing the Wood Thrush. Several poems in the book have the
same title, “Passage,” and are spaced at intervals throughout. They suggest the
movement within the speaker as the book unfolds, working through its issues
and images.
Image: I see Broken Cup and Not Hearing the Wood Thrush as companion volumes.
Central to both is your husband’s progressive degeneration from Alzheimer’s,
but the books are quite different. How do you see their relationship and what
they each reveal about the experience of profound loss? [Gibson’s husband, David
McKain, died on December 27, 2017, months after this interview took place.]
MG: My husband’s illness is now in its eleventh year. In the beginning, we both
experienced chaotic feelings—fear, denial, the panic of not-knowing, rather than
the grace of it. David’s illness has put all my talk about elegy right on the line.
For years I’ve been drawn to elegy; now I’m asked to live it—elegy without an
end point as yet. In that early period of adjustment, I didn’t write poems for
two years or more, and then the poems that became Broken Cup began to come.
David was able to read them for a while. After he took up residence in a nursing
home, where I am with him daily, I began to write the poems for Not Hearing the
Wood Thrush, poems that explored the changes in my life as it’s now lived mostly
at home alone. David’s illness, very much in the foreground of Broken Cup, is
backgrounded in Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, whose poems take on loneliness,
fear of change, fear of death. It’s true: the poems are written in the presence of
death and dying, but they also explore the mystery of being in love, of being
alive, and aging, or becoming “no one.” Without the via negativa of living with
Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t have written the sequence of poems that address “No one,”
poems which reach out to establish a relationship with the sacred and unknown.
David’s ongoing illness is a long denouement, a slow transformation that appears
to be a deconstruction not just of the body but also of the constructed self. And
the mind, how it works or doesn’t, keeps altering. The long goodbye can be very
hard. Memory provides a sense of continuity—and that continuity perhaps gives
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rise to the sense of being a separate self. Now that David no longer remembers
much of his life, what provides continuity? What remains?
Under the pressures of loss, a new humility has arisen in each of us, an awareness
of our human brokenness. With that, the tendency to idealize—and to judge—has
diminished. I appreciate this new simplicity. Being with him, I witness moments
when a radiance of spirit flares and flashes out of him. Is that new? Or just more
visible because so much has been cleared away?
And so it seems there are gifts Alzheimer’s offers, for the caregiver mainly the
sharpened opportunity to practice being present. There’s no sense in longing for
what used to be. The one to love is here now, and to focus on what’s lost would
be beside the point; the future is also beside the point. The focus is on being with,
on acceptance. It turns out that acceptance widens and deepens the capacity to
love. In the midst of intense solitude and loss, there is the experience of the heart
opening. And that’s something to be grateful for.
Image: “I love my life,” you write in a poem in the sequence addressed to No
one, “each flash of radiance / each ghost of grief.” Could I call that statement
a threshold resolution? It arises in a poem in which you say you “understand”
MG: “Word-passion” may be a way to reach toward what is always just out of
reach—an elusive God, the No one of the heart. Incarnation, in Christianity,
points to the need to believe that the distance between us and the Other, and
between us mortals, can be closed. It’s true I used the word “understand” in the
poem, but the images before and after make it clear, I hope, that it’s not a rational
understanding. Understood, yes, but also perhaps better left unspoken. What I
think we really want is wholeness, non-separation—and in the rare moments
when that happens, there is a radiance that convinces and makes sense in the way
love makes sense.
In a human love relationship, passion acts on us, and if it’s not merely sensation
but also relationship and feeling that’s released and experienced, there can be a new
vulnerability, an opening that is both inrush and outrush. The line you quoted
from the poem “Open Window” follows a moment’s looking out the window
at birds pouring into oncoming night, a moment when “everything shines,” a
shining the speaker says she finds also in “No one”—“in you / more intimate
than any / lover who gives back to his beloved / the taste of her body, giving it
back to her mouth with his tongue.” That personification of “No one” as a lover
is all about incarnated love.
I use personification very sparingly. Nevertheless there is another poem, from
Icon and Evidence, which addresses a hillside field directly, as if it were a person.
The field is in Pennsylvania where David and I spent many summers, a place I
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know and love so deeply. I speak to it in the poem as if it’s a lover I’m parting
from. At a certain musical pitch of feeling, in word-passion, it’s hard to tell joy
and grief apart as the whole world pours into you—through the chink of an
image witnessed with passionate attention, whether in a field or through the
open window of the heart. What we call “revelation” of the incarnate is simply
letting everything be as it is—I’ll let William Blake supply the adjective—holy.
Shining. Shimmering.
The God (if it is God) one doubts or questions and loves (with or without knowing
it), that impossible-to-personify God, or No one, is released for contemplation in
a poem by word-passion. Word by word the poem is created, a net of sound and
silence, a song, a whisper between lovers after love-making. Word-passion is our
attempt at incarnation, if I can call it that.
Image: In your collection One Body, the title poem caps a sequence about war,
violence against women, the plight of the poor and dispossessed, and racism. Can
you speak to how you turn lyric inquiry outward toward the world?
MG: Inquiry, however lyric, is still inquiry, whether its focus is on an inner or
outer world. Lyric is a tone inquiry can shift into, or not. Inquiry into tangible
and terrible occasions where there is suffering and injustice requires another
tone. The title poem in One Body begins as a lyric presentation and manages to
sustain it as the speaker, watching the slaughter of animals and birds who have
taken refuge in the center of a field from the circling mower, transforms into “a
storm of voices.” She’s outraged. If you believe the imagery, she towers and has
the storm power of lightning. But she doesn’t forget compassion—for those doing
the killing as well as for those being slaughtered. We are “one body,” and our true
home is “the one shining field.” Perhaps the sustaining force of that faith allows
the poem to come to its lyric conclusion. The aim of the poem is to redirect our
perspective and provoke further inquiry: How can we kill what we in fact are?
We are in that shining field. We are also of it.
That towering figure, I realized much later, was the source of “Conjure Woman”
in the next book, Second Nature. Her poems tacitly assume the personification
of mother nature, who morphs into Conjure Woman, a powerful natural force
allied with the one body of the living world, aggrieved by its degradation. I let
her box my ears for a while.
Turning outward to social issues, therefore, may require assuming a persona,
especially when the issue at hand isn’t one the poet has participated in or witnessed.
And yet when there has been experience or witness, it’s crucial to take a stand,
to speak as oneself. In “Respect,” a poem about racism and division based on
difference, I couldn’t have turned toward persona or fictive character. The reader
needs to know I lived this. Marie, the black woman who was my country aunt’s
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cook, speaks for herself so eloquently. I let her speak within the poem directly,
just as she had spoken to me as an adult. And the poem forced an insight on me:
as a child, my own sense of difference and difficulty with my sister gained impetus
from the fact that I was raised in a racist culture, where difference was enough to
justify separation and discrimination, fear and dislike. I spoke from experience,
but I also used narrative as a form of confession.
Image: Adopting a persona can be an act of tremendous empathy. Employing that
literary strategy must introduce a dynamic between outer character and inner self.
How does it work for you?
MG: Adopting a persona is so much more than a literary strategy. It is another
way to realize that the other is no other than oneself, that what is fundamental to
each human being far outweighs our superficial differences. Becoming someone
else, acting that part willingly and with imagination, takes not just self-scrutiny
but research—especially for an historical figure like Tina Modotti.
Delving into her life, I also discovered the roots of present social injustices. The
issues haven’t gone away; they’ve intensified. Rather than speak about the issues
theoretically, I chose to speak as the Tina Modotti I reimagined. As I wrote, I
felt as if I were speaking more with her than through her.
Sometimes creating a persona can be a way to explore one’s own story with
greater compassion and forgiveness. In The Vigil, I transformed aspects of myself
into four speakers. In that book, Sarah was homebody, potter, meditator, mother,
a bit of a mystic; Jenny, a lone wolf and social activist; Lila a prisoner of resentment
and convention; Kate, a rebel caught in a bind of her own making. Sometimes, to
see ourselves as we are we need to take a step out of self. Persona, when it turns
us inside out, so to speak, may therefore be a form that combines identity and
detachment, honesty and invention. It can be an opportunity to break away from
the temptations of self-absorption.
Closing the distance between one’s self and others opens us as it breaks down
barriers. Learning how to do that, in one’s art and in one’s life, is the true freedom.
It helps to lead us out of suffering. It’s an act of love. And if my characters learn
to forgive each other and themselves, how can I not participate? Niebuhr called
forgiveness the “final form of love.”
Image: In “Motive for Praise, Perhaps,” you say that fear can become a koan. What
do you mean by that? Can you talk about your engagement with Zen koans, and
how fear feels like one?
MG: Asked to solve a koan—a puzzling, paradoxical verbal enigma—one can
go nuts thinking until, finally, one gives up on thinking as a solution, and one
[ 6 3 ]
I N T E R V I E W :
becomes the question; in an intuitive leap, there’s a release and the possibility of an
embodied presentation. You “get it.” It’s a liberating process.
There may be many responses to fear, but one surely is that the mind hypes itself
up, telling stories, imagining consequences, spinning out resentments and defenses,
on and on. The mind gets tangled up in its own story-making—intensifying the
problem—and maybe, just maybe, one comes to see this desperate response as
part of the problem, and the mind shifts a level and leaps free of the morass of
mental overdoing.
A number of poems in Not Hearing the Wood Thrush study fear. In one, the
speaker tells us that it takes fear only nine seconds to arise and fall away—unless
we “feed it the custard of stories and lies,” which only strengthen it. The poem
continues, however, to tell itself an imaginative (and funny) rescue story. I think
the speaker gets, oh, maybe one foot out of the sticky mess of fear.
Image: The robust “Ha!” the painter Charles Chu utters at the end of the poem
“Night Thoughts” seems to resonate throughout this most recent book. Can you
say more about the experience of such a “Ha!” and how you see it relating to the
other poems in the collection?
MG: I was in Charles Chu’s studio more than once as he painted. He would begin
by standing before the blank paper—a moment of concentration, a quiet leap
into the swift activity of the brush, and when done—in a flash!—he’d leap back
a step, toss his brush, and cry out in a loud voice: “Ha!” The sound came from
the center of the earth, which was at that moment situated right beneath his feet.
The poem that Charles Chu’s “Ha!” concludes is a poem about fear that finally
faces the great matter of life and death—and “Ha!” That utterance reaches far.
How do you hear it? I hear it as the cry of loving last resort. Faced with so much
that’s impossible to understand, standing right at the edge of the mortality of
everything we know and are and may come to be, what else can we do but create,
make something, make it with love and clarity, make it with a desperation that turns
into tenderness, make it out of the deepest part of ourselves present everywhere
and nowhere—then throw down the brush, bow to the cosmos, and celebrate! Ha!
[ 6 4 ]
Wanting to be that place where inner
and outer meet, this morning
I’m listening to the river inside,
also to the river out the window,
river of sun and branch shadow, muskrat
and mallard, heron, and the rattled cry
of the kingfisher. Out there is a tree
whose roots the river has washed so often
the tree stretches beyond itself, its spirit
like mine leaning out over the water, held
only by the poised astonishment
of being here. This morning, listening
to the river inside, I’m sinking into a stillness
where what can’t be said stirs beneath
currents of image and memory, below strata
of muons and quarks, now rushes, now hushes
and pools, now casts a net of bright light
so loosely woven there’s a constellation
afloat on the surface of the river, so still
I can almost hear it weave in and out—
interstellar, intercellular—and isn’t it
truly all one, one world, no in or out, no here
or there, seamless, as a lily about to open
from just here into everywhere, is. Just is.
Restful lily. Lucky lily. To bloom must feel
like a river’s brightening at daybreak,
or a slow kiss, a throb in the elapse of time,
a shudder of heron shadow flying over
shallows that are merely the apparent
skim of a depth whose bottomless surface
seeps everywhere, bloom and retraction,
an anchored flow that upholds city
and cathedral, bridge and gate,
Orion, odd toad in the Amazon, blue dragonfly,
what it is to love.... Spoil a river, you spoil all this.
G I B S O N :
Night Thoughts
They’re on the move again, across the soundless
moonlit snow, five deer
single file along the narrow trail they deepen
night after night with their heart-shaped
hooves. Shivering, I watch them.
Back in bed, in flannel up to my nose,
I listen and listen. In my mind
already the pipes have frozen
and burst, water in a cascade
that resembles plumes of ice down rock face
along the interstate. In my mind
this house is a hovel of ice; outside,
wolves howl, opposing armies
clash and scatter, a blue hand
sticks out of the snow. Almost,
I reach to take it. I’m here alone—
no, I’m not alone, I’m one of the women
left to wander crazed in snow,
the men conscripted, the villages burned.
And then here it is, like a revision of history,
the click of the furnace, O blessed click!
Of course by now I’m too awake
to sleep, and because there’s something else
I don’t want to remember,
and perhaps to spice the residue of my fear,
I tell myself the story of the monk
who’s fallen just over the lip of a cliff.
There he is, holding onto a root
that’s slowly coming loose,
and if that’s not enough, a tiger
crouches above him on the precipice.
Just then, as if an invisible furnace
clicks on, he discovers within his reach
on the cliff face the single bounty
of an inauspicious planting,
a beautiful berry, fully ripe. Serenely,
the monk picks the berry and eats—delicious!
[ 6 6 ]
G I B S O N :
And as he falls, I realize what’s at work
in this poem and all the rest I write.
Each poem I rescue my fear with a berry.
One could say it works: the fear vanishes.
So does the berry and, momentarily, so do I.
To vanish is to live at the heart of the matter;
to vanish is to live at the lip of invitation,
embraced by emptiness and great joy.
Just so, one night after zazen-kai,
freezing cold on the beach, last birds wheeling
over the snow at the edge of the ocean,
at the edge of the world, clear how we felt,
we reached out for each other,
no hope of remedy or rescue, no time for fear.
There was only the moment, and the embracing.
Just that. When we walked back over the dunes,
I could see as if from a great height, as if
from the other side of death—two figures
ink-brushed on groundless black and white,
two figures along a curve of road as if in a painting
by Charles Chu—who, whenever he was done,
bless him, lifted his brush, stepped back
from his work, and let loose a tremendous Ha!
[ 6 7 ]
Sometimes a Prayer
O Listener, You know how pleased
I can be with the sounds of my own words.
But sometimes a prayer comes out
half chewed, like a tough crust
that sticks in the teeth. Or spat out,
the stone from a sour plum.
What if my prayer is thin,
rote, barren of belief? If so,
remind me to swallow it and wait
for my gut to voice itself from
somewhere deeper, rasped out,
incoherent but heartfelt,
no holds barred.
Repeatable Surprise
Poets on Their Favorite Hymns
and Spiritual Songs
The following nine essays will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices:
Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming
this fall from Orison Books.
Three Verses from Hallel: Out of the Narrow Place
From the narrow place, I called out to God;
He answered me from the wideness of God.
OFFER THIS SOMEWHAT HOMELY, literal translation of Psalm 118, verse
5, because it seems to me—in its beautiful Hebrew, if not this clunky English
version—to encapsulate what poetry is (or, at least, what it can be) more succinctly,
powerfully, and incontrovertibly than any other line of poetry I know. The verse
acknowledges the impossibility of its project while nonetheless embarking on it;
the words insist on their ability to get from the particular—one’s own hopelessly
narrow human place—out into vastness. Isn’t this always, to some degree, poetry’s
project? Doesn’t the poet always, in one way or another, cry out from his or her
narrow place, hoping for some broader, wider resonance, for the most ample
imaginable response?
The King James is not inaccurate in rendering the verse: “I called upon the
Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place.” Like so
many Hebrew words, maytzar (distress, narrowness, narrow place, strait) goes in
a number of different but related directions. In modern Hebrew, the word, in its
verb form, means “to regret.” It’s also related to the name for Egypt—Mitzrayim,
which can be understood to mean something like “double narrowness” or “double
trouble.” That the King James, at least this time, renders anani as “He answered
me” is a great thing. In all too many instances in the Book of Psalms—even in
verse 21 of this same Psalm 118—the King James inexplicably translates the word
“He heard me,” making God passive instead of active and removing what may
well be my favorite feature of the psalms: God’s active collaboration in them. In
Hebrew, the psalms give the impression—at least to me—of managing, by calling
upon God so insistently and exquisitely from however narrow a starting point, to
invoke God, in all his ampleness, into existence. Their “call” finally elicits God’s
response until he seems to participate in their own making.
Did I recognize any of this when I finally began to realize—probably as an
adolescent—that I actually understood a number of these verses of psalms I had
been singing on every major holiday (and new moon, when it happened to fall on
a Saturday) in synagogue for so many years? I doubt it. I’m not sure I even knew
the words came from psalms. Nor am I sure how it is that I understood them. By
listening to announcements in Hebrew at summer camp? From Hebrew school,
where, from the age of nine, we were given simplified biblical texts to read in
Hebrew, each chapter with its own enormous glossary? All I know is how thrilling it
was suddenly to recognize that I could derive literal meaning from Min hamaytzar
karati Ya; anani ba merchav Ya (from the narrow place…). and I promptly fell
in love with it. It is—like so many lines of psalms, beautifully direct and fairly
simple in Hebrew. But I doubt that I understood its implications. Still, every time
I read it, it gave me the most wonderful sense of possibility. And I quickly came to
see that any line I sang from Hallel would reward me enormously, if only I paid
attention. Ordinarily, this is a big if, given my still unchecked tendency to blab
shamelessly in the back row during services. But I make an exception for Hallel.
Hallel, meaning praise—the short service added to the morning prayers on
holidays and new moons—contains Psalms 113 through 118 and has always been
my favorite service, even before I understood it. I loved its sounds and the many
lovely melodies used to sing them. But little did I know how revelatory it was
and would continue to be. Even after understanding the Hebrew words became
second nature, a verse could always astonish me. Perhaps the most memorable
occasion was on Shavuot, 1991. I was enormously sad, having just learned from
a dear friend about his sister’s death—a week after she’d given birth to her first
child—from an undetected congenital heart defect. When, during Hallel, I sang
out, “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will be rejoice and be glad
in it,” the familiar line seemed to explode. There was after all a new baby—who
deserved someone’s joy—despite the terrible loss associated with his birth. And
this demand that one live well, indeed joyfully, with what one could not change,
struck me as something to cling to in those tragic circumstances. Since then,
I’ve clung to it many times. It still seems like a most difficult imperative, this
requirement to rejoice in days so profoundly imperfect, and so very much not
of our own making. But it also strikes me as one we would all do well to fulfill.
And Hallel does seem to insist that its own enterprise, praising God, is among
the most straightforward and dependable ways to fulfill it. Indeed, in Hallel,
praising God is likened to life itself, even eternal life: “The dead praise not the
Lord, neither any that go down into silence. But we will bless the Lord from
[ 7 0 ]
this time forth and for evermore. Praise the Lord (Hallelujah).” Again, we have
a tight collaboration: God keeps us alive so we can keep his praises alive and in
so doing tap into God’s own eternity. This praise of God that can bring us from
mortality to eternity is a sort of temporal analogue to the calling out to God
that brings us from narrowness to amplitude. Here we not only insist and affirm
God into existence, but ourselves “from this time forth and for evermore.” An
exultant “Hallelujah” seals the deal. This word itself—literally a plural imperative
to praise God—is the human route from limitation to boundlessness. And from
the tragedy that is so often a result of that human limitation to rejoicing. For
me—even now—it’s the most magical exemplar of that breathtaking concept:
holy language, which, along with all the exquisite phrases that holy language can
introduce but never quite contain, is surely what made me long, from my earliest
days, to try my hand at writing poems.
Jacqueline Osherow, author of seven collections of poetry, has received grants from
the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, NEA, and Ingram Merrill Foundation,
and the Witter Bynner Prize. She’s Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah.
Be Thou My Vision: Witness to the Revelation
WAS RAISED IN A FAMILY for whom our Baptist church was very much
an extension of our home. While that church was—as I might now parse such
matters—a particularly cranky Baptist church, it offered nonetheless a loving
community to those within it. More importantly, that community offered me a
first taste of what I would later call the surrounding love of God.
We sang many hymns together. For the most part, our hymns served collectively
to frame what would prove to be the centerpiece of our Sunday services: the
sermon that—I now recognize—replaced centuries-old liturgical worship with
something akin to a classroom whose lessons were punctuated by a soundtrack.
The hymns employed within that frame, by and large, fell into two categories:
preparation for the sermon and altar call. Most were sentimental and didactic,
speaking to the choir—as it were—while pretending to speak to God. That is
also how most of our public prayer worked—with the pastor overtly addressing
God while more pointedly admonishing the flock.
In any case, one hymn stood profoundly apart from the others, as it seemed
to me more like prayer than any other utterance we made; it was, moreover, a
prayer that I found myself praying as I sang the words. That hymn, “Be Thou
My Vision,” therefore has always moved me.
[ 7 1 ]
I’ve sung its verses, as I say, since I was a very small child in that very cranky
church. In writing this, and thinking back to those days, I’m fairly certain that over
those many years I have never managed to sing the hymn in its entirety without
at some point choking up and falling silent, even as other congregants carried on
around me. That is to say that in the course of nearly sixty years, I doubt that I
have ever managed to give full voice to the concluding gesture, Heart of my own
heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
Even so, so far as I recall, I have never failed silently to shape those words with
my lips while—for all my hope of vision—nearly blinded.
The text comes to us from a sixth-century Irish poem that most of us know in
its 1912 English translation by the writer Eleanor Hull; since 1919, Christians have
most often sung that poem to the melody of a similarly fetching Irish folk tune.
Something of that hymn’s shape—its words and its melody—cuts me deeply. It
always has. I’m thinking that this is because the hymn is both a song of genuine
worship and an exceedingly earnest prayer.
Over the past fifteen years or so, my annual pilgrimage to worship and
pray among the saintly monks of Agion Oros—otherwise known as the Holy
Mountain of Mount Athos in Greece—has led to my digging more deeply into
the foundational practice and language of the early Christian faith. Specifically,
certain Greek words have proven useful to my lately developing a more efficacious
sense of what we have come to call theology, or God-talk. Chief among those
words is ƨƥƹƱƟơ (theoría), which is to say “contemplation,” or, more to the point
of the moment, “vision.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church might be called a little stingy in its acknowledging
of anyone as a theologian. Strictly speaking, our church recognizes but three—just
three saints whose names include that epithet. They are Saint John the Theologian
(also called John the Evangelist), Saint Gregory the Theologian (also called Gregory
of Nazianzus, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers), and Saint Symeon the New
Theologian. As it happens, each of these men wrote their theologies in poetry,
highlighting to some degree the rabbinic understanding that true theology is
always parabolic, as the One of whom we speak extends beyond comprehension,
In more recent centuries, recognizing the compelling observation of the
fourth-century father Evagrios Pontikos, the term theologian has been more
generously applied to several dozen others over the centuries; in his Treatise on
Prayer, Evagrios writes: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; if you pray
truly, you are a theologian.”
Judging from my own experience, one doesn’t travel very far in any chosen
religious practice without discovering along the way a good bit of paradox to
be parsed. One doesn’t proceed, I daresay, without often suspecting that one’s
own disposition may be influencing—even altering—one’s perceptions of what
[ 7 2 ]
is so, one’s perceptions of the Holy One Who Is, the Holy One we seek. When
puzzling over the mystery of our being, one finds plenty of room for interpretive
error, even if it is well-intentioned error.
One of the discoveries that led me finally to embrace the eastern church was
its disposition toward biblical scripture. The church of my youth approached
the scriptures as if they were both knowable and reducible to proposition; each
verse was approached as a fixed utterance, dictated, word by word, by God to
certain men; the scriptures were understood to be God’s words precisely, and they
were understood to be the revelation, as such. On the other hand, Orthodoxy
observes that what God revealed to these men was but a glimpse of himself, and
that those men thereafter employed their own words to offer up what might be
better understood as a witness to the revelation. That is to say, these writers beheld
a mystical vision, and sought to share it by whatever means they could muster.
What we make of their textual witness is, of course, another matter.
One must appreciate that in any act of reading the reader is caught in a swirling
confluence of what she beholds and who she is, beholding; the reader is ever and
unremittingly obliged to bring himself to the mix. All of this brings us to the
troubling question along the way: am I seeing something of what is there, or am
I projecting my own image upon the text, the scene, the phenomena before me?
In such a circumstance, “Be Thou My Vision” appears as a most efficacious
prayer. May it be blessed.
Scott Cairns is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English at University of Missouri
and directs the Seattle Pacific University low-residency MFA program in creative
writing. His ninth poetry collection, Anaphora, is forthcoming from Paraclete in 2019.
Takbeerat al-Eid: The Speakers of Tripoli
HENEVER I THINK of takbeerat al-Eid, I remember the curtains of my
childhood bedroom—how Mom surprised me one afternoon, saying she
had bought me new pink (pink!) curtains. I loved their color and sheer fabric. I
could see the glass balcony door behind them, and behind that, the green wooden
shutters. When the shutters were open, I could also see the rooftops of the city.
And from the rooftops of Tripoli seemed to rise the takbeerat every Eid morning.
Every Eid morning, I was awakened by the sounds of the prayers from the
city’s mosques: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. The word takbeera
means “to say Allahu Akbar (God is Greater) once,” and takbeerat is its plural
form. Takbeerat al-Eid, which preceded the Eid prayer, repeated Allahu Akbar
[ 7 3 ]
and added words of gratitude and worship. The chanting usually began on the
last night of Ramadan and resumed at sunrise the next day. Though the takbeerat
were recited on both Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr always felt more
special for me. The prayers woke me and made me anticipate the unreversed
day—Ramadan was over; Eid was here. After a month of fasting, you drink and
think, I am drinking. You eat and think, I am eating. I always stole a few bites of
wara’ ‘inab from Mom’s pot, early in the morning. The night before Eid, Mom
cooked the wara’ ‘inab on a slow fire for hours. The scent of the stuffed vine
leaves infused the house, and so did the prayers.
The prayers were a song I’d memorized over the years. As soon as I heard
them, I’d start humming along in my head. It wasn’t the words that drew me in
as much as the repetition, the rhyming, and the rhythm—an incantation of sorts.
These prayers had a beat faster than that of the adhan, which lingered longer on
the words Allahu Akbar, and they were carried by a multitude of voices. There
was something communal about them, something that said the entire city was
celebrating, giving thanks.
The takbeerat sometimes awakened me early enough to catch my father before
he went to visit his mother’s grave. I put on my new Eid clothes and went with
him. I wondered why we visited our dead on the first day of Eid. My parents said
it was to reassure them we remembered them, even in our joy. If I didn’t catch my
father, I went later with my mother to visit her family’s dead. In the graveyards,
I remember once listening to similar chants. I don’t remember the words, but
they resembled the Eid takbeerat in their musicality. I was mesmerized by the
men with the beautifully orchestrated voices, sitting on the white plastic chairs
in the cemeteries, singing hymns—what for, I wasn’t sure. The Eid’s arrival, and
the dead, and God.
God, says the Qur’an, is closer to us than our jugular vein. Though I’m not
what one would call a traditional Muslim, I choose to believe this: that we contain
divinity. And when I can’t sleep, I sometimes find myself (almost instinctively)
chanting the Eid takbeerat in my head. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu
Akbar. The rhythm and repetition soothe me, and probably the connection to
my childhood, too. Perhaps what we love best about our favorite religious rituals
is what they remind us of.
I don’t remember whether or not I could see, from my balcony, one of the
speakers projecting the takbeerat across the city. In my mind, I see a speaker on a
building opposite us, though I’m not sure it really existed. I call my mother and
ask her, Was there a speaker on one of the buildings opposite us? She says no, there
was nothing visible to us. Talking to my mother, I remember how the takbeerat
ended with asking God to forgive our parents, for they have raised us. This was
my favorite part of the prayer. My least favorite part said that the faithful believe
despite the hate of the nonbelievers. I didn’t like this kind of dichotomy, which I
[ 7 4 ]
realized, even as a child, was part of other religions, too. I wanted to exist beyond
this us-versus-them mentality. On the phone, my mother says, But if you see it in
your mind, then it probably exists.
It probably exists, this speaker in my mind in the city behind my bedroom
curtain. This speaker, one of many, projecting Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar. And I’ve been saying I’m inhabited by this hymn of calling out
and gratitude. I’ve been saying the music preceded the words. The words seemed
to be there merely to fill a longing, to be carried by a choir of voices across a
city. But lately, I’ve been thinking about the words, too—about how, even here
in the Arab world, Allahu Akbar has become associated with ISIS and terrorism,
with death and the slitting of throats. Strange that as I’m summoning these Eid
al-Fitr memories, as I’m writing this, it’s Ramadan. A few days ago, on the eve
of this month, there was an attack on a bus full of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Yesterday there was a bombing at an ice cream shop in Baghdad. And look at
Syria. So much daily blood.
What speakers full of prayer could drown out such grief? What God/Allah is
greater/akbar than this? How do I listen? When this month ends, the Eid takbeerat
will go up again. And despite what’s happening around us, and my secular mind,
I try to remind myself of the possibilities inside those words. I try to reclaim the
now fear-inducing Allahu Akbar, see it as a reminder: there is something akbar,
something greater. We are the speakers, and there is music inside us. A meaning
bigger than us exists within us, all of us, no matter what we choose to call it, no
matter what hymns we play to conjure it.
Zeina Hashem Beck’s most recent collection, Louder than Hearts (Bauhan), won the
2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her poem “Maqam” won Poetry
magazine’s 2017 Frederick Bock Prize.
Caedmon’s Hymn: The First English Poet
NGLISH POETRY BEGAN with a vision. It started with the holy trance of
a seventh-century figure called Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, who now
stands at the top of the English literary tradition as the initial Anglo-Saxon or Old
English poet of record, the first to compose Christian poetry in his own language.
The story goes that Caedmon, who was employed by the monastery of Whitby,
invariably fled when it was his turn to sing during a merry social feast. He was
ashamed he had never had any songs to contribute. But one night a voice came to
Caedmon in a dream and asked him to sing a song. When Caedmon responded that
[ 7 5 ]
he had no idea how to sing, the voice commanded him to sing about the source
of all created things (“Sing to me the beginning of all things”). “Thereupon,” as
the monk known as the Venerable Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the
English People (731), “Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard
before in praise of God the creator.”
Bede embedded a Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem in his history.
He probably translated it into Latin in order to make the poem available to an
international audience of clerics, but it’s also possible that he was translating it
from Latin. No one knows the priority of these texts—in manuscripts, the English
version survives alongside Latin translations. Here is the Anglo-Saxon text, and
then a modern English translation of the inspired poem called “Caedmon’s
Hymn,” which was composed between 658 and 680.
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
Meotodes meahte and his modgepanc,
weorc Wuldor-Fæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
ece Drihten or onstealde
He ærest sceop ielda bearnum
Heofon to hrofe halig Scyppend
ða middangeard moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten æfter teode
firum foldan Frea ælmihtig
Now we must praise the protector of the heavenly kingdom
the might of the measurer and his mind’s purpose,
the work of the father of glory, as he for each of his wonders,
the eternal Lord, established a beginning.
He shaped first for the sons of the earth
heaven as a roof, the holy maker;
then the middle-world, mankind’s guardian,
the eternal Lord, made afterwards,
solid ground for men, the almighty Lord.
Caedmon’s dream was a sign he had become a poet. It was a signal of poetic
vocation. A clumsy, unschooled peasant is suddenly gifted with the power of song.
It is also possible, as later scholars have speculated, that Caedmon was actually
trained as a Germanic bard or scop, but concealed his knowledge of pagan poetry
from the monks, who would have disapproved of what Bede calls “vain and
idle songs.” Caedmon took an oral form that was used to venerate royalty and
refashioned it to praise the Lord, God the monarch. His hymn, his only surviving
composition, is a praise poem to the almighty, like the Latin canticle Benedicte,
omnia opera domini, which embraces all of creation (“O all ye works of the Lord,
[ 7 6 ]
bless ye the Lord: Praise him and magnify him forever”). It encapsulates the basic
form of Old English or Germanic poetry: two half-lines, each containing two
stressed and two or more unstressed syllables. Another way of describing this is
as one four-stress line with a medial caesura. It stacks two or three alliterations
per line and piles up the epithets for God, who is guardian (“Weard”), measurer
(“Meotod”), glory-father (“Wuldor-Fæder”), eternal Lord (“ece Drihten”), creator
or holy maker (“Scyppend”), and almighty master (“Frea ælmihtig”). What came
to Caedmon in a dream was not just a story, which he would have known already,
but also a new prosody.
Caedmon connects the energy of language with the power of divine spirit, and
his religious poetry of praise inaugurates a tradition. It’s possible, too, that Bede
was promoting that tradition via Caedmon. This way of connecting language to
the divine looks backward to Genesis 1 and forward to Thomas Traherne, Henry
Vaughan, and Christopher Smart, who sings of the transcendent virtue of praise
itself. Here, for example, is stanza fifty of Smart’s eighteenth-century poem of
benediction, “A Song to David”:
above all—for praise prevails;
Heap up the measure, load the scales,
And good to goodness add:
The gen’rous soul her Savior aids,
But peevish obloquy degrades;
The Lord is great and glad.
Caedmon’s impulsive song looks forward to William Blake, Gerard Manley
Hopkins, and even Walt Whitman, who embraces and challenges us to embrace
all the works of creation: “Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever
I touch or am touched from” (“Song of Myself”). It stands behind W.H. Auden’s
radiant and intricate sonnet of instruction, “Anthem,” which begins: “Let us praise
our Maker, with true passion extol Him.” And it inspired Denise Levertov’s poem
“Caedmon,” which concludes with the vision of a clumsy untutored clodhopper
suddenly flaming with inspiration: “nothing was burning,” Caedmon cries out,
“nothing but I, as that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue
/ and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.”
“Now we must praise,” Caedmon instructs us, and thus touches upon one of
the primary and permanent impulses in poetry—a calling to more life, a form of
blessing, a way of cherishing a world that shines out with radiant particularity.
Edward Hirsch has published nine books of poetry, including Gabriel: A Poem
(Knopf), which won the National Jewish Book Award, and five books of prose, among
them A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
[ 7 7 ]
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Dark Good News
LOVED THEM ALL, the hymns we sang in our red brick Methodist church
on Christmas Eve. There was always snow, it never failed us, and the streetlamps
cast lovely pools of light and shadow on the shoveled walks. We called it midnight
service, though it actually began an hour earlier; we would have eaten our dinner
and opened our presents. The men in our family stayed home. I loved all the
Christmas hymns, but one of them was magic.
I’ve since learned that it was another of those marvelous Victorians (The OED!
The Dictionary of National Biography! Where would we be without them?) to
whom we owe the English verses. In its original Latin, Veni Veni Emmanuel
was a product of the medieval monastery, dating back to the twelfth century at
the very latest. John Mason Neale discovered the verses in the appendix of an
eighteenth-century manuscript and published them, in English, in his Mediaeval
Hymns and Sequences (1851). Three years later, in The Hymnal Noted, Thomas
Helmore paired them with a melody he claimed to have found in “a French missal
in the National Library, Lisbon.” That missal has never been relocated, but in
1966 the musicologist (and Augustinian canoness) Mary Berry discovered the
same melody in a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The
English hymn celebrates a longed-for birth, so I find it rather poignant to learn
that this tune, at least in its fifteenth-century incarnation, served as a processional
chant for burials.
But then, the hymn I love has always been a mixture of celebration and mourning:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
As witness to its mingled joy and sorrow, the hymn is set in a minor key.
I knew nothing of its history, of course, when I sang this hymn with all the
good people who filled the pews of the Cary Methodist Church on Christmas
Eve. I doubt I knew what Emmanuel meant, and I didn’t think to wonder. I only
knew—I took it in somehow with the very first chords of the organ prelude—that
we were welcoming a mystery. Number 211 in the Methodist hymnal, key of E
minor: E is where the hymn comes home, and minor keys are good for mystery.
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophesied messiah is called Emmanuel. In the Book
of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph that his betrothed is the virgin of the prophecy,
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her child the child of God. Emmanuel, as the evangelist is careful to specify,
means “God with us.” There is sweetness in the minor chord: discovering what
he had taken to be her shame, Joseph had planned to put Mary aside “privily.”
Joseph is a just man.
Above the altar in our red brick church was a single stained-glass window, very
small, circular, depicting the Holy Ghost in the form of a bird. Our one gesture
toward ostentation. In the heat of the English Reformation, the Puritan Richard
Baxter used to rail against the “painted obscure sermons” of the Anglican preachers,
pronouncing them to be no better than “the Painted Glass in the Windows that
keep out the Light.” I had never heard of Richard Baxter when I lived in Cary,
Illinois; I’d barely heard of the Reformation. No one had ever preached to me
about the dangers of idolatry. But the stained-glass windows in the Roman Catholic
Church on the other side of town, like the bleak dormitories for the nuns, struck
me as slightly sinister. The priest lived in a fine new house.
It was only by accident, really, that we were Methodists at all. Norwegian
immigrants belonged to the church of Luther. But when my grandparents moved
from Chicago in the 1920s, our small town had only one Protestant church on
offer, and it was the church of John Wesley. My grandfather was a fine craftsman,
meticulous in his pinstriped overalls. It was he who, on a windless day, climbed
the steeple to apply gold leafing to the cross. Modest ostentation: a plain gold
cross on a plain white steeple, upright in praise, and the overalls freshly ironed.
Women did that then. The windows in the nave were tall and broad, with panes
of transparent glass.
So it’s ironic, really—it quite betrays me—to realize that I must have loved this
hymn for its whiff of the monastery: chalice and incense smuggled in by way of the
minor chord. There’s a moment, a breathtaking moment, when the meter defies
expectation. Everything has been steady-as-you-go, four-four time, all quarter
notes and dotted halves. But during that remarkable refrain, just when you expect
to dwell on the last syllable of the holy name for a count of three, as every verse
before this has prepared you to do, the hymn leaps forward and anticipates itself
by half a measure. No breath, no stately pause: Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, as
though rushing to arrival. Those missed beats never fail to stop my heart.
And they rhyme somehow with the promise and foreboding built into that
second long era of expectation, the one believers inhabit now, because the child
so fervently awaited has come and been killed and has promised to come again.
Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
The minor chords of a hymn sung toward midnight in a small town blanketed by
snow. He shall come like a bridegroom; he shall come like a thief in the night. And
when we least expect it, the leap across a missing half-measure.
In a poem, or a painting, or a stage play, it’s the rarest and most wonderful of
all effects, to be taken by surprise, even when you know the surprise is coming.
[ 7 9 ]
Repeatable surprise. It shouldn’t be possible. It requires something more than
double awareness or divided consciousness: it requires authentic inhabitation of
two non-commensurate states of expectation. I suppose in this it is like faith. I
don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe in the afterlife, except perhaps in the hearts
of those who love us. But the promise of a savior in a minor key and the promise
of judgment in those dark gospel verses—dark good news—never fail to seize
my heart.
Linda Gregerson’s most recent book of poetry is Prodigal: New and Selected Poems
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature
at the University of Michigan.
Laudes Creaturarum: A Polyphony
IN ASSISI, THE SKY vaults clouded and serene against the foothills.
Pietro, known as Francesco, devoted brother of his order, put quill to thirteenthcentury parchment and began to praise. His inspiration was Psalm 148, whose
Hebrew exhortations spur the sun and moon, the stars and highest heavens,
tempests and mountains and wingèd birds to sing their Lord’s splendid name.
Barchu and Hallelu.
In the trees that ring the great cathedral at Assisi, birds trill an antiphon in the
innumerable dialects of their collected species.
Laudatu si mi signore per sora nostra morte corporale, Francis wrote in his backwater
dialect, da la quale nullu homo vivente po skappare. Be praised, my Lord, through
our sister, Death-of-the-Flesh, from whom no living mortal can escape.
William Henry Draper lost his first wife in childbirth. He lost his second wife in
her youth. He lost three sons in World War I and a daughter in her childhood.
In Francesco’s hymn, the psalm’s call to worship forges familial bonds, each voice
[ 8 0 ]
enfolded into the household: My Lord Brother Sun. Sister Moon and Sister Water,
Brother Fire and Brother Wind.
Twice widowed, four times unfathered, William Henry Draper served as rector
of the parish church in Leeds, where, in 1919, he translated a centuries-old poem
by an Umbrian monk for a Whitsunday children’s concert.
On Whitsunday, the Assisi cathedral is afire with cloven tongues, pilgrims
murmuring a babel of prayer.
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
At the wind of the day I walked the fortress wall on Assisi’s hilltop as the houselights
came on below. A mighty fortress is our God, another word-dazzled monk would
write three centuries after Francesco threw open the enclosures of monastic care
to the lazar-house, the beggars, the birds.
At a piazza dinner in the hilltop town of Perugia, against which the young soldier
Pietro called Francesco marched impenitent and won a year in prison for his pains,
I overhear a tourist family at the next table. In New Jersey cadence, the mother
suggests a next day’s trip to the basilica in Assisi. She sells it: “It’s where Saint
Francis is from.” Her son whines, “Who’s Saint Francis?” The mother pauses.
The pavement birds are belled into the evening sky. “He’s this really famous
Franciscan monk.”
In the basilica, the nave vaults with sky, a gloaming blue clouded with verdant
green. Gold stars fan out like finches. Like gilt notes on an ethereal staff.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, son of a vicar, took up an old German tune, “Lasst
uns Erfreuen” (“Let Us Rejoice”), harmonizing his Anglican to that melody’s
spare Jesuit. And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
It’s not the repeated alleluia. It’s not the catalogue of earthy beauty. It’s not the
open-throated Ptolemaic chime. What undoes me is the single minor chord.
[ 8 1 ]
Undone. Unfathered. Lazar-house. Lost. Tempest. Prison. Babel. Evening. Sora
nostra morte corporale.
The minor chord: unheard in the tune’s Teutonic plainchants, unheard before
Vaughan Williams’s harmonies. It falls at the end of the penultimate line of each
verse—in some versions of Draper’s English text, the minored syllable is him, and
in some it is jah; either way, God takes the fall.
Vaughan Williams’s minor chord is the musical cognate of Francesco’s steadfast
praise in and through the death of the flesh: a gut punch that refuses to be
redeemed by the next line’s joy.
Confiteor: The next line’s return to D major requires a resolve that, many days,
I don’t have.
In the Upper Church in Assisi, the fresco cycle attributed (probably wrongly)
to Giotto includes San Francesco d’Assisi predica agli uccelli. There are doves, of
course, in the saint’s congregation. There is a woodcock, I think. A robin. They
will not fly until his sermon is finished. Until he follows the downpour with worms.
Nearby, another fresco shows Francis struck with stigmata; each wound an asterisk,
a caveat. A flurry of wings above his head.
You lights of evening
At the altar in Assisi, my vespers are belled into the vault, where they flock and
Outside, rain. The birds tangle among the leaves, sustain their refractory antiphon.
All with one accord in one place.
[ 8 2 ]
perdonano per lo tue amore / infirmitate e tribulatione
Pardon and love. Weakness and wrack. Blame and whine, and worms and no
escape. O praise Him.
A creaturely hymn for us creatures: Pietro called Francesco, faux Giotto, bereft
William, Ralph, the variant birds, and myself. Each of us cloven by major and
minor, each our own Pentecost.
Kimberly Johnson’s recent books include the poetry collection Uncommon Prayer
(Persea), a translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony (Northwestern),
and Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale), coedited with Jay Hopler.
Amazing Grace: Singer and Song
There is another world, but it is within this one.
—Paul Éluard
LIKE TO SING. Singing, like poetry, enables us to enter experiences other
than our own. I sing lively Elizabethan songs by Thomas Campion, melancholy
ones by John Dowland, gems from Shakespeare’s plays, “Greensleeves,” and the
medieval “Cherry Tree Carol” in which a pregnant Mary confronts an angry
Joseph, and an unborn Jesus solves the conflict. I sing popular songs from the
thirties, learned from my parents. Does anybody remember “A Bicycle Built for
Two”? Then there are showtunes, folksongs, protest songs, spirituals, blues. I
liked to belt out “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” when I was six or seven and had
no idea what it was all about. When my dad came home after union meetings,
we used to sing, “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union,” banging
our fists on the table. In chorus in high school we sang Fauré’s Requiem and I
thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. In chorus in college we
sang Beethoven’s Ninth, and I could climb up to high C with the rest of the
sopranos and sail along there as long as Beethoven and Schiller needed me to.
Once I could sing along with the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. Those
were the days. Now I am a moderately passable alto in my local amateur chorus.
I’ll sing in the shower, doing dishes, hiking, biking. I sang in my head when I
[ 8 3 ]
was in labor. I’ll sing in my head when I’m sleepless. The text might be Yeats’s
“The Song of Wandering Aengus,” brimful of longing. It might be cool Dylan,
slick Joni Mitchell, or magical Leonard Cohen.
The dimension of spirituality in poetry and song has always drawn me in. Why
is that? My lefty Jewish family raised me to be an atheist; my spiritual training
consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the masses; never have I
literally experienced anything that might be called “belief” or “faith” in a personal
God. The violent and punitive God worshipped in Judeo-Christian traditions is
a figure I have wrestled with in book after book. And yet the idea of a world of
the spirit existing within, or beneath, the material world, the world of our bodies,
seems real to me. Not above us, dispensing rewards and punishments. Nothing
to do with dogma.
The one hymn in my repertoire is “Amazing Grace.” Part of what’s lovely to me
about “Amazing Grace” is the melody, those smooth waves rising and resolving.
Partly it is the sweetness of an achieved serenity, in which a “lost” and “blind”
past has been absorbed into a present that ripples with goodness and peace.
As a pinch of salt accentuates a dish’s sweetness, or a dash of black makes a
gallon of white paint more vividly white, the song makes me appreciate being found
as a child in a game of lost-and-found might appreciate it, or as a child who has
accidentally strayed might be extra grateful when family shows up and dinner is
waiting. Although the song does not explicitly say so, to be lost to oneself—and
there are so many ways for that to happen—and then to have found oneself, is
to be at ease in body and mind. Blindness, though—or so it seems to me—is
something one wills. A hardness, an armoring of the self, a deliberate not-knowing,
not-feeling. A refusal to recognize reality. We all suffer some blindness, and we
know we do, and can’t help it.
Grace does the helping, the achieving, the accomplishing. Amazing grace, with
its lovely assonance, surrounds us with safety and enlightens our minds. We need
do nothing; it just happens—happens miraculously. Grace touches the heart and
teaches it to fear—fear what? Punishment, eternal punishment? Or staying lost
forever, without a family? Or being mired in self-hatred? Yet almost the instant
this fear is felt it is relieved, in the world of the song.
A friend of mine was an alcoholic, and he knew it, knew his drinking was wrecking
his life, wrecking his family. His wife was going to leave him; he couldn’t stop.
He tried and tried and kept on drinking. One day during a long drive heading
north through empty Michigan countryside, he heard himself saying, out loud,
“Jesus, Jesus, I can’t carry this. You take it.” And, he said, Jesus did take it. Some
kind of space opened, and he was sober ever after.
That’s grace, obviously. My friend deeply knew himself to be a “wretch” as a
drunkard. John Newton, the reformed slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,”
was telling his own life story. But something else is happening in the opening line
[ 8 4 ]
of the hymn as it performs what it describes, even for a relative non-wretch like me.
There is a sense that prayer is itself the answer to prayer, and in just the same way,
“Amazing Grace” becomes operative. When I say, “Amazing Grace, how sweet
the sound,” the phrase “how sweet the sound” is at once self-reflective, meaning
the sound of the words just said, just being said, and it also means the cosmic
sound that is a divine emanation, a force one can feel entering one’s body as it is
invoked. Pythagoras and others have believed in the sacred music of the spheres.
Buddhist philosophy speaks of a cosmic sound, nada, that may be heard within
in utter silence. Did the sound save a wretch like me? Just so, it is a paradox, and
I have long thought that paradox is the only proper way to speak of the divine.
Beyond the mystery of grace causing and relieving fear, I become engaged in
the “I” of the hymn shifting to “we.” We’ve come through a lot, with the help of
grace, and grace “will bring us home.” This brings us to the country of Pilgrim’s
Progress, where the saved are gathered by the river they are about to cross. The
final stanza’s invocation of time, ten thousand years as a portion of an eternity
spent in singing God’s praise, is lifted into ecstasy by “bright shining as the sun,”
which may refer to what it is like “there,” or to how brightly we ourselves will
shine. Past, present, future, and finally eternity become encompassed in brightness.
But it is the return of the refrain that I most truly embrace, or that embraces
me. And how this can happen without a trace of Christian “belief” on my part
is itself a mystery. Something to do with Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief,” I
suppose. Happily, this is not a mystery I feel any need to solve.
Alicia Ostriker has published sixteen volumes of poetry, most recently The Old
Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog and Waiting for the Light (both from Pittsburgh),
which received the National Jewish Book Award for poetry. As a critic, Ostriker is
the author of several books on poetry and on the Bible.
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise: The Beautiful Unordinary
S A CHILD GROWING UP on the island of Jamaica, it seemed to me that
people, especially women, were always singing hymns as they went about
their business. Women bending low over washtubs, or standing knee deep in
swift-running rivers, would produce scrub rhythms from the friction of soaped
cloth rubbed hard between fists, and over that wash-wash rhythm they would
moan hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Women ironing would sing too, accompanying their hymns with the thump
and slide of heavy clothes irons. One especially weighty iron was known as a “self[ 8 5 ]
heater” because it had a hollow interior designed to hold hell-hot coals. Perhaps I
imagined this, but the washerwomen seemed to favor hymns about sins being washed
white as snow—something most Jamaicans had never witnessed firsthand—and
the ironing women seemed to like hymns that lamented our trespasses and sins
and the consequent fear of hell. I like to think that the island was girdled round
by a kind of eremitical domestic holiness when those women sang.
On the streets of Kingston, preachers, often from revivalist or Pocomania groups
formed from the syncretization of African and European religions, would rock
out spirited versions of Christian hymns that married, as one of our philosophers
Rex Nettleford said, the melodies of Europe with the rhythms of Africa. Salvation
Army brass bands with their booming kettledrums contributed stirring renditions
of hymns as they marched out from the Bramwell Booth Memorial Hall onto the
streets of the city, there to lift up the fallen and convert the wayward.
Hymns were sung at political gatherings. “There Were Ninety and Nine” was
raised at every meeting of the People’s National Party, because it was the favorite
hymn of Norman Washington Manley, often called the father of modern Jamaica.
Jamaicans call this hymn and others like it “Sankeys,” after the powerful revival-style
hymns performed by the great American evangelist and baritone Ira D. Sankey.
Christian hymns were also routinely repurposed by Rastafarians, a religious
sect who regard their main mission as the decolonization of the minds of African
Jamaicans; so a Sankey like “If You Only Knew the Blessing that Salvation Brings,”
sung at a Rastafarian gathering or “reasoning,” would become “If You Only
Knew the Blessing Rastafari Brings.” Performed in a hypnotic chanting style and
underscored by powerful, explosive drumming, such hymns became anthems of
resistance, especially when delivered in the thunderous basso profundo of the
great Rastafarian elder Mortimo Planno, who was Bob Marley’s spiritual advisor.
But my mother and her people were Anglicans—or, as she preferred to say, they
belonged to the Church of England. Her father, in addition to being a village
lawyer, was the catechist in the local Anglican church, and so my mother and her
people all grew up entirely comfortable with the language of the Book of Common
Prayer and very familiar with hymns written by some of the finest poets in the
English language.
And my mother relied on hymns to get her through the daily rounds and
numerous tasks involved in raising nine children on not a lot of money. She would
sing these hymns in a funny out-of-breath style, opting to hum some lines low
under her breath as if internalizing their deeper meaning, and singing others
out loud, offering them up for all to hear in bursts of lament, praise, petition, or
thanksgiving. Ironically, one of her favorite hymns, “Immortal, Invisible, God
Only Wise,” was written in 1867 not by an Anglican but by a Scottish Methodist
minister, Reverend W. Chalmers Smith, and it has become my favorite hymn.
“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is a hymn I love and admire mainly
[ 8 6 ]
because it is a triumph of a praise song that uses words to describe the indescribable,
something to which any hard-grafting poet can relate.
It does so in what in the English moral philosopher Mary Warnock calls
“beautiful unordinary language,” the only language fit to describe God, who
cannot be seen through mortal eyes; who is immortal, most wise, most blessed
and most glorious; and above all, most worthy of the ultimate honorific, “the
Ancient of Days”; who is almighty and victorious and whose great name we praise.
When I was an art student I always used to pause as I sang that opening verse
and picture William Blake’s fiery rendering of Urizen setting a compass to the
earth; but some time ago something in me shifted, and now I see instead my
mother, her hair gone completely white, contained in that bright circle of Blake’s
making, and she is measuring yards of richly brocaded fabric with her worn
dressmaking tape measure.
I love, just love, what happens in the second verse of this hymn, where one of
the loveliest surprises I know of in all of writing occurs. The Immortal Invisible,
who does not rest or make haste, is described as “silent as light.” Not night, but
light. Lovely silent light which is invoked in every verse except verse three. And
then the old adage “waste not, want not” becomes a divine attribute of a mighty
God, who does not waste nor want. All throughout this hymn, there are graceful
gestures connecting the divine to the daily in lovely numinous hints.
I sang this hymn at least one hundred times at morning assembly during the
years I attended Saint Hugh’s School for Girls, founded for the education of
young ladies by the Anglican church in Kingston, Jamaica, over one hundred
years ago. I have sung it in churches in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in Toronto
and Vancouver, Canada, and at least once in Durham Cathedral in England. My
husband Ted Chamberlin and I chose it as the hymn for our wedding, so it has a
very special place in my worship life, but these days it seems to have taken on even
greater significance as I watch the news and I find myself turning to the lines:
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
These words reassure me that no matter how much injustice there is in the
world, there is an ultimate source of justice, one that can only be measured by
the heights of mountains. I am reassured too, that there is a supply of goodness
and love, which comes down from the clouds like rain, or snow, and because
this hymn is powered by the unordinary, this cloud-source of goodness and love
paradoxically flows like a fountain.
I feel the need to remind myself of the constant nature of the divine, which
“naught changeth” these days as I watch the news. Even as we mortals blossom
and flourish as leaves on a tree—and then, without a doubt, wither and perish.
[ 8 7 ]
In the original version of this hymn, the penultimate verse contains these lines,
which were changed, perhaps by the Wesleys:
But of all thy rich graces, this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.
I wish they had kept those words; for the graceful turn of veil into vile—a hard,
but so honest word which resonates with those of us who are painfully aware that
we often are, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “most miserable offenders.”
But mostly this is my favorite hymn because it almost succeeds in describing
what no one can ever fully describe: the greatest of all mysteries that is veiled in
silent light.
Lorna Goodison is the poet laureate of Jamaica. Her most recent collection is Collected
Poems (Carcanet). She is professor emerita of English and Afroamerican and African
studies at the University of Michigan.
Take My Hand, Precious Lord: A Short Treatise on Slowing Down
N THE MORNING OF AUGUST 20, 2016, I felt a subtle pinch in my
upper torso, right side. My wife and I were at our remote cabin in Washington
County, Maine, where, among other things, despite my seventy-three years, I’d
been training for a local twelve-mile paddle race. I felt fitter than I had in recent
years, when, nonetheless, and despite the fact that the contest was not divided
into age classes, I’d consistently finished at or near the head of the flotilla.
The 2016 race, however, was canceled—mercifully, perhaps—for fear of
lightning. I felt disappointment, but went about my business. I kept paddling
hard, training a young bird dog, chopping wood, and putting things up for the
winter in anticipation of our imminent departure for home. I never experienced
shortness of breath, no acute pain or crushing sensation, and, but for one very brief
and (then) inexplicable moment, no light-headedness. I did feel unusually tired for
the ensuing day and a half, and that mosquito-like pinch in my chest persisted.
At length, given that persistence and more importantly my family history—father,
grandfather, and great-grandfather all dead of coronaries in their fifties—my wife
and I decided I should go to the tiny clinic on the New Brunswick border. When,
after a blood test, the emergency room doctor informed me I was having a heart
attack, I was incredulous. Those were words spoken about other people, not me.
After the three-hour ambulance ride to Bangor and some hours in which the
nitroglycerin did not eliminate that little mosquito pinch, I remember being
wheeled at what seemed an alarmingly fast clip to some location within the
[ 8 8 ]
Eastern Maine Medical Center, where a stent would soon be inserted into my
one-hundred-percent occluded right coronary artery.
Sixteen days later, I was in cardio rehab, keeping my heart rate between 125 and
135 for forty minutes at a clip, feeling fitter than before, when I hadn’t known a
thing was wrong with me. Luckily, damage to the heart proved minimal, and I
have felt very well ever since. No need for nitro; textbook blood pressure; in short,
little to alarm me. Touch wood.
But it’s that whirlwind trip to the operating room that I recall most vividly. I
can’t say I felt terror, because I didn’t. It was something else that I can’t adequately
describe: I can say only that the speed of my world in its spinning unsettled me,
to use an imprecise verb. I tried to study things on the corridor ceilings—a water
stain, a light fixture, a sheet rock seam, what have you—but no sooner did I fix
my eye on whatever it was than it vanished.
I am one who from his middle years onward has chosen to believe in grace, by
which of course I mean unmerited favor. That the opening of the most famous
hymn composed by Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, came to mind
strikes me in retrospect as oddly unsurprising, though in my all-white, Vermont
Congregational church this is not a hymn much heard:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light....
Yet of course I can’t logically account for why “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”
should have sung itself to me, as it were, in crisis. (If grace were logical, it wouldn’t
be grace.) Of course, it is a famous hymn, and in its rawness and directness, a
perfect product of its tragic occasion. Mr. Dorsey, who beforehand was a fairly
prominent purveyor of “devil’s music,” had confronted the death of his wife Nettie
in childbirth, and, within forty-eight hours, the death of their baby as well. If I
too felt tired, weak, and worn, as a blessed husband and father, I can’t imagine
how Georgia Tom (Dorsey’s moniker in his bluesman days) must have felt in his
far more taxing circumstance. He later spoke of how spontaneously the hymn
had come to him: he simply started to sing its words.
Somehow, on hearing those very words within my soul (likely in the voice of
Mahalia Jackson, who rendered them so movingly at Dr. King’s funeral), I did
sense that I’d somehow passed through a storm, that light shone ahead. I sensed
this chiefly because that full-tilt world had abruptly slowed down. Indeed, things
now seemed to transpire as if in cinematic slow motion.
This was not, perhaps, the greatest instance of grace in my life. That surely
occurred when, many years back, I found myself in abiding recovery from alcoholism.
[ 8 9 ]
I had tried and tried to get away from alcohol and in some measure drugs and
never succeeded for any length of time. Then some power greater than my puny
little will mercifully intervened.
Those of us who have found sobriety by way of twelve-step programs frequently
recite the so-called Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr: God grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference. That this simple and cogent entreaty should
have seamlessly introduced itself into the still, small space created by Thomas
Dorsey’s poignant hymn did not strike me as strange on that gurney ride.
It still doesn’t. In many ways, these two prayers—one sung, the other recited—
voice the same plea for comfort and resolve. To be sure, as with so many similar
moments of clarity, I will forget them for stretches of the time left to me,
suppressing that sense of calm and deliberation in favor of whatever idle ends I
cling to even in professional retirement. But the contingency of Thomas Dorsey’s
hymn and Niebuhr’s prayer in that hour on that day in that hospital is something
that I will always own and can always refer to. I have faith that one or the other
or both will be available when I most need them against the helter-skelter of so
much human experience.
Sydney Lea’s thirteenth collection of poems, Here (Four Way), is forthcoming in 2019,
as are The Music of What Happens, his collected newspaper columns from his years
as Vermont poet laureate, and Growing Old in Poetry, a reissue of his collaborative
book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown (both from Green Writers).
Your Face Has Always Been Peppered with Moles
for Granny
For as long as I’ve witnessed the affliction of light
washing over your skin like this, as you stand hunched
over the pink lip of the sink, scrubbing, Sunday spilling
through these small windows of time, lighting up
the kitchen like some pancake-flipping ghost,
your face has always been peppered with moles.
Pray tell, was this his answer to your asking for
guidance while posed on your knees that night, and
that night, and that night? I don’t remember it, but
you were a girl once, and as such, had gifts, talents;
there were things you could do, within reason, that men
simply couldn’t—or refused to, if that seems less of a lie.
I’ve seen the pictures to prove it wasn’t looks that held you
back in life, short of looking Negro in backwards, backwoods
Mississippi, way back then, even now, even here: sweet home…
But let’s not dwell long on appearances, please: that is a concern
for the barber, not for the barber’s wife outside of morning service
or allusion to what sits atop the table awaiting a knife and a fork.
I don’t know a thing about marriage aside from the smell when
it’s burnt, which is a manner of saying soul food might pass along
with you; but I do know a long-time diabetic has no need for this
many cakes. Whenever my birthday comes, Christmas, I can
count on a twenty-dollar bill folded into a card, the card itself
equating to another four or five bucks if Hallmark brand,
though the gesture is always “a mark of genuineness.” Yes,
C H A R L E S T O N :
I suspect there’s an excess of sugar somewhere in all of this—
being an accelerated math student and all—but right now
the Bulls are playing a nationally televised game, and
Hinrich just turned the ball over late in the fourth quarter,
making a white boy mistake, which I can tell by the way
you inflect shiiittt, holding its one syllable like a hymn note
while I tend to my supply store Styrofoam lunch tray,
brown eyes locked on black-eyed peas, butterbeans,
collard greens, mac and cheese and chicken piece, fried,
that I pepper for spice yet somehow, to me, comes off
sweet: home.
[ 9 2 ]
C H A R L E S T O N :
Psalm for P.
Either I’m praying, or I’m holding my hand with my hand.
I suppose both are small beggings for favor, simply directed
at different thrones. Across the congregation, I’m known as
your son even before God’s—and what a pregnant admission
that is; your voice, among the choir, is exalted, anointed a
favorite by pastor and flock. Just as you sing of the Lord,
you order my steps, and I follow, walking the straight and
narrow, falling between stern lines you’ve drawn though my
body curves as any other boy’s would when inert on sidewalk,
skirted by chalk held in a gloved hand. Shudder to think of all
that wasted labor, of a child lost like that, though there is grace
in knowing, once, I was as small as a silver bullet in your belly,
but a kind, hopefully, filling a hole in you, warmly, without pain.
This was a time before I had a name, whether first or last, meaning
I couldn’t yet have a father to know, to take after or take up for or
the place of when something heavy needs to be lifted in this house
of two stories: hers and his. In the beginning, of course, I was yours
completely, solely, some saccharine in the fabric of your carbonating
blood. Because gospel, by definition, requires there be good news,
because I was born from touch until told otherwise, because touch
can mean either life or death depending on where and how deep
or hard, between us, let’s agree you were virgin then and virgin
now, four kids later, whatever tenderness there was between
you and him the ghost of a ghost of a ghost, what I am, what
we four are in that story: higher beings, wounds and all—
holes in our hands, but still able to hold the whole world.
[ 9 3 ]
House of Sparrows
What if every time we saw the word sorrow
we switched it to sparrow?
For my life is spent with sparrows...
With drunkenness and sparrows…
Or if it went the other way, the song would be,
His eye is on the sorrow….
My eye’s on the neighbor’s eaves,
and the copper-roofed house we put up in our yard,
its many rooms, multiple nests, generations—
as if we brought this clamor on ourselves,
this hurdy-gurdy, rabble, host and quarrel
of sparrows
mixed with the morning radio
broadcasting a bombed hospital, bodies
under fallen roof tiles, shards of over-voice and wailing,
while outside birds flare up, knock each other off the feeder,
sparrows the color of rubble, of dust and mud,
burnt cars, blown-out windows, of wreckage
they could roost in, the earth a house of sparrows
S H O L L :
on Sparrow Street, hunger house, and woe
to the poor who are spared nothing,
who gather at borders to beg and forage, are sold
two for a penny, five for two cents….
And yet doesn’t it say the Lord God
attends—bends down to count
each one shot, starved, buried in rubble?—
a man of sparrows and acquainted with grief.
Who says, when I bow my head,
Sparrows are better than laughter,
and to the rabble, the wailing, the how, the when,
who says,
Your sparrows will turn to joy—
[ 9 5 ]
S H O L L :
I wouldn’t call gulping a glass of ale
and backhanding foam off your upper lip
a form of devotion, or the refusal
to laugh at an off-color joke a sign
of reverence. But I could imagine God,
a wounded rat in one hand, a soothing song—
I do not say on his lips. No, it’s snowmelt
running along the street toward the sewer,
and in the gutter, huge and dead, is the rat—
all of which, why not, might as well be God,
as different from what we suppose as fire
from firefly, ash from snow falling
on your shoulder. And just try to push
a baby carriage past a dead rat without
a shudder and that “ew”—the sound
a young woman with all her life ahead
makes at foreign and cringe-worthy death,
the opposite of breasts fat with milk.
Years ago, and still that rat’s gnawing
through my brain like something God might do
with his first shall be last and fear not,
little flock: sell all you have. That rat,
the size of a cat, so maybe I could have
imagined it purring, not chewing its way
into the crib at night. Fat chance.
To love a rat, a mosquito, junkie,
an ex-con, Exxon, the tough girl who shoved you
against your locker, the kid with razor scars
on his cheekbones looking sullen as if
you’re a pigeon to be x’ed off the street—
[ 9 6 ]
S H O L L :
it doesn’t even sound easy. They say
the church down the block has a bone shard
chipped from the jaw of someone who laid hands
on a fevered girl and she sprang up cured.
Size of a fingernail, kept in a box.
The church is a box they open a little,
but not too much. So God has to seep in,
as on that unnaturally warm New Year’s Day
full of car exhaust, trolley clatter, shy men
outside the bodega who’ve watched for months
and finally get to coo at my new baby: God
has to move through snowmelt, uncollected trash,
burn smells from the torched warehouse; has to
stand there and knock at the church door.
Wet fur, twitchy whiskers.
[ 9 7 ]
S H O L L :
Thinking of Jonah at the Children’s Museum
Zipped inside a nylon whale, breathing air
pumped into that fishy tent, hard not to think
of Jonah, sorry and scarved in seaweed,
hard not to picture the ship receding,
huge watery acres of abyss, breakers
sweeping over. And jaws, the tight squeeze
through baleen, stew of stomach acid…
Until then, easy for him to not want
Nineveh spared—no TV image to show
funnel or mushroom cloud, barrel bomb
falling on market stalls, hospitals, schools,
on children like ours now in the pretend
grocery paying play money for empty
cereal boxes and wooden apples. Jonah,
like any self-declared judge and jury
justifying jihad, Jim Crow—until, cast down,
cast off, banished from the living, shut
inside the jail of himself, he cries out.
And does he hear the whale sing its eerie
God-speak, like wordless Jehovah in highpitched echo and reverb? After which, he’s out,
hurled, as if he’s just stumbled from a club
after how many volts of trumpet or sax
have jolted through him from some quartet’s
live socket, stumbled out, all circuits blown,
no sense who he is, where he’s from, no calling
down judgment on another soul. So much
unknowing—what would you call that? Joy?
[ 9 8 ]
The Impossible Song
Poetry and the Longing
for Perfect Praise
How can the arts teach us to savor the beauty, power, and dynamism of language in
a liturgical context? As an accompaniment to poets’ reflections on favorite hymns
and spiritual songs, we invited a group of pastors, scholars, and liturgists to comment
on the relationship between the language of poetry and the language of worship.
This Is the Night
T’S SATURDAY NIGHT. Darkness creeps upon the city as folks rush about
to parties and dinners. On one street corner, a group of worshippers gathers
around a recently lit fire. Strange words are uttered over a colossal candle that will
soon illuminate a pitch-black church. The worshippers shuffle in off the street,
professing that Christ is the light of the world. Then, from the darkness, we hear
the first words of an ancient hymn of blessing: “Exult, let them exult.”
The singing of the Exsultet, that ancient Latin blessing prayer, captures the
imagination of even the staunchest ecclesial critic. The text of the hymn juxtaposes
the dawning light of the resurrection with the brilliance of the recently lit candle.
The earth-shattering quality of the resurrection is represented by the voice of the
people, who now cause this holy building to tremble with joy. All of salvation history
becomes present in this single night of joy. This is the night of the Exodus. This
is the night of the pilgrimage in the desert. This is the night of the resurrection.
Even the candle is transformed through the power of this night. The poetry of
the Exsultet culminates in a nuptial song: “O truly blessed night, when things of
heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” Through this hymn
of praise, this poem of astonishment, the wonder of fiery brilliance becomes even
more wondrous. It is Christ’s resurrection made present among us.
The Exsultet functions as an icon of liturgical poetry. The singing of hymns
of praise in the liturgy is not reducible to aesthetic delight. Liturgical hymnody
operates in what the ritual theorist Victor Turner calls the subjunctive mood,
creating a world “as if.” This night is the night. This singing is the chorus of angels.
This candle becomes the light of the resurrection. There is an efficacious quality to
the liturgical lyric whereby words are not merely objects of aesthetic contemplation.
Liturgical hymnody is a performance of salvation that unfolds through seeding
the imagination, cultivating desire, and inviting the singer to become an actor in
the narrative of salvation.
In her work on medieval memory, Mary Carruthers describes the intimate
connection between memory and imagination in medieval psychology. Through
the senses, human beings collect a variety of images of the world. These experiences
become part of the faculty of the memory, a storehouse of the human person’s
experiences. These images (which may be aural, tactile, or visual) become the
playground for the imagination. The imagination can combine them into new
structures, opening up the possibility of novel experiences, enriching the faculty
of memory.
For example, I have had an experience of both snow and a horse. Even if I’ve
never seen a horse in the snow, my imagination allows me to bring to mind the
image of a horse running in the snow. Although it would be odd to do so, I have
the capacity to contemplate this constructed image interiorly as much as I’d like
to, undoubtedly changing the way that I relate to snow and horses alike.
The close connection between memory and imagination is essential to grasping
the formative quality of liturgical hymnody. Liturgical hymns take up wellknown images of salvation, grounded in the church’s memory, allowing them
to be savored anew through the act of imagining. Adam of St. Victor’s sequence
for the feast of the Purification reads: Verbum patris lux est vera / virginalis caro
cera / Christus splendens cereus (“The Word of the Father is the true light / the
flesh of the Virgin is the wax / Christ is the shining candle”). The liturgical act
of processing with lit candles now becomes a poetic image for the mystery of
the incarnation. The Father’s Word becomes luminous. The Virgin’s flesh is the
soft wax that feeds the flame of love. And the candle itself is Christ. The visit to
Simeon in the Gospel of Luke is enriched in the memory of the singer through
the liturgical poet’s imaginative faculty.
This transformation of the memory may be found particularly in the devotional
poetry of Christina Rossetti. Her famous “A Christmas Carol” (which later
became the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter”) paints a pastoral scene
of a snow-encrusted English countryside. Within this frosty landscape, Christ is
born among the poor beasts of the field. He receives a loving kiss from his mother,
an act of worship more radical than that of the angels. The poem juxtaposes the
memory of a snowy field and the Christmas story, but not out of Pollyannaish
sentimentality. Instead, the reader is to perceive his or her own world as the space
of the incarnation: “What can I give Him, / Poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd
[ 1 0 0 ]
/ I would bring a lamb, / If I were a Wise Man / I would do my part,— / Yet
what I can I give Him, / Give my heart.”
The hymn underlines the fact that remembering the incarnation is insufficient
unto itself. Instead, the singer of this hymn in a liturgical context participates in
an imaginative reconstruction of the incarnation, one where the proper response
is the offering of oneself.
Liturgical poetry and hymnody alike elicit desire. Perfect praise necessitates
that the singer endlessly desire a more perfect way to praise the living God. In
Robert Southwell’s Eucharistic poem “Christ’s bloody sweate,” the Eucharistic
species is denominated as “Fatt soyle, full springe, sweete olive, grape of blisse
/ That yeldes, that streames, that powres, that dost distil / Untild, undrawne,
unstampde, untouchd of presse / Deare fruit, cleare brooks, fayre oyle, sweete
wine at will.” There is no acceptable act of speech that can capture the gift of
the Eucharistic sacrifice. And thus human speech must begin anew each time.
The liturgical hymn must be dedicated to increasing the Christian’s desire to
participate in the impossible act of perfect praise. Liturgical hymns do so in three
ways. First, they address God as the one who can never be adequately praised.
Michael Perry’s contemporary hymn “O God Beyond All Praising” is an intentionally
ironic piece. If God is beyond all praising, why is the human voice continuing to
offer to God “songs that cannot repay”? The poetic form of the liturgical hymn
allows the composer to continue to revise the act of praise, enabling the singer
to never rest with one single moment of adoration.
Second, liturgical hymns in the West have tended to end with doxologies or an
eschatological motif. “The Church’s One Foundation,” a hymn written during
a conflict in the Anglican communion, bestows a final vision of the heavenly
vocation of humanity:
Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with Thee.
One concludes the act of praise not through settling upon a final idea of the
church’s existence in history. Rather, the singer ends with a desire to become part
of the communion of saints. As the hymn concludes, as the music ceases, this
desire is the one that is to remain in the heart of the singer.
Lastly, liturgical hymnody sets words to music. Music is related intimately to
the act of desire. For music creates patterns in the memory that the ears want
[ 1 0 1 ]
to hear completed. The silence at the end of any hymn, the end of speech and
music alike, now becomes an image of the soul’s very desire for God. To sing
a liturgical hymn in poetic form is to long for God’s completion. It is to desire
anew. Hymnody thus creates a world in which one’s heart is restless for perfect
divine praise.
Liturgical hymns invite the singer to participate in the lyric through the act
of singing. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns contemplate the various mysteries of
salvation. But the final stanza always turns upon the singer such as in this hymn
on the resurrection of Christ:
May my dead soul, O Savior, rise again with you.
Do not let grief destroy it, and may it not come to forget
those songs that sanctify it.
Yes, O Merciful Lord, I implore you, do not abandon me
who am stained with offences,
For in iniquities and in sins my mother bore me.
The self is implicated in the act of the hymn, transformed in the process of
singing. The resurrection is not an abstract phenomenon now captured using an
aesthetic medium. Instead, it is an event that has meaning for the singer. The
singer dies to sin and rises to new life through the act of singing.
Liturgical hymnody, in this sense, reveals the ultimate power of poetry as a
whole. Poetry is not merely about appreciation. It is a way of participating anew in
reality, of becoming a new kind of person. When one is reading Emily Dickinson’s
“I heard a Fly buzz,” the poetic experience is not a matter of merely appreciating
the narrative and lyric genius of the poet. Dickinson wants one to enter into the
experience of dying, to let her lyric “I” become “me.” I, like Dickinson, must
imagine what it means to “not see to see—.” To read Dickinson is to practice dying.
Liturgical hymns in particular maintain this performative dimension of poetry.
A hymn like “We Three Kings” successfully invites the singer to become the kings
who offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the hymn concludes as the entire
assembly becomes the communion of saints who offer their voices in praise to
God: “Glorious now behold Him arise; / King and God and sacrifice; / Alleluia!
Alleluia! / Earth to Heaven replies.” The singers’ voices now become the sacrifice
of praise to God. It’s not gold that is offered. It’s the entire self, who becomes a
gift to the epiphanic Word made flesh.
Liturgical hymnody creates a subjunctive world. A world in which the memory
of the singer is renewed through the act of imagination. A world in which no
act of speech is a complete gift to God. A world in which the singer becomes a
participant in the mystery of salvation. It is the poetic dimension of this hymnody
that allows the worshipper to participate in divine salvation. And perhaps this
hymnody may remind the poet that the purpose of the lyric or epic is not merely
[ 1 0 2 ]
didactic or aesthetic. It is the creation of a world “as if.” A world, in the case of
the Christian, that is.
After all, this is the night.
Timothy P. O’Malley, PhD, is director of education at the McGrath Institute for
Church Life. He also teaches in the department of theology at the University of Notre
Dame in liturgical-sacramental theology, catechesis, and spirituality. THOMAS H. TROEGER
Each Breath Is Borrowed Air
HE PROSPECTUS FOR THIS SERIES of essays requests that I write about
“some aspect of the way poetry and hymnody feed and nurture each other.”
For someone whose mother often recited poetry and sang and played hymns to
him, who has read poetry and sung hymns ever since, and has now been creating
hymn texts for forty years, this statement is problematic. It assumes that poetry
and hymnody are two different genres, whereas hymnody is in fact poetry, albeit
of a particular kind. Once we acknowledge this, we can explore in more nuanced
ways the nurturing conversation that can be cultivated between hymnody and
other forms of poetry. The first step in building that relationship is to recognize
the unique characteristics of hymns as poems.
Some might characterize hymnody as formal poetry, because most English
language hymns are written to specific meters and usually feature regular rhyme
schemes. For this reason there is a temptation to disparage hymns as mere
“verse,” especially since there is a contemporary tendency to think less of poets
who employ traditional, formal conventions. As Christian Wiman observed in his
recent tribute to Richard Wilbur: “Wilbur has long been praised for his formal
accomplishments. Often there has been some condescension in the praise since
we live in a time that prizes innovation, and Wilbur is one of those artists who
perfected rather than invented a style.” The same might be said of the most
beloved “hymnpoets,” a term I have coined to make clear that hymnody is a form
of poetry. To the extent that they use established meters and rhyme schemes, they
perfect rather than invent a style. However, such perfecting does not exclude the
possibility of novelty and invention.
For example, many years ago, a group of clergy were holding a conference
on “ministry in a postmodern world.” (“Postmodern” was then a trendy word
meaning many things to different people, but in general it signified that all
authority was under suspicion for its self-serving interests.) These ministers were
feeling postmodernity in the way their own authority was not nearly as stable as it
[ 1 0 3 ]
had been when they were first ordained. Their conference was to be held during
the season of Epiphany, and so they asked me to create for them a postmodern
Epiphany hymn in 8-7-8-7 D, one of the most popular classical hymn meters:
“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” are
both written to 8-7-8-7 D. Since Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi
before the newborn Christ, I started with the imagery of the star—only now in
a postmodern vein:
When there is no star to guide you
and you cannot wait for day
and your ancient maps provide you
only hints to find the way,
keep within each other’s calling,
mark each time you make a turn,
shout for help if you are falling,
tell each other all you learn.
The poet Donald Davie, in his introduction to the 1981 edition of the New
Oxford Book of Christian Verse, made a strong case for what he terms “the plain
style” that characterizes most hymns: “Among the pleas, never long stilled, that
poetry be brought ‘to the people,’ we habitually overlook this poetry that has
been brought to the people, and still abides with them.”
We also need to consider that hymnpoets write in a more classical than Romantic
mode. T.S. Eliot writes that classical poets “arrive at poetry through eloquence....
Wisdom has the primacy over inspiration...[and they] are more concerned with
the world about them than with their own joys and sorrows, and concerned with
their own feelings in their likeness to those of other men [and women] rather
than in their particularity.”
Eliot’s classical poet stands in contrast to Helen Vendler’s assessment of what
is valued by contemporary critics and readers: “The price paid for individuality
of voice—the quality, after all, for which we remember poets—is absolute social
singularity. Each poet is a species to himself, a mutant in the human herd, speaking
an idiolect he shares with no one.”
I find nurture as a hymn writer in poets who have their own idiolect, whose
language is striking and original enough to spark my own imagination, while at
the same time I strive to maintain enough of the classical poet’s consciousness
that I consider my own feelings “in their likeness to those of other men [and
women] rather than in their particularity.” Thus the classical and Romantic
poets converse within me when I am creating hymns. As a hymnpoet, I write as
a congregation member, mindful of all those who will be singing my words as
the corporate body of Christ.
Yet at the same time I want to help them experience the gospel in fresh ways
[ 1 0 4 ]
through inventive language, language that leans toward the idiomatic without
losing touch with the communal. I think of this as stretching or expanding
the communal hymnic idiom. For example, in writing about the annunciation,
instead of using a word like “mystery” or naming a doctrine (“Of the Father’s
love begotten, / ere the worlds began to be”), I decided to probe the experience
of the mystery, attempting to awaken wonder through words that I hope might
astonish without leaving us utterly baffled:
Startled by a holy humming
drumming in her heart and ear,
Mary heard an angel coming,
Gabriel was drawing near.
From the loud though soundless beating
of the flashing, unseen wings
pulsed the words of sacred greeting:
she would bear the king of kings.
I have heard from churches that find the hymn too strange, and from churches
that look forward to singing it every year, to Carol Doran’s haunting setting.
Whether or not a new hymnic idiom goes too far or not far enough is a judgment
that emerges over time. But that is equally true of other forms of poetry, whether
they be classical or Romantic, communal or idiocentric.
Hymns face another challenge in being taken seriously as poetry: they are
about God, and that makes their literary merit suspect to many. As Ruth Franklin
wrote of Mary Oliver in The New Yorker: “Still, perhaps because she writes
about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has
not been taken seriously by most poetry critics.” But just as Helen Vendler’s
“idiolect” of contemporary poetry can stir hymnpoets to risk more experimental
language, so too can the anti-theological bias of much literary poetry be helpful
to a church that needs new ways of talking about God. Certainly such a need is
present in many congregations, as well as in a world that seeks authentic forms
of spirituality.
For example, a congregation celebrating the historic founding of their church
once commissioned me to write a hymn of praise. In a telephone conversation,
one of them warned me that although they were asking me to write a hymn of
praise, several of them were “iffy about God.” As I worked on the hymn, that
phrase echoed in my head. It forced me to think. How do we talk about praising
the source of our being when we are iffy about God? I decided that what we
are not iffy about is the materiality of our being, and that if I started from that
reality, then perhaps I could present the wonder of existence in a way that God
is known, if not explicitly addressed with a divine name:
[ 1 0 5 ]
Each breath is borrowed air,
not ours to keep and own,
and all our breaths as one declare
what wisdom long has known:
to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.
The sea flows in our veins.
The dust of stars is spun
to form the coiled, encoded skeins
by which our cells are run:
to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.
From earth and sea and dust
arise yet greater things,
the wonders born of love and trust,
a grateful heart that sings:
to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.
And when our death draws near
and tries to dim our song,
our parting breath will make it clear
to whom we still belong:
to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.
So here are at least four conversation points at which hymnpoets can be nurtured
by poets working in a host of other forms: hymnpoets can use traditional forms to
give expression to contemporary concerns; they can work to balance the classical
and Romantic voices that sound within them; they can expand the idiom of
hymnody by listening to the idiolect of poets who are not writing for a singing
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community; and they can explore new ways of talking about the deep, dear core
of things in ways that do not rely on traditional ways of naming the divine.
Thomas H. Troeger studied to become a flutist but under the impact of a great preacher
entered the ministry. After serving as a pastor, he began teaching homiletics, hymnody,
and liturgics, with a focus on the role of the imagination in preaching and worship.
Stand By Me
REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I heard—really heard—the refrain “Stand
by me,” sung by a member of the choir at Saint Peter’s Baptist Church in the
village of Allen in Clarke County, Alabama. The song had no ingrained meaning
to me then. I recognized the hymn, but I did not know its power. I was fascinated,
though, by the reaction when the congregants heard the opening notes of the
prelude. They immediately came to life. At the first arpeggiated piano chord played
by the worn hands of a farmer, some churchgoers stood, some moved their fingers
as if to play imaginary instruments, some smiled so hard as to grimace.
“Stand by Me,” in all its grandeur, had a mysterious generational appeal.
Grandparents gently swayed while mouthing the words with hints of tears either
on the way or already gone. Parents sporadically clapped, not to the beat of the
music, but to the pulse of the text, sometimes bursting out with an enthusiastic
“Yes, Lord!” “Hallelujah!” or “Jesus!” But to us, the young people, it was old,
stale, and irrelevant. Even so, we sensed an inherent reverence in the mystical rite
of invoking God to “stand by me.”
As a child, I recognized the song. In my teen years, I could hear the words. As
a young adult, I learned the text. Now, in my fourth decade, I know the hymn. I
have walked the terrain of which it speaks. I have heard the moans, groans, cries,
and hollers implied by its historical and theological narrative. I have experienced
the joys and cares of mortality. I have tasted the bitter cocktail of fear, anger,
and anxiety while thirsting for the balm that offers hope for tomorrow and heals
yesterday’s wounds.
There is a grim beauty, a complex simplicity, and an accessible yet inconsumable
truth in the urgent invocation in the five stanzas of Reverend Charles Albert
Tindley’s opus. Whether sung as an upbeat congregational selection anchored
with a subdivided quarter pace, or as a slow and drawn-out rubato solo filled
with painful melismas and desperate cadences, there is an inherent power in
experiencing it sung live. Still, I have never heard this hymn sung as powerfully or
empoweringly as by the unnamed gospel singer at the rural church that watches
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over the remains of my maternal ancestors resting in the adjacent cemetery. For
me, each stanza has become more and more painful to hear, yet easier to sing, as
I have matured from adolescent to the parent of two young people who recognize
the song and can hear the words, but do not yet know the text.
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me…
In 1905, Tindley, the son of a former slave and a free black woman, composed
the hymn while in the midst of leading Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal
Church into a new property in south Philadelphia. The self-educated pastor
expressed his personal faith that God, if petitioned, would stand by him through the
challenges of life and ministry. Tindley believed the storms of life were resolvable
and reconcilable by calling forth the ruler of the wind and seas to stand by him.
There was something peculiarly powerful as the robed singer stood flat-footed,
her back straight and head slightly tilted to the left—she sang and we felt it. Each
syllable rang through the wooden church house as if her articulation controlled
both the temperature and humidity of the space. We experienced the storms of
her breath and a subtle dampness with the mention of the sea. I felt it, but until
now, had no words to describe it.
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me (stand by me)
In the midst of tribulation, stand by me…
Tindley married Daisy Henry during his time in Maryland, and by 1905 the
couple had lost their thirteen-month-old daughter, Hester, to croup pneumonia.
Tindley knew tribulation intimately, even as the congregation that he served
continued to thrive and increase in size and stature day by day. His experience
with the hellish politics of Philadelphia as well as failing health made the physical
proximity of the divine, who never lost a battle, ever more important.
As the soloist sang the good news through the turbulent narrative, I noticed
an intentional darkness in the timbre of her voice. Without bitterness, but with
a residue of pain, she emoted each petition for God to stand by her. Over an
extended crescendo, her increasingly urgent appeal convinced me that her life
was on the line and her only hope was for God to stand by her. I really hoped
that day that God would grant her request. I hoped God would grant mine, too.
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When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me (stand by me).
In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me…
Tindley’s humble text offers his own faults and failures as an endearing
acknowledgement that none of us is perfect. Through the challenges of leading a
thriving congregation, representing people of color in Philadelphia politics, and
becoming recognized as a rising “prince of preachers,” Tindley inevitably had
to overcome his faults. He had many friends, but only the spirit who knew him
before he was born could offer the presence he needed.
That singer in Clarke County took so many risks with her rendition of the
sacred hymn. Yet even the notes she failed to hit had power. There seemed to be
some special dispensation of grace on her voice. In that moment, as she sang, I
felt a call to pray. I prayed for God’s forgiveness of my faults and failures while
simultaneously seeking God’s hand to hold.
When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou Who knowest all about me,
Stand by me (stand by me).
In the midst of persecution, Stand by me…
Tindley composed this hymn during the Progressive era. Known for its prolific
muckrakers, Jim and Jane Crow laws, and daunting Philadelphian political machine,
this was no age for the weak at heart. The persecution Tindley encountered was
not mere spiritual warfare, but the maiming of the body by systemic oppression in
many forms. His summoning the God of Paul and Silas still rings forth a century
later, as the hymn speaks poignantly to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter
and Me Too movements.
That singer’s gut-wrenching growl and mid-voice squall made this hymn live.
Experiencing it that way was a gift and a curse. Her song will never leave me, and
yet I will never again experience its spontaneous liberating power. I have never
been incarcerated, but if I were, I would sing just like she did, until the floors
shook, doors opened, cuffs loosened, and God was standing by me.
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When my foes in battle array
Undertake to stop my way,
Thou Who saved Paul and Silas,
Stand by me (stand by me).
When I’m growing old and feeble, Stand by me…
Tindley lived to eighty-two years of age. I wonder if the anxiety of his historic
platform made every day one where he faced the possibility of death. He wrote
this hymn during his fifth decade, having faced the changing nature of the human
condition. In essence, he knew both the fear and the fate of growing old, and like
all of us he had no desire to transition to the next journey alone.
Every time she tilted her head back to exhale the words “Stand by me,” I felt
God’s presence in ways I could not understand until now. Her sweat-drenched,
smooth caramel face shook as she puckered her rounded lips to add extra emphasis
to “me.” Memories of her singing have revived, restored, and rejuvenated me many
times over the past thirty years. I do not know her name and will never be able
to thank her in this life, but I am certain that God is standing by her, either here
or there, just as I know God is standing by me.
When my life becomes a burden,
And I’m nearing chilly Jordan,
O Thou “Lily of the Valley,”
Stand by me (stand by me).
Emmett G. Price III is dean of the chapel and professor of worship, church, and culture
at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also founding pastor of Community
of Love Christian Fellowship in the Allston neighborhood of Boston.
The Poetry of Liturgy
TELL THE STUDENTS in my theology classes that every choice of art in worship
opens up and closes down possibilities for the formation of our humanity. Art is
never neutral. It does things. The sixteenth-century poetry of Thomas Cranmer’s
Book of Common Prayer does something to our brains, if neuroscientists are to
be believed, that is utterly different from the effect of the dialogical poetry of
ad hoc Nigerian Pentecostal prayers. Art rouses the imagination, captures and
tinkers with the emotions, enlists our bodies and marshals metaphors that orient
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our sense of self in the world. Its powers sobered Plato—and plenty of Christians
since. It was Plato, incidentally, who said that it was “vain for the sober man to
knock at poesy’s door.”
I tell my students that liturgical poetry matters. Some of them readily believe me.
Some drift into boredom. Some question me, and they are right to do it. They see
the world differently, not least on account of their ecclesial contexts. Some go to
megachurches, some to Presbyterian church-plants in Seattle. Some go to Chinese
churches in Toronto or Catholic churches in Taiwan. One of my students goes to
“Beyoncé’s church” (a.k.a. Saint John’s United Methodist in Houston). Another
goes to no church because she is burned out on church. Heterogeneity marks the
theological landscape of their convictions about art and worship. Context informs
perspective, and perspective is everything, as cinematographers might tell us.
When I tell my students that poets are shepherds of words, as Eugene Peterson
once said, they ask, “But what counts as poetry?” When I argue that where language
is weak, theology is weakened, they counter, “But whose culture gets privileged
when we judge the language of our hymns?” When I cite the nineteenth-century
poet John Mason Neale as an exemplar, they cite Charles Albert Tindley, the
most prolific black hymn writer of the early twentieth century. Where I invoke
Isaac Watts and John Donne, they invoke Christy Nockels and Israel Houghton.
If I tell them that a good poet must be superlatively sensitive to the shades of
meanings of a word, to phonology, to metaphor, a master of syntax and a lover of
words, they will likely mumble: “That sounds like what an academic might say.”
I remind my students that at its best good poetry, like all good art, can make
the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Or as Wallace Stevens put it, in the
presence of good poetry we find ourselves “more truly and more strange.”
I teach my students that poetry is a kind of language that says more, and says it
more intensely, than ordinary language, borrowing Laurence Perrine’s definition.
Poetry involves densely woven speech; it’s suggestive rather than scientific. In
the hands of a poet, a generic falcon becomes “this morning morning’s minion,
king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,” as Gerard Manley
Hopkins’s “The Windhover” sees it: a perfectly particular falcon.
And, as the Psalter might have it, it is through poetry, not despite it, nor beyond
it, that faithful worship occurs.
God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.
This is how Eugene Peterson translates Psalm 19 in The Message. His use of
language calls to mind one of my favorite Christmas poems, which unfortunately
has never appeared in a modern hymnal. Its author, Phillips Brooks, born in 1835
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in Massachusetts, was the Harvard-educated pastor of Trinity Church and is perhaps
best known for giving Abraham Lincoln’s funeral oration and for publishing a
poem that he titled “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But it is an unpublished poem
that deserves, to my mind, special appreciation. It begins:
The silent skies are full of speech
For who hath ears to hear;
The winds are whispering each to each,
The moon is calling to the beach,
And stars their sacred wisdom teach
Of faith and love and fear.
But once the sky the silence broke,
And song o’erflowed the earth;
The midnight air with glory shook,
And angels mortal language spoke,
When God our human nature took,
In Christ the Saviour’s birth.
A good hymn does double duty. In addition to its fundamental task of facilitating
the praise of God, it both delights and instructs. It arouses the affections and
it teaches doctrine. Most Christians’ primary exposure to theology will occur
through the hymns they sing. In certain cases, as the Anglican pastor George
Herbert knew firsthand, “a verse may find him, who a sermon flies / And turn
delight into a sacrifice.” This is why, I repeatedly tell my students, thoughtful,
well-crafted poetry matters to the songs we sing in public worship. Phillips Brooks
gets the birth narrative of Christ right (while the latest hit on K-Love gets it wrong,
as often as not) because he sees the intertextual, theologically dense nature of
the gospel accounts.
When I am cranky, I will say things in class that I might regret about the
amount of schlocky poetry that shows up in contemporary worship music. I want
to pull my hair out every time I am asked to sing phrases like “You unravel me
with a melody” or “I’m beautifully in over my head.” I want to throw up my
hands when we neglect the pilgrimage metaphor in favor of near-exclusive use of
the enraptured soul metaphor. I want to shout from the mountaintops that Percy
Dearmer’s translation of Aquinas’s Pange Lingua is ten thousand times better in
the soteriology department than Ben Fielding’s “What a Beautiful Name.”
Compare this:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
Sing the ending of the fray
Now above the Cross, the trophy,
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Sound the loud triumphant lay
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
As a Victim won the day.
With this:
You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now
An inherent danger to the academic is a spirit of crankiness. And where there
is crankiness without charity, something ugly results. When I let myself become
small-hearted, I lose my capacity to see. I fail to see the good that Hillsong’s
massively popular “Oceans” might offer the church. I fail to see how the tad-stuffy
Reformed inflections of Townend and Getty’s “In Christ Alone” bless Christians
across denominational lines. I fail to see how the simplicity of spirituals enables
the all-too-familiar gospel to become strangely good news again. All of this is a
roundabout way of saying that I experience a failure of love.
What might I see if I looked with a more charitable spirit?
In “Oceans” I might see a fascinating interplay between motifs of Saint Peter on
the water and the person of John the beloved. What might seem like a higgledypiggledy piling on of imagery might actually stimulate desire for the Divine Lover,
the infinitely personable God. The line, “My soul will rest in your embrace / For
I am Yours and You are mine,” might recall Catholic mystical writings which
promote an intensely sensory encounter with God. When matched to a pattern
of swelling sounds mimicking the swell of ocean waters, the poem invites the
singer to an immersive contemplation of Christ, in the rise and fall, push and pull
of desire for God that often characterizes our spiritual lives.
Where the poetry of “Oceans” invites the singer to a state of rapture, “In Christ
Alone” invites you to immerse yourself in the whole story of salvation. Here we
have Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the birth and resurrection of Christ, the gift of
righteousness and a divine wrath satisfied at Golgotha. Here guilt is removed,
death robbed of its sting, and life lived in confidence that no power can rob the
Christian of the irresistible love of God. The simple and accessible melody, in
the style of an Irish ballad, makes possible a broadly communal embrace of the
hymn. The gift of this song is an infectious tune that readily brings to mind a
beautiful poem about Christ’s salvific work.
Like anyone who loves poetry, I’m attached to my own notions of what makes
a good poem. But a spiritual like “’Tis the Old Ship of Zion” calls them into
question. Its verses follow a call and response pattern. The leader sings: “Ain’t no
danger in de water / Ain’t no danger in de water / Ain’t no danger in de water.”
The people sing: “Git on board, git on board.” Subsequent verses remind the
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singer that the “old ship” was good “for my dear mother” and “my dear father.”
For those who took swim lessons as children, “the water” may hold the promise
of joy and recreation. But this is not true for all. As Luke Powery remarks in his
book of Advent reflections on the spirituals, slaves were thrown overboard to
drown during the Middle Passage. “Water became a natural grave.” To sing “git
on board, git on board” is to identify with the plight of black Christians. And it
is not get—it is git. The editors of the hymnal Songs of Zion instruct singers not
to change the dialect, because it would undermine the performance of the song.
The poetry, in this case, as is the case in all our hymns, matters to the theology.
It matters to how Christians are formed in worship—to how they know and love
God. I tell my students that liturgical poetry is a way to access the heart of a
people. When we put on our lips the words of a sixteenth-century or twenty-first
century poet, whether simple or complex, strange or familiar, we also access by
grace the heart of God; at least that is what an academic might pray happens, not
just for others, but for himself, too.
An Anglican priest, W. David O. Taylor teaches theology at Fuller Theological
and Worship and the
Seminary. He is the author of
Arts (both from Eerdmans) and the forthcoming Honest to God (Thomas Nelson).
In 2016 he produced a short film on the psalms with Bono and Eugene Peterson.
The Image Turns Back
POEM HAS CHANGED MY MIND about the Eucharist. For the better
part of two decades—since I was baptized in a Cambridge college chapel,
inaugurating my life not just as a Christian, but as a Christian of the AnglicanEpiscopal sort—I have been mildly irked at my churches’ habit of using those
small round wafers during Communion. At the Methodist divinity school where
I teach, and at many of the Presbyterian or nondenominational churches I’ve
visited, the Lord’s Supper usually features a loaf of bread, sometimes baked by
one of the communicants. But most of the fifteen hundred or so Eucharists I’ve
received, and all but two or three of those I’ve celebrated, consecrate wafers. This
has irritated me. I read John 6, and I long to celebrate the Eucharist with bread
that more obviously evokes Jesus’s words. If I want to understand that Jesus-inthe-Eucharist is real food, wouldn’t the better ritual object be a baguette or a
stottie, rather than a wafer that feels and tastes like Kleenex stiffened with glue?
At church, we sing “Bread of Heaven, on thee we feed, for thou art our food
indeed,” and I find myself daydreaming about a parish bread guild; I imagine us
baking ciabatta and Irish soda bread; I imagine Moravian love feasts.
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Sometimes, I’m given a glimpse of how the wafer qua wafer might be instructive.
Icons that depict manna in the wilderness as Eucharistic wafers offer such a
glimpse. They remind me that the whole point is that the host is not, in fact,
ordinary bread, just as the manna was not ordinary bread—the host is precisely
bread that is also the flesh of Jesus. The panary irregularity of the wafer guards
against my mistaking the Eucharist for a meal that is made special because we
remember, rather than eat, Jesus.
I’m wary of reducing a poem (or, for that matter, an icon or a sacrament) to
its pedagogical potential—here’s what it can teach us—but poems (and icons and
sacraments) disclose, and when poems engage Christianity, they show us things
about God and the Christian life that theological treatises cannot. It is a poem’s
disclosure that has latterly made me glad that the Eucharistic community in which
I’ve landed prefers wafers to bread.
The most overtly Eucharistic of Elizabeth Jennings’s poems were published
in the decade before her 2001 death, and, in my judgment, they’re not her best
poetry—they’re a bit too direct. Yet they are right-headed: “the bread wraps /
Christ thinly in it,” she writes in “At Mass (I)”—“Time ceases when the gold
ciborium’s lid / Is lifted and Christ comes to us as still // As he was at his birth.”
And, in “At Mass (II),” “The celebration works on us.” When, after the Mass,
we return to the ordinary world, we’re able to see that world transfigured: “all
the usual things // Are shining with right purpose.”
Those poems pose with economy—and, in the case of her word “thinly,” with
striking complexity—commonplace truths about the Eucharist. It is Jennings’s
“A Full Moon” that showed me something less commonplace, something I’d
not yet seen:
Tonight the full moon is the Host held up
For everybody’s eyes
After those opening lines, Jennings limns biblical history (“we refused / To
leave one Tree alone” but God’s “overflowing grace / Gave us another chance”)
and diagnoses the human condition (“It seems we cannot bear for long / A simple
goodness but must choose the wrong // Because it looks so sweet”). And then
the poem returns to the lunar Eucharist:
That Host-like moon shines where
All can see him....
That moon in silence can
Elevate us till we long to know
The Trinity’s whole plan.
The moon allows human beings to mimic the choreography of the Host: drawn
heavenward by the full moon, we become, Host-like, something “elevate[d]”—
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and, when we receive the moon as a Eucharist of sorts (when we see that the
moon participates in the Eucharist), we are pulled by the moon past the moon
to its creator: “Nature was fashioned for this purpose. See / A moon remind us
of God’s ministry.”
On a straightforward reading, the poem means for me to look at the full moon and
see the flesh of Christ. Jennings’s evocation of the moon is not transcendentalism,
not Emerson’s learning “from nature the lesson of worship.” It is, rather, Jennings
showing readers how to see the world as a Christian—how to see, as Christina
Rossetti did, that “sparrow and lily…recall God’s providence, seed His Word, earthly
bread the Bread of Heaven, a plough the danger of drawing back”; or how to see,
as Justin Martyr did, the cross in ships’ masts, unicorn horns, and human noses.
Jennings may not have anticipated that “The Full Moon” would help an American
Episcopal priest appreciate her church’s wafer—a loaf of artisanal ciabatta might
make my Sunday Eucharist seem more like a real meal, but it wouldn’t allow me
to see the Eucharist in the sky at night. In “At Mass (II),” Jennings writes that
“Every moment of enchantment we’ve / ever known…here is present.” Yes—and,
like all the best metaphors, hers are recursive: showing the moon to be a Eucharist
of sorts is enchantment that loops back around to enchant my wafer. The poem,
like the Eucharist itself, has made an ordinary thing (a moon; a wafer) shine with
its right purpose.
What Jennings has offered is not just a metaphor or simile: because the cosmos
bears the image of its creator, traces of Jesus really are there in the moon. Poetry
is not first for didacticism, but teaching is one thing a poem can do, and I am
grateful to have been instructed by Jennings’s “Host-like moon.” I like looking up
at night and finding a vestige of Jesus; I prefer to live in a world that’s enchanted,
and not just commodified.
Ships’ masts may partake of the cross and the moon a Eucharist, but only eyes
trained to see the marks of the maker in creation will notice. (Just as a piece of
writing might carry the stylistic signature of Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot, but
untrained readers won’t perceive it.) Partakers of the Eucharist, too, need to be
taught what to see. In the early church, bishops worried about the anticlimax of
first Communion: “Perhaps you may say: I see something else; how do you tell
me that I receive the Body of Christ?” wrote Ambrose. The newly baptized had
to learn to see with “the eyes of the heart.”
I have begun taking poetry lessons. I’d like to learn to write a poem. But I’d
be satisfied if I could learn to see what’s really there in the poems I read. (Maybe
I’m being unfair to Jennings. Maybe her later Eucharistic poetry has formal
excellences I don’t know how to see.)
Yehuda Amichai’s “I Studied Love” is another poem that joins the moon
and liturgy. The narrator is a boy in synagogue, looking through the white lace
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partition that separates the sexes at prayer. He wishes to be with the women,
wishes to pray the prayers that only women pray.
And the faces of women like the face of the moon behind the clouds
or the full moon when the curtain parts: an enchanted
cosmic order. At night we said the blessing
over the moon outside, and I
thought about the women.
This, too, is instruction about figures and prayer. Amichai elongates the chain
of associations that Jennings began—Jennings sees her liturgical artifact (the
Eucharist) in a moon; Amichai first sees the moon in his liturgical artifact (the
women’s faces), and then he comes to find their faces in the moon.
The recursivity works like this: once you see that the moon is a Eucharist and
your Eucharist a moon, then all that you know about one becomes a key for
reading the other. You think about how the Eucharist is hidden, as the full moon
is always really present, but often hidden. Remembering what your auntie taught
you about herbs—that their healing properties are intensified if they’re gathered
under a plenilune—you sympathize with Christians in the Middle Ages, asking
priests to celebrate the Eucharist in their gardens, knowing the Eucharistic crumbs
would feed and magic their beets and lettuces. You ponder the long-held belief
that the full moon drives people crazy, and you think about the Eucharist as the
“insanity of the cross.”
“No poetic cliché is more weary than the moon,” wrote one of Dickinson’s
biographers (before proceeding to hymn the art Dickinson made from that
particular cliché). Perhaps the Eucharist is weary sometimes, too.
In one of those poems the Dickinson scholar loves, Dickinson likens the moon
she sees through a window to a guillotined head. Of course, now that’s what I
think about as I sit beside the reserved sacrament on Good Friday.
As we sing, “O sacred head now wounded.”
As we sing, “’Twas on that dark, that doleful night.”
As we sing, “The moon, the stars, the universe, their maker’s death bewail.”
Sources for this essay include: on seeing with the eyes of the heart, Georgia Frank’s
“‘Taste and See’: The Eucharist and the Eyes of Faith in the Fourth Century”; on the
insanity of the cross, Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing; on Dickinson’s wresting
luminous moon poems from a cliché, Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Lauren F. Winner is the vicar of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Louisburg,
North Carolina, and a professor at Duke Divinity School. Her book The Dangers
of Christian Practice (Yale) will be published in October.
[ 1 1 7 ]
Bishop (of air)
What is at first staring at birds on a wire
sooner or later if you think about it becomes staring into air.
This was the kind of staring I was doing the day of the blessing,
face to face with the bishop,
which was also the day I understood longitude and latitude
by way of the cross on my forehead.
I—my essence—was there in the middle where the oil
was thick, overlapping air and God who is both
through and across like a line of gold.
At least that’s one image I made of it.
Another was of all the particles that make me
finally concentrating in space. But as soon as I realized
my ecstasy, it no longer was ecstasy.
That is the nature of it. The beginning of the terminal wound.
S E A Y :
Bishop (of robes)
When my mother awakened me as a child,
her face was the entire room. Later, it was the bishop’s torso
that was the whole nave. Confronting me was a blue density, the body
from the ribs up. In my memory I am unable to recover the face
or the words. I know there was a hand on my head.
I know I wished to be told that I would never die,
would love somebody else, could become good.
I wanted to lay my secret down—No matter
where I stand, I am doing harm—
but there was no room in the bishop’s robes.
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Of a misty, low-sky morning pressed
upon the north sound islands there, just
beyond our glassy cove, one might draw
yet another sip from the steaming
mug and find that, yes, there is so little
to be known, so much to be supposed.
There beyond the concrete breakwater,
the seiner’s skiff begins drawing out
the unwieldy net, its tenders all
but indiscernible as they toil
at the stern, even as their modest
vessel skims aloft a gray abyss.
Just now I hear, from crowded branches
overhead, the starlings returning
to their habitual questioning.
I, too, resume my late morning mull—
not always the same puzzlements, not
exactly, but in kind more or less
approximate. From where I puzzle,
every clarity succumbs again
to appalling generosity.
Each brittle dogma softens in the mist
to far more sympathetic prospect.
Gershon Ben-Avraham earned an MA in philosophy (aesthetics) from Temple University, where
he studied with the American philosopher of art Monroe Beardsley. He and his wife live in Be’er
Sheva, Israel. His fiction and poetry frequently focus on faith frictions.
Paula Bohince is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Swallows and Waves
(Sarabande). She has been the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholar and a fellow of the NEA. She
lives in Pennsylvania.
Scott Cairns is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English at University of Missouri and serves
as director of the Seattle Pacific University low-residency MFA program in creative writing. His
nine poetry collections include Slow Pilgrim and the forthcoming Anaphora (both from Paraclete).
Cortney Lamar Charleston is a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellow and
author of Telepathologies (Saturnalia). His poems have appeared in Poetry, New England Review,
AGNI, and elsewhere.
Edward A. Dougherty, a former Brethren Volunteer Service worker at a peace center in Hiroshima,
is a professor of English at Corning Community College. His latest poetry collections are Grace
Street (Cayuga Lake) and Everyday Objects (Plain View).
James Harpur’s latest poetry book is The White Silhouette (Carcanet). He studied classics and
English at Cambridge University and has written books on pilgrimage and Christian mysticism.
He gives talks on poetry, art, and the imagination at universities and schools and is poetry editor
of the Temenos Academy Review.
Graham Hillard has contributed to previous issues of Image and to numerous other journals. He
is a recent recipient of an individual artist fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission and the
editor of the Cumberland River Review.
Jean Janzen is the author of seven books of poems and two books of essays, most recently What
the Body Knows (Cascadia). She has received an NEA grant for poetry and has taught at Eastern
Mennonite University and Fresno Pacific University.
John A. Kohan worked at Time magazine for twenty-two years and was bureau chief in Moscow
from 1988 to 1996. He owns the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection of contemporary religious art and
organizes church exhibitions from his holdings, most recently East Meets West: Women Icon-Makers
of Ukraine.
Allison Seay is the author of a book of poems, To See the Queen (Persea), and associate for religion
and the arts at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Luci Shaw has been writer-in-residence at Regent College since 1986 and has published over thirtyfive books of poetry and creative nonfiction. In 2013, she received Image’s annual Denise Levertov
Award. A new poetry collection, Eye of the Beholder, is forthcoming from Paraclete.
Betsy Sholl, former poet laureate of Maine, teaches in the MFA program of Vermont College of
Fine Arts. Her most recent book, Otherwise Unseeable (Wisconsin), won the 2015 Maine Literary
Award for poetry.
[ 1 2 1 ]
John Skillen earned his PhD in medieval and Renaissance studies from Duke University. He
founded Gordon College’s arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto, Italy, and now directs the
Orvieto-based Studio for Art, Faith & History. His recent book is Putting Art (Back) in Its Place
Yerra Sugarman is the author of two poetry collections: Forms of Gone and The Bag of Broken
Glass (both from Sheep Meadow). She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the
University of Houston.
Ashley Wong grew up in New Hampshire. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie
Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Salamander, and Fugue. She received an MFA from Boston
University where she was a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow to Timor-Leste.
This issue is supported by a grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship (
and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (
Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor
Poetry by Alicia Ostriker and Bruce Beasley
Ted Prescott on Representation and Appropriation
The Art of Shai Azoulay and Jörg Madlener
Jeanne Murray Walker: Saved by the Sonnet
Ron Hansen on Why We Tell Stories
Marie Curran on Home Birth
Michael Capps, Chair Ž Phil Cooke Ž Roger Feldman Ž Lawan Glasscock
Crosby Haffner Ž Bruce Herman Ž David Jennings
Andrea Codrington Lippke Ž Steven Purcell Ž Robert Royal Ray Sawatsky Ž Mark E.E. Sprinkle
[ 1 2 2 ]
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A week can change a life.
July 29–August 5, 2018
Santa Fe, NM
Chigozie Obioma
Gina Franco
Scott Cairns
Spiritual Writing:
Lauren Winner
Mixed Media:
Marianne Lettieri
Relief Printmaking:
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Over the Rhine
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& Hope:
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Block Party:
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Photo: Bob Denst
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