Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dido in Hell



Dido, once me, believed 
love-vows could be witnessed by the storm:
Breaking surf, unbroken, whipping wind
raising a rain shower—
the will of the gods an encircling wave
bringing the torch that the bridegroom gave.

Steeled Aeneas countered 
gods live both in men and in the storm:
Burning Cupid doused by Neptune swell
balancing blood's fervor—
his piety became the force to fire,
reflect, and drown my funeral pyre.

I, shade, then existed
so weather had nothing to do with me:
Waning sliver-moon, airless, dead night
cloaking a soul inured—
the love of One God now a flaming turn,
straining my flint-will twixt bend or burn.


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Zechariah



Zechariah was the chosen priest that year,
that year, like so many before it, in the turn of the land and the flight of birds,
the wet and the green, the dry and the brown:
but now the holy, third lot fell upon him, the lot of incense.
It was the first time for this old man.

Amidst the tonal minor of supplication
his bare feet slid across the marble;
he felt the cracks between stones pass under his poor and bare feet,
under his thick robes stiff with the eight layers of linen and coat,
under the turban that was like the bud of a flower,
under the finely woven byssus, under the weight of the nation,
like Moses going before the bush of fire.

He tended the fire in the Holy of Holies,
the sound of singing from the Temple steps muffled,
keening sounds creeping in like weak smoke up the folds of the heavy curtain.
Zechariah turned back to the silence and the fire,
and his thoughts,
the thoughts of his heart were like boulders, rocks falling on the immaculate floor,
rattling and cracking in that deep silence.

He wanted to weep,
because he could not
be silent enough inside.
He made an effort again and attended to the laying of the incense and again to the fire.
He then lay prostrate before the altar.

He felt silence entering him at last
like a gift not earned,
the rattling, falling stones in him swept away by another's power;
he no longer noticed the jewels of the ephod pressing against his chest;
the sounds of the singing ceased,
and he lay for a minute in the silence,
the silence of an ancient pine forest.

He lifted his head
and immediately put it down again.
This was not in the rubrics and the books.
The silence became too heavy, beyond him,
the fire and lamps too strong.
He tried not to see the color
that was more like the color of sunrise,
like the sun peeking, rippling through tree branches,
or the light on the water,
dancing.

"Zechariah. Do not be afraid. Your prayer has been answered..."

"How can I be sure of this?" He had thrown it, like a rock, from the center of his heart.

The light contracted, went still: "I am Gabriel...you shall be silent."

Zechariah stumbled out of the Holy of Holies,
and as he entered the outer courtyard,
He saw their frightened faces,
their fervent faces,
their waiting,
ever waiting,
but he could not give the benediction.

His shame also made his tongue lay useless,
before the great mystery which grew inside Elizabeth.
Slowly, as the months went on,
slowly as he could only hear and see,
within him embers of humility were lit by the daily evidence
of an old woman swelling with child, like a ship long docked, stretching and groaning
against the fullness of a wind on an unexpected sail.
As he watched her bloom again,
his son growing strong inside her gave him the courage
to speak the language of the heart with the angel, instead of against him:

"Our prayers have been answered."

He began, in the voiceless days, to see the shame of childlessness
was the impotence of Israel;
that he had been, in his barrenness, as the priest chosen by lot,
the one God had chosen from before time,
in his weakness, to be Israel.
And the silence grew white-hot, deep in the recesses of his house.

Oh Israel, hard like the smooth, stone floor which his priest-feet had passed over;
but now God was coming, coming to walk over those brittle stones in bare, human feet,
but first, His herald must come
to clear the rubble.
Zechariah began to crack.
The new fire in his heart, the swelling sound of a burgeoning blaze, poured forth:

"His name is John."

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Kandylakia




Petros is driving.
Away from Athena, east to the Aegean
chortling a bazouki beat
past olive, cypress, past angulated, geometricized
confections in marbled cement invaded by
tokens of human existence:
shirts pinned in positions of helplessness,
soggy towels, potted plants, plastics.

My hand is grasping the grab-handle.
Hanging on in a filling highway wind my heart
ripples loose; I see Iris in the front
Germanically calculating the chances of death
as Petros sends horn-sounds around
the right side of a dwarf-Peugeot.

Roadside, a tiny church on a pedastal, a kandylakia, winks by.

I see inside for an instant.
Like the ember eyes of a young Greek priest
who passed me along Athinas Street, I see
behind miniature windows
smoky saint-eyes, watching, remembering
the world, and the long-ago accident that
pushed a soul through his gateway-iconastasis,
that soul-sized door.

I am still too composite for that door.
rocking and flapping past the candle-lit eyes,
the sea-soil-olive air fills me still
like a lover's breath.

But-- how, if Petros flicks a finger wrong and we die?

If you could only confect a kandylakia,
rooted in Greek soil, Agios Nicholas to watch
for us, to beg for mercy, then
you could believe I went through that tiny gateway
like a lover's breath.




Monday, June 16, 2014

Playing Lady MacBeth



For you and me it seems
one scene of joy to a hundred of sorrow
we are our lines; but no words come when pain enters
I turn, shattering spotlight beams

I now have a paper mask to wear
a virgin plaster, a face white and pale
I stand majestic in tapestried words until the dagger glints
I step away from the circle of light

For you I changed a hundred times for the lies' long drill-
through the red-lit, hundred, sorrow'd days:
now I am mad: comic-mouthing with a paisley'd mask,
I burn in the spotlight beams






painting: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

God as Art




"...we must clearly distinguish our direct vision of God (after our death) from our knowledge of Him through the humanity of Christ. The Preface of the Christmas Mass gives an admirable expression of the relation between Christ's sacred humanity and the revelations to us of the Father: "By the mystery of the Word made flesh, from Thy brightness a new light has risen to shine upon the eyes of our souls, in order that, God becoming visible to us, we may be borne upwards to the love of things invisible." 

I sat on the steps of my parents' house on Orcas Island, reading in the sun. I am reading a book by Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, and I came across the above passage. Something in me stopped and was still with that deep-water attentiveness: the passage was addressing a question that I have had for many years, a question that has weaved in and out of the moments of my life for as long as I can remember, since that time when I sat on my parents' stairs in the house in Kabul, and first felt God as a presence, but was somehow sad that He was an invisible one. 

My child's mind asked then, and has kept asking, about the mystery between the visible world and the invisible. Why must God be invisible to me? Why must we see with the eyes of the soul, when we are made with physical eyes? Why the apparent abyss between them? If You love me, why are we separated by this invisibility I cannot relate to?

So I thought of this quote from the Preface of the Christmas Mass, and I immediately thought of another kind of preface, those words from the Introduction of Edith Stein's The Science of the Cross. I knew these quotes, one from the Preface about Christ, and one about the nature of art, were talking, really, about the same thing, and that somewhere in the marriage of them is born a kind of answer to my childish question. 

So, first to meditate on the Christmas Mass Preface: This part of the Preface begins with two prepositional phrases: "by the mystery of the Word made flesh" and "from Thy brightness." I immediately look towards what these phrases are assisting, or illuminating...in other words, the assertion they support; it is, "a new light has risen to shine upon the eyes of our souls." This is not, primarily, a physical light, or a physical light at all. It is a light that touches our soul's eyes, perhaps like the hands of Christ touching the blind man, to make the scales fall from his eyes, to enable or allow us a sight we could not have through our own soul's powers. In other words, this light is something like the mysterious light that Plato alludes to in the Republic, the light that is the source of all other light. Plato, I believe, is referring to the limits of rationality when he talks about the man newly out of the cave who can begin to discern the existence of Light by the forms it illumines by shedding itself on the natural world. Plato then attempts to describe a turning to the Source, to the Light, but cannot explain the nature of it, always falling short, as by our limitations we humans are fated to do. 

But suddenly, in the Preface, something seemingly contradictory to Plato, and strange, happens, akin to the beautiful statement: "Once there was someone inside a tiny cave who was larger than the whole universe." Somehow, the Light that Plato knew he could only allude to, is brought to the eye of our soul, directly, "by the Mystery of the Word made flesh." A single small creature, in a dark cave, carries within Him the Light, the fullness of all meaning, of all truth. It doesn't make any sense, really; it goes against anything from a natural perspective. Or does it? Is not the supernatural somehow intimately connected to the natural? Is not the natural dependent upon the supernatural for its very existence, for its meaning?

Christ Himself is the bridge, as Catherine of Siena said, between the natural world and the invisible Light, the fullness of meaning; He has opened the way for us to receive that light shining on the eyes of our souls. The physical has expressed, somehow, the invisible. Within a single body the universe and all truth resides; the Word made flesh is, in a sense, an external expression of Light.

The second part of the assertion in the Preface is begun with a phrase of logic, which answers the question, "Why should this light shine upon the eyes of our souls? What is the purpose, the end of this for us?" It says: "...in order that, God becoming visible to us, we may be borne upwards to the love of things invisible."

The Word has become visible, the Light has leaned down, concentrated itself, come up through the soil like a tiny, vulnerable plant, to become a sign that the narrow physical eye can see. The Light has expressed itself in a kind of art, a visible expression of the interior. It has conformed itself, in endless humility, humility that makes pride seem like a withered, blown speck of dust, to the language of learning of a sinful, warped, narrow-sighted creature who lives in the dark and the muck. The Light that Plato thirsts for has come down into the Cave and chained Himself up next to those who are blind and enthralled with shadows.

God has become an artist, the truest form of artist which is one who pours himself out, performs kenosis, to express something.

Edith Stein really explains this better, from the Introduction to The Science of the Cross:

It is the characteristic of the artist to transform into image anything that causes an interior stirring and demands to be expressed exteriorly. Image here is not to be restricted to the visual arts; it must be understood to refer to any artistic expression, including the poetic and musical. It is simultaneously image in which something is presented and structure as something formed into a complete and all-encompassing little world of its own. Every genuine work of art is in addition a symbol whether or not this is its creator's intention, be he naturalist or symbolist.

It is a symbol: that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood in this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service.

Despite this, it is clear that there is a danger in an artistic inclination and not only when the artist lacks an understanding of the sacredness of his task. The danger lies in the possibility that in constructing the image, the artist proceeds as though there were no further responsibility than producing it. What is meant here can be demonstrated most clearly by the example of the images of the cross. There will scarcely be a believing artist who has not felt compelled to portray Christ on the cross or carrying the cross.

But the Crucified One demands from the artist more than a mere portrayal of the image. He demands the artist, just as every other person, follow him: that he both make himself and allow himself to be made into an image of the one who carries the cross and is crucified.

Expressing the image externally can be a hindrance to doing so internally, but by no means must this be so; actually, it can serve the process of interior transformation because only with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted. In this manner, when no obstacle is placed in its path, it becomes an interior representation that urges the artist to effectively reproduce it in action, that is, by way of imitation, externally. 

I wish to focus especially, though, on this statement of hers: "Only with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted...it becomes an interior representation that urges the artist to effectively reproduce it in action, that is, by way of imitation, externally."

This is one of those really thick philosophical statements that I have to read over a number of years. Three years ago, for example, my heart was not broken enough open to see it.

The artist, whether novelist or painter or architect or musician, knows that mused art flows from a fullness of meaning, from a spring that is ever creative, and true. The Greeks said that inspiration comes through the Muses, who were the daughters of cosmic order, or Zeus. This is a shadow of Christian muse, which is yet still the daughter of order, and also mystery, and love, the inexhaustible meaning that is God. Mused art is great art. There are other kinds of art, that which circles around only an ideology or a solipsistic expression. There are examples of classical art that I find ideological, like Mozart's Magic Flute, and there are instances of modern art that seem to express, in a very bright-color, almost direct way, the fullness of meaning, like the piece of art I saw in the MOMA in LA during the unfolding of AIDS. I have never seen a better expression of the experience of death as a punishment, as an inexplicable contradiction to love and life. Some of art expresses truth like a negative image, by expressing the hard questions. Some art expresses truth in its directness. They are both, at least in great art, a physical and/or imaginative expression of the fullness of meaning.

And art is, primarily, fundamentally, the way we humans learn. Aristotle, in The Poetics, expresses this so well. We are imitative creatures; we feel great pleasure in recognition. We connect things--this is how the different powers of the soul begin to come together, which is the only real learning: rationality and the passions and the will are brought together through these connections, these recognitions, to receive truth in the fullness of our being--the only way truth can come in its fullness. Truth received only rationally is only partial truth for us: our whole being must receive it, for "the inner image to be fully formed and interiorly adopted."

Love cannot be understood without the body, without the passions, without the will, without the rational mind, receiving in concert. Imitative learning, artistic expression, reaches out to all parts of us. Also, we must receive these things as whole, not as parts. Because we are so limited, and small, and sinful, and yet because we were created in the image of God, with the capacity to see the whole, we must ultimately live in the tension and difficulty that to receive truly, we must receive things in their wholeness--though we are tempted to stop with the parts. If we do stop there, the parts are in danger of becoming chimeras, because they become their own small kingdoms of meaning, rival meanings to the fullness of meaning. I think of Marx here, who created an ideology by leaving out the reality of the soul.

This is the work of philosophy, to distinguish the parts from the whole so that we can begin to rationally recognize the difference; it is the work of literature, of art, of music, to express wholeness in an imitative way that we can understand, through the elements of natural things which are appropriate to our capacity.

The eyes of our soul cannot alone see the whole of God. I think of God telling Moses, "If you see my Face, you will surely die. I will hide you in the cleft of the rock, and you shall see my back."

God, though, chose to do something that would, inexplicably, allow that fullness of Himself to be seen. By His incarnation, He made Himself a physical expression, a work of art in every moment of His earthly life while yet simultaneously remaining uncreated; the Artist that is also Art. Like a playwright, He created a katharsis for us, to order our passions, to heal us by showing us that we must, like Him, be broken open and to imitate Him, to live Him...only then can He show us the fullness of meaning that is Love and Truth and Justice and Mercy in one Whole.

As von Hildrebrand says, "Let us recall the words of Christ to Philip: 'Have I been with you so long, Philip, and yet you do not know me? I tell you, he who sees me sees the Father."













Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sodom and Gomorrah



If I were a city, a Sodom or Gomorrah:
Gates unused and unneeded their wood
dried and splintered, sunburnt and warped
like sentries too long on duty,
their once-strong sinews stretched
by the carnival throng of well-wishers.

If I were Sodom, city of cinnamon and saffron odors
gliding along behind their silken masters,
bangle-spots of melon and wine-berry
squatting at the steps of carved doors,
and sad and luxuriant notes twirling in the dust,
careless of the feelings they elicit.

If I were Gomorrah, the jewel on the shore
my eyes winking, chattering with the sparkles on the sea;
from my mouth, sauntering, swaying, laden camels come
moving in time with the ships, my suitors,
blown in by winds cold and warm, strong and subtle
in my harbor for the moment.

If I were a city, a Sodom or Gomorrah: How,
if in me was some clean-swept courtyard with a child
quietly playing with the golden light,
or a curved, silent head in the shadows
praying wordlessly, with the groans of the heart--
humble oases, perhaps, only ten or so of these?

Perhaps, many hills away, a man grovels--
Abraham kneels pleading
after three receding figures, moving
with heavy and measured steps towards me
an unearthly glow from them interrupting
the chatter with the sea.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Early Winter

The sky was a dull grey

snowflakes coming down from it, like ash.

A metallic silver pinwheel pinned to a white fence

spinned in an erratic way

trying to free itself from the tape and stick;

in my mind, I took it

and set it free.

ps-

it flew south, for me.