Hello, struggler, wisher, thirster-
I meet you at the well to wonder,
to ponder, and possibly to fight for
what it is to be alive.
Both of us are drinking from the same cistern.
We created it; the cracks refused to seal
and the water refused to heal our parched souls.
Goodness knows we have looked in all those cracks
for answers and heard enough echoes
to reassure us we are alone.
But what of the music that we didn’t make?
We hear it shake the ground sometimes
and we analyze the sounds that aren’t our own.
O great unknown, you sing to us
and call to us in open roads
and feather-leafed mesquite groves
and in places that are kind or bleak to us-
you are deeper than our well goes.
O Otherness beyond our echoes,
you have a voice that fills us
in the emptiness of subway halls
and other people’s flawless love.
Mend our cisterns! we cry,
and you reply,
Leave them dry. I will supply parched lips
with my munificence and drench
you in my providence.
O holy Christ, your voice is stronger
than the torrents tempting us to take
the earthy waters; human potters mold more vessels
but you call us-
like a wave: one but recurring.
Beyond words, beyond our singing
you are matchless:
to have tasted of your depth
is to know Already and Not Yet
and greater love and greater debt.
Pardon me while I geek out about poetry for a minute.
Today I wrote a sestina. I’ve been meaning to for ages. The form has always allured me. It’s challenging- if you google “most difficult form of poetry”, the sestina comes up as the first result. The inhibitive structure forces a poet outside her comfort zone. Also, W.H. Auden wrote a sestina called “Paysage Moralise” which I greatly admire, so for all these reasons I finally researched the exact form and tried my hand.
Basically, the sestina is a fixed verse form comprised of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi, or half-stanza. The words that end each line of the first stanza have to be used to end the lines of all the following stanzas, but they follow a specific pattern. The pattern of repetition is too complicated to explain here, but you can probably figure it out by reading below. The established form of sestina developed by Dante and Petrarch, and incidentally used by Auden in Paysage, is in hendecasyllables, so that’s what I used, but variations of line length are relatively common. The oldest sestina was written around 1200 by the troubadour credited with its invention, Arnaut Daniel- and maybe mine is the newest, though I don’t expect to retain that distinction for long!
Recovered: A Sestina
It was looking up that marked him a stranger
Walking alone and happy on the highway
Lamposts and old women watched him, wondering
How his footsteps made the snow a red carpet
And why he kept peering around him, almost
As if he hadn’t heard of the suffering
But how could he not know of the suffering?
The branches hung bare, pointing at the stranger
Reaching up to prod his scarf, he almost
Looked as though he knew, pausing on the highway
His brown hiking boots melting the snow carpet
He watched the branches; allowed their wondering
A grandmother thought sadly, He’s wondering
Why we all stay in this place of suffering
But she started and spilled tea on the carpet
When his face turned skyward, and, what was stranger
He stepped, smiling, toward the town from the highway
Irreverence! Not quite laughing, but almost
The wind began to climb; the clouds were almost
Snowing now, and all who saw were wondering
Why he didn’t know to keep to the highway
How he didn’t know about the suffering
But on he walked, serenely came the stranger
As snow flecked down to straighten out the carpet
And as he left his footprints on snow carpet
A grandmother watched him; tea fallen almost
Unheeded. Running free, her thoughts grew stranger
Faces came to windows, watching, wondering
Perhaps he doesn’t care about the suffering
He walked on as the storm obscured the highway
She could still see him when snow blurred the highway
One old woman with tea stains on her carpet
Went to the door and called through the suffering
Come in, you’ll catch your death! The wild wind almost
Blew her words into an abyss of wondering
But he caught them; the irreverent stranger
Shall suffering decide? Wondering village,
The highway left a stranger unsatisfied
And the storm has almost finished your carpet
You know when you’re stopped at a red light and you’re singing along to This Is Home or drumming the piano part from something by Michael W. Smith and for some reason you glance at the person driving the car next to you? And she’s wearing a snappy cardigan and biting her lip trying to make sure the windows are rolled down evenly and you just think- hey. We would be friends.
Or maybe you’re in the 10-items-or-less line at Walmart and it’s 10-people-or-more longer than the lines at the other registers and the guy in front of you is waiting to buy two bananas and a composition notebook. And what a coincidence, because you’re holding vanilla wafers and a package of pens.
You probably have so many friends you’ve never met. I have. I see them everywhere, but mostly I see them at book stores Half-Price Books is my favourite (along with a musty little shop in Boston) because, well, it’s half-price, and because they sell the tried and true books (which sometimes have train tickets belonging to someone named Hanson stuck inside). I spend too much money there. And while I’m shuffling along, head aslant, looking through the works of Ray Bradbury, I see shoes to my right, shuffling like mine. I glance. A glance is usually all I need to tell. And he’s thumbing through the Tolkien section, brow knit, wearing argyle, looking thoughtful. I go back to my Bradbury, grinning. Found another one. That’s two today, because I’m also counting the girl who walked in earlier and exclaimed to her friend, “It smells so good in here!” Yes it does, new favourite person. And I want to buy everything they have.
There is so much, so much to read. So many words to make you think and feel and rejoice and hurt inside. I was wondering how I’ll find the time. I need a lifetime. But that’s what I have, if Jesus asks me to wait for Him. Maybe He’ll bring me home soon (and that would be the greatest joy of all). But if I stay, if I remain a sojourner, there are treasures for me to find and maps for me to follow and wisdom and peace and happiness for me to chase. So I buy the books. This time I found a gorgeous hardcover copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “What’s Wrong With the World” by G.K. Chesterton, a biography of Margaret Thatcher, “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, a book on the art of writing by Bradbury, and a Latin-English dictionary. I was looking for the Vulgate, but that quest has proved more difficult. Quests do that.
If my name was Wordsworth
could I be worthy of the words I clutch?
If I was called Caesar
would they render to me the worlds I touch?
If I was christened Crusoe
could I leave to explore those lands alone?
If my name was Churchill
could I use my words to make them bold?
Oh, life. Everything good in this world is merely a breath, but those are breaths of fresh air. Life is a vapour and there is not one happy thing in it that cannot also make you sad. But sad is happy for deep people. Sometimes. There’s the sadness of dusty antiques and memories long forgotten by everyone but you and empty diners and books well ended. There’s the sadness of the Doctor’s goodbyes which hurt so illogically you can’t even watch those episodes without sobbing, which is ridiculous because it’s not even real. But there’s also the sadness of letters returned and dreams that you killed and driving home crying because you know. And it hurts. It hurts because you’re alive. So I live the life and I smile the joy and cry the tears and I drink the tea strong. I say the hellos and I whisper the goodbyes and I pray the prayers and I set my spell-checker to UK English.
And I read and write the words.
Socialism. Abortion. Fornication. Hate. Apathy. Adultery. Profanity. Sodomy. Sin.
Weighty words. Weighty evil. It makes me angry and it makes me sad. It makes my shoulders slump and my soul kneel, panting, in the dust.
It’s a dark and devilish world and there is so much to fight.
It’s enough to turn me into the worst of cynics. It’s enough to make me despair.
A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity and art admired decay;
The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay.
Round us in antic order their crippled vices came–
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.
They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:
Men were ashamed of honour; but we were not ashamed.
Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus;
When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us.
Children we were–our forts of sand were even as weak as we,
High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea.
Fools as we were in motley, all jangling and absurd,
When all church bells were silent our cap and bells were heard.
-G.K. Chesterton, from the dedication of The Man Who Was Thursday
I cannot fight evil with cynicism.
I cannot fight demons with despair.
“Take heart”, Christ declares. “I have overcome the world.”
Not, “I WILL overcome.”
“I HAVE OVERCOME.”
It is finished. Done.
We are fighting, but the war is won.
Sin does not rule this world. Love rules this world.
He is not sleeping, nor is He silent.
He is strong. He is sovereign. He is supreme.
We can only see the shadows because the Light has risen. The Light commands them, “This far and no further”. They are subject. They are defeated. The Light is eternally shining. “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.” All’s right. The command is His. All’s right. He controls the dark. All’s right. Sin pays tribute.
“Where, O Death, is thy sting? Where, O Grave, is Thy victory?”
In other words, HA! And let the Church take heart! For Her bridegroom has overcome the world.
I can fight evil with exaltation.
I can fight demons with delight.
Because He has already declared the victory.
Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed.