An (Un)Earthened Riddle

I watched you go,
the empty sleeve of your coat
brushing my cheek long before
the final goodbye

on riddling ground
east of Eden, west of the moon,
where dead roam among the living
as infernal winds sweep through
like furies spitting over our destinies

in the wasteland where visions die
where banshees howl, half-formed men bay
round fires of Cain’s wandering offspring;
yet the eternal revelation, tri-folded,
goes forth to the hungry and the poor in spirit

on ground riddled with the treacherous dust of history,
walking as quickened ones, lilies of the field,
dandelions harboring the unsearchable riches of Christ
showing forth the unassailable purpose of God

as dumb to the world’s riddles, we carry on,
spinning out of bereft arms into shrouds
or across canyons of a diseased mind
losing each other to time’s grasp, till time stops,
and we, with joy unspeakable, walk on new ground.

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com
Ingrid at dVerse's "Poetics: From a place of pain" asks us to "try your hand at writing your way out of a place of pain" which I have done combining fragments of poems from the past. Join us by clicking on Mr. Linky.

Humility Makes No Room For Dignity

A Life Unexamined

In his acclaimed novel, The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro immerses us in the first-person narrator’s severely circumscribed life and worldview. His is a life of self-imposed limitations, aided and abetted by a strict adherence to the British class system, indeed his overweening pride in his “Englishness.” You might think he’s a member of the upper-crust. You would be wrong. Mr. Stevens is a butler who has bought into the quasi-heroic and mythical dimensions of his role as a dignified appendage to the high and mighty.

He takes pride in his clockwork management, attaining renown among butlers and employers alike. He spends a good bit of time telling us his definition of dignity and its value. He’s most careful regarding the proprieties of conversation, the attire of distinction, the observance of the caste system, and he unwittingly reveals the fictions necessary to support such a system.

The casual negligence of these mores shocks him. He lives and dies by the clock and the way things are. The future escapes him.

Stevens is also very conscious that his dignity is a borrowed dignity, a dignity conferred by his relationship to a peer of the realm, his employer Lord Darlington.

In this novel of manners, Ishiguro gives us something more than mere voyeurism. His butler, Stevens, is on an unwitting voyage of self-discovery. He’s shocked into it by the revelation that his erstwhile employer, Lord Darlington, like many of the aristocrats of his day, had been a Nazi sympathizer.

Stevens predictably retreats into self-deception; as Salman Rushdie points out in a review:

At least Lord Darlington chose his own path. “I cannot even claim that,” Stevens mourns. “You see, I trusted … I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?” His whole life has been a foolish mistake, and his only defense against the horror of this knowledge is the same capacity for self-deception which proved his undoing. It’s a cruel and beautiful conclusion to a story both beautiful and cruel.

— “Salman Rushdie: Rereading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro,” The Guardian, 2012

Ishiguro’s more recent novel, The Buried Giant (2015) has more of the same pathos, blindness, self-deception, in the face of life’s extremities. If there’s any consolation in life for Ishiguro or Rushdie, it must be that it has its cruelties, but it has beauty as well, inviting a sanguine resignation that is far from satisfying. Beauty. Cruelty. They are more than mere aesthetics. They are a part of life, occupying categorical spaces in our hearts and minds. It’s what one puts into those categories that makes all the difference. Especially with regard to suffering.

Continue reading “Humility Makes No Room For Dignity”

Job’s Wife

Inspired by the Georges de La Tour painting below, the following poem attempts to give an added voice to the eloquence of Tour’s work by “unmuting” Job’s wife. As a character in the Book of Job, a Gentile living during the time of the patriarchs, Job’s wife is not prominent. But, perhaps, she delivers the most bitter blow to Job. Through her, we hear the voice of Satan speaking most directly to Job when she asks,  “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). In the midst of his sufferings, I believe Job’s greatest challenge was to withstand this voice and choose to trust God.

Job Mocked by his Wife Georges de La Tour (17th c.)
“Job Mocked by his Wife,” Georges de La Tour (17th c.)

No, Job, I didn’t sign up for this.
The ships lost at sea, drowning spices
Camels marauded, flocks lit into carrion husks
Children buried by an ill-wind where they danced
And my jewels? Bartered for funeral meats

Shall I proclaim it for posterity, inscribe in stone
Your endless complaints, the hollow sounds
Of jagged grief and friends’ scorn?
Look at me! Washing our rags, hiding my shame
From the maids that I once kicked out of doors

Job, I didn’t sign up for this, my darling.
Your boils how they stink where they fester
Open wounds that run dry and break open again
The prayers that you whisper late into the night
While in the city they dance and they dine

Gentiles we are, not of Abraham’s tribe!
The God you both serve has given you hell
So leave it, I tell you; curse Him and die!
Don’t live like a fool trusting Him with your life
When a stillborn child has much better luck

I heard you this morning sing like a lark,
Of your God who will come to intercede and save
Who with your own eyes you will see at last
So you’ll wait, diseased, though you’re slain. You’re mad!

The sacrifices you offered once smoked to the sky
Yet you speak of a Redeemer as if he were a man
But, husband, what broken body, what blood can make clean
Hearts bitter with hate, hands wicked with lust?
This God that you worship is too holy, too proud
Do what I say! Curse Him and die!

I didn’t sign up for this!
Do you hear?
I didn’t sign up for this.


Job 19:19-27
All my intimate friends abhor me,
and those whom I loved have turned against me.
My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh,
and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.
Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends,
for the hand of God has touched me!
Why do you, like God, pursue me?
Why are you not satisfied with my flesh?
Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!

Roughly reworked from an earlier version for dVerse "Poetics: "Exploring the Narrative Voice," guest hosted by Ingrid. Thank you, Ingrid for a superb prompt. More dVerse poems, at Mr. Linky's.

I Saw A Guillemot Fall Today

Common guillemot

I saw a guillemot fall today
off the nesting cliffs
before it caught the wind;
I saw it snatched by a seagull’s bill
fast-disappearing in its maw.
Lazarus-like it emerged again
and I caught my breath for joy,
when swept down another gull
to swallow the fledgling whole.

Nature’s mien is none too keen
on compassion for the young.
The weak it passes over lightly
as fodder for the strong.
The world smiles at peace
entraps hopeful souls
then dogs of war do feed
while songbirds chirp
and children sing
of innocence and joy.

What means this? cries the philosopher
writing down his ethics.
Why it’s nature versus nurture,
exclaims the educationist.
Oh, hollow man, feed on love,
the poet strums a tune.
The guillemot parents of a fledgling bird
hear not the empty words.
They see beyond a skeptic’s sight
to an ordaining hand, and flying easy
from an empty nest, they’ll return again in spring.

Oh God, who takes away and gives,
our wounded hearts you see!
O give us strength to bear the pain
and rest in faith again.
Our grief we give to you once more
and pray our sight you’ll clear
to see the hope of eternal days
when tears no more we’ll fear.


Job 12: 7-10
[Job speaks] “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.”

 

 

Love Me, Love Me Not

There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.

Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.

Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.

And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.

Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.

Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.

It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.

Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)

audio reading ℗2020 dora a.k.

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love —

The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —

There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call “Despair” —
There’s Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they’re mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —

Isaiah 53: 2-5

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV) 

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Red Darkness

This picture was taken behind our home. The colors all stream together into a red pool breeding a kind of wanderlust, an unhealthy variety where you feel like you’re fleeing from all the demons of hell but really just taking them all with you, pursued, driven and tormented. Into such a dark night of the soul, home is the only cure, a place where you are rescued and kept safe. I pray that all who read this will find that home in Christ Jesus, who in His faithful love I have found to be the only sure refuge from such a rabid wanderlust of the mind and spirit.

Continue reading “Red Darkness”

Wrestling Jacob

There’s a story in the book of Genesis of a man named Jacob wrestling with an unknown heavenly traveler.  We are told it’s the middle of the night and that they wrestled “until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:24) but as the story opens we are left to imagine why Jacob is so eager for the contest. In the struggle, his “hip is put out of joint” (32:25) and he is lamed but still, despite the overwhelming pain and his opponent’s superior strength, Jacob refuses to let him go – at least until he’s been given the name of this traveler. Jacob had apparently guessed that this man was far more than he appeared to be.

Continue reading “Wrestling Jacob”

Renoir and Dickens: Two Quotes

 

556px-Charles_Dickens-_A_Tale_of_Two_Cities-With_Illustrations_by_H_K_Browne,_1859

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859):

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

 

 

363px-Auguste_Renoir_-_Young_Girls_at_the_Piano_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe great French artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, suffered so much from rheumatoid arthritis that it was difficult for him to paint due to progressive deformities in his hands and shoulders. The painting on the left, “Young Girls at the Piano” (1892), was done when he first developed the disease.

Yet when a friend said, “You have done enough. Why do you torture yourself?” Renoir replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

 

Continue reading “Renoir and Dickens: Two Quotes”