Poetry Friday: “Carol of the Infuriated Hour”

the-night-school-by-gerrit-dou-via-wikimedia-commons-public-domainChristmas carols: we love their joyous celebration of the birth of Christ. In “Carol of the Infuriated Hour,” David Brendan Hopes takes the carol form—its rhythm and rhyme scheme—to present a more complex view of the Christmas event. The poem’s speaker has “warred” with God, but  he decides to cease his struggle “for the sake of this season in the stories.” The stories are the traditional ones of “talking beasts” and the “Christmas rose” and “the white stag in the tangled wood” (a medieval image, with Christ as the pure white stag and the tangled wood as the Cross that awaits him). To what extent is the Cross embedded in the Christmas stories? This is the question that the poem explores. In stanza 3 the speaker seems to resent bringing the Cross into Christmas (“they who stole / the stories have the stories wrong”). But in the following stanza he sees as salvific “the Cross and the Rose on the same snow hill.” Torn between these two attitudes, he feels “infuriated.” Yet the poem’s extraordinary closing image “saves” him — saves all of us (since the poem’s “I” has changed to “we”). The very cosmos, “newborn” when the Word becomes flesh, is cradled in our own arm—as the cosmos too becomes motherly, murmuring to the Child. Yet even in this cosmic salvation, ambiguity creeps in. Is “crooked” the one-syllable verb meaning “bent,” as we bend our arm to cradle a baby? Or does it hint also at the two-syllable adjective “crooked,” meaning “criminal,” and hence at the Cross? The poem’s achievement is that, in the softening motherly image, it moves to a (literal) embrace of the paradox of the cradle and the Cross.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Gird Yourselves, Yet Be Shattered

stained glass by Trish Mayo on flickrOf Lanecia A. Rouse Tinsley’s small encaustic Advent paintings, my favorite is Meditation on the Incarnation. If food can have mouthfeel, then art has gutfeel. Meditation on the Incarnation drops and spreads into the gut holy and creepy like tequila, like subzero air that both hardens and hurts the belly.

Three blue, elongated forms more shadow or specter than human, stretch from top to bottom of the canvas’s center, a red dot like a pomegranate seed midway down the third figure. They loom, yet remain autonomous and bordered. Thin gold circles intersect atop ragged hymnal pages, the ecstatic presence of God over shattered praise of him.

For weeks, I’ve had a line from Isaiah 8:9 running through my head: “Gird yourselves, yet be shattered. Gird yourselves, yet be shattered.” [Read more…]

Snow on Snow

Dante_smSnow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

You probably know these lines, either from Christina Rossetti’s poem of 1871 or, more likely, Holst’s setting of them as a carol.

I know them. I used one of them as title of a book, “bleak” altered to “deep” by the publisher, who thought the former too gloomy.

Which it might indeed be. Rossetti was melancholic, iced-up with unversed emotion; with passions gone gelid which, reticent, gob-stopped, couldn’t quite state their names. [Read more…]

Come, Lord Jesus

antiphonsI’ve always loved Advent’s “O” Antiphons. These are the prayers traditionally voiced during the final seven days of Advent, prior to singing the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. Each of these antiphons begins with “O” and is addressed to Christ under one of his names mentioned in the Bible.

They are brief, one-sentence prayers of longing for Christ’s coming—both in the Incarnation and the Second Coming. Each begins with an address to Christ: O Wisdom… O Lord of ancient Israel… O Root of Jesse… O Key of David… O Dayspring… O King of the nations… And finally, on December 23, O Emmanuel. Each ends with the supplication “Come…save us!

This year I’ll add a new dimension to my praying of the O Antiphons. Poet Jill Peláez Baumgaertner has composed a poem for each of these Antiphons (found in her latest volume, What Cannot Be Fixed). I’ll be meditating on her poetic reflections on each Antiphon. In case you’d like to share in this peak Advent experience, I’ll offer below each Antiphon as traditionally phrased, followed by a bit of Baumgaertner’s reflection. (All the ellipses in the poems are mine.)

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.

Prudence is not a word
we love…

And we inhabit a planet
of uncertainty.
Who is the friend
and where the enemy…?

Now Wisdom speaks,
parsing, separating,
reordering, steering us
from quicksand’s brink,
the enfleshed Word
steady on firm terrain.…

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Lord of ancient Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai: come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.

The Law sculpts our sin
in bas relief…

We cannot rest easy
watching Moses…
removing his shoes
on hallowed ground.

Our shoes remain.
We are rooted here…

We crave release,
the spring of warmed
muscles, Adonai’s
arm outstretched…

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: come quickly to deliver us.

Here in the dust
we are astonished
by the root’s tenacity,
the only life in a ruined
and dead land.
It stirs underground…
the bloom finally
loosening and opening…

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can close, you close and no one can open: come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.

Shackled in the obscurity
of our prison, locked in,
solipsistic, we see only
our own sin…

But the promise of release
has been there all along…
There in our baptism
is our freedom.
All we have ever needed
to do is remember it.

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

In December already at four o’clock
in the afternoon, shadows overtake us…
then the darkness…
deepens beyond all imagining,
this darkness of spirit which admits
no glimmer of ray…

and now, finally, is the time for new light—

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all people: come and save us all, whom you formed out of clay.

The Word that shaped creation
spun the dust, gathered the seas,
carved the clay, sparked the life.

This Word more than the un-Worded
of careless speech. This Word…
the king
who shatters the darkness,
who gives sight, who becomes the bright
fleshprint of incarnation.

This is the remote become immediate…
the birth-marked
Word that created our senses
and opened them. He breathes
on us and we live.

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the anointed of the nations and their Savior: come and save us, O Lord our God.

Emmanuel, God with us,
knows what our flesh knows:

the itchiness of wool against skin,
the lingering taste of wine,
the glossiness of leaves after rain,
the press of earth clods underfoot,
the grit of sawdust on hands.

This is the mystery:
King and carpenter’s son…
With outstretched arms
he redeems us, the purple
of royalty and passion
emblazoning
the world’s darkness.

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Poetry Friday: “Christmas Morning in a Hotel Room” by Carrie Fountain

Each Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

FreewayIs there any place more melancholy to spend Christmas morning than a hotel room? A place designed to be no place at all? Yet it’s strangely fitting: the mystery of the Incarnation is that it’s precisely nowhere—on the margin of the world—that a God bursts in. In this poem, a narrator stands at a hotel window on Christmas morning, an figure in isolation, and wills herself to believe that “something important / began or ended precisely” in this no-place, some parking lot by some highway. And it’s her simple belief that even the empty places of the world are filled with meaning—“no doubt,” she thinks—that becomes the miracle of this scene, her belief transforming the commonplace world into one where hope rises in billows, where God arrives like a stranger in an idling car, waiting right outside.

—Tyler McCabe


Christmas Morning in a Hotel Room by Carrie Fountain

Out the window, the parking lot
and beyond that, the highway.

No doubt something important
began or ended precisely there, or

there, in that spot where the ice-white
rental car is idling neatly, clouds [Read more…]