End times? Friends in the evangelical world talk seriously about the Rapture. Our world is in turmoil, and the social and political structures we have trusted seem to be coming undone. This is not the first time I have experienced so unsettling a change in the fabric of my universe. In my childhood, I lived through the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, race riots, the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings, and worldwide student unrest. One night after viewing Jack Ruby gun down Lee Harvey Oswald in front of television cameras, I woke screaming from sleep, hallucinating a man with a bloody knife at the foot of my bed. That vision stays with me even now.
The biblical Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, a strange text of grand and grotesque imagery and visionary language describing the end times, is the inspiration for Tania Runyan’s “A Quick Interpretation of the Sixth Seal,” one of a trilogy of poems about the Apocalypse. Runyan’s poem is her vision of John’s vision, the opening of the sixth of seven seals on a scroll that announces and unleashes the Apocalypse and Second Coming of Christ with all its cosmic upheaval and cataclysmic events (Rev. 6:12-17).
“Sixth Seal” is composed of six stanzas of tercets. The pattern of six is repeated with the poet’s use of six present participles –“turning,” “surging,” “sizzling,” “saying,” “breathing,” “wrenching”– to structure the work and create a sense of inexorable destruction. Keeping the sequence of the biblical passage, the poem reels from the obliteration of sun, moon, stars and all the heavens to the upheaval of the earth, when humans must “hide in the small breathing spaces/of fallen mountains.” In the turbulence of time and space approaching their ends, the poet nevertheless anchors her vision in the mundane: “butterfly wings,” “Epsom salts,” the reader (“you”) confronting the “black hole” the vision depicts.
Where the biblical text suggests that humankind, hiding in the “dens and rocks of the mountains (vs.15),” ultimately faces the damning wrath of God at this final moment of history, “Sixth Seal” imagines a God who painstakingly seeks us in all crises, in extremis, in the final moments of our mortal time. The violent “wrenching” of a cosmic, angry act of destruction is transformed into the incarnate, compassionate “wrenching” of ourselves as God’s beloved children “back to his chest.”
On the night of my terrifying vision long ago, my father rushed to my room, gathered me in his arms, and began to talk me through the events that confused and terrified me. He did not try to diminish their reality or their implication, but gave me a small breathing space as he anchored them in the reality of our own lives in our family, in a small town in the country, and in his own confidence of God’s mercy and love for all creation. Runyan’s poem does the same.
“A Quick Interpretation of the Sixth Seal”
The sun turning to sackcloth
means nothing to see here;
all the sheeted corpses look the same.
The moon surging with blood
equals the deaths your butterfly wings
effected while you slept.
And the stars sizzling at your feet
like Epsom salts are his way of saying
you’ve lost your chances
with time and space.
The sky will snap closed like a scroll,
and you will be left
with the black hole of God
as you hide in the small breathing spaces
of fallen mountains,
which means he’ll know
just where to look
before wrenching you back to his chest.