Someone once said that God offers man the choice between repose and truth: he can not have both. PETER MATTHIESSEN

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Small Village In Germany

I'm living in Germany right now, in the western region of Rhineland-Pfalz, and it's beautiful: picture-postcard villages, lush green valleys, hills and forests stretching as far as the eye can see. This pilgrim sign made me feel reassuringly at home . . .

The church of Saint Sebastian in Friesenhagen. Next to the church is a fine example of a black-and-white Fachwerkhaus, or half-timbered house, dating from the 18th century.

The valley of the Wildenburger Bach.

The chapel of Saint Roch above Friesenhagen lies on one of several Caminos which cross the area. After Saint James, Saint Roch is the Camino's most important saint. Like Saint Francis, he distributed his worldly possessions among the poor, then set out as a mendicant pilgrim — from his birthplace of Montpellier in south-west France, direction Rome. In northern Italy he nursed plague victims, paying scant regard to his own health, and was later venerated, along with Saint Sebastian, as a 'plague saint'. He is usually shown dressed in pilgrim clothes and pointing to a plague sore on his thigh — the dog normally depicted at his feet saved his life by licking the wound clean. He was falsely arrested as a spy and spent five years in prison, where he died. According to Wikipedia, Saint Roch is the patron saint of bachelors, diseased cattle, dogs, wrongly accused people, invalids, Istanbul, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, pilgrims and apothecaries — covering most options, you might say!

A rose for Saint Roch.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Michael Donaghy

I've just been reading Michael Donaghy's The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions. Donaghy is a delight: enthusiastic yet critical, funny yet serious, rigorous yet casual, discriminating yet generous.

An Irish-American born in the challenging Bronx region of New York in 1954 (the year of my own birth), he moved to London in 1985 — where he died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 50. In London he became a celebrated poetry teacher, influencing and inspiring a whole new generation of poets, and also worked as a traditional Irish musician. His own three collections of poems produced during that period  — Shibboleth (1988), Errata (1993) and Conjure (2000) — were much praised.

Donaghy found a true intellectual home in England after feeling at odds with the American cultural climate: the academisation of poetry, the solipsistic and experimental legacy of 'confessional' poetry and modernism, the welter of formless, hermetic and self-referential verse produced by the creative writing programmes.

Not that he was against free verse — far from it, and he wrote free verse himself, as well as employing many other different forms and styles. He simply believed in intelligent, crafted poetry full of surprise, allusion, music and rhythm, with its feet placed firmly in the real world rather than in the prolifically bleeding heart of the writer (if that doesn't sound too gruesome a metaphor). He liked the freedom which arose from negotiating with a resistant medium (i.e. the poem's structure), and believed that the best poems were born of of this struggle between form and content.

Donaghy worked slowly at his poems, and the results can be subtle and complex — but always very readable. His skill is accomplished, his wide knowledge evident, but he never uses this dexterity and learning to condescend to or browbeat the reader. He thought the poem as envisioned by the poet was only 50% of the story, and that the reader could and should meet the poet halfway. Many of his poems read like metaphysical verse — full of conceits and verbal trickeries, and connecting seemingly unconnected objects and ideas — but he avoids any trace of self-congratulation or pretentiousness.

A good example of this is the poem Machines, in which Donaghy compares a harpsichord pavane by Purcell to a racer's twelve-speed bike. This tour de force manages to bring in such disparate characters as Ptolemy, Dante, Purcell and Ignaz Schwinn (founder of the Schwinn Bicycle Company) to create a magical, concise poem which is about love and also about the act of poetry writing itself. It's full of conceits, allusions and surprising connections, yet is immensely satisfying in its ultimate simplicity. No mere sleight of hand or magic trick, it's not afraid to show off its adroitness, but is also quite moving: As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove / Who only by moving can balance, / Only by balancing move.

A poem may be thought of as a machine which strives for and achieves balance — if the poet is careful, skilful, lucky and desirous enough. (Auden called poetry a game of knowledge.) But doubt and precariousness — imbalance — are inevitably encountered along the way. The bike will wobble, the music falter — love and poetry making too. 

This poem contains these wonderful lines: The machinery of grace is always simple and So this talk, or touch if I were there, / Should work its effortless gadgetry of love, / Like Dante's heaven, and melt into the air. You can find the whole poem here.  

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Journey Is Home

Blog friend Roselle Angwin has recently written an excellent post about pilgrimage. I love the idea that the need for pilgrimage may exist as an archetype in the human collective unconscious, and that the art of living . . . is about recognising that every moment, every action, every journey, every destination, is sacred, if approached in a spirit of presence, with soul.

Photo courtesy of Roselle Angwin.
the journey is home

A constant stream running under my conscious thoughts is my preoccupation with the notion of pilgrimage: what it means in our 21st century world, how to do it in a secular society, and why it's important.

This stream bubbles to the surface each year around March, as my heart starts to fill with the forthcoming writing retreat that I lead on the magical and sacred Isle of Iona each April.

When Chaucer was writing in English (a departure from Latin) in the late 14th century, April was a traditional time in mediaeval England for making pilgrimage.

'Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
(That slepen al the nyght with open eye)
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes . . .' (Chaucer's original Prologue)

'When April with its showers sweet
Has pierced March drought unto the root
And bathed each vein in liquid power
From which new strength creates the flower;
When the soft West Wind with sweetest breath
New life has breathed in copse and heath
In tender shoots, and the young sun
In Aries half a month has run,
And small birds start Spring's melody
(Nightbirds who 'sleep' with open eye),
Then nature stirs the hearts of each
To make folk long for pilgrimage,
And travellers to tread new shores,
Strange strands, set out for distant shrines . . .' (my 'translation') 

And so we too set out to some kind of stirring — for restoration, for renewal, or on account of some undefined longing.

Pilgrimage comes from the Latin peregrinus, which in turn means a wanderer, a traveller, a stranger. (I love that it also names a bird, a falcon.)

Although of course it has been associated with established religion, I believe that the need for pilgrimage exists as an archetype (maybe for renewal, remaking) in the human collective unconscious. We could call the 'hero's journey', the motif, as Joseph Campbell saw it, behind most of the world's great myths, or the journey of the Fool in the tarot, as an expression of this universal archetype. Wikipedia tells me that there's a book written on this: Jean Darby Cleft & Wallace Cleft, The Archetype of Pilgrimage: Outer Action with Inner Meaning. The Paulist Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8091-3599-X.

And that's a beautiful definition to my mind: outer action with a corresponding inner purpose or meaning. 

This is the journey to fuller consciousness, wholeness. 

For me, the art of living is something to do with making every moment count. (Or rather, the aspiration to do so.) And it's also about recognising that every moment, every action, every journey, every destination, is sacred, if approached in a spirit of presence, with soul. 

Implicit in such a journey is the spirit of openness, of trust, of sharing silence and conversation, solitude and belonging, story and poem, self with self or self with other. Pilgrimage doesn't have to be to a sacred shrine. It doesn't have to have any traditional religious significance.

Something in us longs to rest, to be still even as we're moving, to be fully present in this moment, on our journey on this tiny planet around its star in the trillions of stars in this arm of the spiral Milky Way galaxy. Of course, our lives tend to lead us towards the opposite: towards acceleration, distraction, accumulation of more and more (whether objects, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or experience) with less and less time in which to appreciate it.

How would it be to slow down, to let every footstep, every breath, every moment really be richly enough?

And so we can quietly follow a longing for renewal while recognising that we don't even have to go out of our front door to make a pilgrimage — though it might be hard to explain to neighbours or nearest and dearest who don't get it that we're 'on pilgrimage' in our silence and slowness within four walls. (After all, what is a retreat but a non-moving pilgrimage?)

Or we go out of our front door not knowing what we're seeking but knowing that the longing is taking us. And we go slowly, embracing with such relief the sense of stillness that will come and visit us if we invite it, even as we're moving.

What we are doing on any journey undertaken with this focus, intent and presence, is bringing ourselves back home. That's all — in its smallness, its hugeness.

ROSELLE ANGWIN

Thanks to Roselle Angwin for permission to reproduce this piece. Roselle's blog qualia and other wildlife can be found here.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Knowledge


The field of knowledge is vast, limitless.

A book I'm reading at the moment is Jon Thompson's How to Read a Modern Painting. Among many other artists he features Monet, Manet, Seurat, Van Gogh — all people we've heard of, of course. But he also mentions Charles Gleyre, Frédéric Bazille, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson. Have you come across them? Me neither. But they were all well-known painters of their day. It's just the leading innovators and charismatic celebrities whose names survive in the common consciousness and crop up in quiz questions and factual digests. But beneath this top tier of artists who outwitted obscurity and became eternal (Van Gogh after death), there's another bigger tier of tireless practitioners who peaked in their time but whose names have now faded from view; and beneath that an even bigger tier of talent never popular when alive, still unknown now, and perhaps never destined to be recognised; and beneath that thousands upon thousands of striving creators, some struck (stuck?) with genius, others merely amateur followers of their craft . . .

Our knowledge of art — and of all things — is usually confined to the top of the pyramid, the tip of the iceberg of knowledge (unless we happen to be a specialist in that subject — and, even then, our specialism may cover only one deeply-worked seam of the whole mine).

We can never know everything; indeed, we can only ever know a small proportion of all there is to know. And even if we knew everything, there are still all those things which remain to be discovered, and there's also that huge and barely-explored realm of universal space-time knowledge and spiritual God-knowledge which is normally beyond the grasp of our comprehension.

And to go back to MonetManet and Seurat: to be honest, how much do we really know about them? Not a lot, if we're truthful — perhaps a few picture reproductions and potted biographies and soundbites. It all depends on what we're interested in, what our specialities are, how much time we've got, the condition of our memories, and so on.

Speaking for myself, I'm a generalist at heart, and like to think I know a little about a lot. I'm under no illusion, however, that I'll ever know all the fascinating things there are to know. In fact, I realise that I'll only ever know a tiny fraction of all these things, only ever nibble away at one corner of the enormous loaf of knowledge, and this only imperfectly and often half-heartedly, leaving undigested crumbs in my wake. With every book I read I'm only too aware that the list of books I want to read extends daily. With every journey I make and every place I visit I'm only too aware that the number of journeys I'd like to make and the number of places I'd like to visit is infinite.

The key here, I think, is to adopt a Zen-like calm and acceptance about this complex, brain-numbing affair of knowledge and experience. We can only ever know and experience a few things, so let's try to ensure we know and experience them as profoundly and as radiantly as we can. Let's explore depth and quality rather than surface and quantity.

As HUGH OF ST VICTOR (c. 1096-1141) wrote:

Therefore I beg you, reader, not to rejoice too greatly if you have read much, but if you have understood much. Nor that you have understood much, but that you have been able to retain it. Otherwise it is of little profit either to read or to understand.

Whatever we know or don't know, do or don't do, have experienced or have not experienced, it doesn't matter; the important thing is to live one's life as beautifully, as resonantly and as meaningfully as one can. 

Live all you can — it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had? . . . What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that . . . The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have . . . Live!

HENRY JAMES The Ambassadors

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Ekphrasis

Here's one of Rilke's most striking poems. The imperative in the last line to 'change your life' still has the power to surprise, shock and challenge every time I read this magnificent sonnet.

Apollo's Archaic Torso

We cannot know his incredible head,
where the eyes ripened like apples,
yet his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
from which his gaze, however dimmed,

still persists and gleams. If this were not so,
the bow of his breast could not blind you,
nor could a smile, steered by the gentle curve
of his loins, glide to the centre of procreation.

And this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
unable to glisten like a predator's pelt,

or burst out from its confines and radiate
like a star: for there is no angle from which
it cannot see you. You have to change your life.

(Looser translation)

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth —
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,

incandescent light radiates
from his torso, and in the curve
of his loins, a smile turns
towards the centre of creation.

Or else this body would be disfigured —
a lump of rock with no vision,
unable to glisten like a lion's mane.

It would not burst out of its skin
like a star: for its searing gaze
penetrates your soul, the way you live.

RAINER MARIA RILKE

Translated by SARAH STUTT 


Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht  aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.


(Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Apollo.)

Sunday, 12 April 2015

On The Blue Summer Evenings



Sensation

On the blue summer evenings I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside — as happy as if I were with a woman.

Par les soirs bleus d'été j'irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l'herbe menue:
Rêveur, j'en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien:
Mais l'amour infini me montera dans l'âme,
Et j'irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
Par la Nature — heureux comme avec une femme.

ARTHUR RIMBAUD March 1870

Translated by OLIVER BERNARD


Monday, 6 April 2015

Awake

I awake from a two-week purgatory of cold viruses and tooth infections to find springtime in the garden.

Tulip.

Quince.

Grape hyancinth and pansy.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Slime Kings And Mud Grenades

An orgy of frogs in our garden pond today.

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it. 

SEAMUS HEANEY