Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”

Heartlands

taylor-ann-wright-1136612-unsplash Photo by Taylor Ann Wright on Unsplash

 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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Guest Blogger Alex Joyner: Close Encounters with Franz Wright

Alex Joyner

Alex Joyner

Welcome to  Alex Joyner,  a writer who in his blog Heartlands reflects on spirit and place, heart and land.  Alex is an ordained minister in the United Methodist tradition, currently serving as the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  Author of 6 books, he writes regularly for FaithLink and Ministry Matters.  Streetlight Magazine has recently nominated his memoir piece, “Spirit Duplicator,” for the Pushcart Prize.  Congratulations, Alex!

“Thank God he liked my sermon.”  That’s what I thought, with some relief, when the Pulitzer-prize winning poet Franz Wright hit up my comment section after I posted the last Sunday’s effort at Franktown United Methodist in 2008.  After all, Wright was known to like a literary brawl.  He once excoriated Meg Kearney, a fellow poet, just for inviting him to ‘like’ a Facebook page for the Pine Manor writing program.  His dismissals of work he found less than stellar were legendary.  So when I saw the ‘FW’ commenter on a sermon in which I quoted his work, I was wary.  Had he been Googling his name spoiling for a fight?

I had only just discovered Wright.  He appeared with the poet Mary Karr at the Festival of Faith & Writing in 2008 and I was struck by his haunting personal story and his stark, honest words.  The son of James Wright, himself an acclaimed poet, burdened with the father’s abuse and legacy, tormented by substances and demons, suicidal, distraught, depressed, at times homeless, Franz found a poetic voice that eventually sang with his discovery of God.

His poem ‘Baptism,’ in the 2003 book that won him the Pulitzer, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, captured the sense of release and transformation he found as he became a practicing Catholic.  I was quoting part of it in my sermon that day, though I hadn’t gotten up the nerve to use its arresting opening that makes it brilliant and reflects Wright’s wonder at late-found faith:

That insane asshole is dead

I drowned him

and he’s not coming back. Look

he has a new life

a new name

now

which no one knows except

the one who gave it.

 

The Apostle Paul couldn’t have said it better.

The sermon was a meditation on life after baptism.  On what you do when the insane asshole has been drowned but the old passions persist.  On what we do with the new life and new name, unknown to all but the ‘one who gave it,” we have been given.

I quoted another Wright poem, ‘Walden,’ describing a turtle immersed in water, soaring in that ‘half underworld’ element, sensing a power: “There is a power that wants me to love.”

This was the truth Wright wanted to be seen in his work, which only seems to shiver in cold New England light.  “It is not too much to say that (as a writer) this is what I live for:” he wrote in that comment on the sermon, “those exceedingly rare, even miraculous instances of contact with someone outside the literary world (at least this is true for poets), of feeling someone has understood you, understood that what you are engaged in is anything but a literary matter–that it is simply your work, the glove with which you touch the universe, as well as your spiritual quest and your physical sustenance.”

Later he posted another a comment. What if, he mused, “in this frustrating and lonely and frightening ordeal we were to perceive it as something different, something not to grieve about but to rejoice in–a physical, lived illustration of the soul’s true nature, which is its immortality, its changelessness and agelessness. This also leads to other issues regarding the nature of the life of the soul, which are far from being so black and white, but still: what if we could experience this aging dilemma and ordeal as proof of something marvelous and infinitely reassuring?”

Franz died of lung cancer at the age of 62 in 2015.  His obituary in The New York Times talked about the “anguished themes” of his poetry and talked about his estrangement from his family as a “rupture” that “ran through his work like a glittering dark thread.”  But it gave scant attention to the ways his searing self-examination gave way to a larger hope.

For bare knuckled Christians, there are few equals to Franz Wright.  I’m glad he liked the sermon.  But I’m more grateful that he found a way to trust his art and his God.

Bray into the Dying Light

photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

On January 13 Alex Joyner posted his stunning new poem, “Sunset in Archer County,” on his Heartlands blog.  Coincidentally, that same day an employee of Hawaii’s emergency alert system issued a false alarm that terrified residents and visitors:  “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.  SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.  THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”  I read Alex’s poem with that news story hovering over my head.  First the poem . . .

Sunset in Archer County

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass

unnoticed

day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How unevolved.

The creatures are more wise than I.

 

I want to strip down naked

and join the coyote clan.

I want to skulk beneath a barbed wire fence

leaving tufts of hair to mark the passing.

I want to move lightly over loose rock

and spiky ground

to gather on a height,

there to loose the cry

that would squelch the yearning

lodged in my chest.

Joined in song—this desperate song—

by others of my breed

To note this orange moment

this golden moment

this vermillion moment

this inky moment

this night of the full moon’s rise

Because it may not come again

And where would I rather be on my or the earth’s

last day

than basking in that light

with all my wildness hanging out?

Alex Joyner                                                                             

The image that stood out on first reading was that of a people so “dumbfounded by our electrified darlings” that we don’t notice the miracles around us—even one on which our very existence depends.  If the “nuclear furnace” didn’t greet us each morning, we would die, yet our tendency toward distraction keeps us from feeling the significance of its coming and going.

The choice of “nuclear furnace” is a reminder that the sun generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium, but the use of that term in this poem suggests another kind of nuclear fusion that could send humankind into “a dark from which we would never recover.”  That suggestion was later underlined in “the orange moment” of the sunset.

Then the image of coyotes “braying into the dying light” is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s poem in which he entreats his dying father to fight death:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In the last half of the poem, Alex chooses the elemental howling response of the coyotes over the distracted oblivion of human beings.  It is hard to read the emotion of a braying animal.  It could be joy at the wonder of it all, rage against the dying of light, or something entirely different, but whatever the emotion, it is a fierce, energetic, no-holds-barred cry that says, “I am alive. I am fully here in this moment. If this is the last sunset, I’m showing up, taking notice, and engaging it.”

Now back to that false emergency alarm in Hawaii that terrified residents and visitors.  One of my friends, Karla Kincannon, who is an artist and the Director of Spiritual Formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was in Hawaii on January 13.  On Facebook she wrote, “I was walking outside without cellphone when a woman ran out of her house to warn me of the approaching missile. I thanked her and continue to peacefully enjoy the incredible beauty of the world around me, knowing if it were true there would be nothing I could do. I might as well enjoy the last few moments without fear.”   She wasn’t going to let the “miracle [of the beauty of that place and that moment] pass unnoticed.”

 

Photo by Ray Hennessey via Unsplash

Take Another Road

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photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo on Unsplash

Yesterday was twelfth day of Christmas, and today is Epiphany, the Christian celebration of the coming of the magi from the east to honor a baby born to working-class parents, Mary and Joseph, in Bethlehem.  The magi came seeking Light but first they ran into a powerful ruler who preferred darkness. On the way to Bethlehem the magi stopped in Jerusalem and asked how to find this child.  The king got word of their search.  Fearful of losing power, he consulted advisers about the child’s birthplace. Then he summoned the magi, sent them to Bethlehem to find this threatening baby, and lied about his intentions, “When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”

Led by the star they had seen in the east, the magi found the house where the child lived with his parents and presented their gifts. Warned in a dream, they took another road home.  When the king realized that the magi had fooled him, he became so angry that he ordered his soldiers to kill all the babies in the region.  Meanwhile, Joseph also had a dream that warned him to flee with his family to Egypt where they lived until after the king died.

This is not a story to pack away with the crèche and the Christmas decorations.  It’s a story for the cold dark days of winter 2018 when the richest and most powerful are still more interested increasing their wealth and power than in following the way and the teachings of that child born in Bethlehem.  It’s a story that keeps saying, “Take another road.”
Frequently on this blog I’ll be introducing artists, writers, and musicians who are showing us another road. On this Epiphany it is fitting to feature Jan Richardson, an artist, writer, and United Methodist minister who has helped many celebrate this season in her images and books, especially in the image Wise Women Also Came in her book Night Visions.  I share with you one of Jan’s poem’s “The Map Our Dreaming Makes.”  You can imagine it coming from the lips of one of the magi.  Jan offers it as the beginning of a larger gift, a retreat resource you can download for this day or another day in the season of Epiphany when you need to pay attention to your dreams and reflect on taking another road.

She writes this retreat resource for Women’s Christmas, a day also celebrated on January 6 in some countries. Women’s Christmas began in Ireland on Epiphany Day when women took time off for rest and celebration together after the responsibilities they had carried during Christmastide and the rest of the year.  However, men as well as women will find much to ponder in both the poem and the resource.

The Map Our Dreaming Makes
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas

I cannot tell you
how far I have come
to give this blessing
to you.

No map
for the distance crossed,
no measure
for the terrain behind,
no calendar
for marking
the passage of time
while I traveled a road
I knew not.

For now, let us say
I had to come by
a different star
than the one
I first followed,
had to navigate by
another dream
than the one
I loved the most.

But I tell you
that even here,
the hope

that each star belongs
to a light
more ancient still,

and each dream
part of the way
that lies beneath
this way,

and each day
drawing us closer
to the day
when every path
will converge

and we will see the map
our dreaming made,
luminous in every line
that finally led us
home.

—Jan Richardson

Visit also Jan Richardson Images and find her other reflections on Epiphany at The Painted Prayerbook.

 

“Dazzle Gradually”

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photo by Bill Finley

On this first day of a new year, I begin a blog to discover people who –in the words of  poet Emily Dickinson–“tell it [the truth] slant” as I write about connections among three topics dear to me—faith, culture, and justice.  Frequently I’ll highlight a poet, a songwriter, a filmmaker, or other kinds of artists who speak obliquely so as not to overwhelm.  They want to get their message across before their audience slams a door in their faces or throws tomatoes at them or simply goes to sleep.

I know no better place to start than with Dickinson’s poem, which doesn’t have a name but rather is known by its first line which says, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”  Why do that?   In the oft-quoted and parodied court-martial scene in A Few Good Men, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) shouts, “I want the truth!” and Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) yells back, “You can’t handle the truth!”  Dickinson would agree, but she sees a way forward and it’s not a straight path.  She advises, “Success in Circuit lies.”  Tell it circuitously, gracefully, gently. Dance around a bit.  She follows her own advice as she plays with the order of that line and the next two:  “Too bright for our infirm Delight/ the Truth’s superb surprise.”  Truth can sometimes be a nice surprise, or at least a digestible one, when delivered in a way that honors our fragility before its power.

Then Dickinson makes a comparison, using a simile, which is another way of telling it slant:  “As Lightening to the Children eased / By explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.”  By explaining to kids what lightening is and what causes it, we adults help them be less fearful of it.  There are further comparisons here. Lightening is a little like truth—bright and fascinating but incredibly powerful—and we are like children—often unknowing and easily overwhelmed.  Truth has the power to blind if it’s not delivered in ways that that we can take in.

I believe in the wisdom and the challenge of this poem. I believe that creative artists of all kinds stand the best chance of getting across the truths that our society so sorely needs to hear.   Creative people can be heard in places and ways that noncreative people—however educated and skilled they may be—aren’t always heard. I think how some in our society choose not to hear scientists who warn us about global warming, environmentalists who remind us that there are limits to the earth’s resources, and journalists who seek to tell the truth and uphold the principles of a free press.

As a minister, as a writer, and as a grandmother, I am deeply concerned about the world we inhabit and the ways we are treating it and each other.  In this blog, I will be seeking out the prophets of our time who by telling it slant may help us to hear the truths we so desperately need to absorb.  I invite you to join me in my quest.