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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Shmoop on Huck Finn: Guest Blogger Jeanne Torrence Finley

Thanks to Alex Joyner for inviting me to be a guest blogger on Heartlands.

Heartlands

aaron-burden-236415-unsplash photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out).  Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:

When Alex wrote on February 18  (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books:  Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet.   As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature.  Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was…

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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