Friday, December 26, 2014

THOMAS HARDY’S OXEN KNEELING AT MIDNIGHT

Paolo Schiavo: Nativity, 15th century
THE OXEN

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.


   “Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

   By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where


   They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

   To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave


   In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

   “Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb


   Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

   Hoping it might be so.

~ Thomas Hardy, 1915

*

barton = barn
coomb = valley

*

One of the Polish Christmas carols also mentions the cattle kneeling down (possibly the entire livestock is included in the plural of “cattle,” but not everyone had sheep). Furthermore, at midnight on Christmas Eve the cattle can speak and are proclaiming “miracles.” The point was that all of nature recognizes and celebrates the birth of the Holy Child.

Though all of us knew this Christmas carol, I didn’t know anyone who took literally the tradition of the cattle kneeling down. Hardy mentions that this was a belief when he was a child. Later, at the beginning of the 20th century (“The Oxen” was published in 1915), the folk belief was dying out:

So fair a fancy few would weave
  In these years!

Of course not: in the 20th century, the age of science, no one would weave a tale of that sort. Also, Hardy wrote this poem after the outbreak of WWI, another example of Christian ideals appearing to be a never-achieved fairy tale while bishops blessed the cannons.

But speaking of weaving, I just learned that allegedly Poles used to believe that a spider wove a blanket for Baby Jesus, so it was good luck to see a spider on Christmas. My grandmother knew this kind of lore — she still referred to date according to the feast-days of the saints, e.g. “I last saw Zula just before St. Michael’s.” But not a word about a divinely inspired spider weaving a blanket for Baby J.

Maybe it was a regional Christmas legend — if such a legend really exists, that is. (In an era when more and more scholars incline to the view that Jesus never existed, but was a fictional character like Odysseus [see http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/08/did-historical-jesus-exist-growing-number-of-scholars-dont-think-so/ ], we don’t just question history; even the authenticity of certain legends is subject to doubt.

The common belief was that Mary used straw to keep the baby warm in the manger (except that birth usually took place in a crowded family room: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/23/jesus-christ-not-born-in-stable-theologian-new-testament). A spiderweb blanket — who knows, it might be the next kevlar!

But never mind cattle, sheep, and spiders — though the tradition certainly shows an endearing involvement of animals in the birth of Christ. Pope Benedict’s misguided directive to remove the animals from Nativity scenes because of the absence of scriptural evidence shows a scholastic mind that follows the letter and not the spirit. The directive was politely disregarded. Of course the animals were there! Animals are allowed to gaze at the holy child. They too worship. That’s the best part.

Hardy’s poem expresses a nostalgia for the days of simple, literal faith. He doesn’t want anyone to tell him that the cattle are kneeling “in the spiritual sense”; what he’d really love to see is the literal cows and sheep literally kneeling down at midnight. Not spirit, not metaphor, but actual animals on their knees! A sign so obvious would make everyone devout.

In one of his old-age poems, Milosz (who in some ways reminds me of Hardy) confesses that every time he’s in church, he fervently hopes for a sign — all the while knowing that no statue will nod to him or lift its hand.

Milosz tries to resolve his frustration by saying that human kindness is a sign of the divine — an argument that any logician would dismiss by saying that human kindness proves only the existence of human kindness. Hardy is more subtle, indicating his knowledge with just one word:

I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

“Gloom” undercuts the hope.


Bernardo Daddi (1280-1348), Nativity
 

*

No adult would be so naive as to try to test the legend. Whoever made it up was careful never to remain in the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve. In spite of the last line, the word “gloom” signals the end of that hope for a miraculous sign. But at the emotional level, the yearning remains. “The Oxen” is a poem of longing for belief in the face of the impossibility of belief.

Religious doubt tends to strike around the time of puberty, when the developing brain begins to question adult authority. I doubted immediately already as a child, during my first religion lesson, but then managed to suppress doubt simply because it was unthinkable that the nuns and the priests would lie to us.

And yet, after my first religion lessons, I (along with all the other children, I strongly suspect) was filled with the question, If god exists, why doesn't he just show himself? Maybe he could open a window in the sky and show his face? Or at least say something? He did talk to Adam and Eve, and later to Abraham and Moses . . .  Why not to us, now?

One little boy was actually brave enough to [shudder] ask the nun just that: If god spoke to those people in the bible stories, how come he never speaks to us?

The nun smiled in a sad way. Nuns didn't normally smile, so that sorrowful smile, her whole face and body language charged with melancholy, was striking and unforgettable. “Those were different times,” she said. “People were different back then.” End of explanation.

In retrospect, I see that it was a perfectly good explanation. The times were different, as were people’s mentalities. The ancient world was filled with gods and demons, witches, dragons, unicorns, and other imaginary animals. Literacy was confined to the few, so stories were transmitted orally, evolving from generation to generation. Fantasy and reality were not clearly separated. Cynics might argue that that’s still true, but seriously — centuries ago, it was much worse. 

 Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 1490

**

Hardy was raised as an Anglican. For a while in his youth he had a Baptist friend and was drawn to evangelical Christianity. But Hardy’s intellect was too powerful not to see that all religions were invented by humans. Later he became what could be called a “cultural Christian” — someone who admires Christian ethics, loves the church music and the more poetic passages in the bible, but who doesn’t believe in a personal god, much less in the divinity of Jesus.

Still, most scholars would be uneasy with calling Hardy an atheist — sooner a deist. Hardy tried to imagine some “unconscious will” or “universal consciousness” that created the universe without concern for the fate of sentient beings, but is hopefully becoming more aware and “sympathetic”:

“The Christian god — the external personality — has been replaced by the intelligence of the First Cause . . . the replacement of the old concept of God as all-powerful by a new concept of universal consciousness. The 'tribal god, man-shaped, fiery-faced and tyrannous' is replaced by the 'unconscious will of the Universe' which progressively grows aware of itself and 'ultimately, it is to be hoped, sympathetic’.”

Universal consciousness may be a welcome replacement for a tyrannical man-made god, but it doesn’t offer any emotional warmth. Hardy missed that from his Anglican childhood, and didn’t close the possibility that the  “unconscious will” might be growing more conscious and benevolent. He was aware that the ancient Greeks had altars not only to the gods they knew by name, but also one bearing the inscription “agnostoi theoi” — “to the unknown god.” This unknown god might perhaps be capable of growing “more percipient” and thus more kind toward both humans and “the meek mild creatures in their strawy pen.”



But this was a feeble hope at best. Hardy was closer to naturalism than to process theology. He often presented the world seemingly ruled by forces that might be compared to the capricious and sometimes cruel gods of antiquity (note the “President of the Immortals” in the last sentence of “Tess of the d’Ubervilles”).

Though now and then he showed how much he missed the naive rural faith of his childhood, Thomas Hardy was, above all, a realist. 




Blake: God Answering Job

Flying figures with long flowing beards are hard to resist. Since I already had Blake’s image, and also the one with St. Peter and St. James, I checked on the part of Dante’s Paradiso in which St. Peter and St. James appear, wondering if I’d find some beautiful lines to quote for my readers. Alas, I found those cantos dreadfully boring, the language flat and didactic rather than subtle and imagistic (“To be direct is to be inartistic” ~ Henry James). Paradiso seems to validate the theory that poetry too requires dramatic tension — what Blake called the “contraries” — and what may also be called “surprises” (“No surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader”).

(The canto that follows is more interesting: the original Adam appears and supplies information on the age of the earth — not much over 6,000 years — and on the language that he spoke: not Hebrew, as Dante earlier claimed, but a language that became extinct even before the building of the Tower of Babel.)

St. Peter examines Dante’s faith, asking about evidence. Dante gives the official scholastic proofs: first cause, the unmoved mover, etc. — and miracles. The scholastic arguments have all been invalidated. As for miracles, I’ve never read or heard of any that could be categorically ruled out as coincidence or natural healing. In fact Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor condemns Christ for not having established undeniable miracle (a mere trifle like turning stones to bread would do) as the basis of religion, having instead condemned humanity to believe or not believe in the absence of convincing evidence for the supernatural.

Actually I never understood why it would be so bad if god — assuming such an all-powerful and all-good being exists somewhere in the cosmos and cares about human beings — gave us some clear proof of its own existence. The usual answer seems to be: then faith would lose its merit because we’d have knowledge, and god prefers us to believe without proof rather than to have knowledge. If he provided evidence of his existence, then faith would not have the great merit that it has in the absence of evidence. Dostoyevsky’s argument (and we cannot doubt that he is on the side of Christ and against the Grand Inquisitor, even though he feels great sympathy for the old man’s attempt to provide emotional succor to the ignorant flock) is that an indisputable miracle would compel us to believe; we’d no longer have the freedom not to believe.

Why is the freedom not to believe considered so precious? If millions of people all over the world would see the cattle kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve — or pick something else, given we don’t live around cattle as we used to — wouldn’t we kneel as well, filled with joy? I suspect many of us would gladly give up the freedom not to believe in exchange for the certainty of immortality. Would not such knowledge inspire dancing in the streets since we are headed for paradise? Or at least because someone up there cares? And wouldn’t religious wars cease since the whole world would have the proof as to which god is true? Is there indeed a single bad effect that such knowledge would have?

Or, to drop the Christian slant, what if we indubitably witnessed the goddess Kali in her garland of skulls? Not as special effects, formed by laser beams projected on the sky, but dancing in the middle of Main Street? Terrifying as that would be, at least it would be proof of the spirit world.

Actually, I can think of a bad effect of knowledge as opposed to faith, but it’s not one that the “flock” would see as bad. Namely, the earthly life would seem pretty insignificant next to the promised eternity of bliss, and earth itself only a pale shadow of the beauty in paradise. That was the official view during the Middle Ages, when the faith of many did approach the certainty of knowledge. Consequently, those who hoped to hasten death through long fasts and self-flagellation, or spent most of their time in prayer, on their knees on hard stone, were regarded as role models — and not those who improved earthly life by designing a more efficient plow, for instance, or by devising laws that constrained a monarch’s tyranny.

That any progress was made during the so-called Ages of Faith seems almost —“almost” — miraculous. Scientific inquiry was blocked. Once the totalitarian power of the church was broken, along with the practice of burning at the stake those who would question, or dare to translate the bible into a living language, the human mind could flourish again. 


That mind is neither omnipotent nor all-good, but the heights achieved by human genius fill me with awe. And the heroic deeds of human altruism — someone risking his life to save a stranger —  also impress me no end. My allegiance is to that which is highest in humanity. Like Thomas Hardy, I could call myself a “meliorist” — one who believes that together we can build a better world. But I prefer to use a more familiar term: a humanist.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

RILKE: IF DRINKING’S BITTER, TURN INTO WINE


Silent friend of many distances,
feel how your breath still enlarges space.
Let your presence in the belfry of the night
ring out like a a bell. What feeds on your face

grows strong from the nourishment.
Move back and forth into transformation.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking’s bitter, turn into wine.

In this uncontainable darkness, be the mystery
and the power at the crossroads of your senses.
Be the meaning of their strange encounter.

If the world no longer knows your name,
to the motionless earth say: I flow.
To the rushing water speak: I am.

~ Rilke, Sonnet 29, Sonnets to Orpheus, Part II


*



In her free translation, Joanna Macy simplifies certain lines in a way I like — especially these:

Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.

~ but this inverts Rilke’s meaning: what feeds on you grows strong. The dead feed the world; they even enlarge space.

*

The speaker is instructing Vera, the dead young girl who was going to be a dancer until leukemia cut short the thread of her fate (foreshadowing Rilke’s own illness, still unknown to him). Knowing this makes “what feeds upon your face” more literal than we can bear, but we must think more broadly — perhaps in terms of Heidegger’s “Being.” All of existence feeds on what the dead offer, in all possible ways. They are the “friend of many distances.” They touch every shore. “They have connections everywhere,” as my mother learned in a dream about her dead mother.

I confess I was tempted to commit infidelity to Rilke’s text. The first line is literally, “Silent friend of many distances.” It’s easy to see that by uniting with nature the dead become part of “many distances.” But one translator made it “Silent friend who has come so far.” It’s more human and endearing. The word “distances” keeps the vanished girl literally at a distance. And yet, and yet . . .

I also confess that “Silent friend of many distances” is how I continue to name this poem to myself. In part it’s habit. But also, since it’s the last of the Sonnets of Orpheus, I’ve come to see Rilke as my own “friend of many distances.” The encounter with his work changed my life, showing me what poetry was. Above all, it taught me seriousness.

This is a strange and astonishing comfort poem. Our having been here on earth doesn’t go to waste, Rilke seems to be saying. We become the nourishment for what exists after us. Our breath “still enlarges space.” 



At the same time, we must remember that Vera is only a pretext for composing this poem. She can't hear or feel anything. Like all poems, this is a poem for the living. We are the ones who should feel at ease with transformation. We are the ones who need the rise to the challenge of the question: “What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?” And once we have the answer, how do we transform the loss from bitterness into wine?

For me the answer has always been ambiguous. Arguably no loss is as great as the loss of one’s homeland, language, and culture. However I imagine what my life might have been, the only certainty that seems to shine through the cloud of unknowing is the knowledge (perhaps false) that I would have been happier if I had stayed in Poland. Here should follow a long list of explanations, which would be of little interest to the reader. Let me just say that no one can know the pleasure of speaking in one’s native tongue unless that daily ease and perfection are lost.

I can turn this loss into wine if I think of my poems in English as having sufficient value to outweigh my suffering. I might still have become a poet had I stayed, but I’d write as a different person. I was very drawn to Polish language poetry, and had a gift for transforming words in a playful way. At its very best, language poetry can have a mysterious depth; for the most part, though, it evades seriousness.

Would I have ever encountered Rilke? Most likely I’d have chosen French rather than German, and not likely strayed into a class on modern German poetry. Of course it’s impossible to know. Maybe an encounter with Baudelaire would have been sufficient to teach me seriousness. How much in our lives is sheer chance . . .

Mostly likely I’d have had at least one child, and that brings up the question of losses and gains. Here the cloud of unknowing thickens. It is possible that preoccupied with professional work and family life, I would have not had the time for developing as poet.

So ultimately my “turning into wine” turns back to what it always was: the enlargement and friction caused by dealing with another culture formed me into the kind of poet and a writer that I’ve become. And now that the worst suffering is over, now that I mostly feel happy — yes, perhaps it’s been worth it. Perhaps.


I can never know with any certainty. But to live a life of regret is to lose the miraculous gift of existing at all. While the poem is about loss, what I have gained is remembering the beauty of the streets and the lilacs. The lilacs now bloom in my mind.


EVERY SPRING I REMEMBERED LILACS

sweet sticky purple mouths
kissing me back after rain –
not barren peach blooms
fevering Los Angeles.

refinery-polluted nights.
I could count what I had
on my fingers: one table,
three chairs, twice-a-year love life,

ten cents above the minimum wage.
I should have never left Warsaw –
that pavement ticking with anger,
those clouds like billowing archangels.

I should have married the green-eyed
motorcycle rider I met in Mazurian woods –
we were married by the wild swans
that whooshed over our heads –

I should have had my Janusz and Danuta,
taught them the leafy legends of their names.
Each morning I’d open the balcony,
gauze curtain like a shining wind.

I tried to check myself, imagining
my husband would have an affair
with a woman dentist, a neighbor
watch soccer full-blast on TV –

and I, like a character in Chekhov,
above a river of lilacs,
would wander through atlases and whisper
the ecstasy of foreign vowels.

But the long street called Childhood
is not on any city map. And yet
every spring I remember lilacs,
chill droplets of rain I’d kiss

from the brief, boundless blossoms –
my heart calm before sorrow,
my face pressed into flowers,
mouth grazing clusters of moist stars.

~ Oriana © 2014


Monday, December 15, 2014

SZYMBORSKA, CORDING: THE MIRACLE OF REBUILDING

14h century French triptych, ivory. Its depiction of Nativity is unusual, possibly unique. In the upper right, Joseph is holding the baby; Mary seems to have just said, “You hold him now, I need a nap.”

MY NEIGHBOR’S MAILBOX

The first time some teens, buzzed on beer
or coke, caved in her mailbox with a bat,
a new one appeared the very next day,

but with two small hand-painted geese
on the routine black metal where the flag
is raised. When that one was crushed,

her next gave both sides to a scene
of woods and field and a small brook
that jointed each other at the door.

After yet a third time the mailbox
and even the post was taken out, she built
a little red barn out of wood

with a door that opened to receive
the mail. Below the mailbox, she placed
a flower pot, of deep blue porcelain,

filled with salmon-colored lilies . . .
Often I see her pulling weeds, watering
the ocean-throated lilies, tending to

the spot of ground around the mailbox
as if Martin Buber were right, and God allots
to each of us our own little area to redeem.

Of course her actions may only prove again
how thin the line between divinity and madness.
Or that she may be merely holding on

to some principles learned in Sunday school,
those kids no more to her than a test
of neighborly love. But maybe

she sees those boys, whoever they are,
with girlfriends and high school classes,
all of them rushing into what lies ahead

without a sense yet of who they might be;
and maybe she can imagine them
arriving one night only to pull back their bat

and just laugh, the barn door open,
a letter lying like a beast in its stall, the night air
disarming, charged with the scent of lilies.

~ Robert Cording

Cording lives in rural Connecticut (in Woodstock, but not the one of the rock music festival in 1969), and often writes about the area: the changing seasons, the walks he takes, the sparrows, the swallows. He’s no Mary Oliver, however, removing humanity from the scene so he can feel ecstatic about the deer or the birds (though he does write about deer and birds also). What I especially value is his poems about the people he knows, trying to make sense of their suffering. I chose the mailbox poem because, with constant images of rubble and destruction on the news, I think we can use a poem praising those who restore the world.

The neighbor may be naive, but there is a strange beauty to her naiveté and persistence. She reminds me of people in Europe rebuilding their cities over and over again after each war — as if in the hope that the beautiful town hall would ultimately be allowed to stand un-shelled and un-bombed. And it seems that hope and peace have prevailed — but some think there is always a chance that a new vicious ideology will march in in SS-like black boots, reminding us that those deprived of a positive outlet for the enormous energies of youth will find a destructive venue. “You can’t imagine how much fun we are having here,” a US-born ISIS recruiter speaks on TV. “This is the real Disneyland.”

(Do I have the right to read all this into a “small” poem? Yes, because a poem belongs to the reader, and the meaning of something small can be huge.)

Is the neighbor who keeps restoring her mailbox a saint, showing neighborly love, or perhaps someone who’s losing her grip on reality? Yet her ability to tend to the lilies testifies to a will to create and preserve order and beauty at least in her small plot. This is a miniature vignette of the race between civilization and destruction. A young man who can’t build a house may find it “fun” to blow up someone else’s house instead.

And the poem could easily end on:

Often I see her pulling weeds, watering
the ocean-throated lilies, tending to

the spot of ground around the mailbox
as if Martin Buber were right, and God allots
to each of us our own little area to redeem.


That would leave me entirely satisfied. Yes, we each have a special small area to redeem, our own garden to cultivate, just one child to turn on to reading and learning — and that is enough. The poem reminded me of a young woman whom I managed to motivate to become an A student — her first name happened to be Hope, because life doesn’t care to be subtle.

Dali: Madonna and Child

But the poem goes on past what me is the main message. There is a religious subtext here, to put it mildly. I was surprised at the word “beast”; because of the barn and the lilies I fully expected Baby Jesus. And yet even a “beast” — a word we might associate with the nasty boys — is, as an animal, any animal, a symbol of innocence.

Again it’s hard to escape from the imagery of Nativity, even though Pope Benedict had the bad taste to insist that there were no animals at the birth of Jesus since the Gospels do not mention animals. Fortunately Pope Francis, following his patron saint, has just announced that all animals go to heaven. Pope Francis understands that the human heart needs animals to inspire us with kindness and patience. And blessed are those who clear the rubble, install a new mailbox, and yes, grow lilies in a flower pot — for it is they who day by ordinary day keep saving the world. 



First known presentation of Nativity, 4th century, Sant’Ambroggio, Milano
**


To my readers: Rather than continue with infrequent lengthy blogs, I’ve decided to shift to more frequent short posts. Here’s wishing you all a joyful winter solstice, and, afterwards, happy lengthening days.

**

John Guzlowski sends this “rebuilding” poem by Szymborska:

THE END AND THE BEGINNING

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens and nods
with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way
for those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.


~ Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak

Oriana:

John, thanks for this gift. I love the last stanza.

And how oddly relevant to recent events:

Someone else listens and nods
with unsevered head.

~ as if to show that “the poem is news that stays news.”


*

If Cording’s poem is “micro-news,” then Szymborska’s is macro. Both of them have the same message: this is what the human spirit is. No matter how huge the devastation, we get up and start clearing the rubble. And eventually someone will again lie down and watch the clouds, chewing on a blade of grass.