Saturday Afternoon in the Celestial Room

The threshold transition:
We open the door at the end of the hall,
after some sealings, my wife and I,
and I feel the rush of a wash.
Life is different here.

The room is empty of people now
but full of something else:
the afternoon sun splits apart
in the heavy window,
and sets soft electric rainbows
on the carpet,
an arc of full clear stars also reaches
across the floor.
Arrays of bright flowers complement the light.

It’s so quiet, all I can hear
is God’s love humming
from head to toe.

There are books here, of course.
I sit, bathed in one pool of light,
and open and read.

From the Book of Moses,
that temple text par excellence:
“The Lord spake unto Enoch…
and his heart swelled wide as eternity;
and his bowels yearned;
and all eternity shook.”

Then from Psalm 119,
a perfect poem of passionate praise:
“With my whole heart have I sought thee:
O let me not wander from thy commandments.
Thy word have I hid in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.”

There’s only one painting
in this peaceful garden library:
The resurrected Savior
His arms open in welcome.

I sit and look and listen and feel.
I pray and the presence feels just a little closer.
This white room–
so simply elegantly simple–
floats beyond time and space,
in a galaxy of suns
until I see the shadow of a tree outside,
leaves swaying in a tiny breeze.

We leave hand in hand,
slow to go
but happy to have been here
and ready for the rest.

 

 

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The REALLY Old Farmer’s Almanac

978053I recently read the Latin poet Virgil’s work The Georgics, a four-part poem about the world of rural shepherds. Pretty decent pastoral stuff, especially part I.

Still, with its emphasis on astrology, agriculture, and animal husbandry, I felt like I was reading an ancient Roman version of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Shakespeare’s Best Female Character

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-2-54-27-pmShe’s in a poem that’s rarely read. Not only is she Shakespeare’s best female character, she’s his second best character overall (darn you, Hamlet!). She’s Lucrece, of the long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Two things especially impress me about her. The first is right before the criminal act of the title, when she attempts to persuade her attacker not to do it. She does not, however, say what might come to mind first in that situation, like saying that it’s cruel and selfish and hurts an innocent person. She actually improvises a compelling bit of oratory that appeals to his point of view, essentially warning him about the unintended consequences this act will have on his political career. Quite clever.

But after it happens, most of the rest of the story takes place inside her head, as she mentally soliloquizes about her situation for dozens of pages. She throws out one apostrophic lament after another, addressing her impassioned complaints to fate, lust, the gods, etc. Her thoughts here go far deeper than just depression (though, obviously, that’s a big feature) as she waxes profound about the nature of life and the world in a frenzy of philosophy that would make the Prince of Denmark jealous. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s truly and undeniably great writing.

More than once while reading it, I marveled at the depth of detailed world building that Shakespeare achieved in the mind of this one woman, and often wished that the reader could have met her under better circumstances.

 

Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

satan-consuming-judas-from-dantes-inferno

Middle Age

Middle age is the time of life when you yearn for the memory of the fierce passions you had a few decades in the past, but at the same time you yearn for the quiet peace you hope to have a few decades in the future.

(Inspired by reading Dana Gioia’s poem, “Meditation on a Line From Novalis”)

Reviewed: Pity the Beautiful, by Dana Gioia

41DlOh9NUtL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read some great essays by Gioia as they’ve popped onto my radar over the years, but I’ve only seen a smattering of the actual poetry of one of America’s best and most important poets.

Having just read his most recent collection, I can highly recommend it. Gioia writes about the kind of thoughts and concerns I also care about. His work is what the kids I teach might call “relatable,” though they themselves, ironically, would find his meditations on careers, economics, rituals, and domestic relationships mostly incomprehensible, coming as they do squarely from the heart of a middle aged, middle class man. He’s the kind of man that the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” memorialized, and like that classic bit of TV, this book of poetry might be called prophetic in some future day, when the target audience of like-minded readers will be ever and ever smaller.

There’s no pretension of universality here. In fact, that’s what leads to my one major ding against the book–it includes several poems translated from the Italian by other writers. As good as they are, the tone and style are wholly off from Gioia’s, and break the unity of the rest of the book, like an anachronism in an otherwise convincing fantasy.

Among the best works are “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” which includes such great lines as these:

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

Continue reading

Time and Poetry

I need more poetry in my life. This occurred to me not long ago when I noticed on my shelf Bill Brown‘s book, The Gods of Little Pleasures. I had bought this in a tiny craft store in Virginia on my honeymoon 12 years ago, and had still not finished it. This week, I finally did.

And loved it. Brown’s poetry is exactly the kind of thing I like. His themes include reverence for age and a domestic life enhanced by appreciation for the natural world. I wish I could share more of this wonderful collection, but here are two items.

First, Brown reading the last poem in the book, from which the title comes:

“Worship” appears to be the end of a little trilogy that concludes The Gods of Little Pleasures. The other two–“Backwoods Vespers” and “Prayer”–are also excellent.

Second, here’s another one I loved, appropriate for this time of year:

“October Poem”

The cat on the porch cocks an eye

as I tote wood for October’s fire. Perhaps she

remembers naps beside the hearth.

“First frost, first fire,” my father said;

and this morning’s yard is ashimmer.

Lost in the push of my life, the one

to earn bread and shelter, it’s good

to recognize an order both immediate

and beyond my plans. Hope, like desert rain,

is always welcome. That’s the danger.

This morning hope comes in little rituals

lost to summer: splitting wood, gathering

kindling from oak branches at the fence.

Building the first fall fire is like lighting

a prayer candle to some space lost

among the daily rhythms of the heart.

One can stop time only in dreams,

but at the edge of a season, I sense

a slowing of the blood; something resolute

and fleeting is remembered for an hour,

then forgotten. I take my coffee to the porch,

sit by the cat, and watch the first smoke rise

in unknown messages toward heaven.

“We Real Nerds”

A wonderful parody, posted here.

 

Today’s poem is by David Hernandez

We Real Nerds

We real nerds. We
Love words. We

Break lines.We
Trim vines. We

Craft poems. We
Tall gnomes. We

Can’t dance. We
Hold stance. We

Reread. We
Wear tweed. We

Small herd. We
Tenured. We

Got smarts. We
Fat hearts. We

Prolong. We
Live long.

More of Mill on Living Well

From chapter 5 of the autobiography…

On happiness through ignoring yourself:

The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

 

On music:

The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which (and in this it surpasses perhaps every other art) consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelings of an elevated kind which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervour, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times. This effect of music I had often experienced; but like all my pleasurable susceptibilities it was suspended during the gloomy period. I had sought relief again and again from this quarter, but found none. After the tide had turned, and I was in process of recovery, I had been helped forward by music, but in a much less elevated manner. I at this time first became acquainted with Weber’s Oberon, and the extreme pleasure which I drew from its delicious melodies did me good, by showing me a source of pleasure to which I was as susceptible as ever.

 

On finding enjoyment in simple things:

Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good.

 

On poetry (and mountains):

This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life….   
  In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle of imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did. I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.

“Every age must look to its poets…”

joyce“In fine the truth is not that the artist requires a document of
licence from householders entitling him to proceed in this or that
fashion but that every age must look for its sanction to its poets and
philosophers. The poet is the intense centre of the life of his age to
which he stands in a relation than which none can be more vital. He
alone is capable of absorbing in himself the life that surrounds him
and of flinging it abroad again amid planetary music. When the poetic
phenomenon is signalled in the heavens, exclaimed this
heaven-ascending essayist, it is time for the critics to verify their
calculations in accordance with it. It is time for them to acknowledge
that here the imagination has contemplated intensely the truth of the
being of the visible world and that beauty, the splendour of truth,
has been born. The age, though it bury itself fathoms deep in formulas
and machinery, has need of these realities which alone give and
sustain life and it must await from those chosen centres of
vivification the force to live, the security for life which can come
to it only from them. Thus the spirit of man makes a continual
affirmation.”

–James Joyce, Stephen Hero, ch. XIX

Yearning for Pastoral Restoration

It’s the driving force behind Thoreau’s Walden, one of my favorite books, and Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which I was just shown in an English teacher training meeting a couple of weeks ago, and which is now one of my favorite poems:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
 
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
 
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 

 

The poem also reminds me of Loreena McKennitt’s “Bonny Portmore,” another story of yearning for a pastoral restoration.  Is it a coincidence that both “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Bonny Portmore” are Irish?  Here’s a video for the song, with an appropriate scenery and landscape montage:

 

Epic LOLs in Milton’s Paradise Lost

I’m reading John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and what impresses me most (besides how aggressively macho Milton makes every detail—perhaps how Ray Bradbury would write if he were on steroids) is how funny it can often be.  Two scenes in Book 2 will demonstrate:

As the deposed demons discuss what to do about their infernal exile, Moloch (the John Wayne of the underworld) campaigns for another assault on heaven and an open war on God.  The more pragmatic Belial worries that the risks of God’s further wrath outweigh the rewards in that course, and says:

What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires [ 170 ]

Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage

And plunge us in the flames? or from above

Should intermitted vengeance arm again

His red right hand to plague us? what if all

Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament [ 175 ]

Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire,

Impendent horrors, threatning hideous fall

One day upon our heads; while we perhaps

Designing or exhorting glorious warr,

Caught in a fierie Tempest shall be hurl’d [ 180 ]

Each on his rock transfixt, the sport and prey

Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk

Under yon boyling Ocean, wrapt in Chains;

There to converse with everlasting groans,

Unrespited, unpitied, unrepreevd, [ 185 ]

Ages of hopeless end; this would be worse [emphasis added]

That’s great—yes, infinite torture for eternity would be a mite bit worse than exile.  Those last four words strike me as a supreme sort of understatement.

Later, they all agree to Satan’s plan to look into this new  project God’s been working on—creating creatures called “humans” and settling them on a place called “Earth”—and see if there’s some way they can stick it to him by messing it up.  Continue reading

Reviewed: Truth Barriers

Reading this old collection of poetry by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature showed me pretty clearly just how little poetry I read.  It took me a while to get into the rhythms of the technique, and even though the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer is extraordinarily lucid (his accessibility is often praised by some critics, and derided by others), I admit there are lines in some of his work that simply went over my head–I couldn’t connect them to the pieces’ main themes.

Still, at the risk of revealing myself to be a poetic Philistine, let me say this: what I understood, I liked.

Tranströmer strikes me as a gifted sage of modern times: he ruminates on the nature of life in a fractured, technological world, not offering answers so much as asking penetrating questions.  Part Socrates, then, and part Thoreau, he produces images like this one, from “Schubertiana”:

The immense treeless plains of the human brain have

gotten folded and refolded ’til they are the size of a fist. 

Continue reading

Chiasmus in Helaman 13:29-39

In studying the Book of Mormon, it seems that everybody and his brother is familiar with chiasmus, that Hebraic form of poetry where key words and phrases in the first half of a text are repeated backwards in the second half, done to aid memorization, to signify a whole unit of thought, and, especially, to emphasize the central turning point. 

With all the many excellent examples of the technique that the Book of Mormon offers, one of my favorites is usually overlooked: Helaman 13:29-39. 

The most notable work on such parallelisms in the Book of Mormon, Donald W. Parry’s The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted According to Parallelistic Patterns, does not mention chiasmus in this section.  However, in A New Witness For Christ, a similar work by the late H. Clay Gorton, an amateur Book of Mormon enthusiast, I found an arrangement of these verses that is very close to mine. 

In Helaman 13:29-39, Samuel the Lamanite has been lambasting the grossly apostate people of a city.  Throughout the first segment of the sermon, he chastises them for their materialism, and for their related rejection of the prophets.  After the patient, factual, even dry recounting of their rebellion in most of Helaman 13, in verses 29-39 Samuel lets loose with a passionate lament, wailing over their wasteful path towards self-destruction due to their own willful blindness.  Those verses form a discrete unit of the sermon, and a compelling chiasm. 

Continue reading