Strange to be flourishing so far afield;
its home is equatorial, tropical,
not here, among suburban paddocks,
with a straight line down to Antarctica.
Yet, while silver birch weeps
and quince decks boggy ground with its midwinter yellow,
this Malaysian friend greets me with
loud, audacious pink,
asserting its brilliant right to exist,
here, far from home:
its only purpose to be,
and beautifully so.
As an Anglican myself, I have to say that our literary exports don’t get much better than Christina Rossetti. Granted, she’s in formidable company, alongside George Herbert, John Donne, William Cowper, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas (why did you need to have the middle initial S in order to be a successful 20th-century Anglican poet?). Yet Rossetti is special for a bunch of reasons. She stands to this day as one of the most important female writers of her day – no small claim when you think of some of the writers she shared an era with – and has a remarkable balance of spiritual richness and honest as well as transcendental exploration of life that makes her successful not just as a writer of faith but also as a poet. She endured much in her life and produced poetry of only increasing beauty through that life, growing both in honesty and grace as a writer. It’s fitting, therefore, that she has a day in the Church of England calendar in her memory. It isn’t celebrated in the Anglican Church of Australia, but I can’t let a minor feast day for a beloved writer go by without writing something to honour it. So here is a poem in memory of an amazing woman, Anglican and poet.
The Language of Flowers
There it was,
in your garden, amidst
bleeding cyclamen, besides
burdened burdock and a trampled
patch of furze and hyacinth.
Ivy was torn
where you cut through the garden;
juniper drooped and lilac sank.
Yet, then you spied the valley lily
growing where it should not grow,
and a shock of eglantine.
Soft, you thought:
“I planted cyclamen to say,
I must wait. I gathered
burdock with its spines to say,
This is done. So go away.
I am done with artifice;
clematis I will rip from soil.
With dogwood, I am durable.
I cannot plant much else.”
Yet there it stood,
unplanted, unthought. When you went
to pluck a thorn to pierce
a puffed-up dream, you found instead
in varied purple-yellow-white
the heartsease for your sleep, and found
a day-bloom burst from night.
You had ripped
your palace down. There was no place
to lay your head but grass and weed.
Yet on that bed of purple light,
you dropped to rest your heart.
Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.
(Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved)
That I am begotten by love,
That my heart beats
And my feet move
That the air is rich
For me to breathe
That love is patient,
That love is kind
That I can know
What goodness is
That I have companions
Beside my walk
That song is true
(Only hear the birds!)
That the world is full
Of light, of play
That I have climbed
Mountains and trees
That my eyes receive
The signals of life
That yellow flowers I cannot name
Line my road, my way
That I can talk for hours
That I am small
And He is not
That language is beauty
And also meaning
That I have never suffered
As I should
That again the sun has chosen
That I must never
That I have been given
Home and name
That I belong
Where I am found
That sun and rain
Are common gifts
(That roads are built
That we may walk
And we may sit
That even sparrows have a home
(How much more I, a child of grace?)
That I am held
In arms like His
That hope is stored
Where none can harm
That life is hid,
Yet lived today
That I can look up to a sky
And think – Sublime!
That all this glory
Is yours and mine
That in these thirty-two years of grace
It is not I but Him –
For this and more,
I gather moments like raindrops,
these microscopic buds of spring
tricked by sun
to come out, one by one;
how hesitant can be
the grandest glimpse of things
I catch the way your moments dance
from distance –
yet close enough to ring
the shadows into song
in soft, legato days of praise.
how hopefully we hold
in tentative expectancy
You hold our hope in moments of joy,
What we do not expect
grips tight. I neglect
too soon what we know. Let go
that pass. Joy is forever,
the things that stir our hearts in song.
…The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
– T.S. Eliot, “Preludes”
I will be late for work: the traffic tells me so, and Adam's curse run deep in roads too busy to know their name.
Beaten by roadside lies the debris and dust of abandoned schedules: here someone burst a tyre, there a jerry-can was left, there some refuse of a long-forgotten breakfast. Why do wild flowers speak in pitches more alive to me? Pointed, they dance in the breeze: small, white-purple flecks of something else, another time, another Where. Yet life is lived on roads, and time is stretched in tyre-marks to places where we'd rather be. Wake up. Gratitude's an act of grace and this day is thick with its potential. Nothing's lived except when it harkens to all that defies it, and all that belies it. If the day begins thus, then let it, and listen: this is where you must now be.
After Antonio Vivaldi, “Le Quattro Stagioni – La Primavera: II. Largo”
Creator God, whose praise and power are proclaimed by the whole creation: receive our morning prayers, we pray…
(A Prayer Book for Australia)
Consider how the lilies open –
Watch them enter into light…
in all his splendour
was not robed like these.
Consider, also fleeting sparrows:
not gathering, not daring night.
Watch sparrows dance
across these flowers –
watch as dew sings praise.
O sing, and be in quiet hours
witnesses of lily-joy..
Consider how the lilies open –
watch, and praise Him
Uncommonly strong, it stays purple, while elsewhere the street is lined with debris from seasons which the trees soon forgot. Confused fig-leaves turn golden, drop to the ground as rain gushes gutters and sunscreen, umbrellas, opposites, swap in uncertain hands – yet lilac and stoic at the end of my street Jacaranda declares it is summer.
Head dense with things beyond knowing I turn and see a fiery flower dragon-fruit-like atop green leaves swaying in the dusk and walking by I turn out of myself to praise
Today is something of an anniversary for me. Seven years ago, on this day, I wrote my first adult poem. I remember this because it was the last day of winter, and unusually warm. The poem was about a new crush after a long relationship had ended. I’m sure it would be highly embarrassing to look at now, not least of all because the crush in question went resolutely nowhere, but somehow the metaphor of unexpected spring seemed to fit the moment well. I suppose that, all cliches aside, it did.
I went on to write several poems about spring, but have not done so for some time. I became a little more ambivalent towards spring over the last few years. It seemed to draw me reluctantly out of my winter hibernation, when I, like an unsettled hermit, would much rather be left alone.
This spring is different. Much in my life is changing, and though I do not know where any of it will lead, I am slowly learning what it is to trust the God who orders all the seasons alike and purposes love through them all. Today’s poem looks at this idea. I hope you enjoy it.
And to those living in the southern hemisphere, happy last day of winter.
The Week of the Cherry Blossoms
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us…
(T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)
And it will surprise us, this week out of nowhere,
Grey mornings and overcast noons replaced
With this unexpectedness of pink
Blossoms bespeckling trees fresh from winter,
A shower of tenderness covering limbs,
Pianissimo moment in spring’s overture,
The redness of leaves soon to take August’s place,
This week just one window of delicate peace,
After winter’s refuge from sunbeams.
No fear; the sun cannot harm us by day, nor
New growth take us where we would rather avoid:
The seasons work, hands held, together,
Guided by logic and purpose and love,
Not arousing or waking what’s better asleep
But harvesting hope as it springs.
Well, a new month begins: July, my favourite month of the year. And so it seems fitting, in the month of my birth, to move onto one of my absolute favourite poets, the passionate and devout Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti. I’m excited to be looking at her work this month, and I hope you’re excited to read her with me. Watch this space for poetry and reflections on Rossetti’s rich and complex life.
To whet your appetite, here is one of her lesser-known gems, found in her devotional journal, Time Flies.Heartsease I found, where Love-lies-bleeding Empurpled all the ground: Whatever flowers I missed unheeding, Heartsease I found. Yet still my garden mound Stood sore in need of watering, weeding, And binding things unbound. Ah, when shades fell to light succeeding, I scarcely dared look round: “Love-lies-bleeding” was all my pleading, Heartsease I found.
(Christina Rossetti, from Time Flies: A Reading Diary)