Sanctify the compost heap
where I trudge in dark with the day's dank scraps.
Sanctify the living stench,
soil's second chance,
barren fig-tree's friend.
Sanctify the dishes piled
on piles around the cluttered sink.
Sanctify the time it takes
to scrub and dry,
to sort and stack.
Sanctify numb fingers, ice
on windscreen that delays the day,
brittle tests when patience is small.
Sanctify unholy pain;
sanctify this senselessness
that drives me to the end of me
and sends me to Your feet.
It can be hard to capture emptiness with words, but often that is the primary emotion that I bring to my poems. This poem is a prayer that I wrote originally as the final part of a sequence of poems inspired by John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. The final track of that album is so sparse it can hardly be heard at times. This is my attempt to set that emptiness to words. The recording was produced for the online launch of Les Feuilles Mortes, with Ashlea Ephraums, a talented young performer, reading.
Buy Les Feuilles Mortes at the Lulu store. All profits go to Tear Australia’s COVID-19 campaign
As schools reopen in my part of the world, I have had the strange, disorientating experience of returning to work yet nothing being the same. But beside my office in the school library are some gorgeous auburn leaves that soothe me whenever I pass them. So I’m sharing them here with you today, along with a snippet from one of the poems in my new book, Les Feuilles Mortes, which is a kind of prayer for all of us as we imagine life on the other side of Corona.
And do not say, When
all this is done. Think bigger
than the mere return
of leaves to trees. Think seasons
not yet imagined, transformed.
(From “Autumn Leaves: Tanka for Isolation”
Les Feuilles Mortes is available for digital download here. Tune in to the online book launch on Saturday 30th May at 8:30pm Australian Eastern Standard Time.
These days when all of the socks are odd
and all your thoughts are scrambled eggs
and, try as you might to talk to God,
nothing much makes any sense,
for the rubbish awaits in noisome piles,
the bills are due and so’s the tax
and the laundry measures its depth in miles
and the devil has pains for idle backs –
unjumble yourself in a heap at Christ’s feet;
ramble and rant to the maker of ants
and all that creeps the planet, replete
with all its tangled, unnecessary plants;
rejoice to be useless and childlike and weak;
rejoice that you cannot make anything work;
rejoice and delight that the end of the week
will come round regardless of what you deserve;
and delight to know that mindless you are
yet He who is mindful of you holds the stars.
“Our life does not consist in making up beautiful phrases but in performing beautiful deeds.”
Nighttime cradles you in my arms
but I am uncradled,
and what strength I have to cradle with
is finite and growing finer yet,
my widow’s mite at the temple gate,
libation pouring out.
Daytime is an offering too,
a departure yet a giving,
an act of will to defeat the Will,
a living sacrifice that draws
fire and taunts the futile Baals.
Yet I am drawn to Baal.
At night again, while summoning sleep
into your limbs that want to climb,
I climb Mount Carmel again and seek
the fusion of my breath with His.
My memories of self from freer days
are rocked to stillness yet they climb.
This tangled prayer I bundle up
and sacrifice it whole.
2017 is almost over, and today we have two choral pieces to conclude our year with, one early, one modern, both settings of one of the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 61:10-62:4. The first is the delightfully joyous “Gaudens Gaudebo in Domino” by the 16th century German composer Philip Dulchius. The text comes from the opening to the song, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord”, which Mary echoes in her Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel. A modern reimagining of this text is the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s beautiful “I will greatly rejoice”, similarly jubilant but with simpler harmony. Both settings, looking not only to our own salvation but the saving of all nations, are wonderful calls to praise and prayer at the end of 2017.
Rejoice in your new clothes,
for the old is done.
The saving one has clothed you with joy
and in the bright raiment of His saving day.
Look to the east, to the west, where the sun
is rising and setting and setting the way,
where the hope of the new is calling, and calling,
where the world is enwrapping in light.
Rejoice in your new clothes;
rejoice greatly now in renewing delight.
For the old is done, the new bright as son,
bright as bridegroom and bride,
bright as the new spring in their eyes,
bright as wedding dance of old foes,
bright as the diadem in your thinning hair,
bright though the year be dimming.
The story of Simeon has given the church one of its oldest hymns, called the “Nunc Dimittis”, after the first two Latin words of the song: “Now dismiss…” There have been many musical versions of Simeon’s song, but today’s poem takes as its inspiration a modern setting by the living Swiss composer Carl Rütti. Rütti’s setting, full of dissonance and peace at the same time, perfectly captures the tension of the story, a moment of jubilation, fulfilment of age-old longing and pure relief and release. The same mood is captured for me in the painting by Rembrandt, who tackled the story of Simeon at the start and end of his career. This is the second of his versions, left unfinished at his death. Is it fitting that he never finished it? Rembrandt caught many of the most poignant moments of Scripture in a manner both raw and sublime. I personally love the second version much more than the first, though the latter is polished where the former is rough. Yet the roughness fits the theme perfectly: Simeon’s praying hands stretched out with the infant Jesus balanced over them, his eyes barely open, his mouth open just enough to say this final prayer. I’ve tried to capture some of this in today’s poem.
After the silence, a cascade
of wonder, of sound, of light.
Before the darkness, a sight
of promise, of presence, of peace.
And in this aching and drooping of arms,
an answer, a dimming, an eternal day.
Now dismiss. I hold the day;
I hold the way that holds me into night.
There are many lurkingplaces in the mind and many nooks… The old man is covered up in a thousand wrappings.
(Lancelot Andrewes, Preces Privatae)
Open the door. Let sun expose dust,
moth-eaten wool and mould around cornices.
Years of grime collect on window frames;
you forgot that the sideboard had an underneath.
And there too is the memory chest:
that also needs dusting;
and the bed of your childhood could use some air.
Let in September. True, comes in fits and starts;
opened windows welcome rain as easily as sun.
Yet nothing transfigures when the blinds are all shut
and nothing stifles dying like life.