The First Photograph – a poem for these sort of times

The First Photograph

When Aylan Kurdi’s photo splashed across the waves,
it was a scoop, a spotlight on refugees, a beacon of hope
for better treatment, more welcome ways. It became
Sea Prayer for parents casting their children to sea in light vessels.
But nothing changed. It was a false dawn. Children keep drowning.
Here in Bethlehem, lives are poor, government weak.

A concrete cordon of wall dominates, not for our security mind,
but as shutter and blind to lives despised. We are occupied
by those whose minds pre-occupied by counting our threat,
known by numbers, never names. Our lives are poor,
our movement restricted, often imprisoned for raising flag,
hand or stone, getting by with our whittled olive tourist trade.

When reporters came from way out east, that was our moment,
that Aylan Kurdi flash. Three came. They’d heard our plight.
and noted our views, their reports were carried in paper news.
Their attraction, they said, was a star, a pin prick in a night sky,
inspiration for their camera and that first photograph, a baby
captured, strangely focused, fast exposed as a flash of light.

That was the image of us. It sold and sold. going world-wide,
framed, kissed and even enshrined, the light of the world,
while we still in darkness lie. There was a child, a shot in the dark.
Because of that aperture in this little Goliath walled town
where streets stay dark and soldiers still count their enemy,
we picture endurance in that light relief, that blink of an eye,
that pin prick in the night.

©David Herbert

Links to Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer and the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body

Love never stops

This is a reflection on words from Isaiah 44: I am the first and I am the last.

As well as the first
I am the last I am
the last the victim
forgotten I am
the last is my name
my first word
the lasting word
beaming hope
for the last at last
everlasting love

This was written for the Twitter hashtag #cLectio – a hashtag used by some for reflecting on the first reading of Morning Prayer

A Gut Reaction – what beautiful stories are

I had to resort to poetry to respond to the video produced by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) of the Beautiful Story. This is a film designed “to encourage and enable evangelicals to engage and contend in discussions about human sexuality”. It left me cold, horrified by the voices that have gone unheard.

Beautiful stories are

well spoken. But with respect, Sirs
your Beautiful Story so well told
is lop-sided, a one-sided story
lacking the beauty of the round.

Your voice sounds beautiful.
It is, as I said, well spoken. But,
big but, there is a violence
to the voices which go unsaid.

Voices of ones you corrected
with your prescriptive text
drown the muffled sounds
from the closets you locked.

From basement cellar, closet
and the chimney stacked chamber
their voices died, but scratched
on the wall, blood red, their words

I loved too. Their words, their voice,
truthful, plaintive, defiant or proud
make the story. There is no beauty
apart from where love is found.
©️David Herbert

I hesitate to give the link to CEEC’s Beautiful Story because it is not as beautiful as it is cracked up to be and because it is not for anyone of a sensitive disposition. The Church of England has published resources for Living Faithfully in Love..

Touched by an Angel – by Maya Angelou

Angel by Marc Chagall, All Saints Tudeley: another angel helping us see life differently?

Today is Michaelmas – in our Church of England calendar known as Michael and All Angels. One of the best loved poems about angels is by Maya Angelou. That is coincidence that the poet’s name itself is a reminder of angels and their purpose. She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson but later became known as Maya Angelou. Angelou was her married name and Maya came from the nickname used by her older brother as in “mya (my) sister”. Angelou is the Greek for angel or messenger. Maya has its own meaning in the Semitic language of the Amharas; it is a “lens that helps see further”. Isn’t that just what an angel does? Don’t they help us see further than the darkness, the pain, the hatred etc? Don’t they help us feel better? Don’t they help us to see hope, freedom, reconciliation?

Here is Maya Angelou’s poem, Touched by an Angel

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Eve, After – a poem by Danusha Laméris

Did she know
there was more to life
than lions licking the furred
ears of lambs,
fruit trees dropping
their fat bounty,
the years droning on
without argument?

Too much quiet
is never a good sign.
Isn’t there always
something itching
beneath the surface?

But what could she say?
The larder was full
and they were beautiful,
their bodies new
as the day they were made.

Each morning the same
flowers broke through
the rich soil, the birds sang,
again in perfect pitch.

It was only at night,
when they lay together in the dark
that it was almost palpable –
the vague sadness, unnamed.

Foolishness, betrayal,
-call it what you will. What a relief
to feel the weight
fall into her palm. And after,
not to pretend any more
that the terrible calm
was Paradise.

by Danusha Laméris from her book The Moons of August (Autumn House Press, 2014). Reproduced with her permission.

I love Danusha Laméris’s take on “the fall”. We can perhaps sense Eve’s dis-ease as she came to the end of the too perfect day, the moments when the lions licked the ears of the lambs and all that they saw in the mirror was beauty. There was nothing to worry about. Imagine that! You can feel the tension building in their bed as they tossed and turned their temptation. And you can feel the enormous relief of “the fall” when she takes matters into her own hands, when she becomes decision maker even though rule breaker.

And the rest is history. It is life, though it isn’t paradise. Life seems far more interesting than paradise. There are challenges, work to be done, decisions to be made, reconciliations to be won. Maybe it is better to have paradise behind us and before us and enjoy the weight of the fall in our hands in the mean-time.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath –
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise the world your love –
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we shall all live.

Lynn wrote this on March 11th in the early days of the pandemic. It immediately made an impact, going viral on social media. I am grateful for the suggestion that this is a special time and I am sure that a lot of us have experienced it as that.

Mind you, it has been easy for us. We have a house and garden. We have a nice daily walk in woodland, we are not home schooling children. We are not worried about unemployment. There are just two of us and we have enjoyed each other’s company. Not everyone is so lucky.

In these special times we have discovered who counts to us. It is those who are on the front line – those we clap every Thursday evening – those who at other times we have taken for granted and whose gifts we have devalued. This is a sacred time. This is a scared time we live through with compassion.

You can read more of Lynn’s poetry, and purchase her book, Bread and Other Miracles, at lynnungar.com. The poem is reproduced here with Lynn’s permission. Thank you Lynn.

Remember Christina Rosetti

Christina Rossetti 2
Portrait of Christina Rosetti by her
brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1866)

We celebrate the life of Christina Rosetti on April 27th every year. This is the anniversary of her first recorded verses (1842) – addressed to her mother. There is a neat conjunction with this celebration and the reading appointed for Morning Prayer – the birth narrative with which Luke begins his gospel.

Christina was the youngest of four children in a very gifted family. She is considered to be one of the finest Victorian poets. One of her poems is treasured by Christians and sung to celebrate Christmas.

The opportunity to give thanks for Christina, and is also opportunity to marvel that a “splash of words” (h/t Mark Oakley and Louis MacNiece) are able to breathe meaning into life and marvel at the one Word which breathed life into meaning. Here is the poem we sing:

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Two poems for which she is particularly remembered for are Goblin Market and Remember.

Remember

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the distant land:
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me: you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve;
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rosetti’s work is in the public domain, as is the work of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Small Kindnesses – where holiness dwells

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die” we are saying.
and sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder
and for the driver of the red pick up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only those brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here
have my seat.” “Go ahead – you first.” “I like your hat.”

This is a poem by Danusha Laméris from her first collection, The Moons of August which was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. Naomi Shihab Nye has also written a remarkable poem on Kindness.

I like the language of kindness, of kith and kin, that in German children are kinder, that kindness is the making of humankind and that humankind should be qualified by kindness. By themselves small kindnesses are rarely remarkable in the sense that they are newsworthy, but they make our days and open the door to the greater kindnesses of friendship and community. Small kindnesses are usually intuitive, born by habits of the heart grown in rich cultures of difference and longing. In one place the bus stop is a silent waiting room of isolation, in another, like Glasgow, it’s a meeting place. Why the difference? What are the differences in the habits of the heart of both places?

Danusha Laméris asks the question, what if these small kindnesses are the true dwelling of the heart? Should we be surprised when everything about the kingdom of god is small? In two tiny parables Jesus explains the kingdom of God. “He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ And again he said, ‘to what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-20)

So in a simple touch, a smile, a whisper or a word might be folded the holy – just a single seed planted in our lives. There probably isn’t anywhere else for the holy to dwell.

North Star Fading – a poem to watch for Refugee Week

During Refugee Week I have been posting a poem a day. Today’s poem is one to watch. It highlights misleading promises, extreme dangers and dashed hopes than many refugees have to face.

Please click the image to see and hear North Star Fading – a zoom comic from PositiveNegatives who tell true stories drawn from life – this from the lives of Eritrean refugees.

Karrie Fransman did the visuals and Lula Mebrahtu was responsible for the words and sound. Interviewed about the work Karrie explained “I’m Jewish and my grandfather was a political refugee. Our festival Passover commemorates our history as refugees, so there is a personal link.”

Lula has this to say. “My own experiences play a big role when I am creating. I remember a few years back, I watched a news report about a ship that had caught on fire and sunk near the border of Italy. A lot of ‘illegal immigrants’ onboard died. There were no names, pictures or interviews with those who survived, just factual news, and the narrative was focused on the immigration crises. That same day, my mother got a phone call. It transpired that a family friend had a son on that ship, and he died. His mother didn’t even know he made the voyage. My mother had to break the news to her.”

There is more from their interview at https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/north-star-fading/

Some poems I have posted for Refugee Week are shown below this post.