the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock cursing
as he struggled
to tie all
those fluttery teats.
Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children
to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,
and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,
in the last draft.
She thought about
with her sharpest knife,
each loud pop
an angry bullet
from her heart.
Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
she patiently gathered
them all up,
each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breath into her mouth.
What is life
but a drawing in
These short lines breathe love, speaking of life (teats, nipples and birthdays) and death, love and grief. I worry that the balloons took his last breath, and took a father away from his children and their mother. Did he die in that moment when there should have been celebration and fun? I’m pleased that the balloons remained for the funeral, and that they were there to be murdered with her sharpest knife (who might have been murdered otherwise?) and thankfully reprieved to become new life and consolation.
This is a drama well chosen for Easter. The rooms seem many, as in “my Father’s house” and there is a breath of Johannine Pentecost (and being born again) from the balloons’ nipples. There is comedy in the tragedy. “One of the last things he did was to blow up.” And how simple the answers to the questions that open and close the poem. “What is life?” What is life but a letting go of breath? What is life but a drawing in of breath?
Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.
Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.
Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.
Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:
Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.
In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of finality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
With a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to such much small change
in her hand.
Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004)
This poem describes a fairly typical experience. The reader stands in the shoes of someone accosted in the street by a beggar desperate for money for something to eat. The reader knows what it’s like, to be stuck to “like a burr”. What we often forget, because we want to look past them as if they weren’t there, is that, for the desperate too, it’s part of their everyday, to latch on to others in the hope of charity. The tendency for the accosted is to shake off the attention. The norm for the beggar is to be shaken off.
But, in this poem, there is a notable turn towards compassion. The speaker looks “clear through the bullet holes she has for her eyes”. “You” look through and past her, but as you do so what you look at begins to shatter, and it’s only the “shatterproof crone who stands alone”. Is it then that the bullet hole eyes take on their significance? Is it at this point you recognise her wounds, the battles she may have fought and lost? Is it at this point that you realise what has become of her, and what has become of you in the hands of poverty – that “you are reduced to so much small change in her hand”?
There is such pathos in that last line. There is such small change in small change for a life that should be demanding huge change.
Liberation comes through community. Everyone who has been oppressed, excluded, impoverished knows that according to poet Danez Smith. Yet so much of our discourse is about the individual. Could it be that those who shape that discourse are those who already have their rewards, already feeling entitled to the cream?
Here’s what Danez Smith has to say in an interview with Kate Kellaway:
You don’t have the luxury of being an individual. To be black, queer or poor – to be an individual has always meant death for us. To be a woman alone is dangerous – we teach our daughters that, we teach black people that. Our liberation comes through community, organising, collectivising. Individuality has meant death. Individuality has meant being marooned. Individuality is a privilege, right? The only people who can think of themselves as separate from the other people who have made their lives possible are straight white dudes
As we gear up to the General Election (which was never going to be called) we are entering manifesto season. I love the word manifesto, full of show and promise. I start the day with words from the Old Testament: the reading appointed for today has this:
“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? … The Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples …
Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and does not take a bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and that widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This is God’s manifesto – his show of promise which becomes the praise of his people. It contrasts with the meanness of some of the political manifestos which list what they can get away with, either for themselves or for the people, depending on your political point of view. My colleague, Christopher Burkett is helpful in his tweeted #cLectio reflection on this today:
We are all fearful of strangers. We worry about who will live next to us. Fear has always had the upper hand in our dealings with strangers. It is important for us to hear the voice from heaven commanding us to love strangers (with the unspoken implication, “do not let your hearts be anxious because of them”. Loving strangers, overcomes division, builds friendships and makes a fabric for society – and responds to the needful knocking on the door. There is great wisdom in the reminder that we were all once strangers (and some stranger still!) to one another who now count ourselves friends.
I was grateful to be reminded today of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko died on April 1st 2017. Jeanette and I saw him perform his poetry in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in the 70’s. I well remember the way that he shuffled his feet as he dramatised a journey for one of his poems. Father Richard in one of his tweets, points us to Yevtushenko’s poem (Guardian Poem of the Week) in which he makes the point that “there are no boring people in this world”. In this poem he underlines our differences, that we are distinct from one another as planets are distinct from one another. In my words, “we are worlds apart”. That’s it. We are strangers to one another with very little common ground except that we are all stranger. This poem seems to embrace our stranger status, that though we are worlds apart, we can mean the world to one another. Here’s the poem (beautifully translated by Boris Dralyuk):
There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.
If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity –
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.
Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of these worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment –
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.
When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow …
All gone, all gone – there’s just no way to stop it.
There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something – something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish –
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.
There are worlds of difference, but whole worlds to explore. But we’re not called to love strangers for our own self interest but for theirs. I hope that becomes manifest and manifesto.
You can see Yevtushenko performing his poetry here
Father Richard blogs as Education Priest at Quodcumque
I don’t count myself a “biblical scholar”. When I come to my daily reading from the Old Testament it is often as if I am reading the section for the first time. (Along with others I tend to tweet my naive responses with the #cLectio hashtag, here, here, here, here and here.) My current intrigue is with the Song of Songs, a tiny book of love poetry. And it is as if I am reading it for the first time. I guess it has always been a closed book to me – closed because of its reputation and the manner of its interpretation possibly as a consequence of its reputation. By reputation it is highly erotic and “saucy”. I’d prefer the description “absolutely delightful”. I wonder if a sense of embarrassment has led to its allegorical interpretations shared by synagogue and church which sees the poetry referring to the love of God for his people. Have such interpretations demeaned the text?
Some people will be surprised the Song of Songs is included in our scripture because there is no mention of God and the content is highly erotic. The Song of Songs is the title of the book. It is a superlative title indicating that this Song is very special. Colloquially we could say that this is the “mother and father of all song”. There are two speakers who are lovers. Later readers have named them Solomon (even David) and “the Shulammite” (someone from Jerusalem which translates as “the place of peace”). Allegorical interpreters have called one of the lovers “God” and the other “Israel” or “Church”. Personally I don’t see why we need to rush to their naming and I have preferred to leave them to themselves as two lovers. One of them, the maiden, has her confidantes. They are “daughters of Jerusalem”. They stand by. They have a view but no say. They stay as readers and celebrants. I have chosen to join them.
To me the couple are young lovers and with the Daughters of Jerusalem we are privileged to watch love building through them. My reading may have been influenced by Trevor Dennis (here is reason why we should reading him) who finds reason to call Adam and Eve children in his reading of Genesis. There are so many references to a garden in the Song of Songs that I couldn’t help going back to the Garden of Eden, to the boy and the girl we find in paradise. We have to be sorry the way they turned out (and the way they were turned out). I can’t help wondering whether The Song of Songs is dreaming a happy ending, building in love rather than falling in love.
One hot afternoon Adam and Eve, unselfconsciously naked, sat on the bank of one of the rivers of Eden, dangling their feet in the water. Eve picked up a flat, round stone, stood up and flicked it in twelve graceful bounces right across to the other side.
‘Who taught you to do that?’ asked Adam.
Adam turned towards God. ‘Did you really?’
‘Could you teach me?’
‘Of course. Watch.’
God stood up, chose a stone carefully, kissed it, curled his finger round it, and, with a movement of his wrist too quick to catch, sent it spinning downstream. It went almost as far as Adam and Eve could see, then swung round in a tight circle and came speeding towards them again, till with one last bounce it skipped back into God’s hand. It had hit the water two hundred times, and had left two hundred circles spreading and entwining themselves upon the surface. From the middle of each circle a fish leaped, somersaulted, and splashed back into the river.
‘Now you try!’ said God. Adam pushed him into the water. God came to the surface a few yards out from the bank. ‘That was level ten, by the way,’ he called. ‘Eve’s only at level two at the moment, aren’t you Eve?’ ‘You were showing off, God,’ said Eve. ‘You’ll be walking on the water next!’ ‘That’s level twenty,’ laughed God, and promptly disappeared beneath the surface.
So it was once in Eden. So it can be still. So it is, on rare and precious occasions. But Adam and Eve complicated matters. They grew up to think flicking stones child’s play. They turned in upon themselves, and God remained out of sight, beneath the surface. They did not sit with him on the bank any more. Now and then, realizing their loneliness and overcome with sudden longing, they would gaze out across the water and see the ripples he left behind. But these were soon gone, and the water would resume its customary smoothness, as if nothing had happened, as if he had never been there.
There are so many beautiful images in this Love Song of Love Songs. It is spring time, a time for building love’s nest. The references to spring signify love that is young, lovers for whom relationship is a novel and delicious mystery.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in the land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.” Song of Songs 2:10-13
The song is soaked in pleasant images, images that are so sensual. They are images of body and bed, field and garden. The whole of creation seems to behind their love and a rich harvest is the outcome of their love. With the Daughters of Jerusalem and with the young lovers, we are allowed into a special world. For me, this is a creation story: the mother and father of so many love songs.
(And, of course, it reminded me of another garden, the strange meeting of two people there and the love that never goes cold between them.)
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb … As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:11-16
Love has created a world of its own – always has done, always will.