Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Asketerion

I'm very pleased to announce that the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs, of which I'm poet in residence, is launching an online journal, The Asketerion. It's a space for truly original Catholic writing-- feature articles, theology and poetry. I hope to put up poems in accordance with the liturgical cycle, and will be contributing articles and editing.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Song for the Newborn Christ


Heavy the cold air,
gorgeous-heavy her round arms.
Then, the pointillist creation
of her smells—her milk, her hair
(your own skin looses newborn scent:
an altar that exhales incense).
Thank God you’re moored to her close voice;
her arms soak up the tremble
of your earth-struck limbs.
Oh tiny, fragile, stricken ears
pricked to hear the story’s end--
My God, just let me love, she sings.

Written for The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blessed Maria Crocifissa Curcio


Meditating on the Passion, I follow Jesus through his painful condemnation, and during Communion I go to meet him as he carries the Cross. It is intimate torture, seeing the wound on his shoulder where the heavy wooden cross leans. He holds me, as though I am in a dead faint from the sight of that deep and bloody gash. My pain, I hear him confide to me, is a balm to that cruel wound; my love alleviates the pain of those gashes on his holiest body. When a soul is disposed to receive the painful and intimate confidences of the heart of Jesus in his Passion, they don’t just bring great consolation and nurture the beauty of Grace, they help Jesus forget, in that instance of love, the pains that his ungrateful children  cause him; they renew the sacrament of love.
I'm translating the spiritual diary of Maria Crocifissa into English. She came to Santa Marinella in 1926 and my daughter attends the convent school she built here by the sea. She, I believe, had a hand in my conversion (there's more on that in an article I wrote for The Tablet, issue of November 2nd). 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Poet's Dark Night




My podcast, "The Dark Night of Sylvia Plath" is up at the blog of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing.

A poet's journey, I argue, bears many resemblances to the journey of a pilgrim. Both yearn to arrive at ultimate truth.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lady



By the time I converted to Catholicism in December 2010 I had already written and published a few poems about Mary, Mother of God-- specifically two that sought to debunk the biblical account of the Annunciation. By the time I came into the Church and accepted Mary as what she is, the publication of those poems was something I wasn't thrilled about. But, in the Summer of 2012, the exceptionally gifted Irish composer Paul Flynn contacted me and asked me if I'd be willing to write something for him to set to sacred music: now was my chance to write Annunciation poem number three. The process of all this writing, and Mary's presence through the story, is detailed in a longer article that came out in The Tablet for the Feast of the Annunciation.

When you listen to the song, Lady, it feels as though you are listening to an event. One can feel the stillness, the arrival of the the angel, the message, the impact. And the stillness afterwards that will never be the same.

The Palestrina Choir are singing it on 16th June at the 11am mass at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Here are the words:


Lady, still as a well under almond blossom.
Lady, still as a harp-string
ready for the finger’s touch.

Woman, stepping inside to eye-bruising dark
with a jug of water.
Only your lush ear could catch
the angel’s words,
and only you could make them flesh.

What stillness. In stillness
beyond tissue of thought
He formed. Lady, closest to God,
pray that we make the ground inside us
rich enough for this formation,
that we always wear the anatomy of His death.

Lady, still as a well, turning hurt and consolation,
show us how to listen in our emptiness.

 

 

 

 

Monday, January 21, 2013

ICCW

I'm delighted to become a fellow of Birmingham City University's new Institute of Creative and Critical Writing set up by the talented Dr Gregory Leadbetter. Check out his blog.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hope

"It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is preeminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World."
from GK Chesterton's Charles Dickens

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Advent


Walking by the harbour today, I thought about the prophetess Anna, the old widow in the temple who saw the baby Christ and heard Simeon's words about him being the saviour. Her thirst, loneliness and waiting must have died in her.

My first Christmas after conversion to Catholicism many people told me I must be very excited. It was hard to explain the sensory and intellectual impact the conversion had: for a year every day was like Christmas and Easter. The full of blast of God seemed to come at me over and over again. Thirst and waiting were done with.

This past Easter was the first that I really lived in step with him. And this Advent, I feel the same visceral engagement. This year it feels as though something that has happened, and already lives in us, is about to renew itself again. All the great truths and emotions work like this: the greatest griefs, epiphanies, pains and loves are so huge we are only strong enough to experience them in waves, like birth pangs. This is why the feasts serve us-- they let the truth at us in a wave that would be too intense, perhaps, to sustain constantly, but complex and large enough to nourish us through the months to come.

Thomas Merton wrote that we should let the liturgical cycle enter our bones and blood. It's little considered that Christmas didn't become a church feast till the 4th Century. December 25th was chosen as the day to commemorate the birth of Christ. The first day of the waxing of daylight hours was already a major pagan feast, and as the Church's metaphor for the coming of Him it realized its truth. In cold emptiness, we receive him as a child. And again, like the old woman, our thirst, loneliness and waiting know their deaths.

Tenth Month


 

 

Those heavy days, the Child cramped
within you and girding his limbs,
your lungs squeezed breathless-high,
the ordinary, unnerving simmer
of black waters within, Woman,
what did you think?
                                  Or was thought
all prayer—trust in the buds
of epiphanies, the unquantifiable
blood to be let. But Mother,
those unspeakably swollen days,
olives combed out of ashen leaves,
or wine leeching out its vinegar smell,
did you feel the tug of split hearts,
in city streets, at tabernacles, in bars?
As your belly drew down, drawn
by hormones and truth, did you weigh,
too, the clumsy imploring down all
our bloodlines, for this saving parcel of flesh?

 

 This poem was written for Advent for The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs.

 

 


 

 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Day Hospital recordings

The Day Hospital is published today. It's less a collection of poems than verse drama, and gives voice to 12 characters over the course of one day in London. I've recorded two of these voices, Bridget and Catherine. To hear their monolgues, click on their names below.

Bridget
A 76 year old Irish woman with depression and agoraphobia. She has not left her flat in two years.
Catherine
A 70 year old Irish woman recently recovered from depression following the death of her husband.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Proof that modern poets can convincingly do God: Thomas Merton.


A Psalm

When psalms surprise me with their music
And antiphons turn to rum
The Spirit sings: the bottom drops out of my soul

And from the center of my cellar, Love, louder than thunder
Opens a heaven of naked air.

New eyes awaken.
I send Love's name into the world with wings
And songs grow up around me like a jungle.
Choirs of all creatures sing the tunes
Your Spirit played in Eden.

Zebras and antelopes and birds of paradise
Shine on the face of the abyss
And I am drunk with the great wilderness
Of the sixth day in Genesis.

But sound is never half so fair
As when that music turns to air
And the universe dies of excellence.

Sun, moon and stars
Fall from their heavenly towers.
Joys walk no longer down the blue world's shore.

Though fires loiter, lights still fly on the air of the gulf,
All fear wind, another thunder:
Then one more voice
Snuffs all their flares in one gust.

And I go forth with no more wine and no more stars
And no more buds and no more Eden
And no more animals and no more sea:
While God sings by Himself in acres of night
And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Cast of Creation


The Yellow Sail, by Odilon Redon

They say that children born from in-vitro fertilization have been known to dream their frozen brothers and sisters. One little girl dreamed seven brothers and sisters crying in a freezing dark cave; seven was the number of embryos she was selected from. Another little girl, an only child, has an imaginary brother who’s always breaking her toys, disrupting her games. When she’s upset she shuts herself in the bathroom and tells him all about it. Her mother knows the form and rightness of this little boy: he is the child she lost.  A bereaved woman will get up, make breakfast, run errands, but she turns her head at the sound of every approaching car.
We’re surrounded by the souls of our own longing—those dead and those who were never born, those killed, and those just away for a while. This is Grace, that we so nearly hear, see, and have with us, the full cast of creation. We glimpse something that will be revealed—the unthinkable multitude of every soul, containing every love from which we cannot be separated.

Love, and our invisible loved ones, keep us faithful to God. Our frustating blindness binds us faithfully to Him who sees.
 

 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Being original

"Poetry deals with primal and conventional things-- the hunger for bread, the love of a woman, the love of children, the desire for immortal life. If men had new sentiments, poetry could not deal with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat bread; but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh original craving to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him.If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a fossil or a sea anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only express what is original in one sense-- the sense in which we speak of original sin. It is original, not in the paltry sense of being new, but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense it deals with origins."

GK Chesterton, quoted in Wisdom and Innocence by Joseph Pearce (Hodder and Stoughton London, 1996)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Patron Poet of the Twentieth Century


Tomorrow is the 49th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's suicide, a poet whose death was, as Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, "romanticized by the college girl mentality." Her output was brief and phenomenal. It ended in poems of genius, and tragic death. She spawned a million wannabees, and the true extent of her literary influence is still, I suspect, very much under-estimated. We forget how shocking her lexicon and images were to the world they first appeared in. We've grown too accustomed to their echoes sounding in swathes of published poems, by male and female poets, ever since. For now, it seems, she's almost eclipsed by her own burning legend. But, I would argue, she is the patron poet of the twentieth century.

Plath is a modern icon for many reasons. One of them is that she laid herself bare in ways we are still understanding the limits of. Part of her appeal to young writers is that her development, her desperation to succeed, is on painful show in her diaries and letters. But Plath must also be the poet whose development is most visible, most easy to decipher, in the work itself. The early poems, blossoming and perspiring with promise, give way to poems, like The Colossus, with bulging carotids and finely wrought muscle. It's still easy, at this point, to imagine her poring over a thesaurus, searching for the knock 'em dead synonym. It's only in the last three years of her life that her voice erupts. Listening to the earliest recordings of Plath reading The Colussus, and then, shortly before her death, a poem like Ariel, is shocking. The voice is deeper, tremulously powerful-- but it has nothing to do with age or physicality.

Despite Plath being known as a confessional poet, and writing about her life in poems like Daddy and Lady Lazarus, Plath was so much more than a personal poet. She was a writer so intent on vivifying language that her famous 'I' disappeared into the Objective Correlative. "I foam to wheat, a glitter of seas" she writes in Ariel. In Lady Lazarus her skin is "bright as a Nazi lampshade". In Mary's Song her sunday roast recalls the Holocaust. She is the gigolo, the acetelyne virgin, the woman in purdah revolv(ing) in her "sheath of impossibles". No self-agrandizing ego in the world, Plath was the disappearing woman intent on oblating the first person to the god of poetry.

Here's why she is the patron poet of the 20th century: she is a latter day Ovid metamorphising the woman into her own myths-- which just happened to be the great narratives of the last century: the question of suffering, and a new Fatherless-ness. For Plath, language may have been personally redemptive. But in offering herself up to language she left us poems that are far from personal-- they are epic.

An old lecturer once told me that when you go to the Lilly Library where many of Plath's original manuscripts are held and ask for access to them, you'll be offered the chance to see, too, a lock of her hair. Plath has become a secular saint. She martyred herself for molten poems that tell us how inextricably we are bound up with the times in which we live.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Catholic Out of the Bag

Sleeping Under Statues, by Remedios Varo

My Apologia came out in the Tablet a few weeks ago-- an account of my nine month passage from hardline atheist to Catholic. An interview on Australia's  The Spirit of Things should also be available online for a few months.

Thanks to everyone who's responded, through whatever channel. Anything I write that's overtly spiritual will likely go on to the Hermitage website, where I'm poet in residence. But links will be here.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Day Hospital


October of this new year sees the publication of my third book of poetry with Bloodaxe Books. Of all three books, it's the one I'm most happy to see in the light of day. It's the one I hoped most to write, but found most hard. It took a decade of sweat, and a screening of Mamma Mia, for me to give birth to it.

It all started more than ten years ago when I was working as a psychiatric nurse in a day hospital for the elderly in North London. North London elderly psychiatric care turns up some gems as patients: writers, actors, politicians, ageing ballerinas. It wasn't uncommon to stumble across things like a note from Samuel Beckett on yellowing paper, or a George Cross, as you steered a frail body to the bathroom on a home visit. Another striking demographic was that all the patients had lived through World War Two, and most were immigrants-- meaning a huge number had fled Nazi persecution, often as small children. Those few years I worked in the day hospital I began to feel I was living the war, albeit vicariously. Hitler was often spoken of; the horror of the gas-chambers would often encroach on afternoon tea.

One day I was presented with a new patient: an 85 year old woman, Anna, who could barely walk with two sticks, and who spoke so infrequently she was labelled mute. Her mother, a Jew, had died in Nazi occupied Germany while Anna was working in an office in London. The guilt and horror she felt at her mother's death had driven Anna out of her mind-- to auditory hallucinations and frequent suicide attempts. She never married, and had no friends. Her clothes were in tatters-- new tweed skirts were ripped; shiny brogues were torn up from their soles. The best I could do for her, I was told, was to weigh her, and check she wasn't dehydrating. It's fair to say that at this point in my brief career in psychiatry, I'd torn up the rule book and followed my (sometimes crazy) instincts. She wouldn't speak, but I insisted we sat together for certain periods to conduct a one-sided chat, and listen to the London traffic outside. After a while, the rips in her clothes bothered me, and I smuggled a needle and thread into the counselling room, and began to sew up her skirt. She allowed me--in fact made much silent play of appreciating my trouble, patting me on the arm. But as soon as I'd finished, she gravely unravelled my toothy stitches.

It was on an Arvon course, I stumbled across the meaning of these ripped clothes: Kriah, the Jewish ritual of rending clothes in grief. It is, of course, a limited rite, taking place during the funeral. But for this woman, in her guilt, with all her terrible imaginings and unanswered questions about her mother, it could never end.

From there it was easier to broach such subjects, I suppose. I'm sure I planted my naive feet right in her wounds, but it loosened her tongue. She began, slowly and falteringly, to tell me her fears. There were even tiny gestures of affection between us.

When she died, as a young poet, I felt a responsibility to write her story in a poem. I couldn't do it. I tried it at university in South Dakota and produced ten pages of reasonable creative writing, but it wasn't right. I was writing as the nurse, as I often have, but I couldn't give breath and voice to what had happened.

I tried off and on for ten years to write the poem about 'Anna'. It was after 'Broken Sleep' was sent off to Bloodaxe I went to the cinema to see Mamma Mia. I hadn't wanted to see it, but my hair was torn out from checking and double checking the final version of the book, and my family pushed me out the door, claiming it would be a tonic. I did enjoy it. I did laugh. And I couldn't get over Meryl Streep who, even in that film, displayed the emotional authenticity she did in films I grew up on--Kramer Vs Kramer, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Plenty. The book put to bed, I decided to have a Streep-fest, and I started with Sophie's Choice. You couldn't pay me to watch it again. Streep is utterly convincing as the concentration camp survivor. She got inside the mouth, the brain, the gut, and the heart of the woman. Almost without thinking about it, I sat down next day and wrote Anna's monolgue. Yes, of course, a dramatic monolgue. I had to get into her skin.

Next night I watched The Bridges of Madison County, and another voice came to me-- Agnes from Poland who had dementia and believed the Nazis were coming for her. Almost superstitiously, I garnered as many Streep films as I could--The Deer Hunter, The Hours. It didn't matter what the subject or character was. The way she knew the workings of their very tongues and found, in every soul, the deepest pain--that hollow place in the heart--helped me hear voices, and more voices: Bridget who never left the flat, Pat who'd had a lobotomy, Maurice who felt so rootless, Daniele who threw himself off a roof. They came as if dictating to me.

I finally ran out of good Meryl films, and, eventually, the voices stopped. But here were twelve men and women, talking over the course of one day in London. Twelves lives, and a voice given back, I hoped, to Anna.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Buon Natale

Giotto
In the wider world, 2011 has been a year of spats in Poetry Land: the fracas of the Poetry Society and Poetry Review in London; the Vendler/Dove set-to in the USA; the Oswald/Kinsella pull-out of the Eliot shortlist. I usually have no patience with people who won't get involved with these things, or who don't have an opinion. But this year, with my new residency at  The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs, my horizons both exploded and felt more snug around me.

Baron Wormser's was the best response, to my mind, re the Vendler/Dove debate. His definition of poetry, appropos of that, is, as always, pithy and true:


Let’s say that poetry in a mass democracy (or mass not-so-covert oligarchy) revolves around the dialogue between the self and the soul. The self is the life in time; the soul is the life outside of time. Poetry is the place where they meet. Sparks occur. Those are poems.

What working at the Hermitage has enabled me to do is focus far less on the self in time, and to give, finally, more space to the soul outside of it. Next year sees the publication of my third collection with Bloodaxe, The Day Hospital. The book is a collection of monolgues in the voices of elderly psychiatric patients. The voices are inspired by patients I cared for during my time as a psychiatric nurse in London. Next year I want to write more about the writing of it, but for now it's remarkable to me that the first poem of the book took a decade to write. The woman who inspired it was deeply damaged by the death of her mother in Auschwitz. She was mute, and so damaged by grief that I felt an extraordinary compulsion to somehow give her voice. But I wasn't able to for many years. Then the poem came, and, swiftly, the other monolgues. It was a lesson to me in how little control we, as poets, have over these things. And how divorced from the secularised/production-crazy/self-obsessed capitalist culture poetry really is.

I take my hat off to poets that fight the good fight-- and I don't forget the people who get a wage from the poetry industry. I feel very blessed though, to have had the space to back off, and it's something I would wish for many other people this coming year.

Have a very merry Christmas!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Translating God

St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, East Anglian 14th century altar frontal
Recently I spent the weekend in Florence in the company of my two translators, Andrea Sirotti and Loredana Magazzeni. It was fun. It was also an intellectual workout that left me zonked. It's probably something all poets should do however, even on their own: to go over poems you've authored, asking "What EXACTLY do you mean?" "Tell us in other words." "Why that word, not another?" "Why that sound?" "What is the nearest approximation in Italian?"

It was, in other words, a distillation of the process of writing: effortfully or inspirationally squeezing shut that gap between notion/feeling/image--and word. The translator tries to close the gap between new language and original language. The writer tries to close the gap between word and thing, and as such is also a translator-- she translates reality into language. Choosing a word is like choosing a house-- you need a structure the reader can walk into and inhabit; an atmosphere (smell, temperature, accoustics, colour) to persuade the reader they are experiencing something firsthand. Or perhaps it's more like wandering into a belt of weather. Or slipping into a silk dress. The language should only be 'beautiful' or noticeable in that it clings like staticky silk to the naked body of feeling. It should only clothe formally to enhance feeling's figure.

Translation is a big issue in all areas of life (military, diplomatic, legal etc etc). God has the biggest translation job of all time. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. And you can be sure his language is not our language. Which is why the creationists and the literalists are pointlessly barking up the wrong tree of knowledge.

As a new Catholic I'm constantly amazed by the beauty of prayer and liturgy. I love that the bones of the Catholic mass were formed at the Last Supper in the sharing of bread and wine. That Christians in the 1st Century confessed and sang the sanctus, and were exhorted to "Lift up their hearts", just as we are today. Greek was the main language of the gospels, and the first language of the church. Greek was the original staticky silk robe attempting to cling to the naked body of Christ. Yet even Greek wasn’t the language used by Jesus at the Last Supper.

It was after taking communion this sunday I was struck, again, by the impossibility (as yet) of giving voice to the experience of receiving the living Christ in the communion wafer. I'm in the process of writing an 'apologia', an explanation of my recent conversion from vociferous atheist to Catholic, and I was struck, again, by the un-sayables; the un-knowables; the breadth, depth and shape of feeling that I experience when taking communion. It's a sensation that seems to defy even a poet's dextrous tongue. And I don't want to try to describe it here. What I want to enshrine is the human difficulty of describing an encounter with God in language.

Love: how do writers describe that truth and not resort to cliché?

Misery: how do we make a reader feel that without recourse to sentimentality and bathos?

Poets face these questions every day, and good poets overcome them.

The Liturgy has the greatest poetic challenge of all—to clothe and convey the presence of God. It has been said, of course, in lilies and burning bushes, and dark nights; it is said every day in doxologies and hosannas. Is it possible to use a modern metaphor? Does cliché exist in spiritual writing, or is it a question of genre?

The hermitage where I am poet in residence is Byzantine. The Byzantines haven't substantially changed their Divine Liturgys since they were first penned 1500-1900 years ago. For what it's worth, the experience of receiving communion in the cathedral of that language (even in its English translation) comes as close to the skin of God as you are likely to get. It contains the truth of the Eucharist: time eternal, saints and angels present with Christ:

...there stand beside thee thousands of Archangels and ten thousands of Angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many eyed, soaring aloft, borne on their pinions...

In its dazzling poetic engagement it comes closest to Truth: the Truth we can only shadow with language. Language used badly distances us from experience; but language used well allows us to re-enter experience, or know something better than before. I’m left with the greatest challenge I’ll probably ever face as a poet: how to describe my knowledge of the presence of God. As poets we can only be translators of deep and wordless truths. Or seek to be.

Quotation from THE DIVINE LITURGY OF OUR FATHER AMONG SAINTS JOHN CHRYSOSTOM