Sunday, March 25, 2012

Like Shining From Shook Foil.

Tonight the moon is a feather floating over the Haitian sea. The chatter round the dinner table has long since ceased, only a conversation in Creole from the shadows of the courtyard remains. And of course the waves, the ever rolling, soul soothing tidal wash. I am nursing a cup of Haitian coffee, dark and black and strong. I am letting each sip linger a little longer than the last. My thoughts are far away, in my childhood. A country whose borders I seldom cross. But instead of going home I feel like a museum patron, wandering halls and scrutinizing strange objects that seem to me should seem familiar. 

For no reason at all I do remember clearly that when I was fourteen I got glasses. It was like someone opened a window. A wind worn, rain weary, dirt blurred window. I could see! The colors, the lines, the sharpness and the contrast. It felt as though my mind had been re-booted or at the very least re-tuned. Smells were more pungent, tastes more distinct. My other senses rose to the occasion. Or so it seemed to me, at fourteen. Around that time I started writing too, perhaps in part a result of my newly resurrected faculties. It was this escape into that incredible possible world of the imagination that was the perfect antidote to the droll and drivel of Jr. high. I would lay awake at night and write entire novels in my mind. The bookshelves of which were filled with lifetimes of adventures, no deed was too chivalrous, heroes after all are as self-sacrificing as they are fearless. And the wayward world was never short of damsels in distress.

Then there was music!

Several friends got guitars and my passion became lyrics. I would write every night, sometimes all night. And when I wasn't writing I was reading every CD sleeve for lyrics to inspire me (still do). My weeks went this way: Thursday nights were always an all-nighter because Friday was kinda a throw away day at school and the adrenalin from the excitement of the coming weekend would get me through. I would write about every sort of thing that a fourteen year old had never experienced. Love lost or at least love unrequited, those were my default setting (and I suppose still are). High school came and all my dreams were rock and roll and notebooks full of restless railings and angst-infused phrases begging to be sung, or screamed as it were. Then one Christmas break, far from my rock and roll friends, cloistered away for a week at my grandparents in small-town Alabama, surrounded by farmland and open sky I wrote a poem. Oh the wonder of it! The autonomy mingled with ecstasy. I felt a discharge of my soul that gave me such a buzz, one I still crave daily. 

That first poem was about Father Jeremiah, a wizard bearded Greek Orthodox priest and his moon-eyed dog. A clunky poem I later cannibalized and re-incarnated into an earlier post. My second poem was a rather unflattering depiction of a certain high school English teacher with an obsessive and clinical infatuation with grammar...

Her neck ejaculated her face into conversation
All nouns and no verbs
Her eyes are things a cat can do to a fence
Prepositionally speaking of course
Her ears, parenthesis, close parenthesis
Around an independent thought of a nose interjected
Her mouth, list; thirty-two teeth, two lips, one tongue, 
And a voice arbitrary as grammar ever was
And dangling twice as participle boring comma

Oh dear. But I was hooked! My senior year my textbooks never left my locker, instead, everyday, all day, I carried around one rather voluptuous volume of poetry, the complete works of e.e. cummings, terminally and perpetually truant from the Hattiesburg public library. 

I read and re-read every poem in that collection a hundred times. His masterful precision mixed with a sacrosanct anarchy. Love poems that took love so seriously and yet remained playful and unapologetically romantic. And an anti-establishment undercurrent that gave every institution from science to government a good tongue lashing while all the while elevating those rebukes to high art. Lines that tied my stomachs in knots with beauty, lines to fall in love to, lines like:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

and one of my very favorite poems from him...

i am a beggar always
who begs in your mind

(slightly smiling, patient, unspeaking
with a sign on his
BLIND)yes i

am this person of whom somehow
you are never wholly rid(and who

does not ask for more than
just enough dreams to
live on)
after all, kid

you might as well
toss him a few thoughts

a little love preferably,
anything which you can't
pass off on other people: for
instance a
plugged promise-

the he will maybe (hearing something
fall into his hat)go wandering
after it with fingers;till having

what was thrown away
taptaptaps out of your brain, hopes, life
to(carefully turning a
corner)never bother you any more

I never got over my love for Mr. cummings. I probably fashioned most of my romantic notions about relationships while contemplating his poetry instead of say, Algebra II. But something else happened to me when I was fourteen. While I was fumbling toward first kisses and tripping rather than falling in love, the eyes of my soul were opened too. I had always believed the good news of Jesus, always loved God the best I could, even in my youngest years tried to do what my conscience told me was right. But then came fourteen and struggling with fitting in or whether to fit in at all. Then came fourteen and dabbling into the little rebellions that dirty the heart and hands. Then came fourteen and feeling out of sorts, at odds with both heaven and earth, it was then that God proved to me that He loved me. And so I had a new lens, those brand new eyes to see myself and to see the world through. And once again all my other spiritual senses were enlivened too, rescued from the futility of self doubt and empowered by His unconditional, unfaltering, unbelievable! completely undeserved love for me!! 

As I got older I have at times, as much as I desired to, struggled somewhat with writing "sacred" poetry. My lyrics and subsequently my poems failing miserably to express my faith, and in particular the greatness of God. It seemed to me anyway, that at least in part, any art (or loose approximation there of) should, for the Christian be sacred, be worship or praise. That is our art should at times be about Him, the lover of our soul, the Perfect priceless One. But how to use human words, finite sentiments to describe the eternal, boundless, mind-blowing God? Like describing the ocean as wet, so my words for God are artlessly obvious, deconstructed and restrained by the reality that even language gets all of its significance from the maker of tongues, the giver of breath, the progenitor of reason.

But tonight, staring at the moon, listening to the lullaby of the Caribbean and drinking in the salty sweet cocktail of sea spray I realized that all beauty points to the One who created it. The moon, the sea just being the moon and the sea, are graced with the brushstrokes of God. And that for us the act of creating alone may be one of the best most sacred homages we can offer the Creator. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then just as He poured the light of the Word into the formless void, into this often cruel, callous, and ugly world we should pour beauty through our words. Or try our very darndest to do so. 

Art is sacred then, not because it captures the infinite (for to capture it is to cage it and to cage it is to try and tame it), but because when finite creatures bend toward infinity, when they mimic their God, they too point to Who made them. It follows then I think, that a heart immersed in His love, stammering out its bravest poetry, its sincerest prose is one of the closest things we may ever get on this side of eternity's veil to a wholly sacred proclamation. So then, until death rends that veil forever, let's keep scribbling down our biggest most beautiful thoughts. About the moon, or the ocean, of love lost and especially love longed for. 

One more poem before I go. My very favorite of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who himself struggled to describe God and wrote mostly about the glory of His fingerprint in Nature. 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


  1. "finite creatures bend toward infinity"....awesome. This post makes me feel more like friends.

    1. 3am in lovely Haiti and more like friends feels pretty good. Thank you Emily.