February 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
I slouch in bed.
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women
Sorting slate from anthracite
Between railroad ties:
The yellow-bearded winter of the depression
Is still alive somewhere, an old man
Counting his collection of bottle caps
In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees
Of my grave.
I still feel half drunk,
And all those old women beyond my window
Are hunching toward the graveyard.
Drunk, mumbling Hungarian,
The sun staggers in,
And his big stupid face pitches
Into the stove.
For two hours I have been dreaming
Of green butterflies searching for diamonds
In coal seams;
And children chasing each other for a game
Through the hills of fresh graves.
But the sun has come home drunk from the sea,
And a sparrow outside
Sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.
The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble
In music like delicate birds.
Ah, turn it off.
I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again
In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my window sill,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do,
That the branch will not break.
– James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break
January 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
A feral cat had wandered into the yard and the dogs had caught sight of the animal. One of the dogs was a hound called Smoky. He was a large blue tick. His bark was a low booming roar. There were at least two other dogs. Mom and I were outside. We saw the cat streaking across the grass with the dogs right behind it. How my mother was able to catch the cat is a miracle. She picked the animal up in her arms to save it from being torn apart. The cat bit her, leaving a deep cut on her forearm. She dropped it and the dogs were on it. In desperation, the cat jumped into the lake and tried to swim away. This lake had a hole in its deepest part through which all the water drained away every summer. The dogs jumped in and the cat was done for. They tore it to pieces. The barking stopped. The cat’s carcass half sank into the muddy water. My mother was treated for rabies. The shots were extremely painful. I have been terrified of these shots since I was a small child and read about Louis Pasteur in my child’s encyclopedia. My mother stepped in front of fate and she bore it.
I’m not an especially religious man, though some would quibble with that. I’ve read the Bible. I used to be quite proficient in what Southern Baptists call sword drill. I could whip to any book and verse in the Bible called out. That was years ago. I still have several Bibles. I used to preach to the Pentecostals from a black lamb-leather New Jerusalem translation. It was a Catholic Bible and many were worried. At a church retreat in Panama City, Florida, I did a teaching from a translation of the New Testament by Richard Lattimore, the Greek scholar who translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. The cover had a close-up of a putrefying corpse’s face. The eyes were open. The cheeks were purple. He was looking for Jesus. The rawness of the translation caused confusion. As I read the familiar passage of Jesus walking on the sea’s surface, stripped of the King James English, hands went into the air grabbing for Jesus as if they, like Peter were sinking. Several began speaking in tongues. There was a liquidness to the sound that slowly covered their mouths as if they were now underwater.
– Allen C. Shelton, Where the North Sea Touches Alabama
January 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
R. was greeted by S.’s judgment the moment he walked in the office the next day. —Lighten the load on the Right Reverend Taylor in your next one, boy. He asked a lot of his congregants back then, and they were an exceedingly more charitable lot than you’re apt to have today. You’re wise to have cut out the Latin. I didn’t learn that lesson until I was older than you. Different times. This being a Kraut Papist town, it was not as surprising to hear then.
—But the use of Taylor himself is fine?
—Himself? Oh, you mean his words. Of course, quite fine. “The Descending and Entailed Curse Cut off” is a wonderful choice. Fine selection. The same with the Fuller, though I’m not sure Barlow is making the point you seem to imagine. Or perhaps it was misdirection? More than anything, I trust your professor was stung, or perhaps he was simply sleeping, when you unsheathed dear Featley. “Let others go forward as they please. I will stay still at the Cross. I desire no other Pulpit,”—did you slap the wood here, boy—”then that tree. No other Preacher,”—you pointed at the lot of them, surely you did—”than thy crucified body. No other text,”—please tell me you weren’t reading at this point—”than thy death and passion.”
—”No other notes than thy marks. No other points than thy nails. No other book than they opened side.” No, I’ve committed that all to memory. You once said that climaxes should never be read.
—Good, boy. Good. Everything else, yes, may be by the book but that.
[. . .]
—You were concerned I would dislike it?
—The words, sir. Most of them aren’t mine.
—And you thought this would upset me?
—Yes, I suppose I did.
S.’s clinched eyes spread wide, revealing a glassy blue hung above darkness. He collected himself for a moment by collecting the loose leaf pages before him and tapping them straight. —It’s come to this, R. Do they not even teach the gospel at this institution? Is it time to give it back to the drug addicts? [. . .] The gospel is preached, not learned. You’ve heard me say this, but have you ever listened? It is about making words right, R. Can I possibly be more plain than that? [. . .] We haven’t much more time together. The steeple’s shadow hangs over us both. Hear me now if you never have before: the gospel is not a product, potential or potent, of the words. Ah, it is quite the opposite. As with the ones you pastiched at the pulpit the other day, the gospel marks the spot of their failure. [. . .] It cannot be plagiarized, neither kidnapped nor seduced. The gospel can take care of itself. Whether it’s preached by the poetry of Thomas Adams or the clumsy of you and me, it matters not. It works, if ever it does, by grace … not by craft or originality, but in spite of them both. And grace, R., doesn’t give a damn. Why? Are you listening? Because these beloved preachers of ours, S. stood to hand back the sermon, are as damned as we. So by all means, for Christ’s sake, pilfer them all as you please.
January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
Donne’s repudiated text consumed R. that summer, and he tried repeatedly to write to S. concerning what he thought he understood of it. He signed and folded the first month of the break one letter a week, but tore to pieces each. Nothing he wrote seemed adequate. Repression, he considered, as he learned later Biathanatos had endured from its start, was perhaps appropriate, for Donne’s was a diabolical book made all the more so by ringing of something familiar. Expanding outward, into biblical precedent and social history, its vision of faith made sense of S.’s parting words. By Donne’s reckoning, if the example of Christ behooves his followers live as he, the effect is fatal. The one who needn’t ever die at all, God in the flesh, chose to do so, and in so choosing was not murdered by another. His was, to put it plainly, a suicide. The climax of Donne’s defense is to the point. To die to oneself, and thus as Christ, requires one risk committing the very offense for which there can be no confession. Nevertheless, because so few ever succeed in killing themselves correctly — some sinful residue of the self lingers nearly without fail in the act, whether born in the throes of melancholy or at the sword of martyrdom — it remains good and right for the church and state to stand in the way of righteousness. By pulling back a bit from his defense, consoling the sad-sack suicidal depressive was never his intention, the scandal of Donne’s treatise draws closer. For here, the heights of fidelity became the most malign. R. could not help but wonder, though, if it might be otherwise, and in his final unsent letter concluded: “The life of faith ends not unlike the beginning of the best sermon: as the greatest tragedy. Properly unfulfilled, both.”
January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
—And your choosing them, your plagiarized words, with your lecherous leers, looking down their shirts and up their skirts, does what then? Aren’t yours the grubby, groping hands of an angry God, deflowering the virginal language of those preachers?
—This is serious …
—Who’s joking? You think I don’t know my religion, but I’ve known you long enough to pick up a few things.
—My choosing them doesn’t change them or what they are. Sinners are indicted in this life … they experience their corruption, know it as something different from everyday self-loathing … they experience the presence of something innocent and uncorrupted … something that maybe doesn’t belong … that crops up where maybe it shouldn’t, or has no reason to. A kind of beauty that’s actually kind of horrific if you think about it.
—I’m sorry, really I am. You would not have called me unless you knew I’d be honest, but I don’t buy this at all. All those words, the ones your wretched eyes are somehow permitted to see and depraved brain is for some reason allowed to choose, are somehow exempt? They get a free pass from, what do you call it, the Fall?
—It’s grace. A gift …
—No, I’m sorry, but your Saint Paul got it wrong. We sin so it abounds. How in Christ would it ever otherwise? Those words you idolize, don’t you understand, they’re as depraved as you. This is what your professor’s been telling you and everybody else for years.
—I don’t think …
——The words must be made right, R., redeemed. And how? Through the sin of my lips and the filth of your tongue.
—I’m hanging up now …
—Your professor is right. Listen to him. What you call grace is the sin, else there’d be no gift at all …
—Being damned’s a beautiful thing, like most of life’s necessities.
January 7, 2014 § 4 Comments
Freed from the conforming influence of a grade, R.’s fancies took flight. Reading aloud to Stein from his curated collected of sermons, none his own, of course, or century, seen by more mites than humans, R. found a kinship he did not share with his fellow students. Or, indeed, with himself. R. inhabited these words not his own, so far from common use or hearing, that often even needed to be translated from older archaic spellings, caressing the curves of the unfamiliar characters, in a natural manner he seldom managed his own skin. These words, R. knew, had been made right. What hope had he that his ever would?
For a single semester he fumbled with the contemporary forms, preaching repentance by deduction and edification in story, but distinguished himself in class only by his voice, which he was told was pulpit perfect. Sonorous and deep, quintessentially masculine, they meant, even if he was scrawny and rarely in need of a shave, his baritone was the envy of many. None commented, however, on the transitions over which he toiled, his telegraphed foreshadowing or cliched simile. No one fretted over his leaky logic, emulating what he thought he understood of Anselm. Who among them, he wondered as they stared ahead at him, and later read their reviews (—What a voice! —Jealous of your voice! —Give me your voice! —You should be in radio with that voice! —Maybe a little loud …), heard a word he said?
So it was, until one day he set aside his prepared exposition of the twenty-third Psalm, and began instead: —The subject of the discourse is man; and the speech of him hath three points in the text. None at first paid note. —I. His comma; II. His colon; III. His period. R., for the first time, felt right behind the pulpit, Thomas Adams on his tongue, Mystical Bedlam on the page. —“Men’s hearts are full of evil”; there is the comma. “Madness is in their hearts while they live;” there is the colon. Whereat not staying, at which point Professor Shannon at least looked up, —“after that they go down to the dead;” and there is their period. R. paused to peered down at the lectern, and gave then full voice to the World of Madmen, —The first begins, the second continues, the third concludes, their sentence.
January 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
In R. Stein found a willing, if not always witting, spy. News of Old Main’s impending destruction kindled a sort of passive interest in what was happening on campus, and R. was a perfect observer to his downfall.
—It’s necessary that you’re uninterested in what will happen to this old man.
—But that’s not true, though.
—Hush, boy. The truth happens first in silence.
R. was a mediocre student. Above average nearly by default, given the seminary’s faith-based approach to admission standards. Quick with a lexicon, his Hebrew hovered just above intermediate and Greek smack below. He preferred the letters of John to those by Paul, but excelled only in the synoptic Gospels. Something about the parallel stories, some entwined like legs, others removed as relatives, each tinged with theological baggage, traumatic memory, and grudges to bear, seemed appropriate.
He happily reported to Stein the happenings of his courses, the various new hermeneutical models and critical theories trotted out by the younger professors. Stein weathered these accounts mostly in silence, interjecting only occasionally, —but the postmodern seems more conservative than the modern, and they’re the radicals now?, so that R. might move on to more important matters.
—They only seem to know of Jonathan Edwards. And even then just the gist of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
—The gist, you say? Does original sin have a summary version besides damnation? Surely, though, they know of Donne …
—The poet, yes. Nothing specific about him as a preacher.
— The poet? The Holy Ghost penning the Scriptures, Ramsey, delights in the melody of language! Donne the poet, Donne the preacher — they are one in the same!
Taking Stein’s words about silence to heart, R. chose not to report, judging it assumed, that with Stein’s retirement went too the assigning of De Quincey’s treatise on rhetoric, as well as the recitation in advanced preaching courses, with neither preface nor commentary, of the fifth chapter of Browne’s Urn Burial. (—If you don’t know in your soul the import of those words, no appeal to your mind will ever suffice.)