Levertov Week: The Thread

In the interest of posting again, ever, I thought I’d share some poems by Denise Levertov this week (and possibly next week as well).

I first encountered her poetry through friends from undergrad – denizens of the Wake and Donnybrook – sharing “The Servant Girl at Emmaus” and “St. Thomas Didymus.”  These prompted me to look for more of her work.

Generally speaking, Levertov is valued by many for her more political work – opposition to the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars, social concerns, nuclear disarmament – whereas my friends and I are generally more interested in her framing of the sacred (both before and after her conversion to Catholicism).

Today’s poem is, I think, an example of that: one long allusion to Chesterton’s Father Brown, or to its notable quotation by Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

But God won’t let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk — I mean, the bad evening. Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ (the thief) ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’

The Thread

Something is very gently,
invisibly, silently,
pulling at me – a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic. I haven’t tried
the strength of it. No barbed hook
pierced and tore me. Was it
not long ago this thread
began to draw me? Or
way back? Was I
born with its knot about my
neck, a bridle? Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it when I thought
it had loosened itself and gone.

In Pursuit of the Obvious

In the course of writing last night’s post, I struggled to corral my thoughts so as to share them in an orderly fashion.  But these other quotations express a little bit more on the subject, so I wanted to share them too.

~~~

I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.  – GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed

I have the most ill-regulated memory.  It does those things which it ought not to do and leaves undone the things it ought to have done.  But it has not yet gone on strike altogether.  – Lord Peter Wimsey, Gaudy Night

I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle.  – Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition

Travelogue: Grand Canyon

Trekking across the wide expanse of land that comprises the western part of the United States of America, there was once one person who first stumbled over the Grand Canyon.

I can only barely imagine how he felt.

I have seen photos, so I was prepared in some degree. But the sheer . . . . largeness staggered me.

We left Santa Fe, with its rich history and perfect weather and pretty scenery and fake adobe buildings.

(Even the McDonald’s was faux adobe. We called it . . . . faudobe.)

And we reached Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset. It had rained a little, so the air in between the south and north rim slightly hazy.

(For a better view of the photos, click on them.)

 

 

And it was so huge that I could physically not absorb it all. I would fill my eyes with as much of it as possible, and still see barely a quarter of what was available to be seen. It is should be the definition of “overwhelming”.

 

 

The very thought of hiking it me breathless.

And then I realized that we were at 7000 feet above sea level, and it was probably just the thinner atmosphere that impeding my breath.

 

 

It should have stunned my with wonder, left me speechless at the Glory of God.

But I am afraid to admit that I only felt . . . numb. It is pretty. Huge. Scary.

However, it is almost alienating in its grandeur.

Chesterton is right when he says in Orthodoxy that when we love something we call it in a diminuative; the small and delicate tugs on out hearts in ways that the awe-inspiring never can.

 

 

The photo above is more intriguing than the others, is it not? A photographer will tell you that it is because the frame is formed and the eyed directed by the ceder tree.

I think it is because the ceder there gives the photo the feeling of the immediate, the personal, the tactile, and, yes, the small.

 

 

 

We can gasp in awe at the huge and sweeping, but it is the small and tender that reaches into our own cozy worlds and takes our breath away.

Wondrous works of Nature can never move you like your first sight of your first child.

At least, I imagine that it can’t.

 

 

The Grand Canyon, (or, as they call it there, Grand Canyon, sans article,) is beautiful.

But I prefer the quieter, more homelike prettiness of Flagstaff. We only passed through the town, (well, and stopped for gas,) but I fell in love with it. The smaller, gentler beauties are enough for me.

Flagstaff is a city with a small country town feel. It has the attitude and pretty pine and birch forests reminiscent of my favorite place on earth: Northern Michigan. But it also has surrounding mountains!

Could it be that I have found my own personal Heaven on Earth?

 

 

 

Triolet

I’m sorry to serve these words neat, without any accompanying cheese, cherries or comment, but I am trying to remember every address I’ve had since I was 18. Have a laugh, for it is Thursday.

Triolet

I wish I were a jellyfish
That cannot fall downstairs
Of all the things I wish to wish
I wish I were a jellyfish
That hasn’t any cares,
And doesn’t even have to wish
‘I wish I were a jellyfish
That cannot fall downstairs.’

G.K.Chesterton

Mel’s Meme: The Seeds of Society

In his book Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper lays out the founding of what we have come to know as “culture”. It was only when men did not have worry about every meal, when every moment was not spent securing the livelihood of a people, that they could begin to spend time – leisure time – studying.

And, eventually, creating. Art can only happen in a society organized enough to have leisure.

And this is my introductory excuse for having poor taste. When I looked deep, deep into my psyche, I discovered that my instinctive grabs would be;

Plato’s Republic,
&
Aristotle’s Politics,
&
De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

I am horrified.

I loathe politics. In fact, it might be rated up there with chickens.

In my most cynical moods, I tend to reject all forms of government.

But I do trust education. And maybe if every person in this surviving culture read about politics, it might work!

And the first thing to that a dispossessed society needs in order to stay a culture, is a working organization.

A system of government, if you will.

And it needs people who can think clearly and reasonably about the purpose and organization of government. It need both the information and the wisdom passed down through the ages, what Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead”.

The purpose of government is to serve the people: humans do not exist to serve the government. So yes, there are books that – as I have in the middle of exploring – make us human.

But if the world as we knew it suddenly ended and we had to start anew, it would be important not just to preserve the beauty that was but to rebuild lives, society, and culture.

John Adams, in the throes of organizing the fledgling United States of America, deftly describes this basis of culture in a letter to his wife.

My Dear Portia—

Since my arrival this time, I have driven about Paris more than I did before. The rural scenes around this town are charming. The public walks, gardens, &c., are extremely beautiful . . . I wish I had time to describe these objects to you, in a manner that I should have done twenty-five years ago, but my head is too full of schemes, and my heart of anxiety, to use expressions borrowed from you know whom. To take a walk in the gardens of the palace of the Tuileries, and describe the statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient divinities and heroes are represented with exquisite art, would be a very pleasant amusement and instructive entertainment, improving in history, mythology, poetry, as well as in statuary. Another walk in the gardens of Versailles would be useful and agreeable. But to observe these objects with taste and describe them, so as to be understood, would require more time and thought than I can possibly spare.

It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires ; the useful, the mechanic arts, are those which we have occasion for in a young country as yet simple and not far advanced in luxury, although perhaps much too far for her age and character. I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, paintings, sculptures, tapestry, porcelain, &c., &c., &c., if I could have time ; but I could not do this without neglecting my duty.

The science of government, it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation, ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

Adieu.

Thus concludes the excuse. I would like to have found that my heart of hearts wants to preserve Homer, or Shakespeare, or Dante. I believe that those are the books that teach us best what it mean to be human.

But no.

I suppose it is hope that makes grab political training manuals rather first.

Because if the Cylons do come destroy Earth and we must begin anew, I want to reach the point of culture as quickly as possible so that the new Homers, Shakespeares, and Dantes have a chance to create again.

Mel’s Meme: The Scope of Story Setting

We have much discussion this week about sense, imagination, realism and subtlety.

I find the phrase “story setting” to mean the groundwork of the tale, the landscape from which the story unfolds. The power of a story in part depends on how much vibrancy the setting has, not just in terms of the senses, but in how much life it holds.

For me, the setting of the story depends on how many other stories this setting can hold.

And ultimately, a story is limited only by the humanity involved. For every story ever told contains some truth. As Chesterton said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author”.

So what settings have a million potential stories lurking in the recesses of each alcove and inlet?

What setting allows for the most important dramas of the human experience to be told?

Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

As traveled by Dante and recounted in his Commedia.

These realms are far enough from our own to allow the reader some perspective and room for thought, but also so close to truths that we know in our deepest hearts that it touches us profoundly.

It is filled with concerns of mortality, and yet removed from them in such a way that it opens those concerns to us, those still existing on the physical plane.

It is the most deeply human of all stories, and still it contain as yet untold stories; tragedies, dramas, romances, and true love stories. The Commedia has it all, but only whets the appetite.  I want to know more about all these souls! I want to stay longer in Heaven!

And of course, it is the setting that brings the story most fully into the life of each reader.

Me and Myself

In undergrad, one of my friends once tried to explain to his mother that he was too busy to come home very often.

His mother, being a wise woman, raised a wry eyebrow and retorted, “Well then, you had better get holy quickly, and bilocate!”

Bilocation is one of those spiritual gifts that everyone should receive. To be fully present, physically, mentally, and spiritually, in two places at once . . . . isn’t that the dream of every child? (On a whim, I googled images of “bilocation” and got only creepy drawings of “astral projection”. These two should not be confused.)

Bilocations would make school infinitely easier.

We could get homework done while sleeping! We could have social life and an academic life! While sleeping! (Are you catching on to theme here?)

Not to mention, being in two places at once would just be pure awesome.

This time of life – young and trying to make our own home – is a very fun and freeing period. We can do what we want, hang out when and where we want, go to bed when we want, stay in beds as we want, clean the bathroom when we want . . . .

And therein lies the rub. Why must I spend all my time taking care of myself?

It takes so much energy to cook a meal for just one person. Not to mention doing the dishes.

Laundry? Ha! I laugh in the face of your folding procedures!

This is when I miss being with a family the most. I had to think of – and take care of – everyone else. But they took care of me, so I didn’t have to worry over myself very much.

Being in two places would probably be put to use first in catching up on sleep. But second, it would be used to take care of all those little details of taking care of oneself.

The problem is, how?

Saints bilocated to do the will of God. Many were seen both at prayer and doing good works around the villages at the same time.

Most famous of the Bilocaters is Sister Maria de Agreda, who never left her convent in Spain yet visited and evangelized to what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. When missionaries arrived in those areas, they were shocked when the Indians calmly recited the Catechism, and told tales of a blue nun who had taught them.

She is honored in society by having a wine named after her.

But all these gifted, Holy Ones seem to have one trait in common: they did not need extra time to do their dishes. Or sleep. In fact, they did not seem to need sleep!

They were all too busy talking to God and prancing about doing cool things. They barely seem to think of themselves at all!

Ahh . . . . that is it.

As an egotist, I am not sure I can imitate them very well. But at least now I have a specific method to work on.

Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

And people can defy mortal physics because they forget their mortal coils!

Books That Make Us Human: Leaf by Niggle

The most wise and human author C. S. Lewis once said,

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

Lewis, back when he was a skeptic, had actually protested the purpose of fiction. He discussed his firm conviction that stories were all lies with his colleague, a professor of Anglo-Saxon. This professor wrote not just an essay, but an almost epic poem entitles “Mythopoeia” in an effort to sway Lewis towards the good, the true, and the beautiful.

This poem objects to the modern obsession with rationality, and defends not just the reading of fiction but the “little makings” and sub-creations that are part of writing myths. And this author went to write some extraordinary examples of truthful, soul-tugging, salvific literature.

Book Nine

Leaf by Niggle

By J.R.R. Tolkien

(Usually printed in the volume entitled Tree and Leaf.)

This one of the strangest stories ever written. Particularly when considered that it is composed by the same man who created Middle-Earth.

Unlike Lewis, who even after being convinced of the virtue of fairy tales believed that all stories should directly reflect the One True Story of God and Man, Tolkien disliked such exact parallelism in his stories. In his essay “On Fairy Tales”, he articulates the belief that story forms need only be represented life as it is in all it’s strange fantastical complexities, and the Truth will be there. In essence, anything written by a human has something to say about humanity; even if the form and plot are less than stellar the story itself holds at its heart something of the Truth of the world, be that something as simple as the human longing for love.

Leaf By Niggle is the closest Tolkien comes to allegory. The style is an odd compound of fairy-tale diction, stark description, and almost stream of consciousness narrative. The plot sounds decidedly allegorical, but it is not clear of what it is an allegory.

One of my professors declared this to a story of purgatory. I though it was a description of how to make a leader. It seems to have arisen from Tolkien’s worries over finishing and fleshing out Lord of the Rings to his satisfaction, and his concern over the fate of the artist.

It tales the of a wanna-be artist, Niggle, in a seemingly socialist community, who puts his art before people. But he has “to go on a journey”, and so embarks on a strange adventure that could be death, or personal human growth, or a depiction of interior conversion, or training to become a better artist.

One of my professors used to say that this was a story about Purgatory. It is certainly purgative.

I always thought that it was the it is a tale of training to be a leader. It does end with Niggle, having been “rehabilitated” being sent off to shepherd a flock of sheep. (Do sheep come in flocks or herds?)

But on rereading, I have to conclude that Niggle is simply learning what it means to be a human.

He begins without care for human life. He ignores his neighbors, and would rather be left alone to paint. He is, put simply, a normal person. Selfish.

But his art has produced one thing that give hope to his “doctors”; a leaf. Although he had been attempting to paint a tree, he had only been able to paint one leaf. A beautiful, exquisite, little leaf to which Niggle had given his full attention and love.

And with this proof that Niggle is capable of seeing and loving, he is given a chance.

Niggle’s painful, strange, odd pilgrimage is not quite like Dante’s, or any other literary form, but it is still firmly in the tradition of conversion. Niggle, the figure of humanity learns to be more human, he learns to be more as humans were meant to be.

The story straddles the lines between fairy tale narrative, stream of consciousness, and allegory. It is quick and, at times, slightly painful. But it is beautiful. Because reading it stretches soul.

It is fascinating. Tolkien, in his own whimsical way, creates a character who is palpably flawed, but with whom everyone can sympathize to such an extent that it is almost as though we take the “journey’ with him. As, in fact, we do.