Saturday, December 17, 2016

O the Poetry of Longing

One day at a time, the post below will grow from December 17 through December 24, 2016. These poems are based on the Great O Antiphons, traditionally sung on the Magnificat, the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) each day of the last week in Advent at Evening Prayer, beginning with December 17. The version of the Great O's is that of Howard Galley in The Prayer Book Office (New York:  The Seabury Press, 1980), 131-132.

O Sapientia          (December 17)

O Wisdom, you came forth form the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

knaves rule the world
make sport of fools
for their own gain
dull and worried minds

hearts shut to mystery
pine privately for
a return of soul
quenching a thirst
for meaning

heads cast down
bracing against coming winter
could be in prayer
words drop as lifeless
as curling leaves
swept along gutters

o wisdom come
bring some truth
to a disordered world
strangled by much order
of a dark kind

teach us balance
and the insight
of losing balance
and falling in love
with the foolishness
that believes in us
when we forget how

O Adonai           (December 18)

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law on Sinai:  Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

wandering across brown hills
where grass is scarce
and water a miracle
pastor alone with no one
to talk to among the mostly
silent flock came he
well beyond his own
accustomed desert

sometimes a fire surprises

not the burning but
what is not burnt
arrests the casual
at their tasks
beckons the eyes
examine more closely
what is

ordinary ground
meets ground of being
more than wandering
minds might imagine

obvious questions
et cetera
frame the human mind

you’d think answers
never come on schedule
and you’d be right
yet not exactly right

when arrives the moment
for fire to speak
its riddles spark
clear and present mystery


enough for all eternity
to turn aside
and see for itself
through cloud the majesty
of what the universe
and every conscious
being wants to say
of itself on its
ordinary ground
simply me
no more no less

we cannot voice the
holy words and so
say o adonai
o good lord
stretch out your arm
and make it happen

O Radix Jesse                 (December 19)

O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the people; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship:  Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

somewhere i have known
an old stump uprooted
taken out of context
left to dry of all hope
good for nothing
with only a past
too commonplace to make
a body notice and yet
somebody did notice

an artist came that way
and pausing in the corner
of the field piled high
with bulldozed roots
visually sorted wood from wood
and chose one old stump
from which he planned
a future bowl

tools and time
patience as well
produced a vessel out of
what had already lived
and died a lifetime
giving shade and seed
oxygen perhaps to the very
owner of the field whose
machines at last sawed
it down thanklessly

turned sanded polished
a caring soul gave it
life again renewed its use
to more than rot
returned to earth

so was the stump called
by jesse’s name
recalled from worthlessness
to royal purpose once

o come again from old
and withered loins
as you once sprang
a son of david son of jesse
give again
life to what nobody
values any more
poor toothless beggars
whores and addicts
dismissed from pretty
places and unwelcome
among the holy crowd
o shoot shot from jesse
make of such dead wood
vessels full of grace

potentates and presidents
pontifexes too
have nothing much to say
but hear the falling axe
laid to the roots
of fruitless trees
and tremble while
old abandoned stumps
migrate from oblivion
assuming the shape of

O Clavis David               (December 20)

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open:  Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

ancient doors appear
in dreams as objects
best known beneath
reason’s edge
silent messengers
from the world of soul
coyly winking at me
saying nothing
i can grasp and parse

heavy old doors
dividing the safe
from the frightening
sometimes closed
with massive locks
sometimes in the act
of being shut by some
unknown hand belonging
to a specter i know
better than to trust
even in a dream

among interior rooms
stored far away
from daily rounds
spots too tender
ever to be touched
lest pain cascade
thoroughly wrecking
entire constructions
of the sanitized self
from their tomb plea
disturbing the peace

you hold the key
you are the key
you fit the lock
fashioned to keep you
in another tomb
far removed from
this collection
of wailing zombies
patched together
from leftover shame
and threadbare fear

o key long lost to me
come free all
within me captive
barred from light
lead the tattered mob
despised rejected
bring these dishonored
dead to life
raise them like
the corpse of lazarus
who had no help
but god himself

o come o key
and open me

O Oriens                (December 21)

O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Son of Righteousness:  Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

darkness deepens
i do not run from it
nor wish it too quickly
dispelled but draw
the shades tighter
close my eyes
to all the dancing
images distracting
seducing my fickle
mind and restless soul
i want dark in which
to burrow looking
to spend winter
quite apart from
charms and such

embrace night for
all its worth rejoice
in darkness as it
thickens at the solstice
for dark is what
brings out the splendid
light of light
as surely as a jeweler
knows how best to sell
a diamond is to place
its sparkle next to
her blackest velvet
its facets’ impacts doubled 
by what they’re up against

we walked at twilight
a half year from winter’s
onset, the air thick
with new life blossoming
a purplish light beckoned
in the distance so far
away we could not tell
exactly where and what
was burning bright
enough to talk and walk
towards what turned
out to be the doorway
of a church inviting us
to stop our stroll and sit

nightfall the twin of dawn
ushers in sometimes
a heavy quiet we might
borrow and stow away
for mid-december
lest in its dreary cold
we spring too quickly
to rid ourselves of dark

sitting in darkness
and the shadow of death
is not a choice entirely
but a given condition
make the most of it
and bore further in
until the inner eye
grows accustomed to
the underworld for in
the hour most remote
from promised daybreak
appears a ray weak
and tiny as a newborn
in its crib and tinier
still glowing faintly
then rising  as a
burnished orb lighting
creation and waking
tired beings with warmth

it steals in silently
this dayspring does
sneaking up on both
watchers and agnostics
there is no telling
what will turn up
when light at last
returns exposing
all once neatly
packed down for good

o oriens
o original dayspring
o dawn revealing
all and your self in all
just as you cast
your spell to make us
sleep in sabbath hush
shake us awake
lest we grow too fond
of dark and rest
unconscious of
your rising

O Rex Gentium        (December 22)

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one:  Come and save the creature whom you fashioned from clay.

so you are a king
what kind of a king
are you who foment
trouble kicking up a fuss
in a land that wants
its kings noble and
appropriately handsome
preferably diplomatic

what have you done
what are you doing
what are you talking
about use language
we can comprehend
if you are a king dammit
save yourself and us
act like one and we
know what a king
acts like if you don’t
know just ask

he comes riding on a colt
the foal of an ass
we are embarrassed
he comes so poorly
clad and seems to
enjoy himself despite
his lack of style
he has no form or
comeliness that we
should desire him

my kingdom is not
of this world if it
were my followers
would be fighting
like good soldiers
to keep me from being
handed over and
handed over is what
my kingship is all
about and has been
from the alpha point

i came to bear witness
to the truth not to
make sense out of
the senselessness
everybody calls reason
only the foolish
are wise enough to
take my folly and
ponder it in their
hearts it is they
the foolhardy that
get me

what is truth
that is truth

there was a garden once
in which i walked
shin deep in snow
on a gray january day
shrubs all wrapped
in ice and in the middle
stood he in marble
white as his context
not a stitch on him
save the cloth to
cover his genitals
silently reigning from
his throne and no
one to cheer him
or obey a naked
yet in my shivering
i felt some warmth
arise deep down
in my legs i think
that now i recognize
i started to submit
there snow falling
on us both and say
o come my heart’s
and rule me
i surrender

i knew not the way
of ordinary kings
they belonging to
a world not mine
and knew even less
about a kingship of
one handed over to
ridicule and general
helplessness and fate
like standing nude
for a whole winter
in freezing temperatures
while nations raged
and chose to go to hell
rather than accept
so strange a rule

still he stands
recognizing whom he
fashioned out of mud
in the beginning
our hearts toss
and turn resisting
even our own cry

o desire desire
my heart’s desire
come enter me
and make us both

O Emmanuel        (December 23)

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

gone is the old magic
spells and tinkling bells
incantations charms
runes and rings
they all used to work
and somehow invaded as
by a swarm of very smart
bees seeking to make
honey out of nettles
the whole race fell
asleep somnambulant
though continuing to produce
at harder labor and
much lower prices needless
things highly prized
and then woke up one
day to find no one could
fix an old broken pot so
lost was ancient
wisdom and women
who made stuff happen

the gods have fled they said
and left us hapless with no
way to figure out much
of anything so now we have
no choice but to pretend
we know what we forgot

and so it was the days
were accomplished when
a defiant king said
hell no he wouldn’t ask
for a sign he didn’t believe
in superstitious hocus
in an age of spelling out
things neat and tidy in
reasonable packages

enough enough enough
already leaders have no
compass but something
brews besides the witches
a young woman is
conceiving what you powers
and principalities cannot
conceive of she will
bear a man child
what all nations need
and yearn for now that
magic and mystery are
confused and in effect
out of commission

gods as familiar as the
nearest neighbors have ceased
to walk in the cool of evening
withdrawn from their
accustomed temples
leaving trees whispering
vacant promises in the
breeze and worlds no way
of keeping peace

at last the sun came
up and in the promised land
the boy appeared who

understood not just
the ancient formulas and
how to mend broken
limbs and hearts of poor
tired people he knew
the secret and how to
publish it and drew
aside the curtain dividing
truth from empty lies
and finally exposed the
most outrageous key
unlocking the big puzzle
it was so simple
no one could believe it
worked a new commandment
that you love as i love

that was it and non-stop
glorias rang through skies
at midnight and alleluias
too and choked back tears
of gladness poured and
freed convicts and freed
slaves laughed and lame
legs leapt and blind eyes
could not believe what
they saw a peaceable land
where gods and animals
bedded down together
and humans took courage

o courage could you not
as well come again and
dwell among your own
who have forgotten what
was wise and simple
the maundy of no greater
love than what bled from
god with us
at last

o emmanuel
your hour has come


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016


JC said...

O Radix Jesse

I imagine the same conceit invests Frost's darker poem, with the wood nearly an allegory for human beings. Frosts wood will not sprout again, not is the pile's creator likely to remember it.

The Wood-Pile

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year's cutting,
Or even last year's or the year's before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

JC said...

Well, sorry for the errors. Spellcheck was not my friend. " Frost's wood will not sprout again, nor is the pile's creator likely to remember it." But error gives me opportunity for expansion.

There is another way to read Frost's poem. Consider the bird. "One flight out sideways would have undeceived him." Undeceived him that he was pursued, that everything is "personal to himself." And so we too might need to fly out sideways to see beyond the dark despair of personal abandonment, "the slow smokeless burning" of our decay. The wood pile is propped on one side by a tree, "still growing", and living clematis clearly keeps the bundle together year after year, though stake and prop are about to fall. How much comfort a reader might take in that is no doubt dependent upon whether the reader believes the pile's creator in the end "could so forget his handiwork on which he spent himself" that the pile will finally sink into decay. "Come and deliver us, and tarry not" indeed.

JC said...

O Oriens

Another Frost poem, this time on the night of the winter solstice, and more.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

It is the darkest evening of the year, obviously the solstice, when darkness lasts longest, unless you read another kind of darkness, the kind that can occur on any evening, into the poem. And what is missing this darkest evening but the owner of the woods. The absent father, the absent owner, recurs in Frost's poetry, and it is not hard to read this absent being as God, especially not when the reader is given other hints, such as, "his house is in the village though." The poet's choice is to enter the deep and dark woods (where day will be long in coming) or not to do so and to proceed with life's obligations and its different journey. To enter the woods is precisely to engage upon a particular spiritual quest, which, as always, must begin with descent to death and hell. "Between the woods and frozen lake" is precisely the location of Dante's Inferno. But that journey took place at the vernal equinox. Far more dangerous to take it at the solstice - to enter the darkness when darkness is deepest.