Friday, April 30, 2010


I filched this wonderful poem from Sally's blog.


Crouched in the yard,
he brings his dirty hands up to his mouth.
No, No, I say. Yuck. Hurt. 

These are sounds he will recognize.
I say them when he takes an orange
with its hidden seeds and allergenic juice.
No. Yuck. Bad orange. Or reaming
from his mouth a wad of bread,
a lump of odorous cheese.
The fire will hurt.
The stick will break and stab you
in the heart. The reckless wheel,
the cool suggestive music of the pond.

Overhead, summer spreads its blue scarf;
a light wind bends the hollyhocks;
birds, trees --
everything the way I might have dreamed it,
he stands in the grass,
weighing a handful of berries,
a handful of stones.

(Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Forces of Plenty (c) W.W. Norton and Co., 1983)

May Night

In advance of the month of May, here is the great Lotte Lehmann singing one of Brahms's loveliest songs, "Die Mainacht." The text is a pre-Romantic poem (by Ludwig Heinrich Christoph Hölty, 1748-1776) which is nonetheless steeped in the major concerns of German Romanticism:  the night landscape, the protagonist's alienation, and his longing for the absent, or perhaps nonexistent, beloved.   This translation was made by composer Leonard Lehrman:

When the silvery moon beams through the shrubs
And over the lawn scatters its slumbering light,
And the nightingale sings,
I walk sadly through the woods.

I guess you're happy, fluting nightingale,
For your wife lives in one nest with you,
Giving her singing spouse
A thousand faithful kisses.

Shrouded by foliage, a pair of doves
Coo their delight to me;
But I turn away seeking darker shadows,
And a lonely tear flows.

When, o smiling image that like dawn
Shines through my soul, shall I find you on earth?
And the lonely tear flows trembling,
Burning, down my cheek.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Beautiful city, we must part," part 3: Old Man in a New Place

While I don't know if I'll ever get used to living away from New York, sometimes I'm convinced beyond a doubt that leaving was the only thing to do in order to go on living.  I'm exaggerating wildly, of course: we didn't leave because our lives were threatened, we left because my husband got a job in Appalachia.  And, while I often feel like a walking ghost here, and as if I've left my whole heart behind, I must confess that for many years my abiding fantasy was to decamp to a place where I knew no one and no one knew me.

All New Yorkers are familiar with the painful, uncanny way that the past stalks us there; if you're not running into your former loves on the street (and they always do seem so much happier now), then you are constrained to coexist with the constant evocation of former lives, former ways of being.  In New York, you can try to cast off your old self and pick up the trappings of the new, and you can succeed quite well up to a point; but then you have to pass by the building where thus-and-such happened, or the spring wind as you walk up one of those streets that are veritable wind-tunnels carries with the bits of garbage the whiff of the past in its wake, and you are brought to your knees.  Oh, that beautiful city, where you can find your heart's love and the dearest, most intimate friends imaginable, where you can breathe freely even if oppressed by poverty and care, where you can traverse whole nations on the subway and visit the Cloisters for a penny, where you can walk and walk for hours and find something beautiful even on the ugliest corners, where you can go to the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, where you can get a doctorate for spare change. . . 

After my conversion in 2002, I had to go on living in the city that had been the site of great sorrow, vice, and folly.  This wasn't as hard as it might have been if I had had to keep frequenting the precincts that had become associated in my mind with sorrow, vice, and folly; shortly after my conversion I began my doctoral studies, which took me on a new route through the city, and brought me new colleagues, friends, and pursuits.  Marriage and, soon after, motherhood effected this translation still more, and I saw that it was in some way possible to attempt a new life in the same place where the old life had run to ground.  But, even if possible, it is hard.  To live a new life, one must separate from one's old companions and one's old thoughts, and New York, the capitol of longing and loss -- is it just that for me?  it not such for every New Yorker? -- hits you upside the head with the old thoughts, the old yearnings, just by virtue of making it necessary for you to pass certain buildings or to wait for the bus at certain corners.

So perhaps it's safer for the convert to go far away, to start over completely.  But is it a dodge, an easy way out?  I imagine that countless souls must flee the wreckage of their lives in small towns to come to a place like New York, where they can start over, shrug off their failures, and become someone new.  I'm trying to do the same thing in reverse, and I have no idea how.

Above:  a picture I took from my brother's window on a recent trip back.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Washing the Elephant

I had to take a long-ish bus trip with my little son the other day -- we had been to visit my ailing mother -- and before we left I happened by her local library and bought a bunch of ten-cent past-dated magazines for the trip, including a couple of last month's New Yorkers.  Toward the very end of the trip, I found this poem, by Barbara Ras, in one of them.

Washing the Elephant
Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash
the elephant, begging the body to do it
with soap and water, a ladder, hands,
in tree shade big enough for the vast savannas
of your sadness, the strangler fig of your guilt,
the cratered full moon’s light fuelling
the windy spooling memory of elephant?

What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize
your parents in Heaven,” instead of
“Being one with God will make your mother and father
pointless.” That was back when I was young enough
to love them absolutely though still fear for their place
in Heaven, imagining their souls like sponges full
of something resembling street water after rain.

Still my mother sent me every Saturday to confess,
to wring the sins out of my small baffled soul, and I made up lies
about lying, disobeying, chewing gum in church, to offer them
as carefully as I handed over the knotted handkerchief of coins
to the grocer when my mother sent me for a loaf of Wonder,
Land of Lakes, and two Camels.

If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Or the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel
and down Thirty-fourth Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken

It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life, and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like popsicles unthinkingly.
And though dailiness may have no place
for the ones who have etched themselves in the laugh lines
and frown lines on the face that’s harder and harder
to claim as your own, often one love-of-your-life
will appear in a dream, arriving
with the weight and certitude of an elephant,
and it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash
the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories
that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday

And what better way to celebrate it than by listening to Kurt Weill play and sing his own ballad "Speak Low"?

When Weill and Ogden Nash were collaborating on their musical One Touch of Venus, Nash's idea was to use a line from Much Ado about Nothing as the linchpin of the song's lyrics.  The Shakespeare quote is "Speak low if you speak love" (Act II, scene i).  The German word for "if," however, is wenn, and Weill unconsciously substituted it while writing the song, giving us the haunting line, "speak low when you speak love."

This beautiful recording is from a tape that Weill made for Venus's backers while the musical was in the writing-and-rehearsal stages -- sort of like the daily rushes from a film shoot.  Enjoy.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Christian Time Travel Possible?

I've just finished Madeleine L'Engle's An Acceptable Time, the last novel in her Time series, which I picked up on the recommendations of Enbrethiliel and Lissla Lissar in the combox here.  I absolutely loved it.   At the same time, though I still haven't read his Landscape with Dragons, I'm starting to get an idea of why Michael D. O'Brien might have a bit of a beef with L'Engle.  The novel is about Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe's oldest daughter, Polly, who goes to stay with her grandparents, the celebrated Dr. and Dr. Murry, in rural Connecticut, in order to be homeschooled.  (Now, you'd think that's a premise that a self-styled guardian of traditional Catholic mores ought to love, but the homeschooling has been proposed as a solution to the fact that there are drugs and riotous living at her high school, and besides, like all the Murrys and their descendants, she's absolutely freaking brilliant, and so is poorly served by her district school; so there's no whiff of religious orthodoxy in the equation.)  Like many of the Murry-O'Keefes, Polly finds that she can time-travel, and she has some gripping adventures on the site of her grandparents' farm three thousand years ago.  She has a companion in her time travels, a retired Episcopalian bishop, who, though he unashamedly and frequently professes Christ, appears as a sort of Teilhard de Chardin figure. (Now, here's a bit of trivia for you:  I've actully been in the New York apartment in which Teilhard died in 1955.  It is in a building -- in the neighborhood where L'Engle herself lived, the neighborhood she writes about in The Young Unicorns -- that was once a Jesuit residence, and one of my professors from grad school lives there now. I wonder if L'Engle knew Teilhard or his confrères?)

Polly and Bishop Colubra find themselves in extreme danger three thousand years ago, and are unable to transfer themselves back to the present.  While Polly has more faith in science than in God, the Bishop invokes the mercy of Christ in ways both subtle and obvious -- intoning the Kyrie when he's been captured, for instance, and assuring Polly that Christ existed even a thousand years before His birth.  However, he also believes that the ancient druids possessed knowledge that has now been lost -- knowledge, for instance, of the techniques of time travel -- and I suppose that it is these statements that a critic like O'Brien would call heretical.

Now, I don't want to set up a straw man, because I haven't read O'Brien's polemic (though I do have it on order through interlibrary loan).  If anyone has read the book and can set me straight, please do so in the combox.  But it seems to me that, if you believe that we exist in both time and in eternity (which is what we believe, isn't it?), it is not heretical to believe in the possibility of time travel.  We already know that it is good and meet to pray for the dead as if they were still alive.  Nor is it heretical, is it, to suggest that ancient peoples and pre-Christian cultures possessed knowledge that has been lost to us?  Can't one believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord of and the fulfillment of human history and, at the same time, acknowledge that non-Christian lands and people had a great deal to offer?

I suppose the problem comes when we try to resurrect lost knowledge in its original context, rather than baptizing it in the light of the salvific proclamation.  Of course, we should not try to use any power to circumvent or second-guess the will of God, and part of the discipline of Christianity for some who have the special gifts of which Saint Paul speaks is the laying aside of those abilities in favor of accepting smallness, weakness, and utter dependence on God.  But, contra O'Brien, I don't believe we should be afraid to read any literary suggestions of special gifts existing in a non-Christian context, or about time travel, or about snakes or dragons who are good rather than evil.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, part 2

I wrote a post about this wonderful song about a year ago, and, in browsing back to it, I realized I'd linked to the wrong version of it.  In the meantime, some kindly soul has uploaded the correct version to Youtube.  Here it is -- it's magnificent.

More on the song from Maclin Horton here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Young Unicorns

I woke up this morning with the incomparably delicious feeling that comes from having read a fantastic book the night before.  The book -- pace Enbrethiliel, in whose Madeleine L'Engle Novel Smackdown it fared rather poorly -- is The Young Unicorns, written in 1968, the third book in L'Engle's Austin Family chronicles.  While I wasn't crazy about the first in this series, Meet the Austins, which I also read recently -- it features a family whose cuteness seemed to me a benign, juvenile-fiction version of the preciousness of J.D. Salinger's much-maligned Glass family-- I was game to expand my knowledge of L'Engle beyond the Time quartet (and I can't but agree with Enbrethiliel that A Swiftly Tilting Planet is a towering accomplishment).  I couldn't find the second book in the Austin series, The Moon by Night, in the library, so I pulled a battered copy of The Young Unicorns off the shelf and took it homeAs soon as I had finished it, it took its place alongside The Brothers Karamazov and Clara as a book that I regretted finishing because I did not want it ever to end.

Now why would the perspicacious Enbrethiliel, with whom I concur on so many things, and I differ so much on the point of one YA novel?  I don't know.   To this reader, the book has everything.  The central argument is a version of the one that has been the downfall of many a good, intelligent, and pious man and woman since time immemorial:  the existence of real evil under the guise of goodness, beauty, and truth (in this case, the Anglican bishop of New York City).  The children in the novel are called upon, in their varying states of figurative and literal blindness, to choose good, but some are confounded by the glamour, as it were, of evil.  The theological problem of freedom -- the freedom to love and also to fall -- is posited against the tantalizing possibility of a return to a state of primordial goodness that is, however, compelled rather than freely chosen, and is, therefore, demonic.  And the climactic scene is truly disturbing and frightening.  And the book touches on race, class, exile, addiction, oedipal conflict, and disability.  And several of the characters are gifted musicians. And most of the action takes place in and around the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, a New York neighborhood that I know as intimately as any.  While reading, I could trace each step of every one of the characters as they walked around the neighborhood as if I were walking with them, which gave me particular delight.  And is that a great cover, or what?  (The three Fab Four-looking fellows are members of a dangerous gang, the Alphabats, which is threatening to take over the city.)

Michael D. O'Brien, whose novels I also love, has been very down upon Madeleine L'Engle, which I do not love.  He calls her work "'Christian' neopaganism," and claims that the "foundation" of her work is "wrong."  I cannot bring myself to read his polemic on the evils of children's literature, so perhaps it's not fair of me to reject his argument, where it applies to her work, out of hand; and yet I do.  As with all of her novels that I've read, the message of this book is Christian on the deepest level, and, besides, it's a great read.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thoughts on Divine Mercy Sunday

I was married in a torrential rainstorm on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday five years ago, which was also the day that Pope John Paul II died (a photo of the former event is above).  It seems to me mystically appropriate that our beloved Pope was born into eternal life on the vigil of the feast that commemorates the once-suppressed message of Mercy -- a message that he did so much to spread.


I learned the Chaplet of Divine Mercy from the Sisters of Life back in 2004, and few days have passed since then that I haven't said it.  It has been a good fit for me as a devotion:  it's short, it goes by quickly, and it hammers home relentlessly the point that God's mercy trumps his righteous justice, which is, I suppose, why some Traddies shun it.  After all, it's human nature to insist that those pathetic stragglers who showed up on the job at the eleventh hour not be paid a full day's wages.  It's human nature to reel in horror when you see your father having a huge party for your wastrel brother who spent down his fortune on booze and whores.  But if God were only a God of justice, we would fear Him, but we would not love Him.  And God wants our love, and wants it freely given.  And who could not love so good a God as He, who looks at us, as He revealed to Saint Faustina, through the wounds of His Son, with compassion for our fallenness, our brokenness, our sin?

This blog was started as a sort of interior argument with my former parish priest, who suggested, after I had two traumatic miscarriages in four months, that God might be chastising me (not punishing, but chastising) for the sin of abortion that I had committed, and been absolved for, many years earlier.  This sounded wrong to me, so I mentioned God's promise to Jeremiah:  "I will forgive their sins and remember them no more"; Father R. countered me with an admonishment not to take Scripture out of context, "like," he said, "the Protestants do" (I suppose he believed that God's message applied only to the post-captivity Israelites).  I then brought up the well-known passage in Saint Faustina's diary, in which her confessor suggests that, the next time someone claiming to be Jesus comes to visit her, she should ask him to tell her what she said in her last Confession.  When He comes again, she does so, and Jesus answers, "I do not remember" (which seems a clear reference to Jeremiah 31:34).  Father R., however, explained to me that Saint Faustina was canonized for her holiness, not for her scriptural authority, and that her diary was full of self-contradictory passages.  I stopped inviting Father R., an exiled paisan in an Irish parish, over for homemade Italian food, and started avoiding whatever confessional he was working out of on Saturdays; I would graciously let as many people as necessary cut ahead of me so that I wouldn't end up spending any grille time with the man I had started calling, in my mind, names like Father Black Cloud and Savonarola.

But the truth is, I cried every day for months about that conversation with Father R.  And finally, I realized he had missed the point entirely, which is exactly why I need Jesus, and why he needs Jesus, and why we all do.  Christ died so that we wouldn't have to suffer in hell for all eternity.  He died for the forgiveness of sins.  Every time we say the Apostle's Creed, we profess our belief in the forgiveness of sins.  Another priest told me that it was Divine Providence that had led Father R. and me to cross paths, so that I could pray for him.  When I remember to, I do.


In our neighborhood in our new city, an old man has stuck a tiny, faded picture of the Divine Mercy in a corner of his living-room window.  The first time I walked past his house, I was unbelievably grateful to see it.  I've walked past it hundreds of times now, and, for some reason, every time my little boy is with me on my walk, he says, at the exact moment we pass the Divine Mercy house, that he wants to go to the New York Botanical Garden, which was not far from where we lived in the Bronx, and was a place where we spent many happy hours.  This reminds me that the Divine Mercy is inextricably bound up, in my experience, with the Bronx.  I learned the devotion in the Bronx, on the Sisters of Life's retreat.  I came to live in the Bronx on April 2, 2005, the day of my wedding and the Pope's death, and, though I felt in exile even there, I came to fiercely love that most neglected and forsaken of boroughs.  If, as the Buddhists say, the lotus blooms out of the mud, then the Divine Mercy devotion reminds me that Christ, the gardener, brings beauty even out of barren, bloodsoaked soil.  "Where sin did abound, there grace abounded evermore."  In some mysterious way, the Divine Mercy devotion, for me, turned both the godforsaken Bronx and my godforsaken soul into good soil.  This is what you get from a God whose mercy trumps His righteous justice.  What's not to love?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bill Monroe and Romantic Agony

The home page of my web browser is set to The Writer's Almanac, and to be introduced to a new poem at the start of the day rarely fails to provide me with a thrill. (For a while a couple of years ago I was also the crank lady who sent them exasperated emails about the lack of research and sloppy editing in their writer profiles -- things like getting the plot of my favorite novel, The End of the Affair,  entirely wrong, and making assertions along the lines of "the novels of Thomas Mann have now fallen into neglect" -- but they've improved.)

Although today is the birthday of William Wordsworth, the Writer's Almanac poem of the day is the text of a song by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe:

Sittin' alone in the moonlight,
Thinkin' of the days gone by,
Wonderin' about my darlin'.
I can still hear her sayin' good-bye.

Oh, the moon glows pale as I sit here.
Each little star seems to whisper and say,
"Your sweetheart has found another,
And now she is far, far away."

It reminded me of a recent conversation with Melanie B in the combox here, about the notion that all poetry is about nostalgia for a never-to-return Golden Age. And I was struck by how much the Bill Monroe song resembled the premise of Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise, the first number of which, "Gute Nacht" (Good Night), is sung here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by an unidentified pianist:

Having been disappointed in love, the nameless protagonist of Schubert's song cycle goes off on foot across the winter countryside, growing more and more alienated from society as his journey continues.  In the last song, he throws in his lot with an outcast, mentally disabled organ grinder who he sees wandering barefoot over the ice.

Here is the text of "Gute Nacht," by Wilhelm Müller, translated by Arthur Rishi:

As a stranger I arrived,
As a stranger again I leave.
May was kind to me
With many bunches of flowers.
The girl spoke of love,
Her mother even of marriage, -
Now the world is bleak,
The path covered by snow.

I cannot choose the time
Of my departure;
I must find my own way
In this darkness.
With a shadow cast by the moonlight
As my traveling companion
I'll search for animal tracks
On the white fields.

Why should I linger, waiting
Until I am driven out?
Let stray dogs howl
Outside their master's house;
Love loves to wander
God has made her so
From one to the other.
Dear love, good night!

I will not disturb you in your dreaming,
It would be a pity to disturb your rest;
You shall not hear my footsteps
Softly, softly shut the door!
On my way out I'll write
"Good Night" on the gate,
So that you may see
That I have thought of you.

While doing research for my book project recently, I came across an essay entitled "Wounds and Beauty" by the painter and scholar Bruce Herman.  Herman suggests that the prevailing Western notion of beauty since 1750 has been an emblem of the Romantic longing for the lost Golden Age:  "Beauty," he writes, "is everywhere colonized by the Romantic longing for perpetual youth."  Herman posits

the possibility of a clear-eyed adult aesthetic that bears the marks of Christ's resurrected body -- marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption, healing, and eternity.  The ascended Christ still bears earthly wounds, and his new body can be treated as a starting point for a new aesthetic -- a broken beauty if you will -- and a means of working through and beyond pain to a perfection that need not participate in [Romantic] idealization.

Herman suggests that Romantic yearning is not only untenable, but unsavory, even antithetical to the Christian longing for heaven.  Indeed, the thread of complete personal annihilation, certainly antagonistic to the Christian ethos, hangs heavily over the Romantic quest for a lost Golden Age.  We should, Herman exhorts, long for the future in heaven, not for the past.

The Bill Monroe song has all the elements of the Romantic argument:  grief, loss, rejection in love, yearning for the past, solitude, and the countryside by night; but its protagonist restrains himself from the more Wertherian extremes of disappointed lovers of the previous century.  I suppose that if we are to mourn in this life -- and we are -- it's better to do it sitting alone in the moonlight for a spell than wandering off across the frozen landscape into ever-increasing neurosis and alienation.  It's worth remembering that the words of the most famous song by Bill Monroe's contemporary, Hank Williams, are “I'm so lonesome I could cry,” and not “I'm so lonesome I could die."

There are numerous performances of the Bill Monroe song on Youtube, but none by Monroe himself, so I'll leave you with this particularly fine one:

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Easter at Al Qaeda Bodega"

My tough, beautiful sister-in-law, a committed non-believer, gave me last year for Christmas a poetry anthology by Catholic convert Mary Karr, one of whose poems, "Recuperation from the Dead Love through Christ and Isaac Babel," I wrote about in the early days of this blog.  While trying to avoid folding the laundry today, I pulled the book, Sinners Welcome, off the shelf, and opened to a beautiful poem about New York.

If you've ever lived in New York, you will know exactly what Karr is hinting at.  In his slim book Here is New York, published in 1948, E.B. White wrote:

The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. . . . In New York smoulders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.

I daresay that White's pre-Civil-Rights-era truce has been largely transformed (in many New York neighborhoods, anyway) to a real spirit of neighborliness, if not brotherliness, among different groups.  And what New Yorker has not at times felt as if he is really in love with all his fellow citizens, and as if each of them shows forth the true face of Christ?

Here is Mary Karr's poem.

At the gold speckled counter, my pal in white apron --
index finger tapping his Arabic paper,
where the body count dwarfs the one in my Times -- announces,
You're killing my people. 

But in Hell's Kitchen, even the Antichrist
ought to have coffee -- one cream
and two sugars.  Blessings
upon you, he says, and means it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Penitence and "Pushkin"

 Today would have been the eightieth birthday of Jacques Fesch, the last man in France to be put to death by the guillotine, for the murder of a police officer.  His conversion while in prison awaiting his sentence was so complete that his cause for beatification was officially opened in 1993.  It seems fitting to remember him on Holy Saturday, the day after the Good Thief, Saint Dismas, arrived at his own place in paradise.  May Jacques Fesch pray for us sinners, and may he be numbered among the saints of the Church.

On another note, I absolutely loved this poem on today's Writer's Almanac. which reminded me of a beloved old cat I used to have:

The old cat sleeps
in the newly arrived sun. One more spring
has come his way
dropping a solar bath
on failing kidneys, old cat bones.
I check for the rise and fall of breath.

Once he stalked hares
across the yard, tracked down
chicken hearts with split-lentil eyes.
Fearless, disinterested, a poseur, a demideity.
He and the dog are strangers still
after years of eating side by side.

I remember times of wailing
into my couch, alone
and utterly baffled by life,
when suddenly a cat
would be sitting on my head.

Last week I pulled him snarling
from under a chair in Dr. Bacon's office,
held him while she examined his dull coat,
felt his ribs. Pressed where it hurt.
Eight pounds of fur and bone and mad as hell
but "He's certainly less anxious in your lap,"
she murmured, astonishing me.
I had no idea. Old cat, old friend,
have I reached some place inside,
added to your life
as you have to mine?

-- Marjorie Kowalski Cole