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Lenten Poems & Commentary - 2007

Most of these poems were written during the retreat and reflect the meditations. Some were written earlier in Lent. Some began as fragments I carried around in my email notes to myself or on the backs of junk mail envelopes and scraps of paper. An aging poet needs these bits of permanency to record images and hints of images as they occur--the memory can still be plumbed, but it helps to have some cues along the way. A word of caution: these poems are all early drafts, subject to change as I review them with my writing group and editor. So you may not see the same poem twice. Such is the nature of unfinished work.

This edition includes poems and a commentary. If you prefer to read the poems alone, please click here.


Contents

Ash Wednesday
Cool
My eyes wander
Passing beauty
Pop
Mom
Through the sea
Communing
Much is spoken
Versicle
Whistle
Annunciation
Announcing the artist
The circling of the postal vans
Answer to prayer
Barbara


Return to the Preface

* * *

Ash Wednesday

While intoning the returning dust,
a piece of black ash falls
from my forehead
where the priest
in white cowl,
rope cinched about his waist
makes the sign
of the reminder--
the fragment falls to the floor
between my shoes,
where I stare
at the polished wood
on which I stand.

21 Feb 07

The Ash Wednesday liturgy always marks for me that annual pilgrimage into introspection, into weighing who I am, where I am and to where I'm going. The liturgy reminds me that soot provides the bookends. Though our faith tells us that this is not the final truth, it is the humbling reality. The poem has this contrast in its colors: the almost angelic priest is garbed in white and the ash is a fragment of black. My attention is drawn to the wooden floor. The ash falls, the wood rots, and ultimately we stand on our graves.


Cool

I have been putting off
this walk--
now the weekend
is on my chest
and the winter melt
has turned the path
to mud--
my hiking shoes stick to the terra,
tenacious briars stripped of green
catch my legs and hold my jeans;
progress slows
so it is no longer progress;
a fellow hiker crouches,
points to the water
bubbling up from the sodden ground,
“cool,”
he says.

3 Mar 07

This poem was written while hiking in the local woods in Fairfield. Like the retreat, hiking alone in the quiet of trail is a time to slow down, to think. Anticipating the retreat, this poem has the weight of death about it. (If we did not talk about death, half the poems would disappear from our bookshelves.) However, it also has the hope of pausing so life can become for a while "no longer progress," and even the leaking of earth after a strong rain can be a wonder.


My eyes wander

There in the middle
of this broad porch
of painted planks
is a square column,
paint curling
from its base,
cracks sprouting,
gray wood
bleeding through--
yet this trunk
stands for now.

9 Mar 07

During Barbara's first meditation on dying, I became very introspective, as I suspect most of us on this retreat did. I began to think about all those things about death about which we rarely talk. It was dark in all senses. As my mind wandered, I gazed out to the illuminated porch, where a square column supporting the roof caught my eye. At the base, the paint had begun to weather and chip. It struck me as a metaphor for what we were hearing. In the midst of this solid porch was a very solid column--but it was passing away, even if a chip at a time. Its age was showing through, even in its youth. The present tense of this poem is very important--death is a here and now matter for us, which is hard to imagine when our life is as strong and supporting as a column.


Passing beauty

On this pedestal porch
a snow drift turns to ice
under a sun that sets;
grooves and shapes
wear in the shadows
from the wind rendering
a sculpture of essence
that will not be here in spring.

9 Mar 07

On the same porch as the column, was an old snow bank worn from the sun and wind. Like this snow, one year we will not see spring. Yet there is a beauty in this sculpture that is a fingerprint of the wind. So too our lives are our work of art that can be an image of the divine. As the snow returns to the earth, so we are returned.


Pop

I am looking in the mirror
at my grandfather--
we called him Pop--
a name that is forever father;
I remember his round ruddy face
white brushed back hair
widow's peaks exposed--
usually stone silent, unknowable,
he laughed with a single syllable:
huh…
I can see determined eyes
reflect ancient stars.

9 Mar 07

This poem and the next are about two of my grandparents, in whom I see myself more as I grow older. One of Barbara's early comments during the first meditation was "we become like each other; look like each other." There is both recognition and fear in this seeing. When I see my grandfather's eyes in myself I also think about the light from the stars that may no longer be.

Mom

She visits each
son and daughter’s family
for a week or two
each summer after he died;
once when I sat with her,
she broke her grandmotherly serenity
and kindness,
looked at me troubled and stern:
“sometimes,” she said,
wagging a finger at the empty chair,
“it is as if he is sitting right there.”
For a boy of twelve,
it frightened me,
fascinated me--
how much she wanted,
and now, how much she had.

10 Mar 07

This poem reflects my own fear and sadness in the voice of my grandmother. Mom was Pop's wife. They were married for over 50 years, never slept a night apart. I remember their golden anniversary celebration. I was nine or ten. Pop died a few years later. At his wake, Mom sobbed each of the three nights at the end of the viewing. When I asked my mother why," she said "She's sad because she knows she won't see him again." What memories we carry about death that come back to us!


Through the sea

While hiking
on a lonely winter trail
rich with barren trees and brush,
a dozen ghost-like does stop
their cross-bite chewing
to have a look
at the hiker with gray
beard and baseball cap
mark time in a rhythmic stride.
He stops and returns the stare
raising his walking stick
as a staff of blessing
and, in Cecil B. DeMille fashion,
stomps it to the ground.
The deer jump and dart apart,
White tails rising as a wall of water--
He passes through on dry ground,
alone.

10 Mar 07

I love the image of this poem, first seen two weeks before the retreat, and which I carried in a fragment note until I had time to sit down and write during this weekend away. It is a poem about passing--something we must ultimately do alone, if only to walk through the door of our death. All the images of God's power and might do not negate the loneliness of this moment.


Communing

In this silence
seated about a table
of those who have come
to listen,
there is no relating
how cold the morning air was,
or the trickle of water from the showerhead;
there is only being--
and in this common humanity,
there is communing.

10 Mar 07


Much is spoken

How many ways of smiling,
of nodding gesture
are there
passing others in the hall
who are keeping the silence?
There is hopeful
and cheery,
solemn,
perfunctory,
bashful,
awkward,
relaxed,
peaceful--
without a single sound
much is revealed,
much is spoken.

10 Mar 07

These two poems were written while thinking about all the newcomers who joined us for this silent retreat. There is a strangeness about a vow of silence, even if only for a weekend. There is also a richness.


Versicle

The instruction in the prayer book
says a versicle may be used--
a fragment of text,
that hangs like half a rhyme,
an icicle root
from an eave in winter sun,
dripping new water
a drop at a time--
a child stands beneath,
head tilted back,
tongue outstretched
to catch the chilled refreshment--
it is an opening.

10 Mar 07

This poem arose from the word versicle. I first noticed it in the Book of Common prayer, while flipping through looking for the morning prayer liturgy. I loved the sound of the word. It reminded me of icicles, and so on this word the poem turns. It is this openness to go where the image takes you that is the child with his head tilted back. To never lose that wonder!


Whistle

Hiking along the train tracks
whose wheel-polished rails
mirror the cold river
running along side--
I pause to put my foot
on the iron bar
to feel for a sign
of the afternoon train--
I do not know
when it comes
or where it goes,
but last year
seated in the stone chapel nearby
I heard the whistle
in the distance.

10 Mar 07

After the Saturday morning meditation is a time to go out alone and walk or ski along side the Housatonic river. There is a train track that follows the same route, and I sometimes take it on my way out or back. See the poem Grace from last year's retreat for the reference. The train in the distance is something Paul Simon wrote about in one of his songs. Its whistle calls and we hear it faintly. There is both a yearning and a trepidation in this hearing. We know death comes. We do not know how far off it is. We sense God calls. He is both near and far.


Annunciation

I stand here
next to a frozen stream
and hear the water
gurgling beneath its
white ripped roof--
what is so hidden
speaks in a familiar voice
and names an image of rapids,
rocks that block the way
and are consumed--
this small river that runs
in the wood near an open field
of withered grass
is announcing a change in the wind,
a turn in the path,
whispering:
I am here.

10 Mar 07

This poem also began as a fragment from the weekend after Ash Wednesday. There is a stream that runs near my house, that is about a mile into a hike through the woods that begins at my back door. The beauty of the frozen stream stayed with me as did the sound of the water beneath. This is a familiar metaphor that reminded me of William Stafford's poem "Ask me." It is how I sometimes experience the mystery of God, coursing through the creation as an undercurrent that we can hear in echoes when we are paying attention. It is the job of poetry to pay attention.


Announcing the artist

He is as playful
as his sculptures--
their embrace of wind and sky
dancing as his eyes do now--
art announcing artist
long before I knocked on his door
and he gave our pride of pilgrims
a tour of the barn and workshop
brimming with wire frames and fishing weights,
the limbs of an unassembled god
dangling from the beams.
To the stringed bass built around a mannequin
he quipped, “it is a baser instrument.”
The wheel of psychedelic waves
was two: one of white straws,
the other red that disappeared against the ruddy barn walls.
The small panels of aluminum and Lexan
caught the draft and moved
as if letting a ghost pass--
so clear that these were his joys--
the models of work to be hummed
like phrases in a libretto
yet to be written.

10 Mar 07

This poem, like the next one, was about the lighter side of life. Their whimsical tone is every bit of the comic relief that Barbara sprinkled throughout the mediations. This gave us permission to be open to the morbid "until," as Barbara said, "morbid things are no longer morbid." A small group of us escaped to see Tim Prentice's sculptures during the Saturday afternoon break. He was every bit the character I imagined from seeing his work over the past few years. It was a delight to finally meet him and see his workshop. You can watch video clips of his work here. I was struck with the delight in his sculpture in contrast to the dark beauty in the snow and ice sculpture in Passing Beauty, above.


The circling of the postal vans

What are the postal vans doing
circled in St. Pius’s parking lot
on Saturday afternoon?
I wonder if they are
exchanging mail,
opening the scented envelopes,
or thumbing through the Victoria Secret catalog
passing it on to the next driver
and the next
before completing their rounds.
Perhaps they are discussing the liturgy
for the evening Mass
or the choice of hymns,
wanting something a bit more pedestrian;
or are they collecting the weekly contribution
for the lotto tickets to be purchased as a group--
we do not know.
Yet this incongruous assembly
causes me to slow down
as I drive by
and scratch a line or two on the junk mail
on the passenger seat--
for that ever pregnant pause,
I am guardedly grateful.

10 Mar 07

This was such an unusual sight that it begged for a tongue-in-cheek poem. My wife pointed it out to me when we passed it one weekend; then I saw it again the next. I scribbled some words on some junk mail, and wrote the poem during the afternoon of reading and resting. The import, as before, is in the pause. Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, talks about poems that are like getting into a car that takes you to an unknown destination, where you sometimes arrive in a place you did not expect. Bill Stafford called it "following" the poem to where it takes you. The circled vans were a challenge to redeem.


Answer to prayer

On the third day
of the retreat
there is fog--
so thick the river’s
senses are gone.
There is suppose
to be clarity,
sunlight,
blue sky
and spring.
A bird sang two notes
at dawn,
but he is quiet now,
stilled.
We should have planned
better.

11 Mar 07

I wrote this poem on a napkin at breakfast while looking out toward the river. There is such irony in reaching the end of a retreat in which we gained so many insights, to see such fog. And yet, which endings do we have the foresight to expect?


Barbara

She is telling us a story,
hands folded across polished wood of a walking cane
that has become a companion;
as she speaks her eyes stare out across a sea of time
to a grandfather she did not know,
fiercely faithful, he sat up in his bed
stared out at no one and everyone
saying "I knew you would come for me,"
then laid down and died.
She admires his faith, aches for it
with a sadness that is at once deep and passing--
it is punctuated with a sigh;
her openness becomes our openness
we draw closer to each other
like wagons circling a campfire
whose light still bright, flickers;
we hunch over, hands outstretched, backs to the night,
a distant sound of wolf faintly howling--
and sing.

16 Mar 07

I couldn't sleep until I wrote this down--a dialog about Barbara with a fellow retreater weighing heavy on me all week. I remember learning that Eastern Orthodoxy has a rich history of icons, tracing them back to Genesis when God created man in his own image (eikona in the Septuagint Greek; see Genesis 1:26-27).1 Icons were seen as a window to the holy, the holes in the small basket, to use Barbara's image. While Barbara's stories were so moving, it was equally the telling itself that grabbed me--that her openness and vulnerability--even in her strength--was an icon. You may notice that the polished wood reappears in this poem. Wood is an image I return to with an affinity. It is strong, warm, resonant... and passing. Our homes are made with it and we know that without painting, they weather, split and crumble--leave wood in your compost pile and it becomes compost. But oh the glory when its polished surface catches the light!

Good Friday and Easter lie ahead. As in Advent, we watch and wait. More poems will follow as this Lenten wandering unfolds.
* * *

All Poems © Copyright 2007, E. Granger-Happ, All Rights Reserved.

Return to the Preface
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1See the "Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching about Icons" section in the Wikipedia article, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icons . Here's an excerpt:

"The Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding veneration of icons is that the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the archetype (Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit 18:45: "The honor paid to the image passes to the prototype"). Thus to kiss an icon of Christ, in the Eastern Orthodox view, is to show love towards Christ Jesus himself, not mere wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon."




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Document last modified on: 03/18/2007

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