Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A deep breath

Morning. Almost five. Drinking the last cup of coffee, which has gone from warm to tepid, as I have sat here for nearly an hour and a half revising recently-written poems.

Yesterday was The Anniversary. The centennial of Dylan Thomas. As stated in the post immediately below, blame him for the fact that I occasionally imagine myself to be a poet! The Welsh actor Matthew Rhys recently noted, "Dylan Thomas introduced me to the English language. Not in a literal sense. But he introduced me to what the English language could be, above and beyond a means of communication." This is exactly how I feel.

And I must admit to feeling a certain solidarity with Dylan the working-class kid, high-school dropout, gifted but feckless about practical matters; nonethless, mulishly stubborn and workaholic when it came to the art of making verse. I find myself wishing quite often that I still had the zeal of the sixteen-year-old apprentice poet, writing turgid impenetrable sonnets, testing alliteration, assonance, consonance, slant rhyme, iambs, trochees, spondees. Nowadays, I fear I am culpably lazy, too easily contented with a flawed first draft (perhaps because I am so grateful that I can write anything at all!).

Dylan Thomas's language was consciously, painstakingly crafted. Carved, almost. Hewn, or sculpted. His language is a solid thing. Opaque, obscure, occasionally gross. But to me, at sixteen, absolutely and vitally necessary.

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I was supposed to have had a stress test last Wednesday, as a precautionary postlude to my chest pains of October 12. But by sunrise of last Wednesday, I was sick as a dog, and quite stupid with lacksleep. So, a postponement was needful.

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I really should "disconnect," at this point. Take a deep breath. A hiatus, a retreat, a pause in cyberspatial occupations.

The morning orisons await.

I shall return!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Happy 100th birthday, Dylan Thomas

He made the English language crash, seethe, bubble, and brawl; and he made me burn to write.





Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of my return to the sacramental life of the Church after having been truant from ages 14 to 22.

During those eight years, I recall only two instances of doing something Catholic. In August 1983, at age 14, I climbed the holy staircase (kneeling, as is the custom) in the shrine of Ste Anne de Beaupré just north of Quebec City. I wasn't sure if I "believed in it," but I figured, it couldn't hurt, and Mom was doing it, too. Keep her company!

Then, in the winter of '85-86, maybe Lent '86, age 16, I did go to Confession one night at my parish in East Boston. I remember the priest remarking, "You've made a mature confession for sixteen." Don't know how my age came up, but it did. I think I was remarkably candid in this confession, saying that I didn't quite assent to all the Christian mysteries, but had a keen awareness of my sinfulness.

Oh, just before going into college, I had a flicker of Catholic homesickness, because I remember writing to the UMass Amherst Newman Center for information about what they were all about. I received a genial response from a Sr Millie. I never did anything in the Newman Center except have lunch in their basement cafeteria a number of times. (They had cigarette vending machines back in '89!)

Then, during my few semesters of college, my reading inadvertently became theistic, or had theistic moments. Marianne Moore's prose, luminous and (at times) deeply Christian. And then there was that tidbit in the E E Cummings biography where, one day, exhausted with care and worry, he took himself to his rooftop, lay in the sun, closed his eyes, and facing unseeingly heavenward, prayed the Our Father.

When I was kicked out of college, my need for God became markedly more evident. I wanted to go to church, but Catholicism was still out of the question. A poet-acquaintance attended a Unitarian church, and it seemed to be doing wonders for him: a nicer soul you couldn't hope to meet. So, knowing nothing about Unitarianism, I decided to attend one Sunday. How bracingly amorphous their credenda! I lasted three months as a UU. (Progressivism seemed to be the unifying principle of UUism, and I was turning gradually, but certainly, to the right.)

Well, one July afternoon in '91, I was browsing the Boston University Bookstore in Kenmore Square. Something led me into the religion section. I saw the name Thomas Merton, and recalled that my high-school English teacher Mr W------ was working on a book about him!

The volume New Seeds of Contemplation attracted me most. I bought it, read it, adored it, and three months later, in October 1991, I found myself in the confessional of Saint Francis Chapel, Prudential Center, confessing my sins to (as I would later learn) Fr Bob.

Sagely, Fr Bob counselled me to get a Catholic catechism. The "new" catechism was as yet unavailable, so Fr Bob steered me toward a catechism edited by Bishop (as he was then) Donald Wuerl -- Fr Bob even helpfully spelled the surname!

And the rest is history?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday jottings: October 19

Good morning, all, and happy Sunday!

I awoke at 2 this morning to a temperature of 55 degrees, heading downward before dawn. I'm hoping this means that the August-like muggies of the past week have dissipated entirely, have vanished quite!

I attended the poetry workshop this past Wednesday night and brought a small poem called "Chasing the Waves." I was immensely gratified that the participants of the workshop seemed to think well of it. It was also gladdening to hear everyone else's poems: vivid, adventurous, creative, alert.

Last Sunday I took myself to the emergency room for nagging chest discomfort. All the heart tests (EKGs, chest x-rays, and the like) were normal. So I was sent home after a few hours. But this week, Wednesday and Thursday, as a precaution, I am undergoing a bipartite nuclear stress test at the hospital in Cambridge.

Today I'm attending a coffee hour, a get-together for all the lectors and extraordinary ministers at my parish. (I am a lector, and have been since June of last year.) It starts at nine this morning. By that time, I will have already had more than a litre of coffee! But it will be nice to meet the other folks.

This year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will be electing a new governor, and neighbouring New Hampshire a United States senator. The Boston TV stations are, of course, saturated (one is tempted to say, infested) with political advertisements. The tiresome quality of most of these ads reinforces me in my tendency to watch little besides PBS and Boston's CatholicTV.

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I wish I had something to say about the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

There has been much cause for concern in some circles. Will Pope Francis "cave to the progressives," Cardinals Kasper and Marx? Will he attempt to wrench Catholic teaching out of shape in order to placate a clamant minority within the Church?

I have to confess, I have been fretful of late. But then I recalled two vitally important things.

1. Papa Francesco loves Our Lady.
2. Our Lady loves Papa Francesco.

Recalling these two truths, I am serenely hopeful, secure in the knowledge that the Church -- even more so than drivers insured by Allstate -- is in good hands.

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Recently, someone on the social media accused me -- the verb is correct -- of coming from a privileged background. I am, it would seem, rich and aloof from the concerns of common folk.

The fellow leapt to this egregiously mistaken conclusion, I believe, on the basis of two things: (1) my conservative, sporadically libertarian, politics; (2) my facility with the English language. In fact, when I jokingly retorted, "Oh, I am just awash in privilege!", the fellow groused, "Sure sounds like it."

Sounds like it? Do I sound privileged because of my politics? Because of my vocabulary? Perplexing! And silly!

I cautioned the fellow, "Make no assumptions, sir, about someone you don't know."

Privilege! From ages six to eighteen, I lived in an unassuming triple-decker on a small side street in East Boston. I didn't know the names of birds or beasts or flowers. I had fire hydrants for scenery, and airplanes overhead from nearby Logan International. My family was often impecunious, but we did the best we could.

But I am astonished by the assumption that a poor person cannot learn to use language at a level appreciably above functional literacy. If I pepper my obiter dicta in a comment thread with phrases like -- oh, I don't know -- "summum bonum," -- or for that matter, "obiter dicta" -- if I am prone, somewhat vaingloriously, to a Buckleyite flourish of rhetoric every now and again, does this bespeak "privilege"?

In a way, I suppose it does. The privilege of a solid high-school education, still obtainable by any Boston student capable of passing the exam that gets you into the Boston Latin School. No tuition. But lots of hard work. (At least, in my day, that's what you could expect!)

I am privileged inasmuch as I had many excellent teachers of English, of modern European languages, and of Latin, who helped foster and fortify my burgeoning love of the word.

But to assume that because I argue a conservative position at times, or because I do so using words and expressions that are a tad recherché, I must be financially privileged, or I must have no knowledge of what working-class folks go through -- a consummate absurdity!

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Thanks for listening, dear Dark Speechers!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ordinary time?

Greetings, all!

Well, it's that time of year again! The summer hiatus is over, and the poetry workshop that I attend will be starting up again. This Wednesday evening, to be exact. This workshop is usually attended by between six and ten poets from the Boston/Cambridge area, all of considerable skill as poets, and as readers/critics, of profound charity and courtesy. I have benefited immensely from this wonderful workshop for the past year and a half. It is no small joy that it's up and running again!

*

October, November, December. My favorite time of the year. The trees, like priests dressed for the feasts of martyred saints, begin to blaze bright red! (There's still a lot of green in the Boston area, and some trees' leaves go from green to brown to off.) But yes, the weather will be almost preternaturally perfect (for me!) in the coming months.

And then, the long winter, a season of latent changes, a season which, as Auden says somewhere, is the right time for a look indoors. Although one can be inspired just as much if, during winter, one looks outdoors!

*

It's 2.23 am as I write and, yes, I am drinking coffee. Incorrigible.

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In the Roman Catholic Church, today is called the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time. "Ordinary" here means that we are in no "special" liturgical season, such as Advent or Lent. (I believe the Episcopalians calculate the Sundays "after Pentecost," and do not use the term "ordinary.") Of course, "ordinary" echoes "ordinal" -- our Sundays proceed in a more or less orderly fashion!

But if we cultivate the habit of gratitude, what business do we have calling ANY time of the year "ordinary"? There are sources of amazement, of "bright surprise" (Dickinson?), all around us! A full moon setting at sunrise. The fiery leaves of the trees near the two Arlington Center churches, St Agnes's and First Parish Unitarian. The bracing crispness of forty-five-degree air on an early morning walk to Gail Ann's Coffee Shop. The smiles of neighbours and of friends. The unexpected kind word.

A confession: I live in a state of worry most of the time, in self-created distress, anticipating all manner of conflict and even calamity. Well, perhaps not most of the time -- but there is always this undercurrent, by which I can become mightily discouraged.

But there are graces.

Graces in the past, and graces in the present. Who knows what trouble or turmoil the future holds? I look at my own life, at the "life" (if we can speak thus) of our nation, at the life of the Church -- and I am apt to perceive signs of stormy weather ahead. But of this I am fairly certain: God has not exhausted the divine supply of graces! And God delights in unexpected generosity.

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A letter comes in the mail this week, informing me that the small magazine in Nebraska to which I submitted several poems has accepted one of those poems for publication in April 2015!

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October may be the month of poets' birthdays: Estlin Cummings; Oscar Wilde; John Keats; Ezra Pound; Sylvia Plath; Arthur Rimbaud; Dylan Thomas. Those of you who have been following this blog from its inception know of my great love for Dylan Thomas -- to the extent that I blogged under the name "dylan" for nearly 10 years!

This year marks the centennial anniversary of Dylan Thomas's birth; the occasion falls on October 27th. A good time to delve back in to this tumultuous poet's very arresting work. He could be gross -- his early poems are replete with attempts to shock readers of Alice Meynell and Christina Rossetti! But when I discovered Dylan Thomas at age 16, it was as if I were reading English for the very first time. I reveled, delighted, exulted in his strangeness!


Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was as shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm.

I who was deaf to spring and summer,
Who knew not sun nor moon by name,
Felt thud beneath my flesh's armour,
As yet was in a molten form
The leaden stars, the rainy hammer
Swung by my father from his dome.

I knew the message of the winter,
The darted hail, the childish snow,
And the wind was my sister suitor;
Wind in me leaped, the hellborn dew;
My veins flowed with the Eastern weather;
Ungotten I knew night and day.


Suffice it to say that my admiration for Thomas as stubborn, refractory craftsman -- as ornery blacksmith of the Saxon tongue -- as enfant terrible with a voice that even the good angels envy -- is pretty close to boundless. It pains me when people dismiss his work (although I can "see their point"; it is dreadfully overwritten at times, and maddeningly obscure). But Dylan Thomas is the reason I write poetry. I have never been so ineluctably magnetized by language, how enchantingly "foreign" his English sounds at first! But yet, how elemental, how necessary, how vital!

And to think that he had what Americans would term a tenth-grade education!

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

*

My Sunday morning will be without churchgoing, as I fulfilled my obligation with a vesperal Mass last evening.

But I have received an invitation from dearest Maugham (Mom) to have breakfast with her, and that I intend to do!

*

Have an excellent week, all you who incline your ear to this "dark speech"!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

An anniversary

Greetings!

Today marks the 12th anniversary of this blog, originally called Tenebrae, later Tenebrae et Lux, later still more last than star. I like the name Dark Speech upon the Harp, and I think I'll stick with it!

In commemoration of this happy occasion, I'd like to post a video that I discovered last night. It features university students reading excerpts of St John Paul's Letter to Artists, a magnificent document with which everyone involved in the arts should acquaint himself or herself.

The video is beautifully done. Less than three and a half minutes long.  Enjoy!


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Sunday, October 05, 2014

Matutinal salute

RIP Fr Benedict Groeschel. A valued guide to me throughout the 1990s, via his TV shows and his books. He got a bad case of EWTN-itis around 2008 or so, constantly emphasizing the negative, opening his Sunday night show with cranky 20-minute disquisitions about the iniquity of the New York Times and such. (I didn't disagree, but it wasn't something I needed to hear.) Then the unfortunate remark about the sex-abuse scandals. But these weigh as the tiniest granule of sand against the monumental good he did in his life for the poor, for women in crisis pregnancy, for the marginalized. An astute psychologist, and despite some surface crustiness, the most irenic and intelligent figure ever to have appeared on EWTN. May the perpetual light shine on him.

*

Some Jesuit on Twitter expresses an enthusiasm for "Dylan." Me too. I love "Fern Hill" and "Do Not Go Gentle," and that "Child's Christmas" story.

Oh. Oh, wait .... Oh, he meant that Zimmerman fellow. The Hibbing Horsefly.

*

As you can see from the time-stamp, I sleep wretchedly. The apnea, I believe, is to blame. And no, the machine (which I tried) doesn't help.

I actually like being awake at oh-dark-thirty. Time and space to think, to pray, to slowly sip at coffee.

*

Why would I daydream of going to Confession anywhere but Arch Street? That is the popular Boston moniker for St Anthony's Franciscan Shrine in Boston's Downtown Crossing, or, as I like to call it, the headquarters of the Boston Friar Department.

And in terms of confessors, I'd like to update Abbie Hoffman's famous dictum. Don't trust anyone under 80. I jest. But the oldsters are exceptionally genial and humane. Not softies, but irenically wise and profoundly charitable. (I'm looking at you, Fr Philip O!)

*

And a shout out to the Redemptorists! Fr Philip Dabney's homilies for the Perpetual Help Novena (available on YouTube at MissionChurchBoston) are so wonderfully sustaining. I cannot praise them (the homilies) or him (the homilist) highly enough.

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Sunday. That means Mass! And I should probably shave my barbaric beard.

But first, coffee. And cogitations which, I pray, conduce to peace.

Have a great day, everyone, and a great week!