Author: Robert Reeves

For awhile now I’ve been self-publishing at least one new poetry collection per year.  I’m not planning to do that this year:  plan on waiting till January 2020 at the earliest.  In the meantime, I’ll post some current poems I like on this blog, with a few remarks about each.

  1. From January, by way of taking stock. When I read this at Hugo House’s Works in Progress reading, the superb poet Christian Downes was nice enough (or hyperbolic enough) to say he thought it was the best thing ever read there.

Offertory

Under the dry life

my body parts are furniture,

chewed, blistery.

Hands lose their way through the air.

Thoughts are jelly in the shotholed brain.

Yet this,

this same squat noise,

is a wave of surpassing.

Days, as days will,

each have their gleam

as I thumb-flip through them.

 

Rainclouds

force the calendar open

and treat the days like sidewalks

and the sidewalks like flower boxes.

Sun, a growling dog,

sits on the calendar like

the weeks are bones.

On the same square, can

steady love and love-spawned affliction

rub chapped skins?

You think not, but

rain and sun are similar partners,

blindly passing, keying

each other.  Each other’s little path.

 

The future has fists

but I have found a way to walk

using only my eyes

and when I have to bleed

bleed snow

and cover earth with

a will to be melted.

 

  1. Here’s a photo of me reading this silly thing at Screwdriver Bar’s Assembly reading. (They caught me on the “One, you live!”)

Alderman’s Hill

I climbed a hill I hadn’t climbed in years.  Right after my operation it was too daunting, but I’d kept up my exercises in the ensuing year and today it seemed not only doable but desirable.

When I got to the top, not that winded, I recognized it as the spot where the alderman used to stand when he said his “One, you live!  Two, you live!  Three, you live!”

It was popularly believed—though no one would own to believing it if asked—that whenever the alderman uttered these words, three random people in the city below who’d been about to die would miraculously go on living.

This was an embarrassing belief because there was never any way to verify it.  However positive doctors and relatives might be that a patient was about to succumb, people did often suddenly take a turn for the better for no reason anyone could see.  However certain witnesses were that two cars were on the point of colliding, that certainty didn’t always prevent them from being mistaken.

By Ockham’s Razor, there was always a simpler explanation for why someone continued to live than that the alderman had been addressing them with his chant.

Equally by Ockham’s Razor, though, the belief in the alderman’s talent was the simplest explanation for why he kept getting elected.

This was a city of unshakable beliefs in any case:  everyone knew—and didn’t hesitate to use the word—that a rocket launched on this side of the planet would travel in a counterclockwise circle before returning to the launch pad, whereas in Australia it’d go in a clockwise circle.  Everyone knew that, for every citizen, there was exactly one toy store she couldn’t discover, no matter how hard she looked for it.  Everyone knew there was more than one such toy store, and that all of them existed downstairs, lower than street level.

The hunt for the unlocatable basement toy store was the main topic broached in psychiatrists’ offices, according to a survey.

Psychiatrists were mostly volunteers on welfare.  They had the reputation of being either selfless or corrupt, depending on what day of the week they’d first crossed a street.  Parents held celebratory or dismal parties, depending.

The law against rigging the day when your child first crossed a street was strictly enforced and the penalties for it were terrifying, if only hinted at in whispers, involving high steel girders and oatmeal.

By association, breakfast cereals of any sort were objects of dread.  I remember being threatened with them when I wet my bed.

I usually wet my bed by opening a can of alphabet soup and pouring it onto the sheets.  I was trying to get the tiny noodle letters to spell out “One, you live!  Two, you live!  Three, you live!” but they hardly ever did.  I gave it up when I retired.  It seemed a pastime for a carefree young man.

 

  1. Visited by the spirit of a college roommate I barely knew, I wrote him this.

Tragedy

I can’t recover his name after a couple occasions of trying

but think of him as John, and maybe that was it:

a delicate boy—not delicate in the direction of effeminate precisely

but finicky and artificial, easily displeased, demanding.

He had very pink skin, a lot of acne,

odd dancelike hand and arm movements, graceful and clumsy at once.

We rented an apartment together one semester, with Randy,

all three students and Christians, though Randy had sexuality problems,

John reporting with horrified fascination he’d been seen at a gay bar—

but I remember wondering how John knew.

Then there was stuff about money, late rent, dishwashing rotation,

roommate stuff, John wanting more control than seemed appropriate,

Randy disappearing finally toward the end of term,

I accepting a housesitting gig for a month,

John feeling left in the lurch.  Don’t know who was last in the apartment

or how things stood with the landlord at the end.

We weren’t friends at all, and I didn’t see him for four years

till he showed up outside the church on my wedding day,

not dressed up, no idea how he found out,

to hover beside me a minute on the sidewalk,

bashful, flickering like an old film (I think of it now)

and leaving with nervous congrats, hushed voice.

It was, somehow, the first of three definite moments in our acquaintance.

The second was running into Randy not long after that

and Randy telling me John had killed himself.

Again, how and why did Randy and John keep in touch?

The third was tonight, forty years along,

when I wept for him suddenly, for no reason in the world.

 

  1. From February: a note from the trenches of nighttime Bremerton, addressed to my aspie spouse.

Ten p.m.

In bed beside me,

you’re laboring through a far place

and your voice comes from there,

something that wants to be a word

but can’t decide on one.

 

All day you needed the tv on,

a show you’d seen so many times

you wouldn’t need to concentrate on it,

because you couldn’t concentrate on anything.

You cried quietly, steadily.

 

One of us got up to close the curtain

whenever the fridge clunked on

and open it when it clunked off.

 

The web of routine noises

rocked me to sleep

and held you awake

above the deep dangers you’re made of.

 

Now another sigh,

not reaching for language but letting it go,

tells me you’ve found a footing somewhere

and are the size of the story you’re dreaming.

 

On the street

some kind of alarm

croaks a few times like one hesitant frog

testing for fellows,

then frightened still.

 

  1. Someone asked me at Works in Progress whether the last paragraph was part of the poem. Yes, but I wanted people to wonder.

The Faraway City

When I was eight, living in a nasty secondfloor apartment in one of the nastier Boston suburbs, where the typical greeting between boys was “Wanna fight?,” I could see a city on the horizon always lit by sun.  I didn’t mind the “three-family” building because my own family was together again for the first time in years—eight of us at once, my sister from California visiting my brother from New York who was here for chemo with his wife and child, mom, dad, my baby brother and me.  Frank’s bed in the living room was the center of our days and nights, as he wisecracked his way toward death at thirty.  I understood that things had to be the way they were, that dad couldn’t work, or not for long, because he was what was then known as manic-depressive:  that mom was a young resident on the psych ward at Boston City Hospital and didn’t make enough for us to live in a better place:  that I was sent to the Jewish Y after school to get me out of the apartment because I was a disappointment to dad and because mom didn’t want me to hear the screaming matches between him and my sister who still regarded him as an interloper, unworthy to replace our father:  that I kept my underwear on under my swim trunks at the Y because I was ashamed that I was not Jewish and could prove it.  I understood, but I always looked away from the dismal present to the sunlit, suncolored city in the distance, my symbol for a place where everything would be solved—solved for someone, though I might never go there (and I never did).  It never changed, never failed me the two years we lived in the nasty suburb, and even when we moved to a nicer one and could afford a “one-family” house again, it remained my dream of escape and perfection.  That city was Salem, where they burned the witches.

Not really:  you can’t see Salem from there.  It was a town called Saugus.

 

  1. From March: My granddaughter is growing up in a world without sweets.  Her first birthday cake was made of broccoli.  She seems quite content.  This was during lunch at a Bremerton Chinese restaurant.

Horn of Plenty

Her father orders broccoli and rice

and the little girl who eats no sweets

smiling excitedly

keeps calling toward the kitchen

“Come, rice!  Come, rice!”

 

  1. From May: rather mysterious to me, but people like it.  If I had to take a stab at its “prose” meaning, it’s a meditation on gender and its failure to achieve a balance between human life and nature.  The “male” is too separated from nature to achieve balance, the “female” too immersed in it:  and the fluid “neuter” never gets beyond the mere concept of balance.  The narrator voice probably satirizes the idea that creation requires conflict.

Society Islands:  A Masque

You wake on the clay,

three bodies.

 

Cracked shells, piercing birds.

Taste of watery sky like dying metal.

Seaweed bladder bracelets, necklaces, crowns.

You squint against some immovable day.

Tide is onedimensional, that far out.

Clay is still with dancing,

still with bodyparts overlapping

and musically ordered.

 

Three of you:

Split-body, Joined-body

and the one that condenses into clouds

and falls back down as rain.

 

Comes time now to stagger upright

(you’ll carry the clay tangle with you)

and leave in separate directions.

 

Split-body,

you know how it is to have an iron head

knocking moon-dark on the air,

an iron brain bent inward,

staring down the giddy tube of the torso.

 

            I take the light in my mouth.

            I am the land where it slaps the ocean,

            I am the road where it hisses at the hill.

            I enter the white wall through the black door.

            Now I am paint

            where it opens in the morning and closes at night,

            deep and lordly.

            Desktops and laptops

            mimic the lilt of ballpoints on pads.

            The dead and the living

            are identical pets of money.

            Today is money’s birthday.

            The cake is cold flesh frosted with chest hair.

            My coworkers are short green shadows

            suffering polar rotation.

            Sometimes the break room is undersea,

            then miles above the ground.

            Talk is dry and easily crumbled

            like fall leaves.

            We plan out the next several wars,

            taking special care with the production of ashes.

            The minute hand survives each notch on the clock,

            its breathing squeezed.

 

Joined-body,

those birds are your eyelids flapping

open and closed, and the daylight

crowded by their wings.

 

            I am halfway up the tree before I know it,

            looped around it or wedged within it—

            orientations have become hungry for each other:

            tresses of the river spill over the top of the tree

            which lies facedown in the river.

            My hands and heart guiding the slick spiced

            hands and heart of the tree, it moves and

            measures the sky.  River, golden muddy,

            is clean and beating on bark, on fruit,

            panels and corridors of fruit, of flower,

            pursuing all the meanings of the trunk.

            I am a scramble, a settle.

            My skin flares wood, leaf, river pebble.

            Muscles are clouds upsidedown in flow.

            Blood though, blood is always daylight

            and the diving whisper of bugs.

            I am halfway up a half that is the whole,

            inside and out, supporting and lifted.

            Time is only long.

            Death is a moment in building.

            The stars themselves are the ends of my arms

            and legs.  I summoned nothing with my voice.

            My voice is the song it sings.

 

Water-body,

the whole world is two worlds

when you roll your tongue along it

and the pits you dig in the clay

brim with your hurrying hands.

 

            The leaves of the mind

            are a thin book really,

            teetering on the now,

            all its memory

            only a single word

            in a darkling sentence

            where the notions huddle

            with gallant faces

            waiting their shifts.

            Guilt and love

            are never far apart,

            but each sees the other

            through steam.

            Could either stand

            a dreadful solitude,

            each would burn sleek

            with the force of the other,

            love become liberty,

            guilt become thanks.

            It’s what I watch for

            and also where I watch,

            turning the leaves

            of the mind and reading.

 

You twisted here, three of you breaking off,

laying these disruptions, this open secret,

 

on the hurt thrilling clay.  And of course

the tide is nearly in and no one else will find

 

the nursery of the three bodies, the blood-game

you owe yourselves to, because I will go to

 

another place, once I watch this drown,

and start new dances on another shore.

 

  1. From June: Christian was talking, in an email conversation, about a transcendent purpose for poetry.  I wrote back that I didn’t think I’d be much good at prying secrets from God, if that was what he was after.  He replied that “prying secrets from God” should be my next poem.  Here it is.

Prying Secrets from God

The man with rage stuck in front of him like another belly

breathes hard, tears off ahead of us when the light changes,

turns the corner I want him to.  Yesterday at the clinic

you picked up a brochure called Understanding Metastatic Prostate Cancer,

shot me a sideglance and said “Understanding the future.”

As you slept your pale sleep last night I thought how

you were pretty much the only really interesting thing in my life.

We go straight past the street the angry man took,

ducking the gentle rain for Thai food, overpriced, delicious.

 

  1. From July: an occasional poem, maybe one that won’t survive to be published.  The ferry Chimacum has darkened seats at bow and stern from which you can watch the approaching destination and receding origin.  This was written in the forward seats.

10:30 pm Ferry, Seattle-Bremerton

The top of the night is night

but the bottom clots with red smokes of day.

Venus looks at the earth,

one whole eye.

West Seattle is a long march of gritted lights.

Bainbridge is black gulfed humps.

A dusting of towns swims near,

lower Kitsap.

We bore past it into the sightless seaway.

Beacons blink, ghosts of a path.

Night weighs on the water.

Houses show dwarfed,

sullen orange.

Gatsby’s green light shouts over everything—

tasty green, the first of many.

Houselights extend below the houses,

along the glass of the water.

Bremerton is a rude glare,

hearts of hot white button beams,

the red neon of a restaurant, a hotel,

red flashing towers back into the dark,

pearls of the arch bridge,

another ferry empty, lit up, docked asleep,

the roar of the crawling ship as it crescents in.

 

  1. Finally, a poem lamenting the momentousness of youth (but also being pleased at its demise), written in the same section of the same ferry, the night of an Assembly reading.

Screwdriver Bar

In another kind of time

the night could’ve come to a point,

a point that was, in an unemphatic way, circular

and hovering a few inches before my forehead.

It would’ve drawn up toward it

the spangles in the glass tabletop

guarding from spills its collage of Elvis photos,

and drawn up toward it the breath of my drink

in its glass, and breathing along with my mouth,

and drawn up the fine cheekbones and statuary lips

of the stranger at the mic giggling through solemn poems,

and drawn me up into a next minute and next hour and next month

when action would only be a stepping forward

and a bestowing and training of the eyes;

 

but it isn’t that kind of time

and the night slides along past that point and others,

and we stand in line for the ferry

and trade smiles in the eyes

like so many same lines and smiles.

All that rises up out of the night

(but doesn’t) is the family ahead,

tall pimply shorthaired girl

who’d have burnt teenage me at his own fat stake

and her dumpy jokey mom,

dead ringers for each other plus and minus twenty years.

They’re with a church outing returning from a ballgame

and their night may have come to a point

but I doubt it, watching their yawns and doubtful eyebrows.

Nothing has called any of us to any act.

Oh I’m glad I don’t drink anymore,

but it means those calls get fewer and fewer.

I stand.  I don’t step forward

but I look and it’s this minute, this hour, this month.

 

[I’ll be back with more, hopefully, in a few more months.]

For a few years, back in the mid-0’s, I had some (very modest) success submitting my poetry to journals.  I limited myself to print journals, it being a time when people respected online publication considerably less than they’re starting to do now.  In an average year I’d submit about 300 poems and get about 30 accepted–a good percentage actually, but I was becoming increasingly annoyed with editors, who couldn’t seem, for one thing, to be able to print my work without numerous misprints–including work that had been sent them in emails and which they could’ve just pasted in.  There were also a few editors who assumed that if my poetry didn’t come up to their standards, I’d appreciate their suggestions:  but I’ve always been violently allergic to workshopping of any kind, even from close friends, let alone strangers who didn’t approve of my work.  I never submitted anything I didn’t consider finished.  I was irritated enough, at that point, to abandon submitting altogether.  The infinitesimal extra notice it brought me wasn’t worth the aggravation.

Then in 2008 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  My desire to see my work in print while I still had time, in a way I could control, overcame my desire for mainstream recognition.

I began self-publishing using CreateSpace (a service there are ethical issues with for some, but none major enough to drive me away), and this month am about to release my twenty-first and twenty-second book.

I’ve occasionally included poems I was less than satisfied with, or which I came to have second thoughts about, but in the main I think the quality of my self-published work is pretty high.  The reasons why I chose this mode of publication are still valid for me, though my cancer hasn’t become more serious, or treatment for it more urgent, in the past ten years.  Recently people I respect in the writing community have been encouraging me to start submitting again, and I can tell they deplore my self-publishing practice, judging it only appropriate for poets of lesser talent than mine.  As fans, they also want me to have a wider audience.  I appreciate their attitude, of course:  I’m not immune to the wish for more–or more “official”–notice.  But the main approval I seek is still my own, and if my medical situation does become more crucial, I’m preparing a Collected Poems that will eliminate almost all the badly-conceived work.  Till then I prefer to go on being known to a limited group of people, through personal encounter.

Of the latest books, only one is actually new.  Unpoems collects some shorter prose from the 80’s and 90’s, before I started concentrating on poetry:  my novelette Baked Squid, two short stories, “3 Trips to Victoria” and “Walter’s Day,” two plays, Odysseus among the Suitors and efficiency, and a children’s book (not), Plubb Grows Ubb.  All these pieces are worth reading, if I do say so myself!

The new book is last year’s output of poems, The Sonnets etc.  2017 was a year in which I wrote some of my best poetry ever, especially the 77-poem series The Sonnets.  (77 is half the number of Shakespeare’s sonnets–a move my son Gus calls a really arrogant way of being humble.)  Somehow the sonnet form (well, a free-verse approach to it) propelled me into a higher, more powerful diction, effective for dealing with topics beyond my usual private themes.  For example, here are the final eight sonnets, named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching:

Heaven:  it’s the language the objects use

to declaim themselves, the clarity of order.

Arch and leap of sky are what first give to

our grasp city, wood, ocean, mountaintop.

These name themselves against shifts of

cloud, lightshaft, star huddle, pounding day.

Their names are where the rest of things

end.  Their identities are contests.  They’ve

taken from the sky the space where they

stand, denied it, bowed to its hovering.

Call it the litany of differences, law of

rising up and out.  Wisdom, eyed and

shouldered like the owl, lives in the sky,

picking out prey from high above, hooting.

۰

Lake:  a simplicity of relationships,

candor of trades and struggles.

Lilting tall-legged bug on the water

flapped into maw of shining frog.

Grove sheltering in bristling night

the swish track of otter, his roll

splendoring himself with drench.

The pebbles on the bottom bouncing

over smoky clay.  Wide, wide the

paths of sound, dips and dangles

in sleek muffled air.  The way the

world is layered and interleaved,

fish nosing invisible food in the

margins of twiglife, heron-stabbed.

۰

Fire:  not change as such, but

everything’s habit of wavering

outside its native shape, tipping

its wobbledance yellow to blue,

drawing up and forfeiting heat

in the same motion.  Brightness

ever an exchange for hard black

disintegration, fuel of life also

its consuming.  Nothing can

stop without dying, and dying

is its own pyre.  Over the flame-

traveled, smoke stink rears to

heaven, where the buzzards

wheel, deprived of the raw.

۰

Thunder:  thunder is the happening of things,

their route through time, the air snapping back

into the past they’ve just created.  Things

aren’t only noise, but the part of them that

isn’t is too quickly burned and gone.  Their

noise is their mattering to us, or not:  a low

grouse in the unclear distance or the very

atoms of here ripping asunder with a crack.

To me with my lightning panic, the thunder’s

both helpful and unfriendly, signal of both

safety and unease.  And thunder as time

is also time’s own demise, a future without

event and a present without presence, just

hollow big booming of a frigatebird’s chest.

۰

Wind:  the invasion of the other,

of a spew that alters your temperature

and shoves your eyes closed on grit.

Enemy, friend, or lover (namely both),

you walk against it from now on,

a helpless lean.  You weakly want

the wind to be your own breath, be

the stuff that can come out of you

because you’ve lured it in—but it will

always be its own, however mingled

it lets itself be with yours.  Remember

to it, you are wind.  You whip the hats

off one another’s heads, lose them

cawing to the faraway trees like crows.

۰

Water:  or the other ceases, and so do you,

in a dark deep whose floor is a strange

working engine, a huge transforming hand.

To drown, to be unmade as a single life,

to know a last vortex—we call it commitment.

We know, beyond any logic, there’s another

side, a springing, a joined pulse.  A mere

wander of light in a stranger’s eye noticed

offhand in a public room, a mere stoop or

settle of limb, a mere word:  these are both

the mouth of the whirlpool and its unspeak-

able egress, the golden land discovered at

the individual’s sinking, over which, freed

from the mariner’s neck, wings the albatross.

۰

Mountain:  but myself is larger than myself.

I feel it shadowing me and over me

all my life long, but hardly see its powered

veins of seething stone.  It’s too close

to get a look at, and I’m too tiny, scrambling

along it, valley to valley, ledge to ledge.

It will at best send intimations of its size,

the ways it faces, the hues and denizens

of its slopes, the icy moan of air at

its heights.  Those are what? a prickle

on my neck that makes me turn around

and peer backward, but backward just

as vacant as forward, a cold still glade

where the note of the varied thrush descends.

۰

Earth:  accept growing up.  Accept growing old.

Accept that death is where I’m headed.  And

those I love.  And the world.  And the worlds.

Earth receives and holds, never acts but never

fails to be active.  Its roots are fingers twined

around rib and pelvis, spine and skull, cracking

through them with the slowness and strength

of a blossom.  Something or someone else then

teeters up out of it and stretches straight, and

orbits the neutral bestowing light, smug,

loudvoiced, hearty with sap.  But the earth

holds the rowdy growth to itself, grips its heels,

pulls its head lower, lower, over the decades,

like talons of a hawk whose eye is stern, firm.

31

            Well, she has thee for the pain, for the

         Patience;  but pity of the rest of them!

      Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the

         Comfortless unconfessed of them—

   No not uncomforted:  lovely-felicitous Providence

   Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the

      Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and

Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

 

Pretty clear—the nun knew what was happening and in her “pain” and “patience” found salvation:  but what about the other some hundred drowned souls aboard the ship?  They died without the benefit of confession, i.e. formal confession to a priest;  but Catholic theology never stipulates that such formal confession is necessary.  A simple prayer of repentance, even of desire to repent, is sufficient to gain one a place among the saved:  and the nun, obeying the subtle command of Providence to proclaim the name of Christ like a steadily clanging ship’s bell, could have been the necessary reminder of the way to redemption, in its Biblical likenesses of lost sheep being found and harvest being brought into the barn.

Gardner’s synopsis:

“(Stanzas 32-5):  Return to the theme of Part the First:  the poet adores the mastery, majesty, and inscrutable wisdom of God.  The dead nun, prophetess of the Faith indomitable and resurgent, is asked to intercede for the conversion of ‘rare-dear Britain.’”

32

            I admire thee, master of the tides,

         Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;

      The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,

         The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;

   Stanching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;

   Ground of being, and granite of it:  past all

         Grasp God, throned behind

Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

 

The close of the poem is a Trinitarian prayer, first to God the Father, then to God the Son—but in the final stanza, not to the Holy Spirit but to the nun he inspired:  Catholics are never shy of praying to dead martyrs, even recent and uncanonized ones.  God the Father is the ruler of the tides (and of the tempest which brings in the harvest, ala the previous stanza).  “The Yore-flood” might refer to the covenant with Noah, but probably refers to the “deeps” of chaos upon which God’s spirit brooded in the first chapter of Genesis, when God fixed limits (“girth” and “wharf” and “wall”) for the destructive element of water and the sinful minds impelled by it.  As “Ground of being,” he is himself the “granite” of that wall that checks the rages of sin and disorder.  The boastful Death of stanza 11 is only his servant:  from behind him God watches and awaits the free choices of humans and rules their destinies anyway.

33

            With a mercy that outrides

         The all of water, an ark

      For the listener;  for the lingerer with a love glides

         Lower than death and the dark;

   A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,

   The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark

      Our passion-plungèd giant risen,

The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.

 

But God the KIng is also the merciful Father.  His mercy outstrips all of “water’s” (sin’s, death’s) attempts to destroy the soul.  [“Outrides” is a favorite word for Hopkins:  he called a metrical foot into which several unstressed syllables were inserted an “outrider”—but there are none of these in the Deutschland.]  God’s mercy is an ark that carries the one who listens to his message of salvation across the flood, and it even works after death to free from Purgatory those souls who waited till their deathbed to repent.  This “uttermost mark” or goal was reached (“fetched”) by Christ, whose giant strides extend down and up all the way to hell and heaven once he has been himself drowned (“plunged”) in his suffering or Passion.  Really complex grammar here:  but another possible reading—the one I actually incline to—is that even these “uttermost” souls in Purgatory fix their gazes on (“mark”) Christ as their savior.  Either way, the poem now addresses him.

34

            Now burn, new born to the world,

         Double-naturèd name,

      The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled

         Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,

   Mid-numberèd he in three of the thunder-throne!

   Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;

      Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;

A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fire hard-hurled.

 

The language in these last two verses reaches such a pitch of creativity and beauty, it seems a desecration to comment on it in dull prose, so forgive me.  Christ is asked to “burn,” but it turns out that rather than a “lightning of fire,” his coming to reclaim the souls of the drowned was a sudden gentle rain upon the countryside (“shire”) of England—though such a shower can be said to “flash” like lightning.  Christ is double-natured, human and divine, sent from heaven but made flesh with a human heart, grown (“furled!”) within the virgin Mary, who herself burned like a flame to do God’s will.  He is at the same time the central Second Person of the Trinity, God’s “thunder-throne”—but his salvation is kind (meaning both kind and kindred:  he is one of us), not the dreadful darkness and fire the damned will experience at Doomsday.

35

            Dame, at our door

         Drowned, and among our shoals,

      Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the reward:

         Our King back, Oh, upon English souls!

   Let him easter in us, be a day-spring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-

      cresseted east,

   More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,

      Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,

Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our thought’s chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

 

In English convents one addresses an older nun as “dame.”  Hopkins asks the nun to remember “us,” the English, in the “roads” (i.e. the wild paths ships take through the sea) and the harbor she has reached in heaven.  [An early poem of Hopkins, imagining a nun taking the veil, is titled “Heaven-Haven.”]  “Remember our King back” is a strange way to put it, or an excessively compressed way:  remember us in your constant prayers for the reconversion of England to the true Church.  Hard to better the flow of Christ’s attributes in the final lines, his rising like the easter sun of resurrected faith whose cressets (rays, more or less) will make Britain, that precious rarity, even brighter with time.  That it didn’t happen—in Hopkins’ eyes the present state of England would seem immeasurably worse than when he lived—somehow doesn’t diminish the triumph in those astounding last alliterations.  Their triumph is a triumph of faith, after all, which can’t be contradicted or disproved by reality.

Thanks for reading!

26

            For how to the heart’s cheering

         The down-dugged ground-hugged grey

      Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing

         Of pied and peeled May!

   Blue-beating and hoary-glow height;  or night, still higher,

   With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky Way,

      What by your measure is the heaven of desire,

The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

 

Perhaps the tall nun experienced, in her expectation that the agonies of the shipwreck would be replaced by the glories of heaven, something of what ordinary people experience when they see the rainstorm (“down-dugged” in shapes of rain like the udders of a cow) replaced by clear blue sky, April replaced by May.  I’m not sure what “hoary” does to help the description of the sky’s daytime glow:  maybe it’s an allusion to hoarfrost, with its feeling of making everything sparkle new-cleaned (“peeled” is a great word to describe this feeling).  Then at night, the sublime regular (“belled”) shine of the stars and the galaxy adds to the sense of peace, of relief … compared to this, how much more relief must come from thought of heaven’s unseen, unconceived reward?

27

            No, but it was not these.

         The jading and jar of the cart,

      Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease

         Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,

   Not danger, electrical horror;  then further it finds

   The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:

      Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s

Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

 

The comparison completely fails, though, when we look at the reasons why people long for the serenity of the afterlife:  they do this in moments of disgust with their long tedious lives of suffering, or meditating on the sufferings of Christ in moments of quiet prayer.  The tall nun’s mind couldn’t have been occupied with these kinds of thought or emotion, in the midst of the “electrical horror” of the storm, the “burly” (shortened from “hurly-burly”) of the wind, the pounding of seas so violent it seemed they contained monstrous dragons.

28

            But how shall I … make me room there:

         Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—

      Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,

         Thing that she … There then! the Master,

   Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:

   He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;

      Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;

Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.

 

In this rather astounding, “modern”-seeming stanza, Hopkins combines the confused and terrified cries of the shipwreck victims with his own imperfect attempts to zero in on the nun’s motivations in this poem.  Finally he is unable to do other than bow to her vision of Christ looming through the storm, and admit that Christ alone (Latin ipse, his very self) could have been on her mind in that “extremity where he had cast her,” which only he had the power to “heal”—so the poet leaves Christ, the nun’s “pride,” to make his judgement (his “doom”) of the victims and survivors.

29

            Ah! there was a heart right!

         There was a single eye!

      Read the unshapeable shock night

         And knew the who and the why;

   Wording it how but by him that present and past,

   Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—

      The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast

Tarpeïan-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

 

Matthew 6:22-23 says “If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”  (Long ago I wrote an irreverent character poem based on this verse, in the voice of the cyclops from the Odyssey.)  The nun was focused on Christ and knew him to be the solution to all the turmoil around her, as well as the whole of time, matter and spirit.  Her naming of Christ in that moment made her like the apostle Peter when he first confessed Jesus as the Messiah.  Peter (or Peter’s confession, to the protestant viewpoint) is the rock upon which Christ built his church, and the nun’s steadfast naming of him makes her a steady rock within the storm’s blast, bound to it (rather a shaky metaphor here) as Andromeda was bound to the Tarpeian rock … but the commentators call us to take the “but” seriously … she is only, in that howling fury, a wispy human and mortal beacon, for all her rocklike faith.

Now the poet addresses Christ with an intimate diminutive:

30

            Jesu, heart’s light,

         Jesu, maid’s son,

      What was the feast followed the night

         Thou hadst glory of this nun?—

   Feast of the one woman without stain.

   For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;

      But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,

Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

 

To us, December 7, when the wreck of the Deutschland occurred, is Pearl Harbor Day.  To a nineteenth-century Catholic, it was the eve of the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  In Catholic doctrine Mary and Jesus alone among humans were conceived “without original sin:”  without sharing in the punishment of eternal separation from God attendant on the disobedience of Adam and Eve.  Mary also consented that Jesus be conceived in her without intercourse:  this is called the Virgin Birth, and non-Catholics often confuse it with Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  Both dogmas are mentioned in this stanza:  Jesus was the son of a maid (a virgin) who was the one woman without original sin.  Being “conceived” (implanted in the womb) this way, when we try to “conceive” (comprehend) Christ we have to aspire to Mary’s purity—but the nun’s cry, “conceiving” that Christ was the one solution to her trouble, also “conceived” him in herself as the divine Word and let herself utter that Word to her fellow sufferers.  In a way, says Hopkins, by doing so, she also gave birth to herself!

21

            Loathed for a love men knew in them,

         Banned by the land of their birth,

      Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;

         Surf, snow, river and earth

   Gnashed:  but thou art above, thou Orion of light;

   Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,

      Thou martyr-master:  in thy sight

Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily-showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

 

“Loathed for a love men knew in them” sounds like the nuns became nuns illegitimately, being in love with earthly men … but it rather means men expected them to marry but hated them because their love for Christ prevented it.  Their native country was in an anti-Catholic phase and had expelled them to die here on the Thames:  “gnashed” seems contracted from “once the surf etc. had gnashed” (like devouring teeth).  But God, like the huntsman in the stars, had actually weighed (poised) the possibilities and caused this to happen, even “unchancelling” (not a real word—it’d mean “driving from their chancel,” sanctuary) the nuns.  The terrible snowfall around the wreck became a shower of lilies—associated with salvation beyond death, and with female martyrs—accomplishing God’s work through the lead nun’s invocation of Christ.

22

            Five! the finding and sake

         And cipher of suffering Christ.

      Mark, the mark is of man’s make

         And the word of it Sacrificed.

   But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,

   Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—

      Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token

For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

 

Even the fact that there were five nuns is significant.  Because of Christ’s five wounds, and/or because a cross has four end-points and one center-point, the number five has traditionally been a symbol of the Crucifixion.  (Before the appropriation of the pentagram by pagans and Satanists, Gawain in the Medieval poem carries it as a Christian symbol.)  “Finding” means something like “the sign by which we find”;  “sake” means purpose, goal (of the number as symbol).  Although it was our fault that Christ died in such a horrible way in the first place, Christ engraves the symbol of suffering on his own elect, given the supreme task of sharing in his own sacrifice.  … Okay, the metaphor is a more than a little stretched:  from Christ tattooing the sign of the cross on a martyr to the simple count of nuns … but despite that, the final line is to me some of the most breathtaking poetry in the poem, combining the sacrificial lamb of the Jews with the mystical Rose of Dante (sacrifice = glory).

23

            Joy fall to thee, father Francis,

         Drawn to the Life that died;

      With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his

         Lovescape crucified

   And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters

   And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,

      Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,

To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

 

What’s more, they were Franciscan nuns—and Francis, toward the end of his life, received the actual wounds of Christ, the Stigmata, on his own body (the reference to the seraph means Francis’ vision of the angel who wounded him).  The “wild waters” that drowned the nuns are precisely the place where they experience the mercy and presence of God.  (“Fall-gold” means “falling gold,” but I also like to think there’s a pun on the gold leaves of the fall which are so lovely when they die.)

24

            Away in the loveable west,

         On a pastoral forehead of Wales,

      I was under a roof here, I was at rest,

         And they the prey of the gales;

   She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly

   Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails

      Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:

The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.

 

Finally Hopkins is about to tell us what the tall nun said—but first he again reminds us of himself, the poet who is recreating the nun’s deed in verse.  The contrast is pointed:  while the poet slept in his peaceful Welsh rectory, the nun was broadcasting her summons to the elements and people around her (the people “catch on to” each other for support or “catch their breath” listening to the surprising prayer).  The last sentence is pretty convoluted, but seems to mean either that as she calls Christ to come to her, she holds her crucifix (cross) against her breast, or that she calls this cross (death by martyrdom) the presence of Christ to herself—or both.  When she makes this call (in either sense), she gives birth to, and simultaneously baptizes (christens) the best thing she could’ve done, prompted by her wildest and worst situation—but I always read “worst” as short for “worsted,” like worsted fabric, so “wild-worst” might mean “textured, woven, by the wild (event).”

25

            The majesty! what did she mean?

         Breathe, arch and original Breath.

      Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?

         Breathe, body of lovely Death.

   They were else-minded then, altogether, the men

   Woke thee with a We are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.

      Or is it that she cried for the crown then,

The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?

 

What made the nun call on Christ like this?  What was her intention?  The poet asks both the Holy Spirit (Breath) who inspires Christian poets and the nun herself to “breathe” the answer.  Was it a desire to imitate Christ, her Spouse, in violent death?  When the apostles found themselves in a similar storm on Lake Gennesaret, they woke Christ and begged him to calm the waters—which he did, but only after rebuking them for a lack of faith.  Did the nun desire the heavenly reward that comes with martyrdom—the desire for heaven being sharper (keener) because she feels the mourning (keening) that combats it?

16

            One stirred from the rigging to save

         The wild woman-kind below,

      With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—

         He was pitched to his death at a blow,

   For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:

   They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro

      Through the cobbled foam-fleece.  What could he do

With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

 

Hopkins agonized over the fact that on shipboard the rope wouldn’t have been called a rope.  To worry about terminology in such a dramatic context might be to our minds a sign of OCD—as his enthusiastic descriptions of male musculature, here and elsewhere, might be a sign of the closet:  I don’t care, myself.  The poet will make himself present in a relevant way very soon.  But the poetry doesn’t quit:  how cool is “cobbled foam-fleece?”  Or the way dropping the article before “buck” makes the line rear up like the waves?

 

17

            They fought with God’s cold—

         And they could not and fell to the deck

      (Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled

         With the sea-romp over the wreck.

   Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,

   The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—

      Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,

A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

 

Gardner’s synopsis:

“(Stanzas 17-31):  Amid the tumult and horror, the voice of a nun was heard calling on Christ to ‘come quickly.’  (She was one of five Franciscan exiles:  surely Five, the number of Christ’s wounds, is the symbol of Sacrifice and the heavenly Reward.)  But what did she mean?  Her cry came from the heart of all suffering humanity.  Man asks deliverance not from danger (which is stimulating) but from the remorseless daily round of toil and disappointment.  That deliverance comes only from Christ, who succeeded by failure;  His Passion holds the promise of heaven in an otherwise ‘unshapeable’ existence (st. 29).  This nun read the symbol aright:  the pain and tragedy of life elucidate, and are themselves elucidated by, the Redemption.  In the nun the meaning of Christ is reborn (a second Virgin Birth!).  Touched by the finger of God (as the poet had been) she had created faith and hope in those around her.”

 

18

            Ah, touched in your bower of bone,

         Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,

      Have you! make words break from me here all alone,

         Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.

   O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,

   Why, tears! is it? tears;  such a melting, a madrigal start!

      Never-eldering revel and river of youth,

What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

 

Now, with the first appearance of the nun, Hopkins himself appears.  Before describing her, he describes his own reaction to her act.  Stanzas later, when he finally quotes her words, he will mention himself again.  The words of the nun and the poet’s telling about them constitute the same act of bringing Christ into the world to achieve his redemption again.  The poet’s reaction to the nun’s words is initially to become choked up:  the same “exquisite smart” that makes people enjoy tearjerker movies drives the poet to speak from his heart, the “mother of [his] being.”  This sympathy with the nun is not a forbidden crush of one dedicated virgin on another:  no one needs to teach him to go “after” such an evil thing (i.e. chase it away), but as he will reveal in the next stanza, the fellow-feeling of a sibling in the religious life.  The priest/poet’s spontaneous tears are the beginning of a “madrigal:”  a hymn of praise to the nun.  And where does this youthful joy, this ever-renewing river of sympathy come from?

 

19

            Sister, a sister calling

         A master, her master and mine!—

      And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;

         The rash smart sloggering brine

   Blinds her;  but she that weather sees one thing, one;

   Has one fetch in her:  she rears herself to divine

      Ears, and the call of the tall nun

To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

 

Simply from serving in the same household, under the same divine Master.  Later Hopkins will draw the contrast between the nun and himself in his peaceful Welsh bed:  but here he emphasizes the wild terror of her situation with odd, violent vocabulary (sloggering:  beating;  fetch:  recourse) and odd spelling (hawling).  Despite “that weather” (used here along the lines of “that day”), the tall nun is focused on Christ, the focus too of the poem Hopkins is writing.

 

20

            She was first of a five and came

         Of a coifèd sisterhood.

      (O Deutschland, double a desperate name!

         O world wide of its good!

   But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,

   Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:

      From life’s dawn it is drawn down,

Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

 

Lest you thought the poem was getting too highminded, time for a little Roman Catholic prejudice.  The nun was “first” (leader) of a group of five, sailing on a ship named after their country of origin, Germany.  We in our time can associate “desperate” things with the name of Germany and also acknowledge its many positive contributions to civilization.  Hopkins’ meaning is narrower:  “desperate” and “good” refer to Germany’s effects on the welfare of the true (Catholic) church.  Saint Gertrude and Martin Luther both lived in Eisleben in Saxony—Hopkins compares the saint to the pure lily of resurrection and Luther to the wild boar who rends the God-planted vine of Israel in Psalm 80.  The history of the human race is a blend of good and evil, from the days of the two brothers Cain and Abel, the first murderer and first victim.  Germany, by expelling the five nuns, has made their leader’s act of salvation possible.

Gardner’s synopsis:

“Part the Second.

                “(Stanzas 11-17):  Sudden, unexpected disaster overtook the Deutschland, with her emigrants and exiles bound for America.  A hurricane of wind and snow drove her on to a sandbank.  For a whole night without succour, the passengers and crew of the crippled and settling ship were buffeted by the elements:  many were drowned.”

11

            “Some find me a sword;  some

         The flange and the rail;  flame,

      Fang, or flood” goes Death on drum,

         And storms bugle his fame.

   But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!

   Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,

      Wave with the meadow, forget that there must

The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

 

The sense is clear (though I’m curious as to what form of death “flange” refers to)—we humans are as impermanent and frail as a field of flowers, but though we see death all around us, we persist in thinking it can never happen to us.  The “solid earth” we root in is dust, and so are we.  (“Cringe” is used in an archaic meaning:  “stoop, bend down.”)

12

            On Saturday sailed from Bremen,

         American-outward-bound,

      Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,

         Two hundred souls in the round—

   O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing

   The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;

      Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

 

We meet the ill-fated Deutschland, a quarter of its passengers seemingly abandoned by God.  One of the rare feminine images of God in the Bible is of a mother bird shielding her nestlings under her wing:  but these doomed ones received no such protection, were not “vaulted” (covered) by the “bay” (in the architectural sense of recess) of God’s blessing, nor gathered (“reeved” or roped together—a nautical term) under his mercy.  Or so it appears.

13

            Into the snows she sweeps,

         Hurling the haven behind,

      The Deutschland, on Sunday;  and so the sky keeps,

         For the infinite air is unkind,

   And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,

   Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;

      Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

 

The stanza moves, with the speed of the ship, into a violent blizzard.

14

            She drove in the dark to leeward,

         She struck—not a reef or a rock

      But the combs of a smother of sand:  night drew her

         Dead to the Kentish Knock;

   And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel;

   The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;

      And canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel

Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

 

Crash!  Note that the shock of the impact causes the rhyme to tip over into the next line:  “leeward” (pronounced “loo-ard”) and “drew her d” ….  The Kentish Knock is a sandbar in the mouth of the Thames.  The  ship’s “whorl” is apparently a propeller screw, and “wind” is nautical for steer.  I always pronounce it with a long i to asonate with “idle,” but I’m not altogether sure.

Nothing mysterious in the next stanza:

15

            Hope had grown grey hairs,

         Hope had mourning on,

      Trenched with tears, carved with cares,

         Hope was twelve hours gone;

   And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day

   Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,

      And lives at last were washing away:

To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

6

            Not out of his bliss

         Springs the stress felt

      Nor first from heaven (and few know this)

         Swings the stroke dealt—

   Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,

   That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—

      But it rides time like riding a river

(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

 

… but in the horrible fact that God, for our sake, was born as a human being and we killed him.  The experience of God in nature is not a happy one, though it is capable of erasing our guilt and “melting” the hardest of hearts—but we see it over and over again in history, in the knowledge that we are God-murderers.  Even the faithful can’t stand to face this knowledge, and paganism misses it with its fables of a dying god who is only a symbol of the renewal of life in the spring, not the individual incarnate God.

7

            It dates from day

         Of his going in Galilee;

      Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;

         Manger, maiden’s knee;

   The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat:

   Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,

      Though felt before, though in high flood yet—

What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

 

The knowledge that can save us begins with the incarnation (the “going” of Jesus is both his birth and his death—though the death occurred in Judaea, not Galilee:  the grey—unfinished?—life of the embryo in the womb is at the same time the grave predestined in being conceived in a human womb).  The life of Christ from his birth in a manger to the frightful sweat of his crucifixion, is where we find the most intimate knowledge of God, which is both the knowledge of his complicity in human life and the knowledge that our suffering is deserved.  At the times when we are truly desperate, “hard at bay,” we are best fitted to speak this truth:

8

            Is out with it!  Oh,

         We lash with the best or worst

      Word last!  How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe

         Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,

   Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,

   Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,

      To hero of Calvary, Christ’s, feet—

Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.

 

The “best word” we speak (and bind ourselves to:  one meaning of “lash”) is that God became one of us;  the “worst word” (with which we “lash” ourselves in the sense of whip) is that we put the innocent God-made-flesh to death.  “Last” means “at last”—namely, driven to this confession by the experience of dread and despair:  and in an instant, like the instant taste of a fruit, the confession allows grace and salvation to “brim” in us.  The believer may be “sour or sweet,” willing or unwilling, driven by fear or by desire—but needs to come to the foot of the Cross—taste suffering and guilt—to be saved.

9

            Be adored among men,

         God, three-numberèd form;

      Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,

         Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.

   Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,

   Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;

      Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:

Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

 

Hopkins prays that God, three persons in one deity, will bring us rebellious and malicious sinners to the experience of dread needed to “wring” the confession of faith out of us.  The paradox is that God uses “wrecking and storm,” “lightning” and “winter” to show us his Fatherly love:  we see his mercy best against the dark experience of guilt.

10

            With an anvil-ding

         And with fire in him forge thy will

      Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring

         Through him, melt him but master him still:

   Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,

   Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,

      Make mercy in all of us, out of us all

Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.

 

Our conversion might be sudden and violent, like Paul’s, or gentle and gradual as Augustine’s, but either way, let God take possession of our souls by revealing to us our need for his mercy.  That this need has already been fulfilled in Christ is reason to adore the divine master.

W.H. Gardner’s synopsis:

“Part the First (Stanzas 1-10):

                “Meditation on God’s infinite power and masterhood, on the direct mystical ‘stress’ or intuitive knowledge by which man, the dependent finite creature, apprehends the majesty and terror, the beauty and love of his Maker.  Not only through beauty and joy do we know Him.  Since the Incarnation and Passion, the human heart has become sensitized to the deeper mystery of suffering and loss—the paradox of God’s mastery and mercy.  Adoration to Him!  May He subjugate and save His rebellious creature, man.”

1

            Thou mastering me

         God! giver of breath and bread;

      World’s strand, sway of the sea;

         Lord of living and dead;

   Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,

   And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

      Thy doing:  and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

 

First of all, God is addressed as master, very much in the way we speak of a human as the master of a pet:  but God is not only the giver of bread, like a pet’s master, he is giver of breath, his own breath, as in the Biblical account of God breathing breath into the Adam fashioned of clay.  He is the strand of the world, the shore to which it washes (its goal), and also strand in the sense of makeup, fabric.  This “pantheistic” aspect of God, that nothing can exist without direct participation in the Being of God, repeats itself in the next image:  God is the sea’s sway(er), prime mover, but also its sway(ing), its own movement.  (Later in the poem Hopkins actually uses Paul Tillich’s twentieth-century term for God, the “Ground of Being.”)  God is Lord both of the living and the dead—a first suggestion that the poem will focus on martyrs (the five nuns principally, but also all their shipmates) who share in the passion of Christ.  The priest-poet’s own experience of God immediately asserts itself:  after creating me, you almost destroyed me with dread:  the first emotion mentioned.  (The last emotion mentioned will be “charity”—Christian love.  The poem can be seen as a passage between these two states.)  The poet is amazed that after such an experience of destructive dread, he can once again feel the “finger” of God (God’s grace, he explains in a note on a later line:  but can he also be thinking of the creative finger/touch we see in Michelangelo’s awakening of Adam?).

2

            I did say yes

         O at lightning and lashed rod;

      Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess

         Thy terror, O Christ, O God;

   Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:

   The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod

      Hard down with a horror of height:

And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

 

A fuller description of the poet’s dread, an actual experience of terror he won’t locate in space and time (except that it was in a church), but God remembers it too:  he compares it to a rod (maybe lightning rod, but in a note on the poem he expands it to “birch-rod”) struck by lightning—or the rod is a switch striking the worshipper’s shoulders:  also compares it to vertigo, fear of heights, or actually being swept or hurled down from one.  The victim of this divine assault bows in worship (at the midriff), laced or bound tight with a force (stress) like fire.  “Stress” is also an echo of Hopkins’ technical term “instress:”  the force of individuality which gives every singular being its identity.  The two meanings combine to suggest an experience in which the poet’s very identity was sheer fright.

3

            The frown of his face

         Before me, the hurtle of hell

      Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?

         I whirled out wings that spell

   And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.

   My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,

      Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,

To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

 

Now it becomes clearer that the terror and dread are consciousness of sin, of offending God, and having nowhere to hide from his wrath:  but recall that the poet is kneeling in a church, a Catholic church with a tabernacle in which the Host (the consecrated wafer:  in Catholic theology, the actual physical presence of God) is kept.  He suddenly grows wings, and with the homing instinct of a carrier pigeon, flees to the protection of Christ.  (Most commentators read “that spell” as meaning “at that time.”)  The first “flame”(and first “grace”) is the terror brought about by the sense of sin, the second is the cleansing fire of God’s forgiveness.  The poet “towers” in the sense of “flies upward.”

4

            I am soft sift

         In an hourglass—at the wall

      Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,

         And it crowds and it combs to the fall;

   I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,

   But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall

      Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein

Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

 

Returning to the present, the poet still experiences himself in both these ways:  as a doomed sinner, like sand hurrying out of an hourglass (“mined” in the sense of a buried bomb, as well as “undermined”), but also as a believer saved by grace (the word “grace” means gift).  Hopkins wrote this poem in Wales, and “voel” (pronounced “voil”) is a Welsh word for a mountain.  The grace of God running down from above constantly fills the well of the soul, even as the sand runs out of the old sinful life.  Grace has a “pressure” of its own to counteract the “mining” of the fall (of the individual sinner as well as the Fall or original sin in Eden, inherited by all Adam’s children).

5

            I kiss my hand

         To the stars, lovely-asunder

      Starlight, wafting him out of it;  and

         Glow, glory in thunder;

   Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:

   Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,

      His mystery must be instressed, stressed;

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

 

For Catholics we aren’t completely fallen but retain a natural goodness common to all God’s creations.  The poet can still encounter God’s power and beauty in starlight and storm, in the purple sunset (like a damson plum).  While these things could be seen as the world’s own splendor, it is possible for us to “meet” God in them by “instressing” (making one’s own) and “stressing” (emphasizing) the mysterious presence of the Creator in his creatures.

However, it isn’t primarily in the experience of nature that we encounter God …

TO BE CONTINUED

Here comes the whole poem for you to read through.  See the previous entry for Hopkins’ advice about how to read it, but the main thing is to read it aloud.  Don’t stop for mysteries, keep on to the end.

The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

To the

happy memory of five Franciscan nuns

exiles by the Falck Laws

drowned between midnight and morning of

Dec. 7th, 1875

 

part the first

 

1

            Thou mastering me

         God! giver of breath and bread;

      World’s strand, sway of the sea;

         Lord of living and dead;

   Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,

   And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

      Thy doing:  and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

 

2

            I did say yes

         O at lightning and lashed rod;

      Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess

         Thy terror, O Christ, O God;

   Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:

   The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod

      Hard down with a horror of height:

And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

 

3

            The frown of his face

         Before me, the hurtle of hell

      Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?

         I whirled out wings that spell

   And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.

   My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,

      Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,

To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

 

4

            I am soft sift

         In an hourglass—at the wall

      Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,

         And it crowds and it combs to the fall;

   I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,

   But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall

      Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein

Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

 

5

            I kiss my hand

         To the stars, lovely-asunder

      Starlight, wafting him out of it;  and

         Glow, glory in thunder;

   Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:

   Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,

      His mystery must be instressed, stressed;

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

 

6

            Not out of his bliss

         Springs the stress felt

      Nor first from heaven (and few know this)

         Swings the stroke dealt—

   Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,

   That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—

      But it rides time like riding a river

(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

 

7

            It dates from day

         Of his going in Galilee;

      Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;

         Manger, maiden’s knee;

   The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat:

   Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,

      Though felt before, though in high flood yet—

What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

 

8

            Is out with it!  Oh,

         We lash with the best or worst

      Word last!  How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe

         Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,

   Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,

   Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,

      To hero of Calvary, Christ’s, feet—

Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.

 

9

            Be adored among men,

         God, three-numberèd form;

      Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,

         Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.

   Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,

   Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;

      Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:

Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

 

10

            With an anvil-ding

         And with fire in him forge thy will

      Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring

         Through him, melt him but master him still:

   Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,

   Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,

      Make mercy in all of us, out of us all

Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.

 

part the second

 

11

            “Some find me a sword;  some

         The flange and the rail;  flame,

      Fang, or flood” goes Death on drum,

         And storms bugle his fame.

   But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!

   Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,

      Wave with the meadow, forget that there must

The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

 

12

            On Saturday sailed from Bremen,

         American-outward-bound,

      Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,

         Two hundred souls in the round—

   O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing

   The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;

      Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

 

13

            Into the snows she sweeps,

         Hurling the haven behind,

      The Deutschland, on Sunday;  and so the sky keeps,

         For the infinite air is unkind,

   And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,

   Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;

      Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

 

14

            She drove in the dark to leeward,

         She struck—not a reef or a rock

      But the combs of a smother of sand:  night drew her

         Dead to the Kentish Knock;

   And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel;

   The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;

      And canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel

Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

 

15

            Hope had grown grey hairs,

         Hope had mourning on,

      Trenched with tears, carved with cares,

         Hope was twelve hours gone;

   And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day

   Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,

      And lives at last were washing away:

To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

 

16

            One stirred from the rigging to save

         The wild woman-kind below,

      With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—

         He was pitched to his death at a blow,

   For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:

   They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro

      Through the cobbled foam-fleece.  What could he do

With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

 

17

            They fought with God’s cold—

         And they could not and fell to the deck

      (Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled

         With the sea-romp over the wreck.

   Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,

   The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—

      Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,

A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

 

18

            Ah, touched in your bower of bone,

         Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,

      Have you! make words break from me here all alone,

         Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.

   O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,

   Why, tears! is it? tears;  such a melting, a madrigal start!

      Never-eldering revel and river of youth,

What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

 

19

            Sister, a sister calling

         A master, her master and mine!—

      And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;

         The rash smart sloggering brine

   Blinds her;  but she that weather sees one thing, one;

   Has one fetch in her:  she rears herself to divine

      Ears, and the call of the tall nun

To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

 

20

            She was first of a five and came

         Of a coifèd sisterhood.

      (O Deutschland, double a desperate name!

         O world wide of its good!

   But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,

   Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:

      From life’s dawn it is drawn down,

Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

 

21

            Loathed for a love men knew in them,

         Banned by the land of their birth,

      Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;

         Surf, snow, river and earth

   Gnashed:  but thou art above, thou Orion of light;

   Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,

      Thou martyr-master:  in thy sight

Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily-showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

 

22

            Five! the finding and sake

         And cipher of suffering Christ.

      Mark, the mark is of man’s make

         And the word of it Sacrificed.

   But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,

   Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—

      Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token

For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

 

23

            Joy fall to thee, father Francis,

         Drawn to the Life that died;

      With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his

         Lovescape crucified

   And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters

   And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,

      Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,

To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

 

24

            Away in the loveable west,

         On a pastoral forehead of Wales,

      I was under a roof here, I was at rest,

         And they the prey of the gales;

   She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly

   Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails

      Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:

The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.

 

25

            The majesty! what did she mean?

         Breathe, arch and original Breath.

      Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?

         Breathe, body of lovely Death.

   They were else-minded then, altogether, the men

   Woke thee with a We are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.

      Or is it that she cried for the crown then,

The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?

 

26

            For how to the heart’s cheering

         The down-dugged ground-hugged grey

      Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing

         Of pied and peeled May!

   Blue-beating and hoary-glow height;  or night, still higher,

   With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky Way,

      What by your measure is the heaven of desire,

The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

 

27

            No, but it was not these.

         The jading and jar of the cart,

      Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease

         Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,

   Not danger, electrical horror;  then further it finds

   The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:

      Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s

Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

 

28

            But how shall I … make me room there:

         Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—

      Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,

         Thing that she … There then! the Master,

   Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:

   He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;

      Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;

Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.

 

29

            Ah! there was a heart right!

         There was a single eye!

      Read the unshapeable shock night

         And knew the who and the why;

   Wording it how but by him that present and past,

   Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—

      The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast

Tarpeïan-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

 

30

            Jesu, heart’s light,

         Jesu, maid’s son,

      What was the feast followed the night

         Thou hadst glory of this nun?—

   Feast of the one woman without stain.

   For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;

      But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,

Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

 

31

            Well, she has thee for the pain, for the

         Patience;  but pity of the rest of them!

      Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the

         Comfortless unconfessed of them—

   No not uncomforted:  lovely-felicitous Providence

   Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the

      Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and

Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

 

32

            I admire thee, master of the tides,

         Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;

      The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,

         The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;

   Stanching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;

   Ground of being, and granite of it:  past all

         Grasp God, throned behind

Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

 

33

            With a mercy that outrides

         The all of water, an ark

      For the listener;  for the lingerer with a love glides

         Lower than death and the dark;

   A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,

   The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark

      Our passion-plungèd giant risen,

The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.

 

34

            Now burn, new born to the world,

         Double-naturèd name,

      The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled

         Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,

   Mid-numberèd he in three of the thunder-throne!

   Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;

      Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;

A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fire hard-hurled.

 

35

            Dame, at our door

         Drowned, and among our shoals,

      Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the reward:

         Our King back, Oh, upon English souls!

   Let him easter in us, be a day-spring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-

      cresseted east,

   More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,

      Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,

Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our thought’s chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

Our web host moved our sites to new servers, and in the process almost two months of my blogposts were lost. (Sari’s is still zir most recent one.) Mine were just further “grade A” poems, most of which can be found in my book Wings of the Gray Moon: New and Selected Poems. Newer poems are contained in IrretrievableSmall Amounts of Blood and The Shining Air. All these books are available on Amazon.

I had just put up the first entry in my amateur analysis of Hopkins’ “Wreck of the Deutschland,” so I have reposted that below. Second entry coming this Sunday.