Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
‘Reading the Season’ is my Christmas post every year. It’s always a pleasure to spend some quiet time amidst the hustle and bustle of the festivities to meditate on the essence and meaning of the Season. Yes, something like the perennial “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
My favourite of her works is The Crosswicks Journal series. In there is the alchemy of wisdom, experience, and faith. Rereading Book 3 The Irrational Season this time, I came upon this verse which I didn’t notice much before. But this year’s different, for there’s a newborn in the family.
Here’s L’Engle’s short intro before the poem:
“When I wrote the following lines I thought of them as being in Mary’s voice, but they might just as well be in mine––or any parent’s.” (p. 115, The Irrational Season)
Now we may love the child.
Now he is ours,
this tiny thing,
utterly vulnerable and dependent
on the circle of our love.
Now we may hold him,
feeling with gentle hands
the perfection of his tender skin
from the soft crown of his head
to the sweet soles of his merrily kicking feet.
His fingers softly curl
around one finger of the grownup hand.
Now we may hold.
Now may I feel his hungry sucking at my breast
as I give him my own life.
Now may my husband toss him in the air
and catch him in his sure and steady hands
laughing with laughter as quick and pure
as the baby’s own.
Now may I rock him softly to his sleep,
rock and sing,
sing and hold.
This moment of time is here,
has happened, is:
give me the courage for the time
when I must open my arms
and let you go.
And oh what letting go it was for Mary that day at the foot of a cross, that ultimate letting go, and with it, the awakening which must have brought her back to that first night when she gave birth in the manger.
Above Photo Credit: Diana Cheng. An evening view from Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, September, 2018.
Behind that stone before
it was rolled away
a corpse lay.
There lay all I deplore:
fear, truculence – much more
that to any other I need not say.
But behind that stone I must be sure
of deadness, to allay
self-doubt i.e. so nearly to ignore
the love and sacrifice for our
release; to nearly stray
back into the old
pursuit of virtue.
Once it is clear
it was a corpse that day,
then, then, we know the glory
of the clean place, the floor
of rock, those linens, know the hour
of His inexplicable “Peace;” the pour
— after He went away —
of wonder, readiness, simplicity,
“Then went the jury out, whose names were Mr. Blindman, Mr. Nogood, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. Highmind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, Mr. Implacable, who everyone gave in his private verdict against him among themselves, and afterwards unanimously concluded to bring him in guilty before the judge. And first among themselves, Mr. Blindman, the foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is a heretic. Then said Mr. Nogood. way with such a fellow from the earth! Ay, said Mr. Malice, for I hate the very look of him. Then said Mr. Love-lust, I could never endure him. Nor I, said Mr. Live-loose; for he would be always condemning my way. Hang him, hang him, said Mr. Heady. A sorry scrub, said Mr. High-mind. My heart riseth against him, said Mr. Enmity. He is a rogue, said Mr. Liar. Hanging is too good for him, said Mr. Cruelty. Let us despatch him out of the way, said Mr. Hate-light. Then said Mr. Implacable, Might I have all the world given me, I could not be reconciled to him; let us forthwith bring him in guilty of death. And so they did; therefore he was presently condemned to be had from the place where he was, to the place from whence he came, and there to be put to the most cruel death that could be invented.”
“A Quiet Passion” is a biopic of the reclusive 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It is written and directed by the esteemed English auteur Terence Davies, who brought us the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” in 2000, “The Deep Blue Sea” based on Terence Rattigan’s play in 2011, and last year’s “Sunset Song”, a beautiful cinematic rendition of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work.
Literary filmmaking is Davies’ repertoire. If a movie is about a poet, under his helm, it is only natural that it would be crafted like poetry. In this sense, “A Quiet Passion” is a fine example. Every frame is meticulously composed and lit, the atmosphere dense with meaning. We also hear lines from Dickinson’s poems read out as voiceover. We experience poetry in sight and sound.
However, not all poetry is of the Romantics, roaming vales and hills, dancing with the daffodils. Davies’s Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) is confined in her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) Amherst house. Her main human interactions are with her immediate family, a stern father, a depressed mother (Emily Norcross), an attorney brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and her younger sister (Jennifer Ehle). If she ever felt claustrophobic, there’s her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) and her close friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Too narrow a social circle? Not really, for they are all responsible for sharpening her views and words. And they make a wonderful cast.
Under the direction of Davies, Cynthia Nixon (of ‘Sex and the City’ fame) portrays Emily Dickinson with an austere persona restrained by social mores and troubled by unrequited romantic pursuit. She might have been a rebel with a just cause in confronting restrictive societal norms, but I was surprised to see Dickinson here as a verbal combatant, a bitter and belligerent soul. Somehow from my limited reading of her poetry, that image has not set in my mind.
“A Quiet Passion” is a mixed bag of oxymoron. In an austere setting, characters deliver ornate speeches like you only hear in a stage play. Shrouded in a confining milieu, you hear comedic exchanges and humorous, deadpan facial expressions, even LOL moments. While the cinematography is meditative and calm (as in Davies’ last work “Sunset Song”), the feeling evoked is unsettling anticipation.
Emily’s supportive and devoted sister Lavinia (Vinnie), well played by Jennifer Ehle (of Elizabeth Bennet fame), gives me a breath of fresh air, for often she is the quiet passion supporting the poet, a gentle strength and a moral compass. Vinnie is the pragmatic and rational voice, like reminding Emily that Rev. Wadsworth—on whom Emily has a romantic crush—is a married man. But she is ever so sweet and pleasant as Jennifer Ehle is, even when admonishing.
The sisterhood between Nixon’s Emily and Ehle’s Vinnie makes me think of another literary sisterhood, that of Jane and Cassandra Austen. But what a difference. I long for Jane’s joie de vivre, something that’s missing here in this relatively harsh portrayal of Emily Dickinson. Further, I couldn’t help but compare this film with another that’s also about a poet: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), a beautiful cinematic rendering of the English Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
The last scenes are as severe as they are heart breaking. Death may be a frequent motif in Dickinson’s poetry, as Emily had experienced the passing of her parents, but the constant pounding of her own illness makes me think of another oxymoron: superfluous suffering. The repeated scenes of seizures Emily goes through in the last section of the film may be a bit too much to watch for some, although Nixon has certainly given us a true-to-life performance. I can’t imagine all the takes she had to repeat, acting out those excruciating seizures on her bed.
When asked about the seizures in the Q & A after, Nixon replied that she had not done any research or specifically prepared; she just went ahead and did it. All the research had been done by Davies. He had read up on volumes of Dickinson’s biographies for the film.
What “A Quiet Passion” has done for me is stirring up my curiosity in finding out what Emily Dickinson the person was really like, and, I want to delve into more of her poetry. I have to remind myself though that the cinematic portrayal here is only Davies’ own interpretation and personal response to her poetry. I just like to explore on my own.
April is still here I’m glad. Here’s a timely piece to join in the celebration of National Poetry Month.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there are two of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
Oh the comfort of anonymity, no need to trend, to like or be liked, to climb the social media ladder, to reach new heights with more followers. Dickinson sure enjoyed her reclusive life, felt fine with being an unknown. Most of her poems were published posthumously, including this one.
The photo was taken just yesterday. Due to illness in the family, I’ve been staying mostly indoor as a caregiver. Yesterday was the first time I went out to greet spring and the birds. A Downy Woodpecker darted right into frame.
While we’re enjoying an early spring this year, there had been times when it felt like spring would never come. A few years ago, I wrote this poem at Easter, when winter lingered and spring seemed so far away… and it was already April.
April is the month of empty dreams
Half the days gone
waiting for words and spring
still frozen ground
and on the screen
a frigid page as white as snow.
Brown could be the color of hope
After the white
for all I know
green is too much to wish for
I’m contented to see a patch
of dry and withered brown.
The sun is a perpetual sign
that there’s still hope
But it’s no herald of the seasons
for its presence comforts all year long
warming my blank and barren state
as I await for words and spring.
But Easter is an apt reminder
that The Word had come
spoken clear to half-frozen ears
His body hung on a lifeless tree
Blood and water flowed
onto parched and dusty earth
So what if no words come to me
That dreaded writer’s block
reigning the winter of sterility
seizing any sign of spring.
It’s not about a post or a blog,
Or even buds and melting snow.
The Word had come
lived and loved among us,
broken, bled, died and rose,
melting frozen hearts to greet
a new dawn and eternal Spring.
April is National Poetry Month, and three quarters of the days are already gone. Still not too late for me to offer a poetry post. At present, I’m reading Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (more about that in a later post). To start off her book, Didion uses W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, from which her book title originates.
Yeats wrote the poem in 1919, shortly after WWI; it was published in 1920. Didion used it like an epigraph for her book published in 1968, about fifty years later, apparently finding it speaks to her collection of essays on her experiences in 1960’s America.
Now almost another fifty years later, the poem still has not lost its relevance. Yeats’ mythical references aside, and just listen to the clearer and more direct words, I can hear the Poet’s voice speak hauntingly to our present world.
The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” John 1:14
(Photo taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, Sept. 2010. All Rights Reserved.)
The brilliance of A Wrinkle in Time is that its author Madeleine L’Engle can convey scientific and spiritual concepts at the same time and in a way that young readers can enjoy. There are no conflicts between the cerebral and the spiritual; they co-exist comfortably in L’Engle’s work. Not only that, they fuse together and from that alchemy rises a whole new, inexplicable entity: Faith.
It’s that time of the year when I try to tune out distractions to dwell on the meaning of the Season, the reason why we have Christmas in the first place. I call these posts ‘Reading the Season’.
This time, I’ve selected four of Madeleine L’Engle’s poetry. ‘After Annunciation’ I have posted before. But I’d like to share it again here because the deceptively simple lines carry much depth and wisdom. Same with ‘The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973’. These two remain my favourite thoughts during Advent. 1973 or now? Ever timely. The poems are taken from The Ordering of Love: The New & Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle, published by Shaw Books, 2008.
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
Sonnet, Trinity 18
Peace is the centre of the atom, the core
Of quiet within the storm. It is not
A cessation, a nothingness; more
The lightning in reverse is what
Reveals the light. It is the law that binds
The atom’s structure, ordering the dance
Of proton and electron, and that finds
Within the midst of flame and wind, the glance
In the still eye of the vast hurricane.
Peace is not placidity: peace is
The power to endure the megatron of pain
With joy, the silent thunder of release,
The ordering of Love. Peace is the atom’s start,
The primal image: God within the heart.
The sky is strung with glory.
Light threads from star to star
from sun to sun
a living harp.
I rejoice, I sing, I leap upwards to play.
The music is in light.
My fingers pluck the vibrant strings;
the notes pulse, throb, in exultant harmony;
I beat my wings against the strands
that reach across the galaxies
It is not I who play
it is the music
the music plays itself
small part of an innumerable
I am flung from note to note
impaled on melody
my wings are caught on throbbing filaments of light
the wild cords cut my pinions
my arms are outstretched
are bound by ropes of counterpoint
I am cross-eagled on the singing that is strung
from pulsing star
to flaming sun
I burn in a blaze of song.
The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.