Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Earth under my feet,

Water under the earth,

Fire under the water:

Such is Neptune.


Neptune, Poseidon, Nephew of the Waters,

Keep the earth steady beneath my feet.

Neptune, Poseidon, Nephew of the Waters,

Keep the waters flowing in the dry times.

Neptune, Poseidon, Nephew of the Waters,

Keep the secret fire alight, share with me its divine power.


Ave, ave, Neptune, khaire Poseidon,

god of the oceans, god of the waters.

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Apollon touched me once; I don’t know why.

A cool breeze on the back of my neck,

on a hot day; the hairs stood up, there

where he touched me. The breath of a god

on the back of your neck will chill you,

will stop you, as you’re walking down

the street. Who is that? you ask yourself

What just happened?


Apollo is a god of light, but not a god

of heat; he illumines without burning.

He shoots from afar, the Greeks said,

he and his sister Artemis. He doesn’t have

to come close to touch you; you will not

see where the arrow comes from, or

who it was that spoke. Only the clouds

will suddenly clear, the sun will be

visible, and you will feel, not warm,

but cool.

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In the heart of a piece of coal

both the fire and the diamond

In the heart of a human body

both the blood and the pulse of nerve

In the heart of a clod of dirt

the spark of the star that birthed it

In every heart, in every hearth,

in flame, in lamp, in power plant,

Vesta, Vesta, Vesta


Goddess of the primal fire

who humbly consents to warm our homes

to cook our food, to drive the machines

that serve us, Vesta Dea,

may we also serve you

with prayer, with praises,

with fuels that burn clean,

with clean and focused hearts,

Goddess of the primal fire,

Vesta Mater, fire of life.

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I want to poke some more at something I quoted a couple of days ago: Leslie Keeney’s wise and funny statement that the Bible is more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. Evangelicals, she says, have a lot of trouble with that. Having been raised Anglican and not Evangelical, I don’t have trouble with it. It’s just the way things are.

Christianity inherited a body of texts from Judaism. The two religions soon distinguished themselves from one another by what texts they considered authoritative; Protestants later distinguished themselves from Catholics by rejecting some of the texts that had been accepted as authoritative for over a thousand years. The texts that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh include prose and poetry. The Psalms, the Proverbs, and much of the writings of the Prophets is poetry, along with that little erotic poem that somehow sneaked in, the Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes is a pessimistic prose reflection on the brevity of life and the futility of human endeavor. Pretty much all the rest of those texts, from Genesis through Chronicles, then the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, of Ruth and Esther and Jonah, are narrative.

They are stories.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are stories. So is the Acts of the Apostles. So is the book of Revelation, albeit a rather trippy story. The remainder of the New Testament consists of letters, many of them written by one identifiable person (that guy Paul) to identifiable communities in different locations around the Mediterranean world. While Paul probably did not write everything that has his name on it, he did write quite a few of those letters, in each one addressing a different, specific congregation of believers.

We have these stories.

The closest the Bible comes to ethical precept is Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. Those two books, known as wisdom literature because their main thrust is “Do what is wise” more than “Do what is right” have much in common with the wisdom literature of Egypt, Canaan, ancient Sumer, and other cultures contemporary with ancient Israel. The closest the Bible gets to a how-to manual of behavior is the book of Leviticus, which is about ninety percent directions on ritual, ritual propriety, ritual purity, how to build a portable sanctuary in a tent and how it is to be attended, and what to do if mold or mildew appears in your home. It is full of instructions that Christians have routinely ignored at least since the debates recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: don’t wear clothes of blended wool and linen, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk (or eat meat and dairy products together, as the laws of kosher still proscribe), don’t eat shellfish, men get circumcised, women take ritual baths after their menses.

The rest of it is stories.

I grew up with a religion of stories. The stories of Jesus and his disciples, of Paul and his journeys, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, of Ruth and Naomi, Esther and the king, Daniel and the lions, David and Goliath. Alongside the Bible stories, there were stories of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers. And there were stories about other gods, gods of Egypt and Greece, of the Norse and the Celts. As I read about other religions and other gods, I had no inclination to think they were evil or demonic or even untrue; they just weren’t mine. People used to worship Odin and Thor, Zeus and Apollo and Athena (I loved Athena), and now they didn’t. People in India still worshipped Shiva and Vishnu, but somehow that was okay.  It was my own tradition’s sacred stories that taught me to pay attention to all story; a story was worth paying attention to no matter where it came from.

Along with the stories came the poetry. Not just the Psalms but the hymns we sang in church were poetry (not always good poetry, but poetry). I still remember finding the Song of Songs in the Bible and poring over it furtively with exactly the same frisson I later got from my father’s badly hidden copy of Anais Nin‘s Delta of Venus; even as a precocious nine-year-old, I knew it was a poem about sex. What was it doing in the Bible? What were breasts doing in the Bible?

As a teenager I discovered not only Anais Nin’s erotica, but the poetry of John Donne, about equally obsessed with sex and with God; the Divine Comedy of Dante, about equally obsessed with God, romantic love, and politics; and Julian of Norwich, and T.S. Eliot, and a lot of other things that the poetry of the liturgy and the Bible had somehow prepared me for. If I wanted to write about God (and sex, romantic love, and creativity), I had models to follow.

Religion, for me, was never about ideas, or propositions. Even the great doctrines like Creation, Incarnation, the Trinity were not abstract concepts, but rather abstracts in the literary sense, shorthand summaries of longer descriptions, references to stories. That God created humans, gave us the divine power to name, and then actually became human and lived with us, was, and is, the most fascinating story I could imagine.

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I have been a pagan
I have been a Christian
I have been a finch in a cage
I have been a cardinal in a tree
I have been a mockingbird on a stop sign
I have been a nun, I have been an oracle
I have been an Anglican in a choir
I have been a mushroom in the wood
I have been a courtesan in a monastery
I have been an anchorite in a city
I have been a Buddhist, I have been a witch
I have been burned at the stake
I have set myself on fire in Viet Nam
I have written angry letters
I have meditated in silent peace
I have been an eagle soaring toward the sun
I have been a vulture waiting for the dead to ripen
I have been Lilith, I have been Eve
I have been Mary, Martha, and Magdalen
I have been Sophia Acamoth
and Shekinah with her tent on her back
I have been a wanderer
I have been a Jew, I have been black
I have been dark but comely among the horses of Solomon
I have been a druid, I have been a valkyrie
I have walked the streets and walked in vision
and no one knew who I was
I have been all things to all, like Paul,
that I might by all means save some
I have been a heretic and a bodhisattva
I have been three times in the prison of Arianrhod
but I have not yet heard all her stories
I have drunk under moonlight from the cauldron of Cerridwen
but never yet reached the bottom
I have been a housewife, I have been a cook,
I have cleaned toilets and washed dishes
I have risen in the night with a vomiting child
I have answered phones when I could barely speak
I have worked in a library and sung Christ’s reproaches
I have been your mother and you have been mine
I have walked the labyrinth and am still walking
and it is not known whether I am spirit or flesh

(Originally posted to my Druidry blog, 31 March 2009.)

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The Velveteen Rabbi gave us a marvelous poem for the Inauguration. I confess to a weakness for Antarctic explorer metaphors.

As this cold day dawns you stand at the prow
gazing over the ice. It creaks and groans
but your sixth sense will tell us where the floes
will let us through. Terra incognita awaits

and bright sundogs gamboling across the sky
and nightfall, though who wants
to think about that now? I have faith
you’ll read the compass even when the needle wobbles.

I see you in profile as if sharpened and stenciled.
If you ask us to trudge until the sennegrass
rubs our chapped feet raw, if you tell us change
can be found just over the next jumbled ridge

we will walk. And what we find there will warm us
like a primus lamp in a reindeer-hide tent
because of how you gently, seriously reach
to hold our frozen hands to your beating heart.

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by Wendell Berry

I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves
needing to be remembered.
But on the days I am lucky
or blessed, I am silent.
I go into the one body
that two make in making marriage
that for all our trying, all
our deaf-and-dumb of speech,
has no tongue. Or I give myself
to gravity, light, and air
and am carried back
to solitary work in fields
and woods, where my hands
rest upon a world unnamed,
complete, unanswerable, and final
as our daily bread and meat.
The way of love leads all ways
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest.

“VII” from the poem “1994” by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997. © Counterpoint, 1998.  (With thanks to Writer’s Almanac.)

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