I have no concluded my reading of Christian Wiman’s book of poems entitled Once in the West. I have given a peer into this book of poetry by selecting one poem from each part. I would like to present a poem from the last part, “More Like the Stars.” I treasured each of the four poems in the last section, so it is hard for me to pick. But since it is the final poem of the book, I would like to show “Something in Us Suffering Touches.” This poem has a unique and specific shape, so I will not try to render it here. Instead I will post a link to it on Poetry Foundation. This is actually a link to all four poems of “More Like the Stars.” “Something in Us Suffering Touches” is the final poem of those four. However, I recommend reading all four.
I tell you it’s a bitch existence some Sundaysand it’s no good pretending you don’t have to pretend,don’t have to hitch up those gluefutured nags Hope and Helpand whip the sorry chariot of yourselftoward whatever hell your heaven is on days like these.I tell you it takes some hunger heaven itself won’t slaketo be so twitchingly intent on the pretty organist’s pedaling,so lizardly alert to the curvelessness of her choir robe.Here it comes brothers and sisters, the confessions of sins,hominy hominy, dipstick doxology, one more churchcurdled hymnwe don’t so much sing as haunt: grounded altos, gear-grinding tenors,two score and ten gently bewildered men lip-synching along.Your’e up, Pastor. Bring on the unthunder. Some trickle-piss tangentto reality. Some bit of the Gospel grueling out of you.I tell you sometimes mercy means nothingbut release from this homiletic hologram, a little fleshstepsideways, as it were, setting passion on autopilot (as if it weren’t!)to gaze out in peace at your peaceless parishioners:boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages, bored marriages,a masonry of faces at once specific and generic,and here and there that rapt famished look that leapsfrom person to person, year to year, like a holy flu.All these little crevices into which you’ve crawledlike a chubby plumber with useless tools:Here, have a verse for you wife’s death.Here, have a death for your life’s curse.I tell you some Sundays even the children’s sermon– maybe especially this – sharks your gutlike a bit of tin some beer-guzzling goateither drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample.I know what you’re thinking. Christ’s in this.He’ll get to it, the old cunner, somewhere somehowthere’s the miracle meat, the aurora borealis blood,every last atom compacted to a graveand the one thing that every man must lose to save.Well, friends, I’m here to tell you two things today.First, though this is not, for me, one of those bilious abrading days,though in fact I stand before you in a rage of faithand have all good hope that you all go helpuntold souls back into their bodies,ease the annihilating No above which they floatthe truth is our only savior is failure.Which brings me to the second thing: that goat.It was real. It is, as is usually the case, the displacement of agencythat is the lie. It was long ago, Mexico, my demon days:It was a wager whose stakes I failed to appreciate.He tottered. He flowered. He writhed time to a fraught quiet,and kicked occasionally, and lay there twitching, watching me die.
Currently, I am reading a book of poems written by contemporary poet Christian Wiman. He has titled the collection, Once in the West. This is my first real experience with contemporary poetry, and I am glad I have entrusted myself to Wiman. The book of poems, with the exception of the introductory poem entitle “Prayer,” is separated into three parts: “Sungone Noon,” “My Stop is Grand,” and “More Like the Stars.” I have just finished the first part, and I wish to quote one poem from this group of poems:
We lived in the long intolerable called God.
We seemed happy.
I don’t mean content I mean heroin happy
I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering
from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws
I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels
divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture
to be mean.
Dear Lord forgive the love I have
for you and your fervent servants.
I have so long sojourned Lord
among the mild ironies and tolerable gods
that what comes first to mind
when I’m of a mind to witness
is muriatic acid
eating through the veins
of one whose pains were so great
she wanted only out, Lord, out.
She too worshipped you
She too popped her little pill of soul.
Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone
is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?
I remember one Wednesday witness told of a time
his smack-freaked friends lashed him
to the back of a Brahman bull that bucked and shook
until the great bleeding wings the man’s collarbones
exploded out of his skin.
“It was then,” the man said, “right then…”
Yes. And how long before that man-
began his ruinous and (one would guess) Holy Spirit-less affair?
At what point did this poem abandon
even the pretense of prayer?
Imagine a man alive in the long intolerable time
made of nothing but rut and rot,
a wormward gaze
even to his days’ sudden heavens.
There is the suffering existence answers:
it carves from cheeks and choices the faces
we in fact are,
and there is the suffering of primal silence,
which seeps and drifts like a long fog
that when it lifts
but the same poor sod.
Dear God –
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s more sophisticated, “calm,” and conversational plays. It is sort of a perplexing play to read.
I will pick out a passage from this play that impressed upon me. It is a speech by the melancholy traveller, Jacques.
All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like a pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble ‘reputation’
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances –
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well saved – a world too wide
For his shrunk shank – and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last scene of all
That ends this strange eventful history
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans* teach, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7.139-166)
- Act I
- Scene 1: Older Brother, Younger Brother
- Scene 2: Wrestling
- Scene 3: A Banishment and a Plan
- Act II
- Scene 1: The Banished Duke and the Dying Stag
- Scene 2: To Find the Missing
- Scene 3: A Rumour of Burning the House
- Scene 4: Rosalind et. al. in Arden
- Scene 5: Songs
- Scene 6: Orlando and Adam in Arden
- Scene 7: The Kindness of the Banished
- Act III
- Scene 1: To Look for Orlando
- Scene 2: A Tree Poet
- Scene 3: Love Poems
- Scene 4: Honesty or Beauty
- Scene 5: Still Disguised
- Scene 6: Silvius and Pheobe
- Act IV
- Scene 1: A Practice Marriage
- Scene 2: A Hunted Deer
- Scene 3: The Bloody Napkin
- Act V
- Scene 1: Who Will Marry Audrey?
- Scene 2: Ganymede’s Promise
- Scene 3: The Pages’ Song
- Scene 4: The Wedlock Hymn
- Epilogue: As It Pleases You
For my Shakespeare class, I have read three histories so far: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and 2 Henry IV. I finished the last of these three today. I think my favorite of them is either the first or second part of Henry IV because of Falstaff. At first I didn’t like this fat comedian. However, after spending time reading the plays, I found myself laughing because of Falstaff.
I’m going to quote the opening of 2 Henry IV. This is from the Induction of the play – the speaker is Rumour, painted with tongues:
Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I from the Orient to the drooping West
(Making the wind my post-horse) still unfold
The acts commencéd on this ball of earth;
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports:
I speak of peace while covert enmity,
Under the smile of safety, wounds the world;
And who but Rumour, who but only I,
Make fearful musters, and prepared defence,
Whiles the big year, swoll’n with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant War?
And no such matter. Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still discordant wav’ring multitude,
Can play upon it. But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomise
Among my household? Why is Rumour here?
I run before King Harry’s victory,
Who in a bloody field by Shrewsbury
Hath beaten down young Hotspur and his troops,
Quenching the flame of bold rebellion
Even with the rebels’s blood. But what mean I
To speak so true at first? My office is
To noise abroad that Harry Monmouth fell
Under the wrath of noble Hotspur’s sword,
And that the king before the Douglas’ rage
Stooped his anointed head as low as death.
This have I rumoured through the peasant towns
Between that royal field of Shrewsbury
And this worm-eaten hold of raggéd stone,
Where Hotspur’s father, old Northumberland,
Lies crafty-sick. The posts came tiring on,
And not a man of them brings other news
Than they have learnt of me. From Rumour’s tongues
They bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs.
(2 Henry IV, Induction, 1-40)
Side note: this last line and a half reminds of a passage from Proverbs:
Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
(Proverbs 27:5-6 ESV)
- Induction: Rumour
- Act I
- Scene 1: News from Different Tongues
- Scene 2: Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice
- Scene 3: The Rebels’ Hopes
- Act II
- Scene 1: The Hostess Charges Falstaff
- Scene 2: The Letter
- Scene 3: A Father that Let Down His Son
- Scene 4: Disguises
- Act III
- Scene 1: The Book of Fate
- Scene 2: Choosing Men
- Act IV
- Scene 1: Falsified Peace
- Scene 2: The Death of King Henry IV
- Act V
- Scene 1: To Make Hal Laugh
- Scene 2: Hal from Prison
- Scene 3: A Meal at Shallow’s
- Scene 4: Pregnant Doll
- Scene 5: Hal Rejects Falstaff
- Epilogue: An Apology
Shakespeare impressed me with a soliloquy by the fat, vile Falstaff. It struck me because the seemingly disgusting Falstaff says something quite true about honor:
‘Tis not due yet – I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me [Prince Hal]? Well, ’tis no matter, honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on, how then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Why? Detraction not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism.
Falstaff exposes the futility of honor – or at least the idolatry of honor. Honor is not a bad thing in and of itself. Paul says in his first letter to Timothy:
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17 ESV)
This honor in Paul’s epistle is good because the Lord deserves it. In the case of man, he does not deserve honor; and yet, man drools at the thought of honor; man idolizes honor and sets it where God should be. But honor will not fix our leg or arm. Honor will not take away pain. Falstaff may be mistaken in certain ways. However, he is right to question man’s desire for honor (in that man’s desire for honor is a disordered desire), and what men do in order to obtain it.
- Act I
- Scene 1: News of Holmedon
- Scene 2: An “Adventure” Planned
- Scene 3: The Council
- Act II
- Scene 1: The Thieves’ Council
- Scene 2: The “Adventure”
- Scene 3: Hotspur and Kate
- Scene 4: Post-Robbery
- Act III
- Scene 1: The Tripartite Deal
- Scene 2: Henry and Hal
- Scene 3: Who’s the Pickpocket?
- Act IV
- Scene 1: Bad Prospects
- Scene 2: An Army of Prodigals
- Scene 3: Hotspur’s Griefs
- Scene 4: News of Both Sides
- Act V
- Scene 1: What is Honor?
- Scene 2: Call to War
- Scene 3: A Counterfeit King
- Scene 4: The Death of Hotspur and Falstaff’s Lie
- Scene 5: To Quench Rebellion
There are many things I could say after finishing my first Shakespeare play since high school. There are many things I should say; there are many things I won’t be able to say. Instead of trying to verbalize everything that I’m thinking at the conclusion of this history play, I will merely pick a passage that illuminated a piece of truth for me.
This is from the first act of the play. Two men, Henry Herford (Bullingbrook) and Thomas Mowbray, were about to duel in order to decide justice – Bullingbrook had accused Mowbray of high treason. Instead Richard II holds a council, sentencing Mowbray to permanent exile and Bullingbrook to ten years exile. Richard, at seeing Bullingbrook’s father, John of Gaunt, shortens the sentence for Bullingbrook by four years. This is Bullingbrook’s response:
How long a time lies in one little word.
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word, such is the breath of kings.
(Richard II, 1.3.212-214)
Bullingbrook speaks about the power of words, specifically the power of a king’s words. Kings have explicit power to have the words actually do something. Kings can use this power in many different ways, including ways of evil.
This brought my mind to a sermon I heard a few weeks prior. The preacher said something very simple that struck a chord with me. He said that God spoke first. Of course he did. Yet, I had never given it much thought to the fact that God spoke first (let us leave the problem temporality for now).
But God, the King of Kings, has the ultimate power of language. His words, at the very moment he speaks them, become truth. See the creation account where God speaks all into existence.
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Also, something I plan on doing with all of the Shakespeare plays I read this semester is title every scene. These are the scene titles I have for the history of King Richard II:
- Act I
- Scene 1: The Appeal
- Scene 2: Revenge and Grief
- Scene 3: Banishment
- Scene 4: Post-Farewell
- Act II
- Scene 1: Gaunt’s Final Words
- Scene 2: Grief and Its Shadows
- Scene 3: Richard Gone, Henry Returned
- Scene 4: The Death and Fall of Kings
- Act III
- Scene 1: The Execution of the Flatterers
- Scene 2: News of Henry’s Success
- Scene 3: Flint Castle
- Scene 4: The Garden
- Act IV
- Scene 1: Decoronation
- Act V
- Scene 1: Sing About Me
- Scene 2: A Necklace of Treason
- Scene 3: A Loyal Father, A Treacherous Son
- Scene 4: The King’s Terror
- Scene 5: The Death of King Richard II
- Scene 6: Eight Heads