Poem-A-Day: John Donne

So for some of us, this is a holy weekend. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday — and some of us were paying attention to Maundy Thursday too. For some of us, there will be a lot of candy involved. Resuming the indulgence in our recent sacrifices. Eggs. Springy animals. Wearing white again. Meeting up with friends, coping with family. Commenting on the beautiful weather. Prayer. Reflection. Chocolate, chocolate everywhere, and not an ounce uneaten.

When I think about holy poems, I turn to John Donne, one of my favorite poets of the English Renaissance. His trajectory through life led him to become a priest in the Church of England, but he was a poet first, and one whose attention to matters carnal was just as pronounced as his attention to matters spiritual later.

Good Friday is about passion. When I was growing up in the Catholic Church, that word carried with it challenging baggage: it was both a thing to love and a thing to despise, a thing to aspire toward and a thing to fear. No matter how you sliced the connotation, it was a basket full of conflicting images, conflicting impulses, conflicting directives.

In my Catholic school, at Good Friday service, a boy from the eighth grade was selected each year to the dubious honor of playing Christ in the Stations of the Cross. He was led through the Stations before the entire student body, the faculty, the administration; he carried a wooden cross larger than he was; he was guided by two of his male peers, dressed as acolytes; by the end of the service they had stripped his white robes to his waist, so that he would stand before the community, pale and freckled chest bared, arms draped over the cross leaning against his back, his eyes always — always — lowered in what felt to me more like shame than prayer. We were silent, watching, more still in our observation than children ever otherwise were.

The spiritual passion of John Donne’s poetry at times rivaled the carnal passion of his love poetry from before he accepted the cloth. The following sonnet exemplifies this same contradiction I learned through a life both spiritual and linguistic: that passion can be hideously exalting, gloriously demeaning, both a craving and a deeply felt pain.

***

Batter my heart, three-person’d God

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

***

For some astute analysis of this poem, check out the Interesting Literature blog.

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Featured Poet: Nicola Lindsay

Today’s featured poet is Nicola Lindsay. I’ve chosen her poem “Requiem” for today for two reasons.

 

First, today is Good Friday, a day when many people the world over observe the crucifixion of a political enemy, a man deemed even by his worshippers a sacrificial animal, a figure whose primary defining life episode led to the coining of an entire literary archetype. Even if you don’t participate in the religion he perches at the center of — and there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s a fascinating story. My favorite part of it is probably the numerous other literary characters who have followed metaphorically in his metaphorical footsteps: Aslan, Sydney Carton, Harry Potter, the list goes on.

 

Second, I am currently in a state of revision on a short story I wrote many years ago (and then left alone for many years) about an experience I personally had in tenth grade on a geology class field trip, when I and my classmates and teacher stopped by the side of a Texas Hill Country highway to free a young deer dangling by its back foot on a wire fence. I hope I finish editing that story and that it sees the light of day some time this year.

***

 

REQUIEM

 

At first, glanced from the corner of my eye
I thought a piece of cloth flapped in the wind
But when I turned to look, I saw a hind
Back leg savaged by twisted strands of wire.

 

Pupils large with pain and fear, she struggled.
At each twist and turn the barbs cut closer
To the bone. She made no sound. Resolute,
Fighting the metal spikes, she tore and pulled.

 

To her, my soothing words could well have been
A killer’s hungry growl before the feast
Making her pitch more wildly to escape
The awful menace of my outstretched hands.

 

Blindly, I stumbled down the hill for help
Wondering how many desperate hours
She’d passed, denying death in that cold field
Hearing the fierce, wild cries of circling hawks.

 

When I came panting back, sweaty with haste
She lay, draped on the forest fence like some
Forgotten garment, spirit spent, throat warm
To my touch, dark eyes staring at the gorse.

 

Beside her hanging head, bent grasses, splashed
With sticky blood and spittle. Deep scratches
Grooved the dust, marking her last defiance.
And Hoody Crows croaked a brief requiem.

 

***

Nicola Lindsay started writing in her late fifties and has eight novels, two children’s books, and a collection of her poetry published. Two of her novels have been published in several countries, including the US. This month, Five Minute Dips, a collection of poetry and prose that she broadcast on Ireland’s national radio, RTE, has been published on Amazon.com. She also works as an actor and voice-over artist and has just been filming in Northern Ireland in The Frankenstein Chronicles. She lives in County Kildare, Ireland with her husband. More details can be found at www.nicolalindsay.ie