Creation Improvisation Salvation

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Jean-Michel Basquiat

I wrote this, about Genesis and jazz and creation and improvisation, as one of the stories of salvation we read at the Easter vigil at St. Lydia’s last night.


With the seed in it

In the beginning
when God began creating
the heavens and the earth, the earth
was a formless void and darkness
covered the face of the deep.

It was astonishingly empty,
the void as vast and dark as
the inside of Charles Mingus’s upright bass —
a deep rich darkness,
the Spirit’s hands hovering
over the strings ready
to set the world to dancing.

And that first solo,
spontaneously improvised,
brought light from the dark,
reverberating bass,
and lasted all day
and all night.

And it was good.

And while the void was still ringing,
the last low tones resonating,
a cymbal crashed
and the waters jumped
and dry land appeared
and a steady swing
from the high hat and snare —
and I guess it was an angel
who sat at the kit,
excited by the Spirit’s rhythms —
and that swing set the seasons
in motion
and the earth brought forth
vegetation:
plants yielding seed of every kind,
and trees of every kind
bearing fruit
with the seed in it.

And God saw that it was good.

And by now this music had been going
for several days straight
and showed no sign of slowing down
as each new creation —
the seas swarming with life,
and birds flying across the dome of the sky —
each new creature brought its music
in endlessly creative improvisation,
riffing on the Spirit’s swinging bass line.

And the horn section,
made of wild animals
of every kind: cattle
and creeping things
and living creatures
of every kind —
this wild and roaring horn section
was trading solos but
the Spirit still had more
up her sleeve.

So in walked Lady Day,
who started putting words
to the world and sang
about Autumn
in New York but also about
Strange Fruit
and her words named the darkness
and lit the darkness
and God saw
that she wasn’t just good —
she made the Spirit catch her breath —
which was also Billie’s own breath
when she sang.

And then Coltrane
walked quietly onto the stand
and picked up his horn
and on the sixth day
Coltrane played for six days straight,

and
God’s
jaw
dropped.

And there was no end to the music

The Spirit called
and creation responded
and everyone was sweaty by now
and the sun was coming up,
which was its new habit,
so God sent everyone off to bed
and grabbed a broom
while the Spirit picked up Mingus’s bass
and plucked a low quiet tune,
something she’d picked up
from Thelonious Monk.

So God blessed the seventh day
and hallowed it.

And rested.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

This morning I woke from a dream of grief to see the early light coming through my window. The pain of a lost relationship had receded from my daily life. Habits and calendars and patterns of movement shifted.

But in my dream, I still wept. I woke feeling disjointed, as these tears seemed to stain the life I am opening myself to. How am I supposed to live and love and be open to the future when what I have lost still comes to me in dreams?

I let myself sit and watch the freezing rain and listen to the hiss of passing cars. I should simply get on with things, the way my neighbors were busily getting on with another day. I should reject my grief and take up the joy of the morning and move on. Right?

“Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” Romans 12:15.

Of course not. My grief is not a threat to my joy. The presence of grief does not mark the absence of joy. I am one who rejoices and weeps, all in one morning. Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans are calling me to be present with my grief as much as my joy. I find that the more present I am to my grief, the more ready I am for joy. My grief does not betray my joy. My joy does not betray my grief.

And my neighbors sliding through slush and snow and getting on with their days? They are rejoicing and weeping, too. When I can be present to the grief and joy that are tangled in my heart, I can go to others from the heart, from my mingled heart. I can meet their grief from my place of grief, and I can meet their joy from my place of joy. And they are one place.

 

The Return of Job

by Anna Kamienska

Job didn’t die
didn’t throw himself under a train
didn’t croak in a vacant lot
the chimney didn’t spew him out
despair didn’t finish him off
he arose from everything
from misery dirt
scabs loneliness

How much more authentic a dead Job would be
even after death shaking his fist at the God of pain
But Job survived
washed his body of blood sweat pus
and lay down in his house again
New friends were gathering
a new life was breathing new love into his mouth
new children were growing up with soft hair
for Job to touch with his hands
new sheep donkeys oxen were bellowing
shaking new shackles in the stable
kneeling on straw

But happy Job didn’t have the strength to be happy
afraid he’d betray happiness by a second happiness
afraid he’d betray life by a second life
Wouldn’t it be better for you Job
to remain dirt since you are dirt
The pustules washed off your hands and face
ate through your heart and liver
You will die Job
Wouldn’t it be better for you
to die with the others
in the same pain and mourning
than to depart from this new happiness
You walk in the dark
wrapped in darkness
among new people
useless as a pang of conscience
You suffered through pain
now suffer through happiness

And Job whispered stubbornly Lord Lord

 
 
 
 
 
 
“Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven” is the title of an album by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Artwork by Will Schaff.

Let the dead bury the dead


I go to church most weeks and I’m not always sure why. Sometimes I go because I’ve been asked to do something specific like read a poem or help coordinate the evening. Other times I go because I want to see people and share a meal and resist the isolating effects of the city and my psyche. Often I go because my church is a beautiful community and I want to help that community thrive. But in all these reasons there is something deeper that calls me, and I’m rarely sure what that is. It’s by going that I find out.

I know why I went this week.

This week we read from the Gospel of Matthew and heard Jesus admonish those who would follow him to do so directly, and to let the dead bury the dead.

And then, during a time of reflection after the sermon, my pastor put the question to us, to me:

“What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

Not “Have you experienced the death of something?”

Not “What do you need to let go of, what do you need to let die?”

Not “What isn’t really a death, but a beginning for new life?”

Not “What death do you need to accept?”

Rather, “What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

It was the kind of question that struck me at an intuitive level before I knew how to articulate my response. What struck me first was that the question didn’t linger on whether there were dead things in my life. No time for hemming and hawing about what’s not dead yet. The question confronted me: “There are corpses in your life. We’re starting with that truth.”

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

There was no question that death had not shown mercy. It wasn’t up to me to let anything die. Death had done its work and now was the time for me to do mine.

We were given sheets of paper to write down our responses, and all the dead in my life came tumbling out onto the page. My sense of failing others when my marriage failed. My repeatedly crushed hopes for affirmation from my father. The ridiculous expectations I continue to burden myself with because I am a stereotypical first-born. My unkindness to myself for this ridiculousness. My unkindness to others because of my unkindness to myself. All the neatly stacked corpses.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

I’ve tried to bury the dead for years, but they keep rising from the grave. Dead sorrows can’t be drowned. At some point, I began dragging the dead around with me as if they were some sort of badge of honor, to show how “real” and “honest” and “deeply human” I was. I accepted these deaths boldly and wasn’t that kind of bad-ass of me? I was so hardcore.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

It seems to me now that I needed the dead to prove I was living. But as long as my focus was on the dead, I wasn’t actually taking the risks and exposing myself to the vulnerability of living, let alone the hazards of following the call I heard in Christ’s words. You can’t risk death until you’ve fully embraced life.

I didn’t need to deny the dead, I didn’t need to accept the dead. I didn’t need to get closure. Instead, I needed to let the dead remain unresolved, to let the dead bury the dead.

In his collection of essays titled “The Examined Life,” psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes against the notion of closure. Contra the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, he writes: “My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.”

Not closure, then, but openness. Following where Christ is leading me, even if I’m not sure where that is or exactly why I’m following. Trusting that in seeking, I’ll find what I need to keep going.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

An Altar Where No Walls Or Names Exist // Rabia Basri

In
my soul
there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
where I kneel.
Prayer should bring us to an altar
where no walls or names exist.

Is there not a religion of love
where sovereignty is
illumined nothing,
where ecstasy gets poured into itself
And becomes
lost,
where the wing is fully alive
but has no mind
or body?

In
my soul
there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque,
a church
that dissolve, that
dissolve in
God.

Trans. Daniel Ladinsky

The Witness // Fanny Howe

Behold the broken
Hearts, backs and parts
Of nature
Evolved to follow
A finite path.

Behold the gray rain
In a house of mirrors.
Oak leaves shining
On glass, two kisses
In one spot exactly.

Behold the scabs and cuts
Of city streets.
Crusts, stones, smoke.
As many people
As nails from a factory.

Behold the space
Between each star
Or a child under nine
Laying her hand
On another’s face.

Behold the foundation
And the secret of it.
Close your eyes
And breathe.
When seized, don’t speak.

“Do you have your helium ready?” // Anselm Kiefer

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The ship, like the sea, is an ambiguous image.

The sea supports the weight of massive ships while constantly threatening to consume them in its depths.

Ships are made of great sheets of metal, and yet they glide across the ocean’s expanse. Their size gives them buoyancy, as their weight pulls them down, in a precarious balance. Ships are roving islands of security, yet they are always on the verge of becoming the darkest of tombs.

Kiefer replaces canvas with lead sheets in many of his pieces, his lines plumbing the depths of human history, his images drawn from the Bible, and Nazi Germany.

Whether in the myth of Noah’s ark or the brutal reality of Shoah, our memories are freighted with forces that would pull us under.

 
 

 
 

 
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The heavy cargo

 
 
 

 

 
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“Is life worth living when there is blindness, fear, war, torture, floods, famine, earthquakes, and prison? The question can only be answered case by case. But one question that is also an answer might be: “Do you have your helium ready?”

A sniff of helium and you speak like a cartoon chipmunk and are gone in fifteen minutes.

Or do you prefer hemlock? It is a member of the parsley family with spotted purple stems, split leaves, and umbrels of little white blossoms on it. You can turn it into a poisonous drink or use it to make paper.”

– Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun

 
 
 

 

 

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Paper has its own weight, of course. The archive of history can be a shattering burden.

 
 
 

 

 

Anselm Kiefer au Grand Palais

 
 
 

 

 
And yet, the ambiguity persists.

Lead ships ply the waves as easily as birds cut through the air.

Can our leaden wings lift us?

The very substance and weight of our past fashioned into limbs by which we rise?

 
 
 
 

 

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Bring Me To The Brink // Osip Mandelstam

Bring me to the brink of mountains, mystic,
Dread, rapture of fear I feel and … fail.
Still: the swallow slicing blue is beautiful.
Still: the cloud-tugged bell tower’s frozen music.

There is in me a man alive, a man alone,
Who, heart-stopped above a deep abyss,
Can hear a snowball grow one snowflake less,
The clock-tick accretions of dust becoming stone.

No. I am not that man, not that sadness
With its precise ice, its exquisite rue.
The pain that sings in me does not sing, and is true.

O whirlwind, O real wind
In which the avalanche is happening,
All my soul is bells, which will not ring.

(1912)

Translated by Christian Wiman

Ecce Homo // Mark Wallinger

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The Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square in central London was left unadorned for 150 years after its construction. In 1999, Mark Wallinger’s “Ecce Homo”, the first of a series of commissioned sculptures, was installed on the plinth. The other plinths feature larger-than-life sculptures of George IV on horseback, General Sir Charles James Napier, and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, while the fourth was intended to support a statue of William IV. Conquerors and kings.

Wallinger’s piece is life-sized, making the bound Christ appear particularly small in a context of exaggerated figures of outrageous men. Even more striking is the quiet, insistent presence of a man condemned to death by Empire standing in the heart of London, one of the great centers of global capitalism.

 

 

 
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Images from “Mark Wallinger”, Thames & Hudson (November 8, 2011)

The following is a brief interview with Wallinger, with footage of the piece, and surprisingly affecting footage of its removal from the plinth in 2000.

Cathedral, Empty // Osip Mandelstam

When light, failing,
Falling

Through stained glass,
Liquifies

The long grass
At the feet of christ,

I crawl diabolical
To the foot of the cross

To sip the infinite
Tenderness

Distilled
From destroyed

Hearts:
An air of thriving

Hopelessness
Like a lone cypress

Holding on
To some airless

Annihilating height.

(1910)
 

 

 

 
Translated by Christian Wiman