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.

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

Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn // Ai Wei Wei

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Ai Wei Wei as a student in New York, posing as a street portrait artist.

 
 

 
 

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With Allen Ginsberg in New York.

 
 

 
 

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After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the discovery of corruption that left thousands of children to die in poorly-built schools, Ai Wei Wei produced a series of works that exposed the “true plight of our spiritual existence”.

This piece, from an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, is composed of metal rods used to reinforce concrete, pulled from collapsed structures. The devastation twisted each bar horribly. Each bend was meticulously undone by one of Ai Wei Wei’s many assistants, thousands of hours dedicated to restoring what had been distorted.
 
 

 
 
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#Ferguson and Western-Christian Civilization // Leon Ferarri

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“Western-Christian Civilization”, Leon Ferrari, 1965.

The deification of Whiteness generates a religion that demands the sacrifice of all that is not White. When power is worshiped, all that resists is subjugated. Constantine envisioned the Cross as a sword. America’s dominant religion imagines Christ as a weapon in the service of White power. Christianity is consistently invoked by White Christians to justify the atrocities committed by its government abroad while White Christians remain silent about atrocities committed by this same government against people of color at home. This is a religion that understands clearly that Christ is for Whites, and serves their interests exclusively. 

Ferrari’s piece captures this relationship between Western-Christian Civilization and power, but his skill as an artist allows him to tell the truth of power in such a way that the truth of crucifixion may also be seen. Those who worship power may see Christ as a payload to be deployed against (non-White) enemies. Those who do not worship power can see Christ crucified by power.

Christ is shot six times in Ferguson.
Christ is grieving the loss of her son in Ferguson.
A son who has no tomb, whose body is left to go cold on the pavement.
Christ’s hands are raised, pleading.
“Don’t Shoot.”
Christ is tear-gassed and under curfew in Ferguson, crying out to be heard.