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.

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

Two Poems // Langston Hughes

Who But The Lord?

I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.

I said, O, Lord, if you can,

Save me from that man!

Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!

But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!

Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?

We’ll see.


Question and Answer

Durban, Birmingham,
Cape Town, Alabama,
Johannesburg, Watts,
The earth around
Struggling, fighting,
Dying–for what?

A world to gain.

Groping, hoping,
Waiting–for what?

A world to gain.

Dreams kicked asunder,
Why not go under?

There’s a world to gain.

But suppose I don’t want it,
Why take it?

To remake it.

Q: Science or Religion? A: Art

When people learn that I have a background in physics and am now studying theology, they are often surprised, seeing the two pursuits as divergent. I often stumble through some inadequate explanation that both fields ask “the big questions”, so really, I’ve just been doing one thing this whole time.

And there’s something to that, but that’s just a shorthand way of explaining my interests.

Of course, I’ve gone to grad school in both fields, so these aren’t just casual interests. Both pursuits stem from my insatiable curiosity coupled with my anxious, all-too-often desperate, need-to-know. To know what? Everything. And that just gets exhausting.

There’s a question certain music fans like to ask to sort out someone’s tastes, “Beatles or Stones?” My answer, invariably, is “Velvets”. There’s just too much that gets left out of the Lennon/McCartney vs Jagger/Richards dichotomy. Namely, Lou Reed. The underside, the dark side, the wild side, the truth.

That’s where I’ve come in my travels in science and religion. Both have helped me immensely (which is more than I can say for the Beatles). Yet neither has the corner on reality. Something more is needed that moves beyond the confines of each while simultaneously calling out something more from each. Art doesn’t trump science or religion, art stands as a reminder that there is no trump. That any claim of trump is bullshit.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post works from some of my favorite visual artists. People who have called me out on my pretensions, and have opened me up to worlds I hadn’t imagined. I’m not going to say a whole lot about what I share. I might offer some context or share a little of why the artist or piece matters to me. Mainly, though, I just want to bear witness to a little of what I’ve seen that has helped me see better. I hope you find something good here.