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Monday, November 29, 2010

A humanist Advent poem (with commentary)

After Isaiah

How we have hurried toward this time of waiting,
Head-long to this fully fallow stretch of days!
We pick the calendar’s windows’ dating,
Keeping vigil at the stubble-field’s lowering haze.

Gone the days of full-bellied harvest,
Gone as surely as the sun goes west.

How we gorged on the fruit of the vine.
How we wrung the windfall from the tree.
And wolfed the blood-warm lamb, cut fine,
And sopped the juice with loaves we gathered, free.

Now the sun slung low across this field of time
Sheds milky light on furrows, tumbled clods.
Even steeple bells seem muffled when they chime,
Above a land laid waste, abandoned by the ancient gods.

This is “the sign you shall be given”: longing, dearth.
Below the spent, expectant, sulking earth,
The hidden powers shift and knit and surge;
Burgeoning life awaits in womb, as soil and soul converge.


This was the result of a creative writing assignment meant for one of my MA classes. It was intended to be written to be part of an advent liturgy within the context of my denomination. Originally, I thought it might be an invocation, given at the beginning of the service. However, after reflection and discussion, it's probably too rich a pudding to start the meal with. It could probably work as a reading.

It was seeded by a couple of words: "waiting" and "fallow". It was fertilized with a passage from Isaiah 7, something about a 'land laid waste' and 'a sign will be given unto you'. But the sub-soil is all TS Eliot's "The Wasteland" and Keats' "To Autumn". The 'feel of the words in the mouth' owes a lot to Seamus Heaney.

We'd been seeing a lot of countryside lately, fields plowed into furrows or stubbly with chaff. It occurred to me that the bleakest time must be this long after the harvest festivals of September, when the feasts have been eaten and all that's left is what you smoked, salted, dried or pickled. The land won't yield for a long time yet. The "sign" we're given in the run-up to Christmas, then, is the bleakness of mid-winter. The world saying: "expect nothing from me." But there's always something cooking, deep down and unseen...

A few technical points. The second stanza is intentionally short to create the sense of something abruptly stopped. The "Gone" repetition is meant to be the chimes referred to in the third stanza, but I think it might be too far away to have that effect. The religious imagery in the third stanza is intentionally eucharistic: loves, wine, blood of the lamb, and the 'tree of life'.

I wanted more uplift in the last stanza, more a sense of something gathering force, hence the throbbing rhythm. Ah well... I'll leave it for now. But my tutor, Rev. Dr. Andrew Pratt, is interested in working with me to make it a hymn. He's only written about 600 or so.

That, I'd like.
You have to want to see it

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