Breaking the heavy silence

Through a glass, brightly

I was browsing a book of Middle Eastern poetry and prose, looking for something that might lift the spirit of those weighed down by the Christchurch tragedy. Almost the last poem in the collection Tablet and Pen is by a young Iranian American poet, writer, satirist and calligrapher, Hamid Reza Rahimi. (Tablet and Pen says that Rahimi fled to exile in 1986 “because of his overt opposition to the Iranian government, which had forbidden him to write.”) I wanted to pair the poem with a photograph, and found one I had taken in Chicago, at the Field Museum, of a Marc Chagall stained-glass window. Chagall is an artist through whom beauty passes as if through a window, and his glass art, with Rahimi’s words, seem a glowing match.

A poet’s gifts

In loss, there is life

merwin
“. . . a repairer of dissolution and ruin” / The Merwin Conservancy

On the same day that New Zealand’s Muslim community was shattered by the Christchurch mosque attacks, a poet renowned for gentleness of nature and compassionate insight died at his home in a town with the poetically apt name of Haiku, on the island of Maui.

W. S. Merwin was one of the most acclaimed poets of his generation. His words evoke some of humanity’s deepest longings and fears—about loss, absence, memory and the fleeting nature of life.

But he was also a poet of hope and loyalty to the heart’s affections, virtues he displayed not just in his words but in the other great project of his life: the restoration of seven hectares of barren land with his wife, Paula, in their adopted Hawaiian home.

The land was an abandoned pineapple plantation when Merwin bought it. Over the years it had been deforested, overgrazed and then cultivated to the point of exhaustion.

One day in 1977 Merwin planted a palm tree in this impoverished soil. The next day he planted another. And the next, and the next. Today that once desolate plot of land has become one of the largest palm collections in the world, with more than 2700 palms of more than 400 species. A living treasury of palm DNA.

Merwin was once described as “a channeler of ancient paradoxes.” One of his poems that I cherish contains such a paradox. Called “Separation,” it is just three three lines long, but, oh, the longing in those lines:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

How can it be that something that goes so sharply and painfully through the heart of a person can pull such threads of colour in its wake? We see something of that paradox in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy. An attack meant to divide and scatter has instead brought people together in demonstrations of solidarity and love.

Merwin was known as “a repairer of dissolution and ruin.” His words and example encourage us to rebuild, and show us how.

For more about Merwin’s work and words, go to the Merwin Conservancy website.

Swords into ploughshares

. . . and survey pegs into peace symbols

Parihaka installation on Waiheke Island / Kennedy Warne

Yesterday I was asked by National Geographic to write a “letter from New Zealand.” When I thought about what I might write, I reflected that on Friday 15th, the day of the mosque attacks, I had kayaked to Waiheke to see the annual sculpture show, which sprawls along the coastal hills above Matiatia.

I paid particular attention to one installation about Parihaka—a place and community and history I feel close to, having written at length about it. The installation, by Anton Forde, consists of 1881 survey pegs, the number referring to the year of the Parihaka invasion, and the pegs representing the issue that led up to the attack: government appropriation of Taranaki land, with surveyors the front-line agents of dispossession.

Viewers were invited to take a peg from a boundary line and place it in a triple-feather design that had been laid out on the land. The triple feather has become the symbol of Parihaka, evoking its stand of nonviolent resistance in the face of state aggression. I placed a peg and paddled back to Auckland.*

When I came to write my letter, I thought about the symbolism. Parihaka literally opposed the sword with the ploughshare—the community’s chief act of resistance was to plough up the surveyors’ pegs and lines. The great outpouring of aroha I am seeing in my own neighbourhood of Avondale towards the Muslim community here, and across the country, is a Parihaka-style response to the evil that struck in Christchurch: facing down an ideology of hatred with a demonstration of love. A symbolic melting of the cold steel of violence in the hot tears of compassion, welcome, and the radical identification that says: “They are us.”

Here is the letter.

*By the time the sculpture show closed in late March, 9000 people had participated as peg shifters. Such is the enduring resonance of Parihaka.

Although it is the night

In the dark times will there also be singing?

At my local Islamic centre this morning / Kennedy Warne

At the end of my January post, a tribute to the poet Mary Oliver, I quoted from her “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness,” in which she urges us to “go on / though the sun be swinging east, / and the ponds be cold and black, / and the sweets of the year be doomed.” I concluded with the words, “Yes, much that is sweet is gone or going, but Oliver’s poems will continue to pour their syrup on sorrowing souls. We will go on.”

What a pang those words bring me now. How different they look. How different our world looks. I have been thinking about Bertolt Brecht’s little poem, which asks a desperate question and receives an encouraging answer:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Who sings about the dark times? I suddenly remembered I know someone who has: Seamus Heaney. Here is his poem about those times.

Station Island, XI

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope
I plunged once in a butt of muddied water
Surfaced like a marvellous lightship

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face
That had spoken years ago from behind a grille
Spoke again about the need and chance

To salvage everything, to re-envisage
The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
Mistakenly abased…

What came to nothing could always be replenished.

‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance
Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,
His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,
He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

Now his sandaled passage stirred me on to this:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.

But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.

No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.

So pellucid it can never be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.

I know no sounding line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night

And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.

And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.