Contemplating experience by appealing to imagination

Associate Professor Jenny Gribble, Honorary Research Associate at the University of Sydney, launches Etiquette With Angels: Selected and New Poems by Fr Andrew Bullen SJ.

I’d heard tell of Andrew Bullen many years before our paths began so happily to cross. Word was around the English department of Monash University that one of their bright young graduates, himself a promising poet, had embarked on a thesis on Australian religious poetry.

Little did I foresee that more than 30 years later I’d have the great pleasure and honour of launching the Selected and New Poems of Andrew Bullen SJ.

Although Andy’s been writing and publishing continuously over the years, this book is the first gathering of some of his never-before published landmarks, together with a considerable body of new work. And I don’t hesitate to say that it establishes him as one of our most impressive contemporary poets. I have only 20 minutes to give you an outline of the riches of this volume, and I promise to keep my eye on the time.

Etiquette with Angels by Fr Andrew Bullen SJ

Etiquette with Angels by Fr Andrew Bullen SJ

Poets have this in common with Jesus and St Ignatius. They invite us to contemplate our experience by appealing to our imagination. Andy’s book does this by inviting us on his poetic journey, which comprises many journeys: imaginative journeys, and journeys recalling actual hard foot-slog.

But in an expansive poem called ‘Sky-People’, dedicated to his pilot father, ‘whose workplace was the heavens’, the poet, too, is up among the clouds, where a chance meeting across the aisle of his Qantas flight puts him in touch with the kingdom of heaven while the passing cloudscape discloses ‘an azure message from the sky’, and ‘a flock of angels/swoop and pitch in formation’.

Elsewhere, he’s strap-hanging on a Melbourne tram, or trudging through wintry fields to visit the Ten Holy Saints of Hartland on the bleak North Devon Coast. Or he’s on a Greek Island. ‘Imagine Your Island’, begins a beautiful sequence of poems entitled ‘The Return of Persephone’ on page 23:

 

Imagine Your Island

This is mine:

the light rises sheer out of the ground,

even the dark the four cypresses possess shimmers;

beyond, cicadas drill-drill the arid air;

nearer, the slender sway of eucalypt,

clumps of lavender, rosemary, press their scent

through the open shutters into blue shadows

 

There’s a characteristic delight here in what words can do and be that lends delight to the created world. You can hear the wonder in that very first sentence, where light rises ‘sheer out of the ground’, astonishing and penetrating and transforming our seeing and hearing and feeling. It seems to catch the moment of Creation itself.

And then the magical shimmer of sibilants, and grammatical possibilities: ‘even the dark the four cypresses possess shimmers’, and the arid air motivates the ‘drill-drill’ of the cicadas, awakening all the other senses, as eucalypt, lavender and rosemary ‘press their scent/through the open shutters into blue shadows’.

Foreshadowed in this opening reverie is the unfolding of seasonal return, of fertility and creativity, of being made anew, celebrated in the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter. And we see a poem assembling itself, out of fragments and phrases.

These Selected and New Poems celebrate abundance. There’s a positive bestiary of creatures. There are birds. Lots. There are mice. And ‘How Many Lions?’ There are various marine creatures. Have a look at a brilliant little poem called ‘The Seals’, to find out what two human lovers might have to learn from a pair of mating seals. And there’s a sweep of landscapes and weathers, and the myths and histories that grow in them, and the works of art that shape them.

And there’s a continuous hum of conversation. Conversational ease and directness is the hallmark of Andy’s style. ‘Imagine Your Island’ invites us in. Contemplation gives rise to speech, and to exchange: to naming things and the creation of a diversity of voices. Guiding us on our way is a voice that is candid, learned, open-hearted and open-minded.

These are qualities that might lead us to make some links between poet and pastor. ‘Come with me and look,’ he seems to say. ‘Let’s look at the beauty and terror of the world together.’ ‘Let’s think about our faith and our doubt.’ ‘This is how I’m seeing things, 50 years ago, ten years ago, yesterday.’

Have a look at the nicely-titled ‘Whingeing Poems’, a pair of sonnets in the great tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins, beginning, in our vernacular, ‘God and me, we’ve gone quiet on each other’, and continuing:

 

Yes, we’re tiresome: we’re tired out.

We’re trying to get used to this place:

somehow it suits us, how we know all too well.

It’s a kind of comfort to have you here.

But concluding

You give me your terrible peace,

And there must be reverence.

 

There’s a substantial number of poems on biblical themes and moments. The people of this parish know how our Parish Priest’s ‘Not from the Pulpit’ sometimes appears in verse form, gliding into consciousness, and getting under our guard, as informative as a news report and just as apparently prosaic. Included among the new poems is an example from this recent Eastertide, which relates the Crucifixion as news item seen by an eye-witness:

 

Friday 3.30

That Friday was no different from any other.

The usual criminals, after due process

Somewhat bent, underwent the proscribed punishments:

Torture, whatever degradation came their way, death.

The rabble roared and spat. Families and friends wailed

And went silent. The soldiers, I am glad to report,

Did their duty and returned to barracks,

According to the Friday routine.

 

The laconic tone and diction pulls us up to recognize how jaded and unreflective our response can be to killing, even the killing that should be foremost in our minds and hearts. The Easter story is the anchor-point and source of hope the poems keep returning to.

You’ll notice quite a few angels in this volume. They’re a connecting thread, as they are in the Bible. There’s one on the front cover, against the green of ordinary time, the green of the Hartland poems. Albrecht Durer’s angel is on strings. Something is in charge of him, causing him to hover, and to stretch out his arms, in blessing, and in comfort. He is perhaps she: or more correctly, androgynous. That face that looks, and yearns, is coming to tell us something.

We might see the angel, as the poet Bullen does, as a representation of what it is that poems do: breaking into our ordinary experience with an extraordinary meaning to communicate, and urging us to look upwards as well as inwards. Hence the title poem ‘Etiquette with Angels’, which Andy will shortly read for us, and the choir will sing in its lovely setting by Christopher Willcock.

Etiquette is rather an anxious and problematic word. It has connotations of the correct, the formal, the appropriate. (I was pleased to see during the televised Royal Wedding that we still have Miss Dally-Watkins to tell us how to eat an oyster and curtsey to the Queen.) But what conventions does an angel observe? What if I say or do the wrong thing?

Anyone who’s enjoyed Andy’s expertise in the visual arts won’t be surprised to find that his invitation to contemplation often takes art-works as a lens through which to think about the personal and the immediate, and the role of the artist. You might find, as I did, that you’re calling on Dr Google for a bit of background. But as T.S. Eliot reassures us, ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’

The more I read these poems, the more I find in them. For the modernist and even the postmodernist writer, defining a work in relation to the art of the past is not simply an act of homage or the anxiety of influence, but a way of ‘making it new.’

Many of our visual impressions of angelic visitation have been formed by the genre of Annunciation painting: ‘An angel always enters from the left’ the title poem reminds us. And ‘A vase of flowers is usually placed between the parties.’ The Bible tells us a certain amount about angels too. The poem wryly notes that ‘late or early, an angel appears on time’, and that however long the wait, or how sudden the appearance, our response should be prompt: ‘without delay, fall humbly on your knees’.

The voice instructing us on these niceties of behaviour is ironic and playful: ‘whatever cost, keep your guest entertained/Without knowing it.’ But as well as enjoying a joke, and telling us to be attentive but not too solemn, the poem sustains a respect for formality in the rhymes and rhythms of its four-line stanzas:

 

Men may gasp, women sigh or drop a book.

The angel speaks first: do not be afraid.

Though itself a message and a miracle,

An angel comes to speak what must be said.

 

To Mary, as to others, ‘its words will promise difficult blessings’. And we know what Mary’s response was. The poet’s response displays two virtues recently commended by Pope Francis, namely ‘imagination and a sense of humour’.

I foresee that this will become Andy’s most anthologised poem, but I want now to give a very brief account of the core of this book: its four great poetic sequences or ‘suites’, as the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe describes them. The musical analogy is apposite: themes are sounded, repeated, and more fully developed, throughout these suites; rhythms and patterns make continuities Wallace-Crabbe says: ‘his suites are so amply thought and felt-through that they make the rest of us look a bit like short-distance sprinters’.

I’ve mentioned the first of these suites, ‘The Return of Persephone’. A later one, ‘The Ten Holy Saints of Hartland’ takes us to stories that live in a very different landscape: the ‘stern Atlantic coastline’ settled in 550 AD by St Nectan, who brought Christianity to the Celts of North Devon. Patron Saint of the Parish Church of St Nectan, he was the first of ‘a race of Saints who left their names to the villages and hamlets of the West Country’ (The Guide to Hartland’s Church, F.K. Lewis, 1969).

In this suite for voices, the saints take their turns to speak to us, from their stone niches and towers, as does the church guide book, advising us about what to notice. St Martin of Meddon sets the scene:

 

Hartland is the highest edge

Of England. That is why they come

from the ends of the earth,

pilgrims to a pun

and paradox. Nearby

is a place called Welcombe.

 

The hart is most sensitive of beasts:

Dearheart is Christ: our heartland too:

Which cost him dear: edged out he was:

To centre us: take heart, he bids us welcome.

 

From St Nectan’s church, the view is expansive: ‘you can see the southern downs of Wales/ whence he came.’ St Andrew of Harton, like the latterday Andy, is tasked with ‘care of small creatures’:

 

I am a small creature myself:

The vast heave of these hills

And whatever the sky is tell me so.

 

And the mother of God, we learn, ‘is a local’: the Church of Our Lady, St Mary, of Fire Beacon makes ‘her simple yes a beacon as it lights the way for ‘wayfarer over sea tracks,/landsman along cowpath’.

A third sequence, ‘Mobypoems’ looks to the New World, and Melville’s American epic novel Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale. ‘Is Moby God?’ Ahab is asked. ‘Almost, brother./It’s enough to know that he outsizes us’ is the reply. This too is a suite for voices: the voices of Melville’s Ahab, the wounded sailor who lost his leg to the whale, Ishmael, who alone survives to tell the story of Ahab and the wreck of his ship, the Pequod, and Queequeg, the drowned man whose shredded body makes its Eucharistic offering.

Moby’s ‘shifting habitat’ is formed by ‘nautical lingo’, elemental forces, phosphorescent ‘tangles of light’ on the sea’s surface and in the ‘shining deeps’. Ahab describes himself as ‘a seafarer, where the boat and all is lurch and roll.’ His wound sets him apart. ‘“Here comes Ahab”, they say, ‘be wary/Something ate his leg, chomp, chomp/Went his destiny, fate or happenstance, was it?’

 

Let me tell you the leg story, (it continues)

Since you do not ask.

I remember nothing; but awoke

To know the whale had eaten me.

 

The leg story surfaces elsewhere in the book too, as in the understated bedside conversations in the poem ‘Minus One’ and the brave exchanges of amputees in ‘Strangers: Beyond Prayer’. In ‘Mobysongs’ Melville’s narrative is brought into dialogue with the Judeo-Christian narrative of Creation, Incarnation, Crucifixion and Redemption. Ahab’s pursuit of, and encounter with, the altogether Other and transcendent, the great white whale, foreshadows the grandest and most searching of the four suites, ‘Kreis, Kreis’.

The German word Kreis, meaning circle, or place, or territory, carries half-echoes; ‘Christ, Christ’, you might hear, suggesting both supplication and profanity. You might also hear ‘Alas, alas’ the sounding of lament, and ‘eleison, eleison’, the plea for forgiveness. For the territory here is the Nazi prison camp of Dachau.

Circle and labyrinth are the suite’s key figures, and the question it circles around, the question at its heart, is what sense can we make of the Holocaust, the monster presence in 20th-century history. What can we find to say about it as Christian people? Where is God in the inescapable circles of pain, and the Hell of almost unimaginable evil? And other connected questions, ‘who has the right to speak of this, and what words could ever be adequate?’

That’s a question addressed by the late Melbourne historian Inga Clendinnen in her 1998 book on the Holocaust (Reading the Holocaust, Text Publishing, 1998), where she quotes the theorist Adorno’s pronouncement, that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz would be a barbarism’, to which the answer must be that after Auschwitz, and as ‘Kreis, Kreis’ shows, poetry is absolutely necessary; though in one remarkable section, ‘Jabber, Jabber’, we see language breaking down in its attempt to make any kind of meaning. In another, ‘Labyrinth’, spatial bearings are as lost a well as linguistic ones. We learn something about the genesis of the sequence at the start of poem 11, ‘Internal Bruising’:

 

Many years ago I spent a morning walking in Hell.

The train glided out to Dachau,

the suburban bus dropped us at the gate.

 

Inside was spotless and the Carmel nearby

In silence, as we all were. I walked around the place

once, with a girl who did not want to do it alone,

 

And returned to Munich with an obscene, crazy

New Yorker. It has been inside me

ever since, waiting; it was there before

 

as prayer had shown and telling me to go there.

This was no place to enter alone and who

Was my guide? I still do not know.

 

Edith Stein was it? And yes, I’ve read Dante since.

My ordinary life has gone on but

I have been a long way out of myself,

 

and feelings have only dared come held by words

and the undertone everywhere of eleison,

eleison, alas, alas, enough, enough.

 

In this tour of Dachau (‘Who wants the camp? Jump aboard’ ‘the jolly driver’ calls out) Dante’s Inferno is a model, for tercets, topography, and much else, and so is Edith Stein, for the heroism that has made her St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Jewish and German-born, her journey of doubt and faith carried her to Catholicism and to the Carmelites. When she was canonised in 1998, Pope John Paul the second declared her martyrdom in Auschwitz a representation of the millions of Jewish souls who lost their lives in the camps.

Andy has framed her story by fragments of a dialogue in German, in poem 21 of the sequence, entitled ‘East’. The ‘feelings that have only dared to come held by words’ are powerfully released in this reclamation of the language of Nazism through the serene acceptance we hear in Edith’s German words.

In answer to the question posed at the end of the poem — ‘Why are you going there, Edith?’ — she answers, when the poem begins: ‘I am travelling East’, or “Eastering”, where the sun rises’. She says her ‘yes’ to the ‘difficult blessing’ that lies before her, and here is where the ‘hope beyond hope’ of the whole sequence lies. But will enough ever be enough?

The first of the poems suggests part of an answer, an entry point via Henri Rousseau’s mighty war painting ‘La chevauchee de la discorde’, where war’s ‘horse and the rider’ join their animal and human forces to ride unstoppably across a denuded landscape of blasted trees and blackened flowers, fingering ‘the terrible details’ of the sword:

 

The violence and the blood are done as careful

As the work of crows; the bodies, routed,

Are piled orderly and ready for us later.

 

The seeing eye of the artist is implicated in ordering all this and will have something to answer for, as he does in poem nine, ‘Close-Up’.

The painting’s imagery makes connections between the poems: look at the chilling conversation between a couple of the carrion birds (Ravens, Ravens), or ‘The twa corbies’ as an ancient Scots ballad calls them. ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts’, asks Shakespeare’s King Lear. To which Lear’s answer is simply, and profoundly ‘look there, look there’. In launching Etiquette with Angels, I can’t think of better words with which to send it on its way: ‘look there, look there’.

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