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Vicar's Musings for Ordinary Sunday 31

4 November, 2012

I love poetry. Last week I had the privilege of delivering a paper with Carol O'Connor, manager of the St Peter's Bookroom, as part of the Carmelite Library's "Poetry for the Soul" series. We chose two very different, yet deeply soulful poets: American Pulitzer Prize winner, Mary Oliver, and iconic New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter. Mary Oliver was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, in 1935 and lived with her partner of 40 years, Molly Malone Cook, in Provincetown Massachusetts until Molly died in 2005. She is known as a nature poet, but themes of faith run seamlessly through her work. One of my favourite poems from the evening is a reflection on grief and angels (Oliver, Evidence, pp. 57-8):

About Angels and About Trees

Where do angels
fly in the firmament,
and how many can dance
on the head of a pin?

Well, I don't care
about that pin dance,
what I know is that
they rest, sometimes,
in the tops of trees

and you can see them,
or almost see them,
or, anyway, think: what a
wonderful idea.

I have lost as you and
others have possibly lost a
beloved one,
and wonder, where are they now?

The trees, anyway, are
miraculously, full of
angels (ideas); even
empty they are a
good place to look, to put
the heart at rest — all those
leaves breathing the air, so

peaceful and diligent, and certainly
ready to be
the resting place of
strange, winged creatures
that we, in this world, have loved.

James K. Baxter died of a heart attack on 22 October 1972; he was just 46 years old. He was a brilliant and complex man, and in one of his journals describes himself as: "a Catholic, an alcoholic, a writer, a married man. I wish to belong wholly to God." When on a solitary yearlong retreat in the tiny Maori settlement of Jerusalem, on the Wanganui river, he wrote a series of sonnets. Perhaps a little like Mary Oliver, he happened across the divine in some unexpected places (Baxter, Collected Poems, p. 455):

The small grey cloudy louse that nests in my beard
Is not, as some have called it, 'a pearl of God' -

No, it is a fiery tormentor
Waking me at two a.m.

Or thereabouts, when the lights are still on
In the houses in the pa, to go across thick grass

Wet with rain, feet cold, to kneel
For an hour or two in front of the red flickering

Tabernacle light — what He sees inside
My meandering mind I can only guess —

A madman, a nobody, a raconteur
Whom He can joke with — 'Lord,' I ask Him,

'Do You or don't You expect me to put up with lice?'
His silent laugh still shakes the hills at dawn.

In an age where there is so much suspicion of the church and organized religion, poets play an important role in feeding the soul.

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster

Illustration for Ordinary Sunday 31 Musings

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