Resist the pace imposed.
Culture (as with malign intent)
fears the boundless.
Something (if unleashed)
might overthrow dominions
and set up a child in the Mercy Seat,
that frowning, burning babe.
Questions and Answers
What inspired “Advent”?
This little poem is the first piece in the title section of my volume Lifting the Stone (2007). This last section of this book is an extended meditation on the mystical Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas was lost, buried, and then rediscovered in 1945, a couple of years before I was born, at a place called Nag Hammadi outside of Cairo, Egypt. I’ve been fascinated by these so called “Gnostic gospels” ever since I first heard of them in the 1970’s, mainly because the early church chose to repress them and label those who wrote them heretics. What they offer to me is an alternative to the over-familiar story of Jesus. In them, Jesus seems like more like a wisdom teacher than God Almighty in the flesh. The Zen-like sayings of Thomas force me to experience Jesus’ well known teachings in a completely new light.
In Christian liturgy, the seasonal celebrations of the church calendar, “Advent” is the period leading up to Christmas, and means “the coming.” But in the context of this collection, advent is the coming of, not the conventional peaceful babe in a manger, but a “frowning, burning babe” of wild energy and possible chaos. This babe is a disturbing presence, offering a kind of joy we might at first fear because it upsets our pre-conceptions. The babe is frowning because the world is a mess and being born into is not the easiest thing to do. The fires in which the babe burns, however, are actually the fires of an overwhelming love and bliss many people fear to receive and experience as divine. We fear the holy because at first it seems other.
“The burning babe” image is an allusion to a poem by a 17th-century poet named Robert Southwell who wrote a poem called “The Burning Babe,” and whose strange image was later taken up by my favourite poet of all time, William Blake. Blake added the “frowning” part. It isn’t at all necessary for the reader to know all this, but doing so enriches the poem. Certainly, having these associations in mind was part of what inspired it. I believe the poem stands on its own without the background, as it is really about the impossible “pace” of our culture that “fears the boundless.” The images speak for themselves. Sometimes humans put God or the divine, however they conceive the Ultimate, in such a tiny box. The mystery at the heart of things, infinite mercy and love itself, then seem to us frightening. The poem hints that opening ourselves to mystery and awe can overthrow conventional images of a domineering, punitive deity sitting outside the universe controlling everything. And this could be a good thing. Setting up the image of a child in the throne of God is paradoxical, echoing in another way the idea that apparent smallness and humility are ultimately more powerful than force. This, in fact, is probably the meaning of the gospel nativity stories.
What poetic techniques did you use in “Advent”?
In “Advent” I used three unrhymed couplets with approximately three heavy stresses in each line and a final isolated line to give the poem closure. The poem is a command issued in the imperative voice: “Resist the pace imposed.” Its tone, however, is not meant to imply that the poet herself has the right to give such advice, but is offered as a sort of “locution” or divine phrase emerging from within. Maybe something deep in all of us, a voice of sheer silence, wants to slow down and live more contemplatively, but we seldom heed it. The culture won’t let us because we are being told we need to be successful, make money, achieve, and produce. But to what end? So here I give that counter-voice ground to speak. The rest of the poem unfolds why we need to slow down and go within once in a while. I used enjambed or spilled-over lines both within the stanzas and between them to keep the energy of the poem moving, despite the insertion of “as with malign intent” in parentheses in line two. That way everything follows an inner pace contrary to the cultural pace the culture imposes. The poem’s pace leads to the ultimate revelation: “that frowning, burning babe.” As mentioned above, the poem alludes to earlier poems by Southwell and Blake, but places the central flaring image in a new context that says something about our culture right now. The reference to “the Mercy Seat” in the third stanza alludes to the Jewish mystical symbolism of the temple. The Mercy Seat was the place from which God spoke to the prophets and once a year perhaps to the high priest. The idea of overthrowing “dominions” or power systems, above-down domination hierarchies, suggests that anyone can access the divine as infinite love and mercy rather than as punitive. The vatic or prophetic voice that speaks at the beginning, then, isn’t just me as the poet, but the voice of the speaker conjoined with an inner voice that offers wisdom and mercy in place of judgment.