The Seam of Light: The Bible, the Gospel Hall, the Poet.
This is the gap which flickers between the reader's face and the page on which is printed Mary Ursula Bethell's poem 'Bulbs'. Planting bulbs, murmuring their names over, wondering if they'll grow in the Cashmere hills, Bethell ends, parenthetically:
(We wait their pleasure. Yet if they grow not Need only take patience a little while longer; For these are the flowers we look to find blooming In the meadows and lanes that lie beyond Jordan-- All kinds of lilies in the lanes that lead gently, Very gently, by degrees, in the shade of green trees, To the foothills and fields of Paradise.) (3)
There's a hospitality at work here. Bethell steps aside from the apparent immediate business of the poem--in Christchurch, which is not London, with lilies--and lets us into a fuller musing: essentially, a prayer of meditation on the promised end of the Resurrection of the Body--'Paradise'.
In teaching this poem, I've pointed out to students that for Bethell 'Paradise' is not merely metaphorical. It is, of course, metaphor, just as the Jordan here is symbolic. But metaphor is our primary tool in articulating the unknown, or the partially known. It does not follow that it is merely metaphorical--that it is not true. Of course, there is a way of reading which categorises such affirmations only as constructs. But this is a woman who believes in the Resurrection of the Body and the Life to Come; that is, she lives in the world as the New Testament affirms the world to be; she, and others, 'look'--that is, expect--to find the same lilies in the new heavens and the new earth. (4)
This gap is a feature of my own experience as a writer, particularly as a writer who has researched and taught literature in the university, and who now serves in the university as a chaplain. And it's a feature of this exchange now--me, someone who knows himself to be addressed by God through the Bible, and to whom the Bible opens up the nature of things--and you, however that might find you, reader of the JNZL. Already it's awkward, the kind of awkwardness that--in the context of contemporary Aotearoa-New Zealand literature and its difficult patron the University--arises around the name Jesus when said in any register other than profanity.
Here, then, risking quaintness, I follow Bethell's example, opening up a parenthetical space to let you get, in impressionistic vein, some sense of what it is like to grow into poetry while living in an imaginative economy shaped by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
While I was growing up, our family worshipped at the Open Brethren Chapel in Cannons Creek, Porirua. Planted in the early 1960s, the small multi-cultural congregation--mostly Pakeha, Samoan, Cambodian--worshipped in a converted state house that stands in the middle of multi-unit state houses, on the corner of Hereford and Champion Streets. A kitchen and hall had been added to the original building, and it was in this hall that we gathered each week for fellowship. It had a high ceiling with steel beams and pine tongue-and-groove cladding. The walls were similarly clad, while the floor was matai boards. In all, there was a very functional, almost makeshift, cardboard box-like feel to the space. On three sides, it had windows high up by the roof, the panes in frosted glass. It was--and still is--a very utilitarian space, used during the week for basketball and youth groups, while on Sundays the bench forms come out for worship together. For Open Brethren, 'sacred space' does not refer to church architecture, because the church are the people--ekklesia, the gathered--who come together at least weekly in the Gospel Hall. And as that name suggests, the large frame for this small, slightly tribal gathering is the Gospel, is God's history and revelation in scripture.
We're a far cry from Bethell's garden, or her Anglicanism. And it does not seem promising ground for poetry that some of my earliest formation as a writer should be ritually framed by such a perfunctory box of a worship space, with high windows for light and not for sky. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons I got into literary criticism was that each week the sermon--the 'teaching', as it is typically called--was followed by debate: debate over hermeneutics, epistemology, historical criticism, ethical adjudication, reception theory, redaction, and forms--parallelisms, parables, chiasmic narrative structures, metalepsis, etc.--as well as, occasionally, careful to-and-fro on politics, citizenship. Bible knowledge is a robust element of Brethren identity, and my subsequent learning of literature has been easier for it.
If this had been the extent of it--a folded box of exegesis, methodology and argument which was inclined to mm its back on The World--if this Brethrenism had followed its strongly dissenting character into a closed space, then I expect that the impulse, at about nineteen, to start writing poetry would likely have led me to a valley of decision: either to shut myself in with the faithful, or to repurpose my love of the Word as something less confessing, something more open to lyric and the lavishments of poetry, however that might have been. It's a familiar enough trope of New Zealand poetry: the Bible as a dominating feature of a pinched religiosity, a mode of faith which is ripe for ironising, or demythologisation, or re-appropriation.
But there is more. It includes a family home in which the Bible was a regular part of life, a touchstone for being, composing a kind of irrigation pond for my later life in words. Hone Tuwhare's father reading the King James comes to mind as I remember the way dad would gather us around an old harmonium for parts-singing of the Apostles' Creed. Similarly, my mother would reflect on her day, on circumstance, parts of psalms surfacing in her musing. My parents never wielded the Bible as an instrument to control us, or to condemn neighbours. They tended rather to ponder it out loud. It was as if the contents of their lives were compost being dug into the textual soil of scripture, a structure the complexity of which was more than adequate to whatever growth was needed; also, of the same stuff as that composted experience and thus hospitable to it: speaking to it. 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly' (Col. 3:16), as the apostle Paul puts this Bible-structured economy of living, a kind of indwelling by the Word which becomes our dwelling in the Word.
More too needs to be said here about the Gospel Hall, that more austere, less promising Bible space. Even as the architecture--with its high, cobwebby windows of light and not of sky--reflected a truncated theology of beauty, its spare, the-building-is-beside-the-point aesthetic made room for a deeper economy of Bible-composted life. Central to traditional Brethrenism--which began as a radical dissenting movement--is the practice of Open Worship, a time set aside in fellowship where those gathered wait on, and expect to hear from, God's Holy Spirit, often in very personal, confessional, everyday ways. The pertinent box, the box of reality--of the world as created and purposive ('created' here is not Creation ism)--is open. 'The Earth is the Lord's and everything in it', as Psalm 24 puts it, so that in this open worship my life at work, at home, with spouse, children, neighbours, is folded into a much larger, much richer, startlingly intimate reality of life addressed by God.
A central touchstone in this is the Bible, the human-writ, God-breathed texts which both record God's address to particular people in Israel's history, and through which, crucially, God speaks to us, to me, here and now. In this worship the Bible composes an opened and opening reality, a more roomy, more resonant space, with abiding pre-modern coordinates, the knowable and yet not-masterable cosmos of things visible and invisible. It was a weekly sharing not troubled by what Hans Frei has described as the eclipse of biblical narrative, confident in the reasonableness and cogency of straightforward continuities with the lives of, say, Hannah, or Naomi, or Peter, or Potiphar, or Psalm 22's cry of forsakenness. (5)
Certainty and confidence, then--a kind of authority, even--but of a manner utterly qualified by the understood and felt presence of God-as-God-is, rather than God-as-I-would-prefer-God-to-be. 'Open' worship or not, High Anglican or Pentecostal, Christians assume that the practice of reading scripture goes on in the same large economy as prayer, attention, listening, love of neighbour, and the conversion and quickening of full human life, both personal and collective. That is, the Bible is living word, at once historical and contemporary, at once marked by significant gaps between writer, context and any reader, and also--because God is Spirit, present there and here--standing me in unsettling relation to textually-mediated others: Balaam, Jesus' disciples, Hosea, Martha of Bethany, the writer of Lamentations.
Lamentations is, mostly, a series of acrostic poems. The cumulating alphabetic lines of the lament are comprehensive, relentless even, in their recitation of Jerusalem's destruction. In tills way, the whole fabric of the Hebrew language is made to bear the weight of atrocity and failure. It's a form of completeness used to different effect elsewhere in the Bible, most elaborately in Psalm 119. It was taken up by my father as he led worship at the Gospel Hall in a practice that composes a microcosm of the way the Bible functioned in the congregation of my childhood.
Down the left-hand margin of an overhead transparency, dad would write a line from scripture, often from the Psalms, but sometimes from the New Testament. His hand, focused to a hair, would move, making large shadow-play on the screen that stretched down from the sill of the high windows. He would then invite the church to ponder, to pray silently, and to offer new lines to fill out the ancient text that now composed the vertical spine of the new acrostic psalm. The lines would be, certainly, devout, sometimes pious; but often drawn through particular, personal circumstance, with traces of lived experience, DNA. In this, then, the Bible provided both a form and a way through: far from being a form-filling exercise, the found poem of the historical text was fleshed out, often in startling, even lyric ways. The acrostic prayer-poem proved to be roomy. It wove the many voices into a discernable whole, a brightly sober and steadying reprise of the pub game where each writes a line and folds the paper towards Lord knows what vision of Xanadu. This was not scripture, sure; rather, it was a collective scripture meditation emerging out of the same economy as that which gave rise to scripture: a people addressed by God, answering and answered.
Of poetry I want to say that at its best it is not a matter of using language, far less using language to get across a message. A poet lives in language and is drawn through language and its playful (visual, musical, formal) possibilities into an emotional acuity. There's a strong sense of a participatory agency, a kind of immersion where graceful movement depends upon understanding how to be in this fluid element, how to float, to strike out, to breathe, to dive. To draw a make-shift and uneven parallel, in reading the Bible while open to the presence of God--as we did in open worship--the text is not simply object but is first a subject--speaking of, speaking as, speaking to--it addresses me. As the New Zealand Prayer Book puts it, 'Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church'.
To order the comparison I've just made, in this Bible-opened take on things, the whole of reality, embodied and linguistic, cultural and historical, spiritual and material, is embraced by--held and sustained by--that God whom the Bible invites us to take seriously. In an important sense, the stuff of my work as a poet--language, memory, history, play, person, place--all this I have understood as existing within an economy the coordinates of which far exceed the Bible, and for which the Bible is a reliable doorway.
This has consequences for how I understand what it is to write. I have had to set aside as inadequate and unreal the task of finding one's voice, or of self-making. The process of writing more truly takes place not in some deified active mood, but in a middle voice, where I actively participate in an action I do not finally or properly initiate. (6) God creates. We, by contrast, make, our work finding form within already given conditions. God speaks, and existence is answer to that prevenient 'let there be'. Poetry can, as prayer, be answering speech; it is certainly always a speaking after, not a mastering of language as much as a diving into an element which will always exceed the writer. In this economy, the process of making can be open to the large conditions of friendship with God, and the underwriting of grace; although most frequently devoted to other ends, poetry can be open worship.
One more image from the Gospel Chapel. In the northwestern wall of the hall was set a tall, push-bar fire door, painted red. A quirk of the very pragmatic approach to liturgical space, it rose up at that end of the hall most likely to be the room's focal point: arranged bench forms, rolled out Axminster runners, the overhead projector, the piano, the pulpit, the communion table, and behind, the fire door, quietly central to proceedings and closed, with push-bar up and vertical bolts secure. And then every now and then, typically at the end of a service, some kid would push the bar, and suddenly the room would be awash with light, vulnerable to the wild air above the Aotea hills.
In that time of Open Worship, I overheard women and men whose lives had slipped outside the closed box of contemporary belief, across the doorsill of scripture into the wide, airy, presence of God. They knew themselves to be held, and beheld, and spoken to through the Bible, even about the very mundane matters of their lives. In theological terms, the Bible had opened up to them the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And I would not be here, writing in this awkward vein, were it not for a series of such fire door moments. Sometimes slowly swinging wide, sometimes sudden, such openings are like being drawn out of a shaded place of observation into full sun, with all the brightness and starker relief that entails, vulnerable to the light, and set in direct relation to it, a kind of utter and un-ignorable address which has reoriented all the pronouns of my work, made them better subject to love. It's this 'seam of light', as my argument with Curnow puts it, which has been the opening up of the box, so that the Bible, which seemed simply to be a framing of things, proves instead to be a threshold. (7)
(1) Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 31.
(2) See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
(3) Mary Ursula Bethell (Evelyn Hayes), From a Garden in the Antipodes (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1929), p. 14.
(4) See, for example, Bethell's musings in January 1935 to Monte Holcroft following the death of her beloved companion Effie Pollen, in Vibrant with Words: The Letters of Ursula Bethell, ed. by Peter Whiteford (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005), p. 102.
(5) See Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).
(6) I owe this analogy to Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 103-4.
(7) John Dennison, Otherwise (Manchester: Carcanet/Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2015), p. 13.