Monday, September 19, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #8

Along with Heaney, one of my favorite all-time poets is the much lesser known (but perhaps equally talented) poet/priest from Wales, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize; it's a shame that he never won it, largely because it more than likely would have brought his powerful poetry to a much larger audience. But those who have read anything by him are unlikely to have forgotten the experience.

Thomas' dark, seething, precise poetry centers upon the Welsh people and landscape, and on man's tormented relationship with his Creator. I don't think I've read any poetry that captures the struggle for belief and faith in a world that denies God more vividly than Thomas'. In some ways, his poems are very much like the Welsh landscape he lived and ministered upon: sometimes beautiful, often harsh and barren and treacherous, never easy to track through... yet very rewarding, if you take the time to soak in the atmosphere and meditate on the mysteries you encounter there.

His poems about faith in particular are not for those whose own faith hangs by a thread. He does not hesitate to ask God the toughest of questions, and to cry out for answers... sometimes his verses about both God and those who choose to believe in Him veer dangerously close towards bitterness or even contempt. Yet he seems to know his place, and to accept the universe on God's terms, although sometimes grudgingly. I believe his stark, unrelenting approach to matters of faith was his attempt to make sense of his own personal doubts and struggles -- as a man, husband, father and, especially, a priest (Epsicopal), ministering to a remote people in a remote place... a people who looked to him for answers to their own problems and fears.

Some of Thomas' images and lines are so powerful, so interestingly expressed, that they stop me dead in my (figurative) tracks. This meditation on the story of Cain & Abel is a perfect example. If it doesn't make you stop and think about that famous passage of scripture and what a mystery it is, I suggest you contact your physician immediately. That last line in particular gives me chills... in the end, it seems, Cain is not the only one being indicted here. He stands for all of us.



Abel looked at the wound
His brother had dealt him, and loved him
For it. Cain saw that look
And struck him again. The blood cried
On the ground; God listened.
He questioned Cain. But Cain answered:

Who made the blood? I offered you
Clean things: the blond hair
Of the corn; the knuckled vegetables; the
Flowers; things that did not publish
Their hurt, that bled
Silently. You would not accept them.

And God said: It was part of myself
He gave me. The lamb was torn
From my own side. The limp head,
The slow fall of red tears—they
Were like a mirror to me in which I beheld
My reflections. I anointed myself
In readiness for the journey
To the doomed tree you were at work upon.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

R.S. Thomas is great stuff. Duke introduced me to his work and although I do not read as much poetry as he does, I found the stuff mesmerizing. Re-read those last lines of the poem posted here!! Powerful stuff! BTW, I recommend a tough-to-get book called 'Akenfield' if you're interested in life in these small English villages. I realize R.S. Thomas is Welsh, but the writing he does about Wales and life in small villages calls this great nonfiction book to mind, in which village life in rural England is explored through the words of the town's residents. I have a beat up used copy if anyone who knows me and sees this is interested. That is a really interesting book. R.S. Thomas' work is a fascinating window into small-town village life in the UK too.