"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Notable Quote: A Room without Books by Marcus Tullius Cicero

A case could be made that Marcus Tullius Cicero was the greatest Roman to have ever lived, I certainly would support such a proposition.  I came across this quote in an article at Aleteia on home library appearances by Cerith Gardiner. 

“A room without books is like a body without a soul”
          -Marcus Tullius Cicero

I just love that quote, and it is so Cicero.

Now look through that article and see if you like any of the library layouts.  Which ones do you like?  My favorite is the Home Library.  I would love to have a room dedicated to walls of books.  I can’t say the library shelves in the bedrooms—there are three variations—don’t do it for me.  I guess they might be for people with small apartments.  Personally I like keeping books on my night table beside the bed but shelves of books does not make for appropriate bedroom décor.  The others are either interesting or in some cases too novel for a family home.  Did you have a favorite?

Here’s my ideal home library. 




The library must have a lounge chair, preferably a recliner.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, Part 4

This is my final post on The Interior Castle and it takes up the last two mansions, the sixth and seventh.  As a reminder, these are my comments I posted on the Goodreads Catholic Thoughts book club, and I copied over other people’s comments in reply to one of my comments so that you could see the give and take.

You can read Part 1, here.  
You can read Part 2, here.
You can read Part 3, here.

You can also read The Interior Castle on line, here.

Sixth Mansion

Susan Margaret wrote: "Rather than me just putting forth a monologue or summary of what we have read, I was thinking that discussion questions might help to promote more participation. If anyone wants to post some questi...lthough most of us may only be in the first, second, or third mansions, what advice can you take from Teresa from her comments in the sixth mansion that you can apply to your journey in the first three mansions? "

The sixth mansion is so long I'm having a difficult time finding a key passage or two. In fact the sixth mansion is more than a third of the book. I'll try posting something later, but to answer your question, I would say pray and perform acts of compassion for your fellow neighbor. It's through those two things that we increase in spirituality. 


In the third chapter of the sixth mansion, Theresa starts talking about “locutions,” or as I understand it, voices from God.  It is interesting that she stipulates that just because one hears such locutions in the midst of meditative prayer does not mean that they are from God.  She says, “these may come from God, in any of the ways I have mentioned, or they may equally well come from the devil or from one's own imagination.”  So how does one know if they are from God?  She writes:

“To return, then, to our first point: whether they come from within, from above or from without, has nothing to do with their coming from God. The surest signs that one can have of their doing this are, in my opinion, as follows. The first and truest is the sense of power and authority which they bear with them, both in themselves and in the actions which follow them. I will explain myself further. A soul is experiencing all the interior disturbances and tribulations which have been described, and all the aridity and darkness of the understanding. A single word of this kind -- just a "Be not troubled" -- is sufficient to calm it. No other word need be spoken; a great light comes to it; and all its trouble is lifted from it, although it had been thinking that, if the whole world, and all the learned men in the world, were to combine to give it reasons for not being troubled, they could not relieve it from its distress, however hard they might strive to do so. Or a soul is distressed because its confessor, and others, have told it that what it has is a spirit sent by the devil, and it is full of fear. Yet that single word which it hears: "It is I, fear not," takes all its fear from it, and it is most marvellously comforted, and believes that no one will ever be able to make it feel otherwise. Or it is greatly exercised because of some important piece of business and it has no idea how this will turn out. It is then given to understand that it must be, and all will turn out well; and it acquires a new confidence and is no longer troubled. And so with many other things.”

So the first sign that it is from God is the power and authority of the word.  I won’t quote the entire passages, but there are two more signs.  Second “is that a great tranquillity dwells in the soul, which becomes peacefully and devoutly recollected, and ready to sing praises to God.”  And third “is that these words do not vanish from the memory for a very long time: some, indeed, never vanish at all.”  So power, tranquility, and lasting memory.


As I said, the sixth mansion is very large and so it’s hard to select just an idea or two to highlight, but I think this one I’m going to highlight now is very important.  In chapter seven of the sixth mansion she talks about not excluding the physical humanity of Christ. 

“You will also think that anyone who enjoys such sublime favours will not engage in meditation on the most sacred Humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, because by that time he will be wholly proficient in love. This is a thing of which I have written at length elsewhere, and, although I have been contradicted about it and told that I do not understand it, because these are paths along which Our Lord leads us, and that, when we have got over the first stages, we shall do better to occupy ourselves with matters concerning the Godhead and to flee from corporeal things, they will certainly not make me admit that this is a good way.”

What I think she’s saying there is that those who are intensely focused on prayer and meditation may have a tendency to only consider the spiritual and divine dimension of our Lord, and therefore exclude his humanity.  It sounds like at one point in her life, she had succumbed to this tendency herself.  She goes on:

“I may be wrong and we may all be meaning the same thing; but it was clear to me that the devil was trying to deceive me in this way, and I have had to learn my lesson. So, although I have often spoken about this, I propose to speak to you about it again, so that you may walk very warily. And observe that I am going so far as to advise you not to believe anyone who tells you otherwise. I will try to explain myself better than I did before. If by any chance a certain person has written about it, as he said he would, it is to be hoped that he has explained it more fully; to write about it in a general way to those of us who are not very intelligent may do a great deal of harm.”

She feels this is so important she really needs to re-emphasize it.  When you think about the heresies of Arianism and Gnosticism, I can fully understand St. Theresa’s concern.  If one only conceptualizes on the incorporeal, then the physical disappears.  In addition to forgetting the humanity of Christ, an additional danger is that we may also forget the Blessed Mother and the saints”

“Some souls also imagine that they cannot dwell upon the Passion, in which case they will be able still less to meditate upon the most sacred Virgin and the lives of the saints, the remembrance of whom brings us such great profit and encouragement. I cannot conceive what they are thinking of; for, though angelic spirits, freed from everything corporeal, may remain permanently enkindled in love, this is not possible for those of us who live in this mortal body.”

By contemplating on the corporeal as well as the spiritual, it will lead us to acts of mercy for the living, our friends and neighbors:

“We need to cultivate, and think upon, and seek the companionship of those who, though living on earth like ourselves, have accomplished such great deeds for God; the last thing we should do is to withdraw of set purpose from our greatest help and blessing, which is the most sacred Humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I cannot believe that people can really do this; it must be that they do not understand themselves and thus do harm to themselves and to others. At any rate, I can assure them that they will not enter these last two Mansions; for, if they lose their Guide, the good Jesus, they will be unable to find their way; they will do well if they are able to remain securely in the other Mansions. For the Lord Himself says that He is the Way; the Lord also says that He is light and that no one can come to the Father save by Him; and "he that seeth Me seeth my Father." It may be said that these words have another meaning. I do not know of any such meaning myself; I have got on very well with the meaning which my soul always feels to be the true one.”

And these physically acts of mercy are part of the graces that leads us through the fifth and sixth mansions. 

Seventh Mansion

When discussing the fourth mansion (I think it was) I said I wasn’t sure if Theresa considered the spiritual marriage a metaphor or a real marriage.  I’m now convinced.  It is a true marriage.  She says so in the first chapter of the seventh mansion:

“When Our Lord is pleased to have pity upon this soul, which suffers and has suffered so much out of desire for Him, and which He has now taken spiritually to be His bride, He brings her into this Mansion of His, which is the seventh, before consummating the Spiritual Marriage. For He must needs have an abiding-place in the soul, just as He has one in Heaven, where His Majesty alone dwells: so let us call this a second Heaven”

While that is not as physical as St. Catherine of Siena describes her spiritual marriage, I would say it’s a real event and not a metaphor.  Back when discussing the fourth mansion, I mentioned how I tend to focus on how a work is organized, and that there was certain a break between the third and fourth mansions.  Some people see the structure of the Interior Castle as the first three mansions constitute one unit—call it the sections requiring human effort—and the last four as the sections requiring supernatural grace.  I see the Interior Castle divided into three sections, the first three, the next three, and the seventh mansion as its own unit.  Later in the first chapter Theresa says:

“But in this Mansion everything is different. Our good God now desires to remove the scales from the eyes of the soul, so that it may see and understand something of the favour which He is granting it, although He is doing this in a strange manner. It is brought into this Mansion by means of an intellectual vision, in which, by a representation of the truth in a particular way, the Most Holy Trinity reveals Itself, in all three Persons. First of all the spirit becomes enkindled and is illumined, as it were, by a cloud of the greatest brightness. It sees these three Persons, individually, and yet, by a wonderful kind of knowledge which is given to it, the soul realizes that most certainly and truly all these three Persons are one Substance and one Power and one Knowledge and one God alone; so that what we hold by faith the soul may be said here to grasp by sight, although nothing is seen by the eyes, either of the body or of the soul, for it is no imaginary vision. Here all three Persons communicate Themselves to the soul and speak to the soul and explain to it those words which the Gospel attributes to the Lord -- namely, that He and the Father and the Holy Spirit will come to dwell with the soul which loves Him and keeps His commandments.

Oh, God help me! What a difference there is between hearing and believing these words and being led in this way to realize how true they are! Each day this soul wonders more, for she feels that they have never left her, and perceives quite clearly, in the way I have described, that They are in the interior of her heart -- in the most interior place of all and in its greatest depths. So although, not being a learned person, she cannot say how this is, she feels within herself this Divine companionship.”

As Theresa says, “everything is different” in the seventh mansion.  The spirit is illumined, a knowledge is conferred, and the Trinity speaks to the soul.  They, the Trinity, “are in the interior of the heart” and feels the “Divine companionship.”  What has happened here is what I would call a transfiguration, like that of our Lord on top of the mountain.  While it’s still a grace that one progresses to the seventh, but I think the experience of the seventh mansion goes beyond that of any of the other mansions.


Irene Replied: 
“I am not sure how you are distinguishing between metaphore and real in your comment. But, I would argue that, whenever we are applying human language to the Divine, there is always a level of the metaphoric to it. Marriage is a human covenant. I think Teresa is using this very human experience to talk about something sublime, something for which there is no more precise language to describe it. However, I do agree that there is a real union of the soul with God in this final stage of this spiritual journey.”

My reply to Irene:
“Good question, Irene. I'm very familiar with St. Catherine of Siena's mystical marriage. It would take too long to find the passages in my books on her to pull out exactly what happened during her ceremony so I'll go by memory. But according to her it was an actual ceremony where Christ entered her room, the Blessed Mother handed Christ over as spouse, and she was given a ring to confirm the marriage. One can either believe her or not, but if one believes her, then that's a fairly physical experience, sort of like a stigmata is physical. A metaphor would be someone saying that he/she was married to Christ, but without some "physical" mystical experience.

For St Theresa, it sounds like Christ physically came to her in a marriage, though she doesn't get anywhere as detailed as St. Catherine, at least not in this book. I guess you can read about mystical marriages here:


By the way it occurs to me that those with religious vows are actually married to Christ. I wasn't thinking along those lines.”

Irene Replied:
“No where in Teresa's writing does she describe a vision of a ritual paralleling a marriage ceremony. She describes a mystical union on a spiritual level that is a total union of love with the beloved. Based on other texts I have read by Teresa, I think she would say that her experience of the 7th mansion was like and unlike human marriage. I think she is using the term metaphorically, but that the union of love is very real.”

My reply to Irene:
This is the only work I have read of St. Theresa’s, and I do think it was a mistake to start with this.  In many places she assumes you have read her previous works, and that puts the reader at a disadvantage.  I guess that’s understandable since she is writing for her nuns.

My first impulse was to say Theresa’s spiritual marriage is metaphor, but it does strike me as more physical than not.  I agree there is no ceremony in Interior Castle, and I can’t speak for her other writings.  But look here at chapter 2 of the 7th mansion. 

“LET us now come to treat of the Divine and Spiritual Marriage, although this great Favour cannot be fulfilled perfectly in us during our lifetime, for if we were to withdraw ourselves from God this great blessing would be lost. When granting this favour for the first time, His Majesty is pleased to reveal Himself to the soul through an imaginary vision of His most sacred Humanity, so that it may clearly understand what is taking place and not be ignorant of the fact that it is receiving so sovereign a gift. To other people the experience will come in a different way. To the person of whom we have been speaking the Lord revealed Himself one day, when she had just received Communion, in great splendour and beauty and majesty, as He did after His resurrection, and told her that it was time she took upon her His affairs as if they were her own and that He would take her affairs upon Himself; and He added other words which are easier to understand than to repeat.”

You can probably read that in both ways.  Christ coming in “His most sacred Humanity” strikes me as quite physical.  But then it is also though a vision.  But remember, even Catherine’s ceremony was in a vision.  Theresa continues:

“This, you will think, was nothing new, since on other occasions the Lord had revealed Himself to that soul in this way. But it was so different that it left her quite confused and dismayed: for one reason, because this vision came with great force; for another, because of the words which He spoke to her, and also because, in the interior of her soul, where He revealed Himself to her, she had never seen any visions but this. For you must understand that there is the greatest difference between all the other visions we have mentioned and those belonging to this Mansion, and there is the same difference between the Spiritual Betrothal and the Spiritual Marriage as there is between two betrothed persons and two who are united so that they cannot be separated any more.”

She says there is something different going on in the 7th mansion than the previous, and it comes “with great force.”  The next paragraph is rather long and I won’t quote it all.  At first she distinguishes between a spiritual betrothal and a spiritual marriage, and I’m not sure I get the difference, except that a spiritual marriage goes way deeper.  She goes on to say:

“But what passes in the union of the Spiritual Marriage is very different. The Lord appears in the centre of the soul, not through an imaginary, but through an intellectual vision (although this is a subtler one than that already mentioned), just as He appeared to the Apostles, without entering through the door, when He said to them: "Pax vobis". This instantaneous communication of God to the soul is so great a secret and so sublime a favour, and such delight is felt by the soul, that I do not know with what to compare it, beyond saying that the Lord is pleased to manifest to the soul at that moment the glory that is in Heaven, in a sublimer manner than is possible through any vision or spiritual consolation. It is impossible to say more than that, as far as one can understand, the soul (I mean the spirit of this soul) is made one with God, Who, being likewise a Spirit, has been pleased to reveal the love that He has for us by showing to certain persons the extent of that love, so that we may praise His greatness. For He has been pleased to unite Himself with His creature in such a way that they have become like two who cannot be separated from one another: even so He will not separate Himself from her.”

She says Christ appears in her “just as He appeared to the Apostles.”  Well, that’s quite real.  Today’s Mass reading we see St. Thomas sticks his hand into Christ’s side.  And that “union” she speaks of in those last few sentences I quoted, that strikes me as physical, not metaphor.  I guess this could be in the eye of the reader, but we are reading about spiritual phenomena, and that in itself is abstract, so we might reach a conclusion that it’s metaphor.  But if the spirit is a real thing, then the happenings to the spirit are real and not metaphor.  Do you see where I’m coming from?


Irene replied:
“I see where you are coming from. I suspect we are using words differently. Since she continually speaks of soul and spirit, and since the soul is our spiritual nature and is not a physical reality, but a spiritual reality, I would not call this union physical, but spiritual. Since marriage is a physical as well as a spiritual union, I would use metaphore for her use of the term.”


My reply:
To clarify terms, Irene, metaphor would be a comparison of one thing with another.  For instance Teresa compares the evolution of the soul to a butterfly.  She doesn’t literally mean the soul is a butterfly.  She compares the flow of God’s graces into the soul as water flows into a cup.  She doesn’t mean that water actually flows into the soul.  Now in this case she says that Christ unites with her in marriage.  Her soul is “made one with God,” pulling the quote from that last paragraph I quoted.  That doesn’t sound like the same thing as the butterfly or the water.  I think she means Christ really, physically (though it’s spiritual) unites with her.  OK, we may just have to disagree. :)



Irene Replied:
Maybe we don't have to disagree. I don't think Teresa is using union in a metaphoric way. I think she has experienced a union with Christ that is profound, so profound that it is like a marriage bond. I think marriage is a metaphore for this very real mystical union.

My Reply:
That's a good point Irene.  The union is certainly physical.  We agree there.  The question then is whether referring to the union as marriage is metaphor.  I don't think Teresa is clear, but maybe that's because she thinks whichever way she intends  it's self-evident.  Is the term marriage itself a metaphor?  What exactly is a marriage, let alone a "spiritual marriage?"  Thinking back to when I got married, it was all so - what's the right word? - nebulous, intangible, surreal.  A priest and a rabbi (my wife is Jewish) said some words, we exchanged rings, sealed it with a kiss, and signed a piece of paper, and all of a sudden your whole life is different.  What exactly just happened?  LOL.  Of course if I dared to tell my wife our marriage was all a metaphor, she might whack me with the nearest frying pan.  :-P

Irene Replied:
Well, we might disagree on the term physical. Since Teresa always speaks of the soul in regard to the union, and since the soul is not physical, I would not use physical for the union. I would definitely call it real, but a spiritual reality rather than a physical reality in keeping with Catholic understanding of the soul.

My Comment
I wanted to end this book discussion with one last passage from the Seventh Mansion that I think is a summation of what this journey through the Castle is about.  In the second chapter Teresa speaks on the results of prayer and contemplation lead to Christ inside one’s selfg:

“This, with the passage of time, becomes more evident through its effects; for the soul clearly understands, by certain secret aspirations, that it is endowed with life by God. Very often these aspirations are so vehement that what they teach cannot[229] possibly be doubted: though they cannot be described, the soul experiences them very forcibly. One can only say that this feeling is produced at times by certain delectable words which, it seems, the soul cannot help uttering, such as: "O life of my life, and sustenance that sustaineth me!" and things of that kind. For from those Divine breasts, where it seems that God is ever sustaining the soul, flow streams of milk, which solace all who dwell in the Castle; it seems that it is the Lord's will for them to enjoy all that the soul enjoys, so that, from time to time, there should flow from this mighty river, in which this tiny little spring is swallowed up, a stream of this water, to sustain those who in bodily matters have to serve the Bridegroom and the bride. And just as a person suddenly plunged into such water would become aware of it, and, however unobservant he might be, could not fail to become so, the same thing may be said, with even greater confidence, of these operations to which I refer. For just as a great stream of water could never fall on us without having an origin somewhere, as I have said, just so it becomes evident that there is someone in the interior of the soul who sends forth these arrows and thus gives life to this life, and that there is a sun whence this great light proceeds, which is transmitted to the faculties in the interior part of the soul. The soul, as I have said, neither moves from that centre nor loses its peace, for He Who gave His peace to the Apostles when they were all together can give peace to the soul.”

Christ has come within and is the source of a divine sustenance that one feeds upon.  The water from that river symbol she keeps using has become a sort of milk.  And in the next paragraph she tells us in this state we leave the corporeal and inter into a pure spirituality. 

“For it is quite certain that, when we empty ourselves of all that is creature and rid ourselves of it for the love of God, that same Lord will fill our souls with Himself. Thus, one day, when Jesus Christ was praying for His Apostles (I do not know where this occurs), He asked that they might become one with the Father and with Him, even as Jesus Christ our Lord is in the Father and the Father is in Him. I do not know what greater love there can be than this. And we shall none of us fail to be included here, for His Majesty went on to say: "Not for them alone do I pray, but also for all who believe in Me"; and again: "I am in them."


So to bring Christ in means to empty ourselves out.  One then has become an empty vessel from which the flowing water (or milk) pours into and fills the space.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Poetry: “On Receiving News of the War” by Isaac Rosenberg

My poetry read for this year is a collection poems from poets of WWI, titled Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, written and edited by Max Egremont.  It’s written by Egremont because it’s more than just a collection of poetry.  The poetry is integrated with the history and poet’s lives.  The book is organized around the year by year history and what the poets were up to in that year, and it provides a sampling of that year’s poetic output. 

For instance, Isaac Rosenberg is a poet I had not heard of before.  It is interesting that so many poets and writers served in the First World War, and unfortunately many did not make it through alive, especially the poets.  In the “Prelude,” where we learn about the biographies of the poets we’ll meet, we learn this about Rosenberg:
Self Portrait

A year later, in June 1914, a young Jewish man also arrived in South Africa.  Isaac Rosenberg, like Julian Grenfell, painted and wrote poetry.  But Rosenberg came from an atmosphere of greater intellectual freedom among immigrants in London’s Whitechapel.  When Grenfell announced that he thought of leaving the army to study art in Paris, his family mocked him; this was not what the eldest son of Lord Desborough did.  Rosenberg may have been proud that ‘Nobody ever told me what to read, or eveer put poetry in my way,’ but his father, a Jewish pedlar who had fled Lithuania to escape conscription in the Russian army, was a cultured man.  Barnett Rosenberg had trained for the rabbinate and wrote poetry.  Isaac’s parents were both pacifists.

They were also very poor.  At the age of fourteen, Isaac was apprenticed to an engraver, which he hated.  He went to evening classes at Birkbeck College, wrote verses influenced by Swinburne, Rossetti and Francis Thompson, and looked to Keats, Shelley and an earlier engraver poet, William Blake.  In 1911, rich Jewish patrons paid for him to study at the Slade School of Fine Art alongside the artists David Bomberg and Christopher Nevinson.  Yiddish had been Isaac Rosenberg’s first language; as late as 1913, wanting to enter for an art prize while at the Slade, he was unsure if he was a British subject.  Like Julian Grenfell, he felt trapped by what he called ‘the fiendish persistence of the coil of circumstance’.  Yet he thought, ‘it is the same with all people no matter what the condition’. 

In 1914, Rosenberg had not entered the war yet, and while in South Africa composed in this poem his premonitions on hearing of the war.  .  In contrast to the spirit of the age, his poem, “On Receiving News of the War” takes on an anti-war tone.


On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town
By Isaac Rosenberg

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter's cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men's hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God's blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.


First, some basics on the construction of the poem.  It’s composed of five stanzas of quatrains in roughly iambic meter and an ABAB rhyme scheme with no interlocking rhymes between the stanzas.  What’s interesting to me about the lines is the length.  The first and third lines of each stanza are composed of three feet (which in this case equals six syllables) and the second and fourth lines of two feet (equaling four syllables).  I cannot find in either my poetry composition books nor on the internet this form.  It’s not that an unusual form.  I could swear I’ve seen it before.  I went searching through various poets who I thought might have used this form—Auden, Tennyson, Shelley, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins—I couldn’t find anything they wrote that was in this form.  So until I can locate another such poem in this form, I’m going to have assume Rosenberg is the first to use it.

It does have the feel of a Victorian poem.  Stylistically it has very strong echoes of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic In Memoriam A.H.H.  Here are the first three stanzas of that great work:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;


Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.


Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

You can read Tennyson’s entire poem at Literature Network, here.    The lines of In Memoriam are all four feet, and the rhyme scheme is different than Rosenberg’s, but the phrasing and compact sentences nearly echo.  Both use staccato sentences, both freely use the connector “and,” and both seem to speak in a pastoral, almost Biblical voice.  Notice too how Rosenberg alludes to Tennyson’s poem with “No man knows why” in the eighth line of his poem to Tennyson’s “he knows not why” in the tenth line of his poem,

But Rosenberg’s shortened second and fourth lines push the poem toward a ballad.  Compare the lines of “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

The ballad form consists of four feet (eight syllables) in the first and third lines and three feet (six syllables) in the second and fourth lines.  Rosenberg shortens the ballad form by reducing a foot in each line.  On the other hand Tennyson pushes away from the ballad form by adding a foot to the second and fourth lines.  Though both Rosenberg and Tennyson are modifying the ballad form differently, I think both are doing it so for the same overarching reason.  They want the feel of a hymnal song while altering the form to add a different layer of complexity. 

Now let’s get to the heart of Rosenberg’s poem.  He starts the poem with the image of snow, a symbol of universal death.  The snow comes to Cape Town, where he is writing the poem, having heard of the Great War’s start.  He calls Cape Town a “Summerland,” even though it is snowing.  The war began in the month of July, which in locales below the equator would mean it is winter.  Rosenberg is playing with that sort of paradoxical situation where it snows in what Europeans would call a summer month.  The situation is not quite in the norm.

And then in the third stanza by a parallelism he compares with that unnatural snow “an old spirit” in men’s hearts that has caused man’s fallen state.  That fallen spirit has shed God’s blood, and God sadly mourns the dead.  His last stanza is a masterpiece:

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

Rosenberg identifies the spirit that has led to this Great War to original sin, and appeals in prayer like voice to return to that Edenic state.  It’s interesting that a Jewish writer would use the phrase “God’s blood is shed,” which alludes to Christ crucified.  Even the “malign kiss” in the eleventh line seems to allude to Judas betraying Christ with a kiss.  I would think he was conscious of the allusions.  Whatever the case may be, it’s a fine poem.

Skimming ahead in Some Desperate Glory I can find a number of very good Rosenberg poems.  I doubt I’ll have a chance to post another, since I want to give a variety of poets their due.  Sadly Rosenberg did not survive the war.  From his Wikipedia entry:

On March 21, 1918, the German Army started its Spring offensive on the Western Front. A week later, Rosenberg sent his last letter with a poem “Through these Pale Cold Days to England” before going to the front lines with reinforcements. Having just finished night patrol, he was killed on the night of the April 1, 1918 with another 10 KORL's soldiers; there is a dispute as to whether his death occurred at the hands of a sniper or in close combat. In either case, he died in a town called Fampoux, north-east of Arras. He was first buried in a mass grave, but in 1926, the unidentified remains of the six KORL's soldiers were individually re-interred at Bailleul Road East Cemetery, Plot V, Saint-Laurent-Blangy, Pas de Calais, France. The Rosenberg's gravestone is marked with his name and the words, "Buried near this spot", as well as — "Artist and Poet".


What a shame.  He was only 27 years old.  What a great poet he might have developed into.  


Monday, May 23, 2016

Personal Note: My Surgery

OK I had it and I’m alive.  If you didn’t read my post from the other day, here.  I had to be at the hospital at the ungodly hour of 6:15 AM this morning.  That’s even earlier than when I start work.  I went through the admission process.  Co-pays have gotten ridiculous.  The cheaper they make health care, the more expensive it is.  I tried to make a joke but it went flat.  The admissions nurse asked if I was working; I said not at the moment, meaning not that very second.  I corrected it after she didn’t smile.

After some measuring of vitals, I was told to take off all my clothes and put on two hospital gowns, one open to the back, the other open to the front.  The surgeon came in and talked as if he remembered me.  I guess he did.  He took out a marker, opened my gowns, and signed the left lower abdomen where the hernia repair was needed.  Perhaps it was my nerves, but I had gas.  I told the nurse earlier and the doctor now and neither seemed to think it was of concern.  My fear was that under sedation I would pass a bowel movement and make a mess of the situation.  I was walked over to the operating room where the surgical team were all looking at me above their surgical masks as I walked into the room.  It felt like I was in an episode of Dr. Kildare,  I was asked to lay down on the table, and someone removed the gown opened to the front.  There’s no dignity in being a patient. 
 
Someone asked who I was and what I was here for.  I told them.  I had to splay my arms outward as if I were being crucified, and my thoughts jumped immediately to Jesus.  The head nurse tried to strap some contraption across my waist.  “So you don’t fall off,” She said.  The anesthesiologist said he was plugging the anesthesia into my catheter on my left forearm.  Someone was doing something to my right arm as well, and asked politely, I assume strapping it down.  My arms were in some sort of crossbar.  It really felt like I was being crucified.  My last thoughts were wondering on whether the Roman soldiers were this polite to Jesus as they nailed him to the cross. I know depictions show a brutality, but we don’t really know, now do we?  Perhaps they were polite.

Next thing I know I was in the recovery bay, the surgery finished, and it was now about an hour later.  I guess I did not pass a bowel movement.  My vitals checked out.  They gave me a cup of coffee and a cookie, and they called my wife, and it seemed within minutes I was being wheeled out to my car.  I think I was home before 10:30.

I’ve been resting and reading—this is a great time to catch up on a lot of reading—all day.  The doctor’s autograph is still on my belly.  Perhaps he thinks it’s a masterpiece.  Pain has gotten progressively worse.  I’m trying to avoid taking the Tramadol; too many people get addicted to these pain killers.  I’ve been putting an ice pack on it (it’s swollen) and taking ibuprofen.  It’s very difficult getting out of bed, and it really hurts when I cough.  I haven’t had a bowel movement yet, but I suspect that’s going to really hurt too.  I may take a Tramadol before going to bed so I could sleep.

Through it all I couldn’t help but remember the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s great poem, “The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock.”    



LET us go then, you and I,    
When the evening is spread out against the sky        
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,       
The muttering retreats         5
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels  
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: 
Streets that follow like a tedious argument   
Of insidious intent     
To lead you to an overwhelming question….         10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” 
Let us go and make our visit.

Yes, today I was a patient etherized upon a table.  Thank you for your prayers.  Hopefully it will all be worth it.



Sunday, May 22, 2016

Short Story for Mother’s Day: “Hallelujah, Family” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Happy Mother’s Day!  I know, that was two weeks ago.  So happy belated mother’s day.  I meant to post something special for Mother’s Day, as I usually do, but I didn’t realize it and posted on the word, “scorbutic.”  Scurvy and Mother’s Day do not exactly go together, LOL.

But then I thought that a short story I recently read, : “Hallelujah, Family” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya would make a good post honoring motherhood.  I have forgotten how I came across the Russian author, Ludmilla PetrushevskayaHer name caught my eye somewhere, and so I bought her collection of short stories with the intriguing tittle, There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories, translated into English by Anna Summers.  Elissa Schappel in a NY Times book review of this collection points out that the “Love Stories subtitle characterizes her a modern day Anton Checkov.  

A few stories capture a character in a Checkovian moment of clarity; some read like family lore, recounted without fanfare or urgency; others echo the gossip women exchange like currency.  What is consistent is the dark, fatalistic humor and bne-deep irony Petrushevskaya’s characters employ as protection against the biting cold of loneliness and misfortune that seems their birthright.   

Ellen Wernecke in this book review points out the “Love Stories” subtitle is ironic.  

The love affairs Petrushevskaya depicts arrived soaked in the futility of the world where they take place, with family and geography cuffing them even when the desire is mutual. In “Young Berries,” the Grimm-est of the tales and a reminder of Petrushevskaya’s breakout collection, a girl fielding a phone call from her first crush is surrounded first by threatening classmates in a forest, and then by her nosy relatives; unable to enjoy the moment, she makes her excuses and hangs up. A grandmother’s cane watching over a woman who brings a man home in “Two Deities” stands in for a lifetime of intrusion disguised as affection, and during the tryst, Petrushevskaya writes, “the grandmother never left the room.” The characters’ emotional lives mirror the Soviet-era privations under which they live. Feeling is often their main extravagance, but it sometimes proves too costly.

I’ve only read this one story, but reading having read this story and having read about the themes in the other stories through the reviews, it strikes me that what is missing in these reviews is pointing out that at the heart of the Petrushevskaya world is a breakdown in the family unit and a collapse in the moral values that held the family together in the first place.  I could not find the original published dates of her stories, but she has been writing since the 1970s, which means she has been writing in late Soviet Union, through the collapse of communism, and through post-communist Russia.  It would not surprise many to see works documenting the dysfunctionality of family life over those years in Russia.

There is no story in the collection given the title that is the title of the collection.  I looked specifically for it but I did find that “Hallelujah, Family” was that story about a girl who seduces her brother-in-law.  This was story under a different title.

Aesthetically what caught my eye about this story was the style.  This is the first story I have ever seen told in bulleted, almost outline, form.  Here’s the beginning:

This, in short, is what happened.

1. A young girl worked as a secretary during the day and took classes at night. She came from a respectable family, although her mother had a certain history:

2. She was the illegitimate child of two mothers and one father—you see,

3. there were two sisters: one was married, the other was just fifteen, and she got pregnant by her brother-in-law, who hanged himself while she gave birth to a daughter she hated.

4. That daughter grew up, got married, and had a baby, a daughter.

5. That daughter was our little secretary/student, Alla. Our Alla began to go out with men as soon as she turned fifteen. Her mother cried and scolded her, but nothing helped, and the mother began to lose her mind. In addition to which, she was diagnosed with an illness

6. that promised immobility. She and Alla got along horribly, because

7. Alla was raised by her grandmother (3), who hated her daughter, Alla’s mother, and who, at thirty-five, took her little granddaughter to live with her in a provincial town where she shared a house with her uncle, a much older man.

8. Who knew what lay behind the cohabitation of a fifty-year-old uncle and his niece, the only ones left from a large family after all the wars, arrests, divorces, forced and unforced deaths.

And so the story goes on like this in numbered bullets, all the way to bullet number 45, without any dramatization.  Between the bullets there is implied drama, very intense drama actually, but no traditional narrative.  Works of art that deviate from an aesthetic norm need to justify the deviation, otherwise it’s just a novelty.  Is this just a novelty or is there an aesthetic reason for the form?

What the form made me do as a reader was to reconstruct the convoluted family tree in a way that straight narrative would just tell.  The bulleted items have a progression that is not necessarily chronological, and so one has to piece together relationships.  Here is my reconstruction: There is the 15 year old niece who gets pregnant by her brother-in-law; the child’s name is Elena who had a child named Alla, the central character of this story.  Alla goes on to have an illegitimate daughter of her own named Nadya.  And so you have four generations of women each linked through motherhood to the subsequent generation.  The bulleted form focuses the reader’s attention to tangled web of dysfunctionality.

But I think even more important than forcing to the reader to focus on the generational relationships, the bulleted form deconstructs in a clinical style the lives of the characters to their bare dysfunctional selves.  It’s clinical in the sense that it’s like a psychological case study, and it brings the dysfunctionality to the foreground. 

What this story is ultimately about is family and the centrality of motherhood in the family.  It’s the relationship of the mother to the child that shaped each dysfunctional family.  We see this with Alla and her decision to keep her baby after getting pregnant.


11.  Then Alla, unmarried, gave birth.  Her mother, stooped over, shuffled around, washing diapers, cooking, cleaning.  All this she did grudgingly, as there was no money in the house.  Elena lived on her invalid’s pension; her husband had died, and Alla wasn’t working, having just given birth to a daughter, Nadya.  Elena’s memory of her terrible past—of her illegitimate father’s death in the noose, of her quiet teenage mother—weighed Elena down, and she nagged and nagged poor Alla, who’d huddle by the baby’s crib and try not to cry.

12. Little Nadya had a father, but he lived with Alla only sporadically, considering her used-up material.  He had made her pregnant twice, and when it happened the third time, Victor—who saw himself not as a future father but simply as facilitator of another abortion—put Alla in a cab and directed the driver to the same hospital.  He told the driver to wait, walked Alla to the ward, and pecked her on the cheek.  This time, though, he left before she changed into the sterile hospital robe, so he didn’t take her street clothes from her.

13.  Alla spent the night in the ward, thinking—that she was twenty-five, that Victor had left her, that all her future held were random liaisons with married men.  As morning approached, Alla hugged her belly and felt she had a family, that she was no longer alone.

The child gives Alla incredible power, allowing her to reign in the wayward Victor, with the help of Victor’s mother it should be noted.  The woman gains power through motherhood, while the child becomes a tool to acquire that power.  It’s not the noblest of means, but the result is family.


Some questions come to mind as one contemplates the story.  Was the series of the dysfunctional families all rooted and caused from the initial girl who seduced her brother-in-law?  Or were the dysfunctional families independently dysfunctional from values widespread in the broken society at large?  Perhaps both is the answer.  Will Victor settle into his fatherly responsibilities or will he replicate a similar sort of outcome as that brother-in-law who fornicated with his wife’s sister?  The questions don’t get answered.