Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Thomas Merton Reader

In his book, The Seven Storey Mountain,  Merton tells us of the writing of the following poem:
While I was sitting on the terrace of the hotel, eating lunch, La Caridad del Cobra had a word to say to me.  She handed me an idea for a poem that formed so easily and smoothly and spontaneously in my mind that all I had to do was finish eating and go up to my room and type it out, almost without correction. 

So the poem turned out to be both what she had to say to me and what I had to say to her.  It was a song for La Caridad del Cobre, and it was, as far as I was concerned, something new, and the first real poem I had ever written, or anyway the one I liked best.  It pointed the way to many other poems:  it opened the gate, and set me traveling on a certain direct track that was to last me several years.
The poem said:

The white girls lift their heads like trees,
The black girls go
Reflected like Flamingoes in the street.

The white girls sing as shrill as water,
The black girls talk as quiet as clay.

The white girls open their arms like clouds,
The black girls close their eyes like wings:
Angels bow down like bells,
Angles look up like toys,

Because the heavenly stars
Stand in a ring:
And all the pieces of the mosaic, earth,
Get up and fly away like birds.


Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed --
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring;
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

These two poems have been long favorites of mine and opened a door for me when I was in college to take chances with poetry, and to assure the heart a place at each poem's core.  In the first poem, which I don't think has a name but might be called La Caridad del Cobra, he captures so something of the joy and freedom in the truth-telling nature of poetry, a way of telling by not telling, like a Zen kōan.  This is a poem you have to let follow you around for a while.  The second poem always makes me feel intensely vulnerable.  I grew up in a family deeply touched by one war and feel for the many families today who suffer with grief that has no words.  Here Merton's poem is a gift to help give voice to the grief in the loss of a loved one.  It is so filled with heart that that the images shimmer on the edge of the poem like the skin of a bubble, buoyant with love and grief, irresistibly translucent.  He captures the life of grief in a way I've never found so well expressed.  These are borrowed from Google Books, A Thomas Merton Reader by Thomas P. McDonnell. 

See too the sensitive work of Sister Thérèse Lentfoehr in Words and Silence, on the Poetry of Thomas Merton, a book I've carried since my college days. 

1 comment:

Ixtaczoquitlán said...

I was not taken by the second Merton poem here until I read it again, more slowly, and realized that there was a rhythm to it and that the images are not nearly as simple as they seem at first.