It is my great pleasure to share that Dr. David Grubbs of the Christian Humanist Radio Network recently invited me to sit down and talk about my work with St. Aethelwold’s Old English translation of the Rule of St. Benedict (and other Anglo-Saxon things), and the interview is now available here.
We had a great time, and while we geeked out over all kinds of Anglo-Saxon things, we also wanted to keep the conversation grounded in order to invite folks into a relatively specialized topic. That is to say: you don’t need to be a student of medieval history or literature to follow the interview, so please do give a listen!
Thanks again to Dr. Grubbs and everyone there at The Christian Humanist!
While my first literary love is Old English poetry, I am a fan of Middle English too. In my new collection, I have a few translations of poems from Geoffrey Chaucer. I like to remind folks in general, my students, and myself from time to time that Chaucer did things aside from The Canterbury Tales (as great as they are).
So here’s one of his shorter lyric poems, “Truth,” done in the forme fixe of the ballade, a French verse form that was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. Contemporary English poets (Chaucer himself and John Lydgate preeminent among them) liked to use it too, and later English-language poets have continued the tradition. I’ve retained the verse form over literal meaning, to preserve the musicality of Chaucer’s original. (In my translation I also omit the “envoy,” the final stanza that is addressed to a particular person, to “universalize” the poem–for better or worse.)
I like especially his image of the futility of “kicking the point of an awl.”
The texts follow the audio file of my reading of the Middle English and translation.
Truth: Balade de Bon Conseyl
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thing, though it be smal,
For hord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal.
Savour no more than thee bihove shal,
Reule wel thyself that other folk canst rede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal;
Gret reste stant in litel besinesse.
Be war therfore to sporne ayeyns an al,
Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
That thee is sent, receyve in buxomnesse;
The wrastling for this world axeth a fal.
Here is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the heye wey and lat thy gost thee lede,
And trouthe thee shall delivere, it is no drede.
Truth: A Middle English Ballade of Good Counsel by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee the crowd and dwell securely in trueness.
Let your own suffice, though it not be much,
for greed leads to hate and grasping to coldness;
the crowd leads to envy, and wealth deceives such
as hold too tightly everything they touch.
Rule yourself well, that others clearly see,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Don’t try to amend all that is amiss,
trusting that Lady who spins like a ball;
true rest lies in spurning busyness.
There’s no sense in kicking the point of an awl
nor in the crock’s struggle against a wall.
Rule yourself, you who rule others’ deeds,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Take what is sent to you in obedience;
struggle, for this world surely begs a fall.
We have no home here, only wilderness.
Go forth, pilgrim! Go forth, beast, from your stall!
This is one of the more recent pieces collected in my first book of poems, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. The dominant trope of the collection is the archetypal movement of “pilgrimage,” and this poem falls directly in that ambit.
In 2006, my older brother and I went on a fairly random two-week trek around Ireland and Great Britain, focusing on southwestern Ireland, London, and Cornwall. We have ancestors from Cornwall (around Camborne), and we spent a good bit of our UK time in the western-most part of Cornwall, Penwith.
The poem’s text follows the audio file of my reading, and I hope you enjoy (and visit Penwith someday!).
We railed it from Holyhead to Birmingham,
sleeping splayed across three seats like vagrants,
a Welsh child crawling down luggage racks
to case us out, hills rolling by outside.
Eyelids like metal traps resisting peregrinations
but the world springs back to form and clarity
over trestles in mine-ruin Redruth,
downtown Camborne—and little did we suspect
ancestral hamlet Gwillanwarthas a stone’s throw away.
Our uphill tramp along Penzance soaked cement
to the wrong hostel almost too much to take.
Back down petunia-lined lanes of thatched roofs—
who knew they still took the time?
Bags thrown on bunks that make you sad
how wet they are—we’re told that’s just Cornwall, mate—
and our clothes, our shoes did not dry for four days’ time,
despite the hostel dryer’s heroic and repeated attempts.
The rock, the seabirds too many to number and shades of difference,
another car cramped and rented, sitting in inverted seats,
but the same stick: we had that.
And you drove up the curb off Alverton Street
to the horror of several Cornish folk passing by
to their morning papers and pasties.
We kept the sea to our left on our circumambulation
always moving, the next fountain, the next cairn
and dolmen and churchyard, the next pond with
white streaks of swan and springs swallowed up
by time, padding up the A-30 to Bodmin Moor,
making wrong turns down claustrophobic lanes
toLamorna Cove with housewives’ sidelong glances
as they potted plants with strangers driving slowly past
and tossing off the world, the forest strange in these parts and sopping.
Why did we careen down backways, narrow and hard as rock
to find standing stone rings in farmers’ fields,
searching miry paths hung with moss for baptistries
left standing since the Reformation? Why the restless
surge to moor and field and shore in damp and rain,
in hard grey midmornings and no food ’til teatime?
The cracked and bristling grass that welcomed our feet,
the draughts from Iron Age wells and flowering club moss?
How can we know? The last bleak
stretch of path down unknown woods, opening out into clearings
lined with mud and lichen, into centuries, then turning ’round,
was more than enough—circling Penwith into the dawn
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be co-leading a retreat this summer in lovely Big Sur, CA at New Camaldoli Hermitage. Along with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam. I’ll be sharing a weekend of poetry, music, cinema, liturgy, prayer, and meditation with any and all who wish to join us. Good times will abound, the Spirit willing!
The description of the retreat is below, and you can see the Camaldolese monks’ site here and register for the retreat by following the directions here. I’m very much looking forward to spending the weekend with the monastic and oblate communities at the Hermitage.
And a quick note to thank the monks and oblates of The Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome, ID for hosting me late last year for a retreat on the deep Benedictine contemplative tradition!
“Wake Up! The Legacy of Swami Abhishiktananda in Poetry, Song and Film”
Swami Abhishiktananda (Fr. Henri Le Saux) was a Benedictine monk who spent much of his life in India immersed in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and Hinduism. By the time of his death in 1973, Swamiji had become a prophet of interreligious dialogue, an accomplished spiritual writer, and one of the twentieth century’s great mystics. Swamiji sought and desired to lead others to the realization of Absolute Reality, drawing together Christian teaching on the Trinity and Hindu teaching on non-duality (advaita).
Though he, like so many of the great mystics, called seekers to go “Beyond!” (beyond concepts, beyond words, beyond images), he also understood the necessity of words and signs in our everyday reality. In that spirit, New Camaldoli Hermitage is excited to offer a retreat focused on Swamiji’s life and teaching. While we will make space for the silence Swamiji loved so well, we will also celebrate his life and teaching in various arts: New Camaldoli’s own Prior Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam will lead us in chant and song, Benedictine oblate and poet Jacob Riyeff will give a reading of Swamiji’s newly-translated poetry, and we will view the new documentary of Swamiji’s life, *Dawn of the Abyss: The Spiritual Birth of Swamiji*.
In addition to these multimedia sessions, traditional conferences on Swamiji’s teaching will offer a more detailed encounter with his profound insights into the contemplative life. Please join us for this joyous event!
Quick follow-up post: my translation of a classic Middle English lyric, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” has just appeared in the Benedictine magazine Spirit & Life. It’s a delightful short poem from c. 1400 that describes the paradoxical benefits of the Fall in Genesis 3. Plot twist!
Special thanks to Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration for publishing this. Check out the sisters’ daily podcast of their chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours at their monastery in Clyde, MO here.
After an unpremeditated hiatus, I’m back to posting. I’ll be posting some audio files of my own poems from my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck, that came out in October very soon. But for the moment here’s another from Swami Abhishiktananda, the Benedictine-monk-turned-wandering-sannyasi whose poems I translated last year.
In “Shri Ramana Was Great,” Swami Abhishiktananda wrestles with Christ, wondering how this sage of modern India could have such grace though clearly he was not in any formal sense part of Christ’s community that is the Church. (The ashram community responsible for Shri Ramana’s legacy is here; for more on Swamiji’s relationship to Shri Ramana and the holy mountain Arunachala, see my previous post.)
This realization of Shri Ramana’s greatness in the S/spirit was Swamiji’s first real leap into exploring the great Awakening that goes beyond religious affiliation and doctrine. In Shri Ramana, Swamiji found embodied the deep self-realization that he found recounted in the Upanishads, and this challenged his French Catholic upbringing and monastic and priestly formation. The poem here follows his searching, guiding the reader (and, one assumes, himself) to a precarious peace with a situation that doesn’t seem to have an obvious resolution along traditional religious lines. Here it is:
I am very excited to announce the publication of my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck: A Palmer Stammering. It’s now available thru Resource Publications and Amazon.
The book includes poems from the last ten years or so, a number published in journals and magazines but plenty of unpublished material too. I’ll be posting some readings in the coming weeks, but here is the description from the back cover for now:
Sunk in Your Shipwreck is a collection of poems that employs the trope of the pilgrimage to structure its meanderings, especially (in murky and unfaithful ways) echoing the great medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. Moving through a poem from beginning to end is itself a kind of pilgrimage in the mind and on the tongue. The poems here reflect a late modern palmering, a movement from place to place and time to time and back again, movement through language and silence, inner and outer states, contemplative and active, starting and stopping, a longing for a constant or a destination in a life of uncertain circumstances and goals. In this verse peregrination, the palmer seeks out an illuminating and sustaining vision to form and transform common surroundings and moments of human life, a pursuit that is hopeful and darkly radiant by turns.
Tomorrow, my class on Old English poetry will be discussing the poem known as “The Order of the World.” The poem is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book (the first anthology of English poetry!) and is one of my favorite Old English poems.
The poem is a self-referential exploration of the power of verbal art set up as a kind of challenge to its audience to trade wisdom with its speaker. It begins by noting the power that poetry has to convey the wisdom begotten by the “sage who ponders the world, / holding in the meditation of his heart / what many have recounted in rhythmic recitations.” The speaker exhorts the audience to listen to his herespel (praise poem), which turns out to be a meditation on the nature of the sun reminiscent of Psalm 19. But herein lies the poem’s skill–the herespel becomes a “script” or a model for how contemplation of creation operates to lift the attentive mind (mens intenta in Gregory the Great’s vocabulary) to the Creator. And so he “shows” his audience how poetry conveys the mysteries of creation after he “tells” them it does. An artful poem all the way.
In my chapbook, Lofsangas, I translated this poem and gave it the title “Se Woðbora,” referring to one of the speaker’s epithets for himself from the poem’s second line. I read the original Old English and then my translation in the audio file below.
Here is another reading of one of my translations of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poems. This piece, “Bhairava,” is one of my favorite of Swamiji’s poems. The Sanskrit adjective “bhairava” means “frightful/terrible/etc.” and it is also the name of a deity recognized in Hinduism and various schools of Buddhism, especially associated in Hinduism with Shiva. Bhairava is then a frightful face of Shiva, having to do with dissolution and annihilation. Swamiji composed this poem during his month-long silent retreat at Kumbakonam, a town in Tamil Nadu, India in November of 1955.
Swami Abhishiktananda uses this title of Shiva as a novel way into some well-trodden tropes in the mystical poetic toolkit: abandonment, ravishment, desolation and dissolution, union-as-annihilation-of-the-self. The poem speaks to the terror and lonesomeness of the radically contemplative life and the experience of non-dualism within human consciousness–even as union is experienced, a lingering sense of the individual endures and can cause disturbance.
But beyond the surface of these frightful images and emotional states, one can also see the playful use of such imagery to paradoxically gesture toward profound states of consciousness that simply don’t “come out” in direct expression. Though Swamiji’s imagery here is distraught and painful–even calling his addressee an “Ogre” at one point–it points to a state of unknowing that is “tender and heartrending at once,” heartrending as long as there is some part of the identity that is clung to, at any rate.
In 1948, Dom Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine Monk, left his native Brittany and arrived in Southern India. He intended to establish the contemplative monastic life in the Indian church, a life dedicated to sacred silence in a land imbued with sacred silence.
Though he was sympathetic to Hindu philosophy, especially the ideas and experiences described in the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, he still assumed that he would be converting others to the Christian way during his time in India. Yet when he encountered the simple faithful and the contemporary sages in his new homeland, he found the Spirit at work there, beyond the borders of institutional Christianity and any Christian faith whatsoever. This led him to dramatically reevaluate his “mission” in India and his very understanding of all R/reality.
This reevaluation was especially spurred by his encounter with the Self-realized sage Shri Ramana Maharshi (shortly before Shri Ramana’s leaving the body in 1950) and the sacred mountain where Shri Ramana lived, Arunachala. In Shri Ramana, Swami Abhishiktananda saw the heights of contemplation and divine union of his own Catholic Christian tradition lived in an authentic way, and he spent several retreats living in the caves of Arunachala and getting to know the hermits who lived there, the members of Shri Ramana’s ashram community, and those who lived in the adjacent town, Tiruvannamalai.
In the caves of Arunachala, Swami Abhishiktananda spent long hours in silence and experienced deep states of meditation. As Swami Atmananda Udasin, the director of the Abhishiktananda Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, says, “there [he] had his first great mystical insights. Later in his life, he would refer to the Mountain as his place of Awakening: ‘But as for myself, like Shri Ramana, it was Arunachala that awakened me. Oh, that Awakening!'”
The larger part of my new book, In the Bosom of the Father: The Collected Poems of a Benedictine Mystic, is comprised of the poems that Swami Abhishiktananda composed in light of his experiences in those first few years in India, especially in his encounter with Arunachala as well as Swami Abhishiktananda’s “renderings” of Shri Ramana’s Tamil poems. The first in the collection, Aruncachala, he described as being “sung to me by Arunachala one night before I went to sleep, and I relit my lamp several times to catch it. Perhaps it will convey some of the spell cast on me by Arunachala.” Below is a reading of my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poem, and Swamiji’s own note for context.
“Arunachala is a holy place of particular veneration in Tamil Nadu in the South of India. The Puranas . . . tell of its origins. There was a quarrel between Brahma and Vishnu, each claiming that he was the First and Greatest. Suddenly, a Column of Fire appeared in the space between them. They decided that whoever first found either the foundation or the summit of this mysterious Column would be accepted by the other as the superior. Brahma dashed to the summit, while Vishnu began to dig into the earth, but both had to admit the vanity of their efforts. It was Shiva who had manifested themselves to them, convincing them of the futility of their former claims, for the greatest and first in Being is Shiva. The Column of Fire later turned into a Mountain of sapphire, and finally a Mountain of stone. Each year during the full moon of the month of Karttikai (15 November-15 December), an immense fire is lit on the summit of the Mountain, which is called the feast of Dipam (“dipa” in Sanskrit; “lamp” in English). The Tamil name for the city there is Tiruvannamalai.” (In the Bosom of the Father, 23.)