'I contracted myself to words': Geoffrey Hartman's luminous poetry

earthimage What happened on the eighth day of creation after God's long day of rest on the seventh?

According to poet Geoffrey Hartman, God remembered all those things he forgot to make during the first week:

On the eighth day God saw what he had not created. And it was good. And he blessed it saying: This is the silence of my breath. This is the voice in the stillness of the wind.

Creation, in other words, exists in a counterbalance with contemplation.

Hartman is a figure much to be envied. He bestrides two worlds -- as a Holocaust scholar and as a literary critic and poet (maybe that makes three worlds). And as a refugee from Nazi Germany who describes the Kindertransport in his book The Longest Shadow (ok, make that four).

8thDayThese many worlds inform his exquisite book of poems, The Eighth Day: Poems Old and New (Texas Tech University Press).

How could they not? Open this book to any page, begin reading, and immediately you'll find that you are quickly descending into metaphysical depths normally reserved for  books three times its size (this volume is just under 100 pages, including notes). History, especially in its tragic moments, echoes in these poems, along with encounters with unexpected figures, like the following one:

...I who passed over saw and told what I had seen: Once more I contracted myself to words. A clerk of bloods, as sure in his counting as the idiot voice of command...

says the Wandering Jew in "Ahasuerus." It's an extraordinary poem of reclamation and redemption for that cursed mythical figure -- here, his eternal status enables him to stand as a witness for all who perished in the Holocaust. His wandering isn't condemned or without purpose; now, he is a record-keeper, a "clerk of bloods," for all those whose memory would otherwise be forgotten.


What you'll also find here is the presence of a poetic tradition, the grand tradition that T.S. Eliot envisioned. It moves through these poems like a pulse.

When the wind blows in these poems, the English Romantic understanding of inspiration is behind it (Hartman established his critical career with his magisterial study of 'Wordsworth, The Unmediated Vision); the Song of Songs dances lightly among the imagery of  "her lashes dark spears,/dawn at the hem of her skirt"; and a multitude of quests shimmer around the narrator of "Quest" who comes upon "another door. Rough planks/as in a country john, moldy unmarked greens."

A recent volume of Hartman's critical essays, The Third Pillar, explores a broad, formidable terrain -- ranging from biblical themes and the validity of Judaic Studies in the groves of Academe to the complexity of midrash, which is "neither literature nor commentary and yet simultaneously both," notes Monica Osborne in her view of Hartman's book for The New Republic.

But to get an appreciation of Hartman's work, you won't have to turn to this book or the Wordsworth one.

No, all that you need are just two simple things to get started: this book of poems  (which also includes helpful notes and a marvelous introduction by Hartman that manages to capture the essence of his career and concerns in a short amount of space) and a quiet contemplative moment ... like the one God probably enjoyed on the eighth day.

'When a warrior is gone'... Seamus Heaney

GONE FAR TOO SOON: The master in 2009. Ah God, I thought we'd have Seamus Heaney for at least a few more years. The wispy white-haired Irish laureate died in Dublin today, at the age of 74, according to various media reports, and there are no words to properly express what he contributed to poetry and language during his immense career.

He was a makaris; an archeologist of peat bogs and Latinate etymology; a singer of old songs ("Antigone," "Beowulf," from Virgil) in a thrilling modern idiom... and on and on. He was a wonder.

I'm wrong about one thing, though. There ARE very good words appropriate for this moment of loss  -- his own, taken from his best-selling translation of "Beowulf":

It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.

He won plenty of glory, didn't he? I wonder if the thought ever crossed his mind, as he worked on these lines in his farmhouse years ago, that such words could apply to him and his career.

Rest in peace, old artificer.

Into the mystic ... with Merton

Years ago I met spirituality author Matthew Fox after the publication of his book "One River, Many Wells," and the title of that book has stuck with me ever since.

One river, many wells: a great description of the reality of God.

Another metaphor is: Imagine that God is the sun, shining on an apartment building. One window belongs to the Catholic tenant, another to the Jewish one, the Muslim, the scientist (he sits in the sunlight thinking about String Theory), the Buddhist, Hindu, even the atheist (his blinds are drawn shut). The only problem with this image or Fox's is that it enrages dogmatic believers. It's blasphemy to them. They start shaking a finger at you and citing canon law, and any hope of common ground is lost.

That wasn't true of Thomas Merton, thank God. That Trappist monk embodied the mid-20th century ideal of American Catholicism, but he was also a questing, spiritually hungry thinker who looked east for insights into faith.  He didn't rebuff dialogue: He welcomed it. A few months ago, the publisher New Directions released two small collections of Merton's reflections, "On Eastern Meditation" edited by Bonnie Thurston and "On Christian Contemplation" edited by Paul Pearson, that capture his vibrant inquiry into the reality of God.

Merton was a man of Christ, and the Pearson volume demonstrates that on every page. But he also struggled with the Christian practices of his time, complaining that people clung to a "crabbed, rigid piety" or else were trapped "in a straitjacket." He called for a renewal of approach that amounted, he writes in "Contemplation and Action," to a "new depth and simplicity of love, and ... a new understanding."

Perhaps that's why he looked East. For inspiration.

When I think of those fierce believers who wag a finger at anything outside their comfort zone, I like to recall this reassuring line from Thurston's volume: "Merton was convinced," she writes, "there was a 'real possibility of contact on a deep level between ... contemplative and monastic tradition in the West and the various contemplative traditions in the East...' "

"On a deep level": the words make me think of Matthew Fox's river. Or an apartment building in the sunlight.

These two books are small -- a selective, engaging sample of Merton's thought, poetry, private questions.

Ideal to tuck in a coat pocket and pull out during your next coffee break.