Carrie Newcomer at Jammin' Java
by Gerry Hendershot
Carrie Newcomer, poet/singer/songwriter is appearing at Jammin' Java in Vienna VA on December 9 as part of her nationwide tour promoting her newest CD, "The Beautiful Not Yet." There are links to three of the songs on that page. Details of Newcomer's appearance at Jammin' Java can be found here.
A couple of years ago, on the recommendation of Ashley Goff, Minster for Spiritual Formation at the Church of the Pilgrims, I drove to Bethlehem PA for a poetry workshop and a concert by Carrie Newcomer. Bethlehem was settled by Moravians, an early German Protestant denomination, in the 18th C., and is still home to the Moravian Seminary and Moravian College, where Newcomer performed.
Newcomer is herself an adherent to a small religious denomination, although one better known than the Moravians. She is a Quaker (Religious Society of Friends), which is an important part of her professional and personal life. She has toured in other countries for the State Department, and has often collaborated with the well-known Quaker educator and spiritual writer, Parker Palmer.
In my visit to Moravian College, I was charmed by Newcomer, both in a 2-hour afternoon poetry workshop, and her evening performance of her songs, accompanied by her own guitar and a keyboard player. He poems and song lyrics are gentle, but face squarely the brokenness of the world.
Here is an excerpt from a song she wrote for a collaborative performance with Parker Palmer:
Help in Hard Times (excerpt)
I'm inspired and troubled by the stories I have heard.
In the blue light of evening all boundaries get blurred.
And I believe in something better, and that love's the final word,
And that there's still something whole and sacred in this world.
I can't tell you it will all turn out fine,
But I know there's help in hard times.
Portraits for Veterans Day
By Nancy Arbuthnot
On Friday, November 11, Americans will celebrate Veterans Day, a federal holiday honoring the men and women who serve in the armed forces of our country--members of the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. Formerly called Armistice Day, it was originally celebrated on November 11, 1919 to honor World War I soldiers.
The date was selected because it was on this day at 11:00 AM in 1918 that the Allied Nations and Germany reached a cease-fire, or Armistice, which led to the end of the war. In 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day so that all military personnel could be honored. Today I want to use this space to give thanks to those now in the military who serve our country.
In thinking about Veterans Day, I found my thoughts continually drawn to two military figures—one a poetic fictionalization, one real--who died in war. Although I know that Memorial Day is the official time to remember military personnel who died in battle or from a wound sustained in battle, I feel that portraits of these two figures—my reflections on their sense of self, service and sacrifice—are the best way that I can honor current veterans. I will start with a story about Capt. Churchill Bragaw who served in the US Army in WWII, and weave into it a poem by William Butler Yeats about an Irish aviator in WWI.
In the spring of 2004 at age 90, my father-in-law, a WWII chaplain with the 5th Army’s 36th Infantry Division, began to speak about the war for the first time. The night before he died that August, he mentioned a young company officer in his division, Capt. Churchill Bragaw. Calling him “the greatest man I had ever met,” he spoke of meeting with him one time in particular, the evening that Bragaw had received orders to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido River along the heavily fortified German line, orders they both knew to be almost futile and demanding incredible sacrifice. That night, Bragaw turned over his personal belongings, asking that they be returned to his family, and the next day he was killed in action.
Until a month ago, that was all we knew about this young officer other than that a building at North Carolina State University, his alma mater, was named for him. Then, in mid-October—two years after the 2014 100th anniversary of my father-in-law’s birth, when my husband had pledged to himself to someday visit NC State to honor Bragaw’s memory—we found ourselves in the foyer of Bragaw Residence Hall. Standing before the painted portrait there, I was mesmerized by the confident expression and clear, steady gaze of the young man who had so stoically confronted his death.
In the next few days as I thought about Capt. Bragaw, the words of Yeats’s poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” kept inserting themselves into my mind:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss,
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Hear Yeats reading the poem, with an animated photo of him, here: ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCZ1uRYX3iU
This poem is composed in a martial, four-beat line of four quatrains rhying abab. In the poem, the speaker, an anonymous aviator (but widely identified as Major Robert Gregory, the son of Yeats’s associate Lady Gregory) reveals his reasons for enlisting in the British forces during the First World War.
Like Bragaw, the speaker assumes that he will die in battle. He opens with a bold assertion (“I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere in the clouds above”), followed by twelve lines (a second couplet and two quatrains) that establish his reasons for fighting. First, he presents a list of negatives--he did not enlist out of hatred for the Germans or for love of the British; his service will not help his own people; neither duty nor glory motivated him—then closes with a simple assertion that he enlisted on impulse, for his own personal pleasure (“A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the skies”).
But the poem does not end here. The last quatrain makes a remarkable, unexpected turn as the speaker unequivocally rejects his private “delight” and excitement or “tumult” for a deeply considered acceptance of social responsibility, of participating in the great sufferings of humankind, and a new awareness of the significance of death in giving life meaning: “I balanced all, brought all to mind/…./In balance with this life, this death.”
Like the fictionalized Major Robert Gregory, the fully human Henry Churchill Bragaw demonstrated in his life and with his death the balance between passionate commitment and selfless sacrifice. Recognized before the war as “quite a fellow, a wonderful man, a fine manager, and very popular"; “one of the most interesting and attractive persons I have ever met”; a man who, had he lived, “would have become one of the most famous persons in North Carolina,” he was recognized during the war for his heroic concern for his men. After his death, the War Department awarded him a Silver Star for his actions along the Rapido River:
Putting his men in a column with intervals between them, he led the way through the heavily-mined] field[to the river]. During this passage eight men were severely woundedby mines. Each time the commander went back among his men, bolstering their courage by his own actions and words. Reaching the river he led his men across under violent artillery, mortar, and small arm fire, and attacked the formidable enemy positions on the steep opposite bank. He led his company into the foe's outer defenses through bands of enemy wire. While heavy fire pinned his troops to the ground, he exposed himself to make a personal reconnaissance, seeking to improve his positions. In so doing he was killed by enemy fire.
Twenty years ago, during a sojourn in the south of France, my husband and children and father-in-law and I visited the American cemetery in Draguignan. (After World War II, the federal government offered next of kin the option of bringing home the bodies or re-interring them in overseas American cemeteries under construction). Actually, as we had arrived just as the gates were closed, the guard, his back to us, walking inexorably away, we could only peer in silence through the black bars at the rows upon rows of white crosses. I vowed then to return there one day, to visit the graves of those who served with my father-in-law with the 36th. I vow now to visit the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery as well, where Henry Churchill Bragaw’s remains rest.
There, I will give thanks for the men and women in uniform, past and present, serving our country. I will read Yeats’s poem again as I contemplate again how to best use our hearts and minds to live faithfully in the world. And, remembering the opening words of so many passages in the Bible—“And there was war again”—I will pray for peace.
Presidents' Poets: Jimmy Carter and Dylan Thomas
by Gerry Hendershot
In a nod to the election, the Poetry Foundation posted a list of U.S. Presidents and the poets with whom they were associated (see it here). I was surprised to learn that our first President, George Washingto, a slave owner, wrote a letter praising the "poetical Talents" of Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American to publish a collection of poetry.
I was even more surprised that pious Jimmy Carter, famous for confessing to Playboy he had "committed adultery in my heart many times," is a fan of 20th C. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, about whom Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:
"He was undoubtedly all that he has been represented as being – a drunkard and philanderer, compulsively incompetent and dishonest about money, a parasite on the generosity of many friends (New Statesman, August 1, 2014)."
According to the Poetry Foundation, "Jimmy Carter is a great advocate of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Upon discovering that there was no memorial to Thomas in Westminster Abbey’s 'Poet’s Corner,' Carter launched a successful campaign to install a plaque there for the poet (op. cit.)."
Why does a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher advocate for a reprobate Welsh poet? Well, Bishop Williams notes, with approval, that one obituarist wrote that Thomas' life was a manifestation of Christianity; Williams then adds:
"Thomas was no admirer or adherent of conventional religion; but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all the varieties of human oddity (op. cit.)."
As evidence, Williams cites a poem written by Thomas for his 1954 BBC radio drama, "Under Milk Wood," which was made into a 1972 film of the same title starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In the play, the poem is attributed to the Rev. Eli Jenkins:
Rev. Eli Jenkins' Prayer
by Dylan Thomas
Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please do keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die
And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I'm sure is always touch-and-go.
We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.
O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye - but just for now!
The Hymn is written in "Long Meter" form, or 88.88 meter in hymnal notation, meaning each stanza has four lines of eight syllables each. It has been set to music in that form. You can hear and see a performance here.
Dylan Thomas raises a question for self-professing Christians: can a "non-Christian," or those who answer "None" when asked their religious affiliation, be followers of Jesus's Way? Bishop Williams and Jimmy Carter say, "Yes!" Let us all be so generous and welcoming they.
Elegy for Miss Calico: Remembering the Dead on All Saints Day
By Gerry Hendershot
All Saints Day will be marked in worship at many churches this Sunday, in remembrance of the "cloud of saints (Heb 12:1)" who surround us.
In the liturgy for the day at the Church of the Pilgrims, worshipers are invited to light a candle on the communion table in honor of someone who died in the past year--a loved one, a friend, or a public figure.
After lighting a candle, many worshipers say a few words about the deceased person's witness in the world. After remembering the saints, worshipers are invited to renew their baptismal vows, as a pledge to continue the work begun by those who have gone before.
In the poetic tradition, such public remembrance of people who have died is known as "elegy." Poet Mary Jo Bang is the author of a book titled "Elegy," and she reads the title poem of the book and talks about the elegy form in a CBS video you can view here.
One of my favorite elegies is by Frank Gallimore, who lives and works as a sign language interpreter in Seattle. His "Elegy for Miss Calico" is about a deaf sex worker whose dead body was found in a dumpster. You can hear him read it here. The text of the poem will scroll up the screen during the reading, and it is also reproduced below.
For more elegies, go to the Poetry Foundation's list of elegies here.
"Elegy for Miss Calico"
By Frank Gallimore
O the year before they hauled the deaf woman
from the trash. O the fishnets that crisscrossed
her legs, the florets in her straightened hair.
Asking how to pronounce Baby and How much,
she felt my throat for the trick of it. In a window
she made a primping Blanche DuBois over Felony Flats.
And Mondays with her stolen shopping cart she'd go
dumpster-jumping the lot between the fairgrounds
and the School for the Deaf. Who found the cart
up by the gabled houses and their turn-of-the-century
dream of baked Alaska, Amaryllis belladonna,
so many grandmas asleep in a goldenrod grave?
When they fished her out, the eastbound roared
through necklaces of skyline, or so I remember,
or so I say. By rust-ravaged fronts, I sensed
a hustler's craft, device of handshake and for-the-best,
while there lay syringes by which to tune his happiness.
I used to watch his girls cluster like flowers on a mock-
terrazzo ledge, pressed on a barred patio. I'd watch her coo,
make mouths of inscrutable lingo for the long lash of his body.
And O the too-short calico dress, hand-me-down,
arranging itself on the breeze of his battered porch.
How do you say my name? she'd ask at dusk,
smooth fingers again on my throat to feel the syllables rise.
By morning her smelllike a wrung rag's. Whore, I'd say,
the word puckering as she tossed her ratty head back
and laughed. We laughed. I wiped my cheek
with the back of my hand, the sign for her like rubbing a scar.
Frank Gallimore lives in Seattle, where he works as a sign-language interpreter. He is a 2007 graduate of the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University.