Saturday, December 21, 2013

Two slim volumes...

Since I am in the process of moving and the library was dispatched yesterday in a van, and given that the hiatus may last up to three months, I sequestered several fat volumes to keep me in reading (both new and re-reads). I thought too I would need a couple of volumes of poetry, that I tend to read before bed, and that would have to be actually loved and known.

The two I chose were T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' and Angelos Sikelianos' 'Selected Poems' (translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard).

Most of my books (unless second hand) look 'unread' given the care of their handling (possibly a little obsessively careful) but not my edition of the Four Quartets. This is partly a condition of their age (a slim, sky blue, Faber copy, the tenth impression from 1979) and their much travelled status (their size cries for a pocket).

I must have acquired them at school but the first full reading I remember was immediately after university when I was staying at the Manjushri Institute, a Buddhist centre in Ulverston, Cumbria, on retreat. I remember sitting on the shingle shore, quietly reading each quartet until I had completed the whole cycle. I remember the sense of being transferred to a different way of apprehending the world where every particular thing sang the song of its creating. Waves, stones, trees, myself - all circulated around, emerged from a shared stillness where all is always now. It was one of those moments when I knew I prayed best in the open air. A reality that ran counter to Eliot's belief as a man but accorded, I feel, with his seeing as a poet.

Likewise at that time, the poems helped me sense what it might mean to follow the contours of my experience, trust the unfolding pattern, allow it to transfigure expectation and belief. The poems are a remarkable study into what it might mean to be mystical, touchstones of a reality that always eludes description but not their showing forth.

The Sikelianos' poems were acquired at university. I had encountered Phillip Sherrard, one of their translators, as both the editor (with Kathleen Raine) of the journal 'Temenos' and as a co-translator of the 'Philokalia' that remarkable collection of Orthodox texts on prayer and the practice of the spiritual life. I was tuned to his discriminating antennae (and believe that his best work was as a translator and interpreter of modern Greek poetry).

Sikelianos resonates with Yeats, his contemporary, as one who wants to restore to his homeland a sacred tradition that requires translation into new, living forms including those within his own poetry. He sees the role of a poet as (to quote Shelley) a 'legislator of the world'. A prophetic voice shaping culture ever newly.

I have loved this slim volume for its hieratic, priestly language and arresting imagination of a world where myth reals the world into place.

Because I deeply praised

Because I deeply praised and trusted earth
and did not spread my secret wings in flight
but rooted in the stillness all my mind,
the spring again has risen to my thirst,
the dancing spring of life, my own joy's spring.

Because I never questioned how and when
but plunged my thought into each passing hour
as though its boundless purposes there lay hidden,
no matter if I live in calm or storm,
the rounded moment shimmers in my mind,
the fruit falls from the sky, falls deep inside me.

Because I did not say: 'here life starts, here ends',
but 'days of rain bring on a richer light
and earthquakes give the world a firmer base,
for secret is earth's live creative pulse,'
all fleeting things dissolve away like clouds,
great Death itself has now become kin."

Angelos Sikelianos

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