Angel Choir (on seeing the Northern Lights at Ste. Luce-sur-mer) Sonnet
Listen to the choristers with their red and green voices. Light’s counterpoint flowering across this unexpected son et lumière, we tremble with the sky fire’s crackle and roar.
Once upon another time, twinned with our heavenly wings, we surely flew to those great heights and hovered in wonderment. Now, wingless, our earthbound feet are rooted to the concrete. If only our hearts could sprout new wings and soar upwards together.
The moon’s phosphorescent wake swims shimmering before us. The lighthouse’s finger tingles up and down our spines. Our bodies flow fire and blood till we crave light, and yet more light. We fall silent, overwhelmed by the celestial response.
When the lights go out, hearts and souls are left empty. Leaving the divine presence is a gut-wrenching misery. Abandoned, hurt and grieving, we are left in darkness.
Comment: The Spanish mystics, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila, wrote, in the sixteenth-century, about the ‘dark night of the soul’. That dark night also arrives when the communion with the spiritual finishes and the communicants are left alone, in their loneliness, abandoned to their earthly selves. To leave the divine presence is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching misery. To turn from the marvels of nature can produce lesser, but still deeply moving feelings of grief and sadness. The secret is to preserve that joy and to carry it with us always, warm, in our hearts. Doing so makes the pain of separation much more bearable.
You cannot hide when the black angel comes and knocks on your door.
“Wait a minute,” you say, “While I change my clothes and comb my hair.”
But she is there before you, in the clothes closet, pulling your arm. You move to the bathroom to brush your teeth.
“Now,” says the angel. Your eyes mist over.
You know you are there, but you can no longer see your reflection in the mirror.
I first saw the Black Angel in Aldebarán’s cultural store in Ávila (2006). She sat there, in the shop window, along with several other angels, and I worshiped her from the distance of the street. Her image was taken from an original painting from Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464). This was turned into a 3-D image and then converted into the statue I saw in the shop window.
I brought the statue back to Island View, placed it on the shelf above the fireplace, where it still rests, and wrote several poems on the theme of Angels. I gathered them together in a chapbook entitled All About Angels that I self-published in Fredericton in 2009. The chapbook was dedicated to Clare’s great-aunt, D. E. Witcombe who departed this world on October 15, 2008.
All About Angels was also based on a book of a similar title, Sobre los Ángeles, written by Rafael Albertí, one of the major poets of Spain’s Generation of 1927. I avoided the ambiguity of the Spanish title — Sobre (in Spanish) can mean Above or Beyond as well as About — by limiting my own title to All About Angels.
For Carl Jung, angels are the messengers sent to inform people of the state of their world. For me, they are also the wild creatures that inhabit the world around me and often take the form of chickadees, crows, mourning doves, woodpeckers, deer, foxes, chipmunks, the occasional bear, and other spiritual creatures. They can be best seen in those moments of solitude when we are most open to the natural world around us. Then, and sometimes only then, we can hear the urgent messages they bring.
Alebrijes step out from dried wood and stand in the shower of paint that falls from the brush’s tip. Yellow flash of lightning, pointillistic rain, garish colors that mirror those of the códices. The carvings take the form of fantasy figures, anthropomorphic animals, and mythological creatures. Sometimes one individual selects the wood, carves it, then covers it in paint. Occasionally an entire family takes part in the work of making the alebrije. One person collects the wood and prepares it for carving. Another carves and sands it. A third works on the undercoat, and a fourth applies the final patterns of paint. The great debate: does the form in the wood reveal itself to the carver or do the carvers impose their own visions on the wood? In the case of the team, do the family members debate and come to a joint conclusion? These thoughts, exchanged with wood-carvers in Oaxaca, have led to a series of interesting conversations. What exactly is creativity? Where does it come from? Do we, as artists, impose it upon our creations? Or do we merely observe and watch as new ideas float to the surface of our minds? How does the creative mind really function? And, by extension, how much of the sub-conscious creative sequence can be placed into words?
Are they half-grasped dreams that wake, wide eyed, to a new day’s sun?
Or are they alive and thriving when they fall from the tree?
Does the carver fish their color and shape from his own interior sea, or does he watch and wait for the spirit to emerge from its wooden cocoon to be reborn in a fiery block of color?
Daybreak: in a secluded corner of my waking mind, my neighbor’s dog greets the dawn with sparks of bright colors born from his bark.
My waking dream: dark angels with butterfly bodies, their inverted wings spread over my head to keep me warm. In the town square, the local artist plucks dreams from my head and paints them on carved wood.
Sometimes the road seems uphill all the way. Lungs burn. Breath comes hot and hard and chunky in the throat. Legs hang heavy, muscles will not obey the owner’s instructions.
Consult the operating manual: “Take a break,” it says. “Rest now. Don’t push too hard.” But to rest is to give in, to come to an abrupt halt, or to drift backwards down the hill.
What stubborn streak is painted so deep in us that it shouts ‘never surrender’ when our most urgent need seems to be to throw in the towel? Is it the urge to get to the top, to see the lower lands stretched out below us? Or is it the mantra of fight the good fight?
Many things can drive us on: a need, a desire, a whim, an urge, or merely a refusal to stop fighting. Some of us will never give up. We will never lie down and curl up in a corner, a dead leaf to be blown hither and thither by the cold night wind.
Look carefully: there are no drugs, no needles, in the biker’s uniform. There is no small accessory motor hidden in the back wheel to help when times get hard.
The mouth is open, the eyes are set on the target, the legs still move, the sun still shines, and three smiling heart-shaped faces cheer the cyclist on.
Who can they be, these three angels at the road side, who can they be? Yet they are there and we are here and the bike is there and the hill is there and sometimes … yes, sometimes, the road IS uphill all the way.
But we keep the pedals turning and we don’t get off our bikes … and that’s life.
I thought for a moment that, yes, I was an angel and I was dancing on a pinhead with so many other angels, and all of us butterflies spreading our wings with their peacock eyes radiant with joy and tears spark -ling in time to the music that wanders up and down and around with inscrutable figures held spell-bound in a magic moment … and I still feel that pulsing in my head, that swept up, heart stopping sensation when the heavens opened and the eternal choir raised us up from the earth, all earthbound connections severed and all of us held safe in an Almighty hand.
Bottle House, PEI The day begins with flowers: at the entrance, beneath the windows, flowers everywhere, a delicacy of scent. Beyond these flowers, even more flowers, then playthings in the garden: a child’s paradise, these sculptured faces, this glass among the trees, sun and shade, the fountain’s water, this dream of an old man, kept alive now by his children, a dream of health and sanity and peace out by the bay, where the mud red waters roll and the tide’s hand grasps at the land and pulls it down with watery fingers. Everywhere: faces and elements of faces: a nose, eyes, a mouth, open in surprise. Carved wooden faces, glass faces, pottery faces, flesh and blood faces, grandma’s face, grandpa’s face, then the grandchildren. Tourists travelling, old islanders returning to see family and friends, young islanders returning to visit the almost forgotten farms which their families worked a generation or three ago, before their exodus from the land. “This was grampy’s house!” they say or “that was my grandmother’s farm!” as if a life could be reborn in that pointed finger, those casual words. How many memories are snapped in each picture? How many lives are caught in this snapping of the fingers as the past is instantly summoned and perfection is bottled for a second or two in the magic of this house, this garden where the builder’s spirit roams. Sit still awhile. Be silent: you may hear him breathe, glimpse him, for a second, staking out the flowers, extracting a weed, checking the set of the concrete foundations, polishing a bottle, resting on a wooden seat, avoiding the slow snail on the path bejewelled by rain-drops from the trees or spray from the fountain. For where there are flowers, there must be water and rain and peace and happiness and all good things, glimpsed darkly through smoked glass yet grasped so smoothly in the sun’s bright light. This is the house of bottles, the glass house, where rough winds are shunned and the bottles are set in concrete. It is a museum of light and dark, the creation of sun and shadow as sunshine fails and the lighthouse’s flashlight beam reverberates from glass to stone and back again. Shapes, shadows, memories curved and carved in glass, set in glass, this shimmering beacon this glass house, this light house built as a heaven-haven for harboured ships and the soul’s refreshment, here, in these gardens, among these bottles, and at the chapel door, an angel-in-waiting.
Yours are the hands that raise me up, that rescue me from dark depression, that haul me from life’s whirlpool, that clench around the jaws that bite, that save me from the claws that snatch.
Yours are the hands that move the pieces on the chess board of my days and nights, that break my breakfast eggs and bread, that bake my birthday cake and count the candles that you place and light.
You are the icing on that cake, and yours is the beauty that strips the scales from my eyes, then blinds me with light.
Comment: what excellent timing: thank you for publishing three of my poems to Clare and on our 54th wedding anniversary too (24 December 2020). An incredible gift and Clare and I both thank you for it, Brian. How to make a memorable day even more memorable. Tonight, when we open the champagne, we will have a glass for you on the table. Much as we would appreciate your presence, the two week quarantine on entering New Brunswick places a blanket over so many invitations and celebrations. That’s why every little helps, and this is so much more than a ‘little’, it is a lot, a very thoughtful lot. So, for Brian, his family, and all my family and friends: tonight we will be alone in our home. But we will raise a glass to absent friends, and we will be together in our hearts. “To absent friends”!!! Here’s the link to Brian’s page.
Warm in Bed. Cozy. I roll over and the flashlight clipped to my Teddy Bear’s ear drives its hard, metal lump into my face. “Are you awake?” Teddy’s soft voice lilts across the pillow. “I am now.” “Look!” Teddy points with his little leather paw. “The moon: it’s climbing the fir tree.” Sure enough, a thin fingernail of gold is perched on a branch. It hides its face among the fir’s darkness and vanishes for a moment. “The maple tree has a garland of tiny Christmas lights,” says Teddy, pointing again. “Those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re stars.” “Spoilsport. Look, that one’s moving. I think it’s an angel.” “What time is it, Teddy?” “I don’t know.” “Here, lend me your flashlight.” I pull him towards me, switch on the torch, and focus its light on my wristwatch. “4:55 AM. That’s the early morning flight from Toronto. It’s a plane.” “I’d much rather it was an angel.” “Me too.” “Can we pretend it’s an angel, a Christmas angel?” “Of course we can. But it’s gone now.” “Perhaps angels don’t live long when they come to earth.” “I think they live for ever. Especially if we believe in them.” “Do you believe in angels?” “I was taught to believe in my guardian angel.” “What’s a guardian angel?” “He’s the one who looks after you when you sleep at night.” “But you don’t need a guardian angel. You’ve got me.” “But you’re a teddy bear, not a guardian bear.” “That’s true, but you’ve got Blueberry. He’s your guardian bear. Look at him standing there, on guard, all night long to protect you from the Night-Bumps.” “Ah yes, good old Blueberry. I’ve got a busy day today. I need some more sleep.” “Okay. Blueberry and I will watch over you. I’ll watch over you. I’ll let you know if any more angels climb the tree.” “That would be nice. Now I’m going back to sleep.” “Good night. Or should that be ‘good morning’.” Some days, when I wake up, I think I have dreamed all of this. Other days, I believe in talking teddy bears and angels. Today, I’m not so sure.