Poems for Englings: An Anthology

Photo: Nadi Lindsay (2019)


and that will be heaven
at last      the first unclouded

to stand like the sunflower
turned full face to the sun
– Evangeline Paterson

This collection of poems is the fruit of many conversations, dinners, and events held by The CICCU Englings between 2017 and 2020. The CICCU Englings are a group of English students at the University of Cambridge who gather under the auspices of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). The group’s name takes its reference from The Inklings, a literary discussion group at the University of Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s that counted such luminaries as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in its membership. 

The Englings gather for meals, each time bringing along poems, excerpts of literature, and Scripture for discussion, prepared in response to particular pressures each of us face over the course of the academic term. The space this opens up is intimate, allowing each of us to discuss intellectual tensions and difficulties we face in supervisions, in the works we read, or in the argumentative positions we encounter. 

As Christians, we were often a small group within the English Faculty. Being in The Englings gave us the opportunity to examine the generative, symbiotic relations between our faith and our academic work. Alongside fixtures such as R. S. Thomas, John Donne, Christian Wiman, Shūsaku Endō, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Mary Oliver, and Julian of Norwich, we looked to scholars and clergy such as Rowan Williams and Malcolm Guite for guidance.

These conversations often served as the starting point for various events, allowing us to home in on specific, recurring themes. It was questions of doubt, restlessness, and ambiguity that came up most often. This served as the departure point from which we envisioned spaces where people could be invited to think and ponder, to read and reflect, to have the opportunity to encounter Christ on their own terms. 

In the years where I was a member of the group, we organised two such evangelistic events: Resurrection Poetry at The Round Church in Lent 2018, and waiting // poetry, art, music at Pembroke College Chapel in Lent 2019. These events featured poetry printed on posters that were placed at eye level at different parts of the venues. Some poems had brief commentaries and question prompts, with pens and paper available for attendees to write down their thoughts and responses. This space to read was accompanied by poetry readings, Scripture readings, as well as musical performances. 

As providence would have it, Malcolm Guite attended waiting in 2019 and revealed that he had accepted Christ as a Pembroke student in the 1970s, often praying in Pembroke Chapel itself. Later on, as an outgrowth of my interest in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, one nourished by my time with The Englings, Rowan Williams was assigned to me as my dissertation supervisor in 2020. Generous and attentive, I brought the wisdom he shared with me to subsequent Engling gatherings. 

From 2017 to 2019, Madeleine Kelly and I served as the group’s representatives and spearheaded these events, assisted and supported ably by our mentor Imogen Phillips and The Englings. In many respects, this has shaped this collection, with each section a reflection of some of the poems featured in events and discussions over the course of several years. Some poems and songs by Englings themselves are included in this collection, in particular contributions by Cecily Fasham, Matt Lewis, Jacob Henstridge, Maddy Constant, Leonard Yip, and me. 

The vision for an event in Lent 2020 centered on the themes of despair and hope but did not come to fruition; what remains are some of the poems we shared, especially as the pandemic entrenched physical distance between all of us. 

These poems are not all necessarily ‘Christian’ in their subject matter or audience, but each bore a particular resonance at the points in time at which we read them. We hope that you will read them in this spirit of openness and allow them to bring you into a place of introspection. They have proven nourishing, edifying, and bracing for us, and we hope they prove the same for you. 

Jonathan Chan
Singapore, February 2021 

Poems for Englings: An Anthology [PDF]


i. Resurrection
‘i am a little church’, e. e. cummings … 7
‘The Dead Woman’, Pablo Neruda … 8
‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’, John Donne … 9
‘Anything Can Happen’, Seamus Heaney … 10
‘Food for Risen Bodies’, Michael Symmons Roberts … 11
‘Resurrection’, R. S. Thomas … 12
‘Descending Theology: The Resurrection’, Mary Karr … 13
‘The Black Christ’, Arthur Shearly Cripps … 14
‘Even Such Is Time (Verses Written The Night Before His Death)’, Sir Walter Raleigh … 15
‘A Hymn to God the Father’, John Donne …16
‘In a Green Night’, Derek Walcott … 17
‘Sympathy’, Paul Laurence Dunbar … 18
‘And that will be Heaven’, Evangeline Paterson … 19
‘pembroke chapel’, Jonathan Chan … 20
‘Blandeur’, Kay Ryan … 21
‘Design’, Robert Frost … 22
‘Wild Geese’, Mary Oliver … 23 
‘The Bright Field’, R. S. Thomas … 24

ii. Waiting
‘My Bright Abyss’, Christian Wiman … 26
‘Waiting’, R. S. Thomas … 27
‘Postscript’, Seamus Heaney … 28
‘Homecoming’, Gwyneth Lewis … 29 
‘Late Ripeness’, Czesław Miłosz … 30
‘Golgotha’, John Heath-Stubbs … 31
‘Gethsemane’, Rowan Williams … 32
‘Into The Light’ (excerpt), Meir of Norwich … 33
‘Lachrimae Amantis’, Geoffrey Hill … 34
‘waiting’, Jonathan Chan … 35
‘patience’, Jonathan Chan … 36
‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’, Gerard Manley Hopkins … 37
Psalm 130 (NIV) … 38
‘In A Country Church’, R. S. Thomas … 39
‘Skewed Space’, Cecily Fasham … 40
‘How I Talk to God’, Kelly Belmonte … 42
‘Every Riven Thing’, Christian Wiman … 43
Habakkuk 3:16-19 (NIV) … 44
‘September Rain: A Song’, Matt Lewis … 45
‘Love’s as Warm as Tears’, C. S. Lewis … 46
‘Beannacht/Blessing’, John O’Donohue … 47

iii. Despair / Hope
‘Love (III)’, George Herbert … 49
‘Maundy Thursday’, Malcolm Guite … 50
‘Pietà’, R. S. Thomas … 51
‘Liberty’, Matt Lewis … 52
‘Hope’, Matt Lewis … 53
‘Babel’, Jacob Henstridge … 55
‘Candlelight’, Cecily Fasham … 57
‘the problem of rain’, Cecily Fasham … 58
‘I Am’, Maddy Constant … 60
‘The Age of Second Chances’, Leonard Yip … 61
‘As John to Patmos’, Derek Walcott … 62
‘A Song of Hope’, Oodgeroo Noonuccal … 63
‘Kindness’, Naomi Shihab Nye … 64
‘Metamorphosis’, Jenny Xie … 65
‘As imperceptibly as Grief’, Emily Dickinson … 66
‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, Emily Dickinson … 67
‘De Profundis’, Christina Rossetti … 68
‘Misgivings’, Herman Melville … 69
‘Lockdown’, Simon Armitage … 70
‘lament’, Jonathan Chan … 72
‘Prayer’, Carol Ann Duffy … 73
‘Adrift’, Mark Nepo … 74
‘hold’, Jonathan Chan … 75
‘The Instinct of Hope’, John Clare … 76
‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, Gerard Manley Hopkins … 77

On forgiveness

Composite image from Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007)

During a pivotal scene in Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), the newly converted Christian Lee Shin-ae is brought face to face with the killer of her child, Park Do-seop. She arrives with an entourage of supporters from her church and an armful of flowers, ready to accord him forgiveness for his egregious act of cruelty. It is a set-up established with all the rectitude of religious sincerity. As Shin-ae enters the room, face separated from his by a glass panel, she begins to remark of her newfound peace, one that has inhered in the comfort of her faith.

As she looks up, expecting a grovelling plea for mercy, she instead finds Do-seop, clad in his inmate’s overalls, awash with serenity. He, too, has found Christ; he, too, has experienced the beauty of being forgiven. The unflappability of his peacefulness punctures the act of her forgiveness altogether – it sets in motion her subsequent disavowal of Christianity and spiral into self-harm, grief and anger mingling in the theological contradictions and hypocrisy that permit such a smooth glossing over of wrongdoing. Repentance has taken place behind the clatter of bars, and the forgiveness of God takes precedent over the forgiveness of a hurt party.

Intuitively, I felt compelled to dispute the film’s misprision, or at least that was what it struck me to be. The act of forgiveness begins not from divine restitution, but from a genuine recognition of the hurt inflicted upon another person. There can be no heft to Christian mercy and charity if forgiveness has not been sought from an aggrieved party; to suggest otherwise would be a contravention of the principle of loving others as oneself. Forgiveness is not obtained through the quick cheapening of grace, it is necessarily pursued with a genuine recognition of hurt, an inward reckoning with the depth of pain caused to the recipient of harm. It is as Christ himself mentions:

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. [1]

Repentance and initiative are the preconditions to forgiveness. Perhaps that was what unsettled me most about Do-seop in Secret Sunshine, that an inner peace could have been so easily obtained without a sense of obligation to Shin-ae, having processed the panic, anguish, and imitable horror of finding her beloved son abducted and murdered. A forgiveness that is pre-emptively conferred onto oneself is no forgiveness at all.

It is a great cliché of our present age that we dwell in the indignation of grievance. Our primary avenues of social interaction online foment and thrive on reduction and simplification, drawing our eyes to that which maximises the intensity of our emotional responses. It is an eyeball economy that keeps the commercial logic of social media afloat, the monetisation of anger and disgust to sustain platforms and groups and campaigns. The doomscroll is as much an outrage-scroll; endorphins flare up when one is confronted by the endless litany of indignities that one can invest their energies in. The futility of bearing a thousand cuts, not least when the accountability that forgiveness demands evaporates under the guise of anonymity or incorporeal distance.

I have taken to putting down my phone and reducing the hours I spend flicking through Instagram and Facebook. Thank God I logged off of Twitter years ago. Christ says in His Sermon on the Mount, ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’. [2] There is only so much lividity that can be swallowed each day, only so much battering that a mind and conscience can take, only so much patience one can exercise toward the forbearance of extraneous, depersonalised conflict.

The knot of unresolved conflict, and the bitterness of a grudge it results in, often draws me back to the thickened conceptions of static anguish in tragedy. I think of Sophocles’ Antigone: the irrepressible groans for her inability to bury her brother Polynices, attempting, as Judith Butler opines, to grieve ungrievable life. [3] The interminable knot that Antigone encounters is a clash between the duty she owes to her family and the legal obligations of the polis, or the city-state. Polynices’ crimes against the polis, his attempt to usurp power, rubs up against Antigone’s sisterly obligations. It drives King Creon, incumbent ruler, to forbid an honourable burial. Antigone sacrifices the honour of motherhood, raising children, or a wedding ceremony to starve in the outskirts of the city, yielding an additional dimension of pathos to her fate. Antigone is unable to realise a Greek ideal of femininity as she laments:

Unwept, unloved, unmarried
I am led away in sorrow
to the path that awaits me,
no longer allowed to see
that sacred eye of flame;
tearless is my doom, lamented
by none of my friends. [4]

If forgiveness is to be regarded as a sacred ideal, it necessarily demands a way of forging a synthesis between seemingly irresolvable desires and ethical systems. The swapping of an ancient Greek ethical paradigm for a Christian one is subversive, as an aggrieved party must lay aside the irreducibility of a given position in a spirit of compromise. Of course, this may detract from the governing impulses of Christian martyrdom, a question that is far more eschatological and existential, but it nevertheless draws to mind that forgiveness thrives in averted pride and intentional peacemaking.

I also think of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1942), [5] a play that has continued to haunt my imagination ever since I first read it when I was eighteen. Perhaps it was its unabashed proximity to O’Neill’s own family that made its dialogue leap searingly off the page: every spat, every quibble, every comment that cut through bone and marrow. There was an untidiness to the overlapping web of grievances and unresolved conflicts that made me shudder: Tyrone’s disapproval of Jamie’s sloth, Jamie’s anger toward Tyrone for foregoing medical treatment for Edmund’s tuberculosis, Mary’s resentment of Edmund because of how his birth led to her morphine addiction, Edmund’s stammering, fog-like thinking drawing him away from the incessant chatter of his household, Mary’s desire to seek out the unlived life she gave to be Tyrone’s bride.

On and on and on the family, fueled by drugs and alcohol, exchange barbs so pointed that one can only imagine the piercing of flesh onstage. It always made me wonder what the threshold at which forgiveness and anger find their end was, if there can be said to be one at all. It brought to mind the arguments and disputes I’ve been privy to in my own home, the needless sparks that can set off an escalation in jibes, the voices rattling off of the walls amidst tears and wailing, the developing impulse to defuse, rather than goad.

If one is to learn how to forgive, one must also learn how to apologise: to make clear an admission of wrong, to affirm the hurt suffered by an aggrieved party, to seek the forgiveness of another. It is only at this point of contrition that an ease of conscience can drive one to seek God. The restitution of divine relationship can only be made after the restitution of an earthly relationship; we come to God in the same spirit with which we come to those made in His image. It portends an end to interminable cycles of conflict and hatred: the blindness that Gandhi warns of if we keep going for each other’s eyes, the foe that Blake warns will be killed if we keep nurturing our poisoned apples, or, as Heaney once wrote, the suffering that no poem or play or song can ever fully address.

It is the war within our internal factions that we must learn to resolve before we can begin to address the ones we have caused among others. Forgiveness provides the foundation for the long, enduring work of tackling tribalism and the crawling practice of demonisation, the reminder of the histories we have of societies rending themselves apart, and its ensuing bitter stains of blood. It is knowing that even if our flesh is torn, our faces are spit at, and our mettle is broken, that there is a divinity that furnishes the ability to forgive, to say, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

It is only at the place of resolution and stillness that fortitude yields its face, as does the prospect of communality, solidarity, and hope. Forgiveness is no panacea, but it is where petty grievance faces its end.


Michael Longley (1998)

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’



“In your anger do not sin:
Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry,
and do not give the devil a foothold.”
— Ephesians 4:26-27 (NIV)

again, we must sting and be stung,
silence unsettled as breathless air.
anger swallowed by the fading sun,

daybreak wipes the slate of bitterness clean.

your mother swallows her own acrid pills, washed
by a burgundy swirl. your father retreats into an
electronic cacophony, vanishing jewels and
carcinogenic vapour. the pallor of neon desk lights
falls over your brother’s half-done worksheets and
half-played rap videos. your brother’s incantatory pacing
behind closed doors tapers off. 

somehow, there is space
for arms wrapped around teenage reticence, for the days
to be painted in the moments before sleep, for the silence to settle
into quiet forbearance, its own resignation, a balm that rests
burning for its own sake.


[1] Luke 17:3-4, Holy Bible: New International Version.

[2] Matthew 6:34, Holy Bible: New International Version.

[3] Bonnie Honig, ‘Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception’, Political Theory, 37.1 (2009), pp. 5-43 (p. 7).

[4] Sophocles, Antigone, in The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, trans. by Frank Nisetich, (Modern Library, 2016), 886-872.

[5] Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Great Britain: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1956; repr. 1966),


First published at:

December 2020.

a patch of wild grace: God’s Grandeur

God’s Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.



Psalm 148:8-14 (NIV)

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
    the praise of all his faithful servants,
    of Israel, the people close to his heart.


Photo: Edward Eyer, 2017.


Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet and priest of the Victorian era, widely regarded to be one of its most preeminent, especially for his radical and anachronistic style. Upon entering the Jesuit novitiate in 1868 at the age of 24, he burned most of his poems as a display of piety, though, thankfully, he did not stop writing poetry thereafter.

Many of his poems were published posthumously, establishing him as a particularly innovative manipulator of prosody. ‘God’s Grandeur’ is a marvellous example of his ‘sprung rhythm’, an ebullient rhythm that is meant to mimic human speech. Much of it takes reference from alliterative medieval verse and English folk songs. The orality of Hopkins’ poems complements the jubilation of his subject matter well: Hopkins uses a blend of visual and tactile images to draw on the ubiquity of God’s presence, ‘[flaming] out’ like ‘shining from shook foil,’ ‘[gathering] to greatness’ like ‘the ooze of oil’.

The poem’s turn to the incessantness of human conflict continues on in his playful prosody, replete with assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, before setting up a diametric contrast with the fact that ‘nature is never spent’, the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’. The sunrise, to Hopkins, ‘springs’, and the Holy Spirit, envisioned as a dove, ‘broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.’

Hopkins was a proponent of the notion that the book of Nature and book of Revelation (the Bible) are to be read alongside one another, an explicit recovery of the divine presence of God in His creation. As a hymn of creation, ‘God’s Grandeur’ is a response to Psalm 148, a procession of praise from the earth and the ocean depths, the lightning and hail, the mountains and hills, all the way to His animals and His people. Where Hopkins transforms this Psalm is in his effusive manipulation of prosody, one that results in the joyous burst of elation when read aloud.

In thinking of the totality of God’s creation, and as created things, how can we remember what it is to praise the Lord?


© Gerard Manley Hopkins

a patch of wild grace: Introduction

Photo: Anete Lusina, 2020

These commentaries on pairings of poetry and Scripture were written with the intention of inspiring thought, reflection, and a deepening sense of communion with God. Some of the poets featured are Christians and others are not. My hope is that each poem, aided by an accompanying scriptural counterpart and my own observations, will shed light on the complexity and texture of Christian belief.

Jonathan Chan
Singapore, November 2020.


a patch of wild grace: The Peace of Wild Things

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry (b. 1934)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.



Matthew 6:26-34 (ESV)

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.


Photo: Maksim Romashkin, 2020


Wendell Berry, a writer from Kentucky in the United States, is known for his life in farming, his activism against environmental degradation, and his deep and abiding love for the natural world. Much of this stems from the ethos of environmental stewardship, one that arises fundamentally from the meditative space accorded by reflecting on the things of this earth.

‘The Peace of Wild Things’ is a poem I return to in moments of stress or anxiety, for in his verse Berry paraphrases much of what I believe Jesus illustrates in his Sermon of the Mount. Just as He reminds us that our Father feeds the ‘birds of the air’, so does Berry remind us that ‘wild things’ do not ‘tax their lives with forethought / of grief’. Berry once opined that no places are unsacred, but that there are only places that are sacred or desecrated.

In ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, Berry presents a narrative of what it means to retreat from the things of this world, the pattern of anxiety over the things beyond our control, and to remember that God’s providence is revealed in His care for the natural world, the fluency of the natural world in accordance with the Father’s will.

What is making you anxious today? What are the material concerns that threaten to flood your mind? And what helps us to return to the embrace of the Father, knowing that our task is to seek His kingdom first and His righteousness, knowing that He will give us enough for each day?   


© 1985 Wendell Berry

a patch of wild grace: O Holy Night

O Holy Night
Marjorie Stelmach (b. 1948)

Ephesians 4:31 – Let all bitterness and wrath       
and anger…be put away from you

In the easement,
stripped trees daven apathetically
under a skull-cap sky. 
Oh, Child,
are you sure? This world?
This bleak winter?
These unconscionable times?

The last of the day’s feeble sun
steeps the holly,
staining its berries a rich
as bright and slick
as a seasoned trickster, then
slips off the edge of the earth,

leaving to us this night,
first among too many nights
we’ve marked                      
and mean,
every year, to find holy.
It’s getting old, this act.
Or maybe it’s me. Lately,

I’m all lapse and misstep.
And yet, love’s tiny fist seeks out
my heart with the old entreaty,
and yearly
I somehow let in love enough
to try again: to call our people
decent, our planet worthy.



Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


Ephesians 4:31-32 (NIV)

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.


Photo: Burkay Canatar, 2020.


Marjorie Stelmach is an American poet who has served as a high school English teacher for over 30 years. She previously served as director of a writing scholars programme at Washington University and as a visiting poet at the University of Missouri. Her poems have been awarded the Chad Walsh Prize and the Marianne Moore Prize and have been anthologised in various collections of Christian poetry. Amidst the season of Advent, I thought it apt to take a look at her poem ‘O Holy Night’, itself prefaced by a verse from Ephesians 4: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath / and anger… be put away from you.’

Stelmach’s poem opens with a vivid depiction of winter, ‘stripped trees daven apathetically’, making unenthused prayers, under a ‘skull-cap sky’. Stelmach weaves visual and tactile imagery to give a sense of winter’s barrenness and the protections needed to withstand it. Her poem continues in lines of rhetorical questioning: ‘Oh, Child, are you sure? This world? […] These unconscionable times?’ There is a universality embedded in this particularity, for the question of present evil is one that is unlikely to dissolve in any epoch of human existence. I was reminded of Robert Southwell’s poem ‘The Burning Babe’, itself expressing a similar ambivalence to the notion that a child would be born, condemned to suffer for an often-ungrateful world.

The poem continues with an image of curious metaphysics, how the ‘last of the day’s feeble sun’ stains the holly’s ‘berries a rich / crimson /as bright and slick / as a seasoned trickster.’ The personification of the berries and the holly, recognisable images of Yuletide in the Euro-American world, is unflattering – almost deceitful in its aesthetic appeal. The passage of day to night, described as slipping ‘off the edge of the earth’, intuits a sudden, jarring fold to ‘night’. The speaker’s voice is imbued with a certain cynicism toward nights that ‘we’ve marked / and mean, /every year, to find holy’, an act that is ‘getting old’. The interjections of the spaced lines help to foreground this sense of a stilted procession of thought, not unlike the contemplative poems of Thomas Traherne.

The poem’s return to a kind of hopefulness arrives in its last stanza. From the speaker’s remark that ‘I’m all lapse and misstep’, the poem moves toward addressing the stubbornness of ‘love’s tiny fist’ seeking out ‘my heart with the old entreaty’. The injunction of Christmas is to remember the humility and sacrifice of God taking on flesh and mortal vulnerability, or as the singer Bono describes it:

‘if there is a force of love and logic behind the universe, then how amazing would it be if that incomprehensible power chose to express itself as a child born in shit and straw poverty.’

It is in the utter incomprehensibility of the nativity in which its power resides. It is just enough to stir the speaker’s heart as she remarks, ‘yearly / I somehow let in love enough to try again: to call our people / decent, our planet worthy.’ To consider the marvel, the wonder, and the mystery of the nativity is to be brought back to the immediacy of God’s love. It is expressed in his indwelling in the flesh, a cosmic, transcendent love that chose to make itself immanent and physical.

As we look toward Christmas and the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ, how can we remember what it is to hold to faith, hope, and love in our broken world?


© 2019 Marjorie Stelmach

a patch of wild grace: going home

going home
Jonathan Chan (b. 1996)

i run in the enfolding of sunset. street
lamps burst into electric luminosity, just
as pink seeps through the cracks of cloud
cover. the darkness does not overcome
the light, though it envelops the cradling
of hope. absence yields the breath of
possibility, however long the stretch of
dusk. the streets begin to hollow, craters
filled, drains cleared, and craftsmen ferried
home. my feet carry me into the evening.
each room’s sliver of light goes off: the
aunties’ video chats at the sharp corner
of our staircase, the blue blade beneath my
father’s room, and the rush of my own
vanishing bulbs. away in tuas, shrouded
in the dark by towels draped on metal
frames, brothers pray by the glow of
smartphone screens.
and so do i.



John 1:1-5 (NIV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


Photo: Jonathan Chan, 2020.


I wrote this poem several months ago in Singapore. I was out for a run late in the evening and found myself caught in the moment between day and night as the sun was setting and the sky was painted over in a brilliant swathe of colours: blue, pink, and orange. As I ran my usual route around my neighbourhood, I listened to an interview with Rebecca Solnit on the On Being podcast. Solnit has written widely about reconciliation and grief in the aftermath of disaster, and her conversation with Krista Tippet touched on her experience documenting the fallout of Hurricane Katrina as well as how disasters clarify a sense of attention to the present. She mentioned that it gives people ‘this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection.’ At the time, I had just completed an internship with HealthServe, a non-profit providing casework and medical assistance to migrant workers, and as a consequence was also beginning to pay attention to the migrant brothers in my neighbourhood, ferried in and out by lorries each day to work on new homes.

All of this – the sunset, the podcast, the roadworks that bore the absence of the workers – began to coalesce in a poem when Solnit and Tippet began to speak about her book, Hope in the Dark (2004). In Solnit’s own words, she wrote the book, ‘to rescue darkness from the pejoratives, because it’s also associated with dark-skinned people, and those pejoratives often become racial in ways that I find problematic.’ She elaborated that this hope is where darkness is ‘the future’ and where

‘the present and past are daylight, and the future is night. But in that darkness is a kind of mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion. Love is made in the dark as often as not. And then to recognize that unknowability as fertile, as rich as the womb rather than the tomb in some sense. And so much for me of hope is, as I was saying, not optimism that everything will be fine, but that we don’t know what will happen.’

There was a particularly biblical bend to her language as she spoke of darkness as the crucible of hope and possibility, an enveloping sensation that stirs new imaginings and yearnings.

I thought of St. John of the Cross and the periods of lament and estrangement from God we are all wont to experience, but also of the simplicity of the beginning of John’s Gospel: that in Christ was life, that this life was the light of all mankind, and that the light has overcome the darkness. It hummed in my mind like a mantra as I thought of the darkness that envelops us as we go home, whether for myself, my family, the domestic helpers who live with us, the migrant workers living in dorms, and how it augurs not despair, but hope, resilience, and possibility.

When we dwell in the darkness and remember who God has been and will be, does it help us to find hope? 


© 2020 Jonathan Chan

a patch of wild grace: Autobiography

Alfian Sa’at (b. 1977)

Like most of us, I can’t remember how
I was separated from my first love.
(Did it die, did I break it, was it stolen
Or did it fly out through the open window?)
I didn’t have radio-tuning parents
Who filled the house with music
Or instilled in me “a love of the cinema”.
I never recalled my mother coming home
From the hairdressers’ with a new hairdo
Or father teaching me fishing, or
Staying up to watch football on TV.
He did once bring a kite home but hung it
On my bedroom wall (he turned it into
A portrait, it wasn’t his fault the wall
Never became more of a sky). Meanwhile
Cousins came for visits wearing braces

And chattering about comics, bicycle scars,
And camping out, ghost stories (don’t tell
That one, tell the one where Daddy used
The torchlight and Mummy screamed and dropped
Her things and laughed like a hyena). We drank
Boiled water in the house, and sometimes
Waking up from a nap I would wander the rooms
To find mother copying cross-stitch designs
From a book or father watching a subtitled
Chinese re-run. So I slept again, dreaming
Of playing toys away from the sunlight
That leaked in between hawk-eyed curtains
Gold-plating afternoon dust to shining pollen.
When I awoke I was twenty, being asked
If I had a happy childhood. Yes, the one
We all have: filled to the brim
With the love of absent things.



James 4:1-3 (NIV)

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.


Photo: Ambient Walking, 2020.


Alfian Sa’at is a Malay Singaporean writer who has worked prolifically in drama, poetry, and prose. He has been regarded as Singapore’s most preeminent contemporary writer in the English language operating across all three genres. Often described as Singapore’s enfant terrible for his critical positions toward the government, Alfian’s work is most effective in its capacity to evoke melancholy, tenderness, and the fallout coming from feelings of loss.

His poem ‘Autobiography’ is a powerful example of this: it begins with a simple conceit as the speaker remarks, ‘I can’t remember how / I was separated from my first love’, like ‘most of us’. This sense of a collective separation is drawn out steadily, even if this ‘first love’ is left ambiguous. The speaker ruminates on the absence of ‘radio-tuning parents’ and ‘music’, a ‘love of the cinema’, or his mother having ‘a new hairdo’ or his father ‘teaching me fishing’ or watching ‘football on TV’. These images all point to conspicuous markers of class in Singapore, whether in the form of cultural capital or material goods. The closest the speaker comes to this is a kite his father hangs on ‘My bedroom wall’, turned into ‘A portrait’, hanging listlessly for the speaker’s gaze rather than actually being flown in the sky. A hobby, too, is something that is absent from the speaker’s upbringing.

The stanza that follows folds from depictions of material absence to material presence. A contrast is established between the speaker’s cousins, ‘chattering about comics, bicycle scars, / And camping out’,  and the speaker, drinking ‘Boiled water in the house’, finding his mother ‘copying cross-stitch designs’, or his father ‘watching a subtitled / Chinese re-run’. All this speaks into the sense of a middle-class ordinariness, marked by reminders of thrift and frugality through the reception of publicly-available or second-hand goods. The speaker ‘[dreams] / Of playing toys away from the sunlight’, itself depicted in lavish terms, ‘Gold-plating afternoon dust to shining pollen’, a sudden gloss of beauty that adorns mundanity. And as the poem comes to its conclusion, and the speaker reflects at twenty if he ‘had a happy childhood’, the poem’s main conceit is laid out clearly: his was a childhood we all have, ‘filled to the brim / With the love of absent things.’

Alfian’s poem is powerful in its depiction of the sly mechanisms of envy: how capitalism and materialism steadily cultivate a sense of insecurity for the absence of material and cultural goods. It is something recognisable to many of us, having grown up in a culture saturated with aspirationalism, the invariable reflection of a country obsessed with economic development and survival. In some ways, one wonders if Alfian’s ‘Autobiography’ can be said to be the autobiography of many growing up in Singapore in the 1990s and 2000s.

In coming to terms with some of these powerful cultural forces, I was reminded of James 4, in which James writes: ‘You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.’ The act of guarding our hearts serves as a way of warding off all manner of temptation, for the cultivation of want and desire obscures our ability to recognise that which we have and that which is desired by the Lord. The grip of aspiration and mobility is the promise of meritocracy; its flip side is a feeling of entitlement to certain cultural and material markers, the cultivation of which draws us away from a contentment in Christ.

When we are confronted by our desires for that which we do not have, the ‘love of absent things’, what helps us return to the contentment we have in what God provides?


© 2001 Alfian Sa’at

a patch of wild grace: Homecoming

Gwyneth Lewis (b. 1959)

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won
by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home
to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found
in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.



Psalm 139:1-6 (NIV)

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.


1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NIV)

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.


Photo: Lukas Hartmann, 2018.


Gwyneth Lewis is the former Poet Laureate of Wales, a bilingual writer of Welsh and English, and is known for writing the words that adorn the front of the Wales Millennium Centre. The stained-glass letters of the poem stand at six feet tall and it is rumoured that her poem is, literally speaking, the biggest in the world. Her poetry has been described by scholar Ruth McElroy as having ‘a loving, fluent yet jittery relationship with its language, one that pushes and pulls against the traditional forms she employs’. The dexterity of her writing and expansiveness of her metaphorical imagination is evident in her poem ‘Homecoming’, which is in itself an exercise in teasing out the similarities between seemingly disparate symbols.

The effect of reading ‘Homecoming’ is to feel suddenly attentive to her itemised style of listing, with its opening lines setting up the poem’s conceit: ‘Two rivers deepening into one; less said, more meant’. The intertwining rivers she describes set up a sense of convergence that accompanies the feeling of coming home, before she implores us as readers to see through to the semantics of her imagery. Coming home is like ‘a field of corn adjusting to harvest’, the gentle incidence of violence that bears fruit, ‘a battle won by yielding’, itself an image of mercy and humility, and a quick succession of delights that read like non-sequiturs: ‘an autumn’ (because of the splendour of changing colours?), ‘a wedding’ (because of the delight of communities coming together?) and ‘a logarithm’ (because of its ability to express quantities in tiny scopes?).

Perhaps coming home is summed up best by the speaker describing it as ‘self-evidence earned, a coming home / to something brand new but always known’. The agglomeration of delights that Lewis describes gives way to the simplicity of something that is ‘known’, which reminded me of the sentiments expressed in both 1 Corinthians and the Psalms that to be known by God is to be loved by God and equally, to love God in return. It is a simplicity that portends the possibility of delighting in ‘not doing, but being’ and ‘the power of being nothing, but sane’. And perhaps it is this ephemerality that is the ‘fortune found / in all that’s disposable’: the realisation that the transience of our being and a recognition of it make us at once more acutely aware of the joy that populates our loves and equally, makes us feel as if we have come home.

What makes you feel at home?


© 1995 Gwyneth Lewis

a patch of wild grace: The Age of Second Chances

The Age of Second Chances
Leonard Yip (b. 1995)

Coming back was to this:
taking the flowers from their windowsill
where they had died and the green
long faded, leaves crumbling
like broken bread.

The turning aside of the vase
must not be an apology. I will not
say sorry for my graceless striving,
for the withered petals,
for in the brambles and thorns
I have seen the patient crown of a bleeding God
who has promised the mourning
and then the dancing.   

I am understanding this now,
in this age of second chances.
In my short hour of living,
the language I am still learning over
and over is the spill of water
roping uncertain into dry soil,
the flower in it racing
again to the light by the windowsill.



Matthew 28:3-10 (NIV)

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where helay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”


Photo: cottonbro, 2020.


Leonard Yip is a Chinese Singaporean poet and a good friend of mine. He read for undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature at the University of Cambridge before, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he returned hurriedly to Singapore. His academic and creative writing reveals deep and sustained engagements with ecology, observation, and spirituality, especially the thin areas that find themselves between nature and urbanity. This is in turn furnished by a love of walking and hiking, often reflected in the rhythms of his creative prose. Characteristic of his writing is a sparse, economic style, one belied by profound experiences of spiritual yearning and struggle.

His poem ‘The Age of Second Chances’ reflects many of these elements. The mise-en-scene of his poem is a ‘windowsill’, accompanied by the act of ‘taking the flowers’ with ‘green / long faded’ and ‘leaves crumbling / like broken bread’.  The Eucharistic image he employs intuits the poem’s engagement with the figure of Christ, the breaking of bread itself a symbol for the body to be broken on the Cross. Here, the death of his flowers is yoked to the despair laid at the feet of the crucifixion.

And yet, as the speaker ‘[turns] aside’ the ‘vase’, he knows that such an act ‘must not be an apology’ – perhaps to the flowers, or to himself – and that there is no space to seek forgiveness for ‘my graceless striving’. The anaphora of ‘for the withered petals, / for in the bramble and thorns’ provides a gentle segue to the image of Christ, ‘the patient crown of a bleeding God’, itself between life and death, hope and grief, promising ‘the mourning / and then the dancing’ as in the book of Revelations.

Leonard’s poem comes to a close with a recognition of learning about the slow draw of ‘the age of second chances’, how ‘In my short hour of living’ that ‘the language I am still learning / over and over’, is that of a kind of resilience. Perhaps this second chance is the life granted in the knowledge of who Christ is, one that must be lived with the compulsion of a daily, quotidian faith. It is one that presses on just as how in midst of  ‘the spill of water / roping uncertain into dry soil’, the flower races ‘again to the light by the windowsill’, the graceless striving toward grace.

It is the difficulty in remembering that the death of Christ brings hope and relief, not the finality of despair, that every day we must struggle to bring ourselves back to that place of faith and recognition, of knowing that He has risen, and that there is a ‘fear and great joy’ that accompanies that.

As we continue to return from doubt to faith, despair to hope, gracelessness to grace each day, how have we struggled to remember what a life lived in the light of the cross looks like?


© 2018 Leonard Yip