Interview with Eric Tinsay Valles

Eric Tinsay Valles (b. 1968) recreates home in exile, whether physical or spiritual. He has won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize for poems in his second collection, After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins (2014). His first poetry book was A World in Transit (2011). He co-edited Get Lucky (2015), an anthology of Singapore and Filipino writings, SG Poems 2015-2016 (2016), Anima Methodi (2018) and The Nature of Poetry (2019). He has been featured in & Words, Reflecting on the Merlion, Southeast Asian Review of English, Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and other journals. His critical essays have appeared in The Asiatic and Writing Diaspora. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities as well as Kistrech Poetry Festival. He is a director of Poetry Festival (Singapore).

In this interview, Jonathan and Eric discuss Eric’s academic work on trauma theory, the place of Christianity in creative work, the sensation of dislocation that accompanies migration, and Eric’s upcoming literary projects. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

***

What/is this world? And what doth man desire?/
Now with his love, and now in his cold grave/
Alone without any company.

– Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Trans.)

A World in Transit: A Prologue
Eric Tinsay Valles

Blaring boarding calls
Suspend Tagalog [1] in mid-sentence.
More deafening are stifled sobs
Of maids, singers and poets crafting
Monologues to hear babies through college
From Singapore, Madrid or Daly City. 

Plum-fleshed mouths quaver
As they imagine little ones scalded
By fever with them absent in their telenovela.
Chestnut eyes wink at counter buzzards
For extra luggage space; goodbyes
Yelped via mobile text on travelators.

Heroes march to colonize ex-colonial masters;
Chuck mango peels to the bin;
Lug sacks bursting with denials;
Dream of a dizzying-lit house, all-night singing;
Dread straining sun-kissed throat
At table with a boss spouting gibberish.

Bar singers in tube tops,
Sundown skins shunned by Malate, [2]
Croon the blues in a gilded cage.
Poets wrestle with identity and the bottle,
Flush native idioms with vomit,
Soul wings heavy with snatches of

Breakfasts of bread and salt,
Red banners bawling at street protests,
The Child Jesus floating in jasmine,
English slaughtered in playful banter,
Tug homeward with each air ticket
Paid for with absent-minded sweat.


[1] The dominant language in the Philippines
[2] Pronounced “Mah.lah teh.” This is an entertainment district dotted with bars in Manila.

This poem first appeared in Bukker Tillibul, an online journal of the Swinburne University of Technology.

***

Jonathan: How did you begin your journey in creative writing?

Eric: I suppose people get a sense of their vocation, what they want to be, when they’re kids. When I was in Primary Four, I wrote for the newspaper in school. It was called The Link. And I decided to write a poem entitled ‘The Wanderer,’ and it was kind of prophetic because I’ve been writing about wanderers since. I had no way of knowing that I would continue writing about that theme. Writing became a habit, and the habit became an integral part of my life. Poetry is the literary form that I am most accustomed to. I’ve continued writing in that genre even if I would like to branch out into other genres like the novel. I’m trying to write a novel in verse as part of my dissertation. It’s very ambitious and I don’t know if I’m going to finish it.

I was privileged in a way as far as writing about Christian themes, because I lived in the Philippines, a country that is predominantly, at least nominally, Christian. It was very natural for us to pray in public, for example, at the start of meetings. I went to church on weekdays. It’s not alien to talk about Jesus or Mary. When people get into accidents or are startled, they blurt out “Oh Jesus, Mary, Joseph” or something similar. Its Christian culture seeps into my work, naturally. When I write about weddings in the middle of a coup attempt, for example, there are characters like priests. Nuns faced tanks on the main thoroughfare of Manila during the 1986 People’s Power revolution.

We are conscious of the working of grace in our daily lives, which is, I suppose, unlike the experience of people in other places. Christianity is part of what I know and experience. It is one of those very basic things that make up my identity.

Jonathan: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that the kind of deep saturation of Christianity in the culture of The Philippines– in language and in the way that people engage with and process daily life. But there’s also that fraught history of Christianity arriving alongside the Spanish and then the Americans that’s wrapped up with all kinds of physical and psychological violence.

Eric: It was a traumatic experience, for sure, but life is traumatic everywhere. We have to cope with the violence of colonialism. In a certain sense, colonialism gave us the gift of Christianity, but, of course, there was oppression, the sexual assault of some women, and our forgetting of ancient traditions and forms of script. Those are some of the givens of life we have to accept, and writers have to do the same. I don’t look at history with ideological lenses, so for me, there are pluses and minuses that have produced our complex present.

It’s very telling that it’s the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines. It’s also the 500th year of the Western discovery of the Philippines, but the government doesn’t celebrate it as such. That is understandable because of the unfortunate colonial underpinnings. But there is no denying historical milestones.  And so, the church is celebrating the first mass in thanksgiving, truly a eucharist.

Jonathan: And the first missionaries?

Eric: Yes.  We can’t really change history. We make the most out of it. The unfortunate experience of our national hero and Southeast Asia’s first novelist Jose Rizal with friars produced the revolutionary romance classics Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. His passion for poetry and the humanities was stoked by his education with the Jesuits. He repudiated religion as a freemason, a trajectory that was common among revolutionaries of his time. But he must have retracted his works and returned to the church partly because he wanted to solemnise his marriage with Josephine Bracken, an American. He must have also kept traces of the faith as he carried a rosary in his pocket for many years even as a freemason.

Jonathan: It’s definitely true that there remains it’s vital to engage and grapple with history, and the task of so many writers, as is with the case of Rizal, is to imagine a new path forward for communities and sometimes entire polities.

I’m also thinking about this slightly from the sense of coming out of detritus, coming out of difficult situations, which is very much a theme in your second collection, reckoning with trauma and instances of natural disaster. Was that also tied in with your academic work?

Eric: It was actually part of my dissertation. I wrote it in my first two years of a programme in literature and creative writing. It just so happened that Ethos published it even before I could finish the dissertation. I studied trauma theory and I had to write my own work, which was After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins, my second book, and War Quilt, a novel in verse.

After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins (2014)

Jonathan: Who are some of your literary influences?

Eric: I admire the work of Federico García Lorca, because he affirmed gypsies and the downtrodden in society in a way that draws from their literary tradition; Thom Gunn, because he empathised with contemporary people, AIDS victims, using classical rhetorical techniques; Elizabeth Bishop for the precision in her craft — “the art of losing … [is] hard to master” – as she wrote about psychological wounds in a very non-emotional manner; Pablo Neruda, for his wit and his seeing something glorious about the ordinary; and Seamus Heaney who wrote about ploughing and plumbing in such a rhythmic way. These are my heroes as far as modern poetry is concerned. Looking further back, I would like to write like Qoheleth or the Preacher in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

Jonathan: The apotheosis of Biblical love poetry. You’ve mentioned that the initial focus of your dissertation was on examining the problem of good and evil, where you were working on Chaucer, Ben Jonson, and Flannery O’Connor, and how it eventually moved toward reckoning with traumatic events. I’ve been thinking about the idea of cultural memory as well, embodied memory, intergenerational trauma. What kinds of cultural contexts were you engaging with for your academic work?

Eric: I had to read about the Holocaust and its survivors in America for the trauma theory. I also had to read Japanese poems. One of the characters in my novel, you see, is a Japanese army lieutenant who’s actually from Taiwan, so he’s displaced in his own way. The main character is a Eurasian with whom I share the Catholic tradition. His love interest is a Chinese nurse, so I also had to read some Chinese stories. The challenge is to weave the disparate threads, stories and translations into a coherent whole. But the backbone of that project is trauma theory, as expounded by the likes of Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman.

Jonathan: And this verse novel will be set in Singapore?

Eric: Yeah, in Malaya, during World War 2, because Eurasians were relocated to Bahau with the help of the Catholic church and they tried to grow their own food with the hope of sending some back to Singapore. It was a way for the Japanese to get rid of Eurasians as a people because they were sympathetic to the British without committing crimes against humanity as in the Sook Ching. There was this negotiation with the Catholic church to move the Eurasians, most of whom were Catholic. And the bishop, Adrian Devals, went with them. About 1 500 of them died of cholera, dysentery and other diseases. They weren’t skilled at farming at all. There are stories circulating that they even brought a piano. But they suffered a lot. They were so affected by the misery and the deaths that Bahau was abandoned after the war, and they all came back here or moved to Australia or other places.

Jonathan: I suppose the place itself had become so closely intertwined with the pain, the suffering, the gruelling experience of having to live in abysmal conditions for an extended period of time. That not only bespeaks that relationship not only between trauma and memory but between trauma and a specific place as well, especially if you’re talking about a displaced people.

I’ve also noticed from some of your work that this is another running thread. So like the departure lounge in an airport or the poem that you wrote about the Filipino soldier during World War I during the ceasefire or even the taikonaut– he’s actually experiencing the most extreme kind of displacement in a way, because he’s beyond our material, immediate reality, beyond earth.

And then of course there is the other assumption that I have that part of it is tied to your experience moving from The Philippines, eventually settling in Singapore, and having that itinerant experience, the occasional experience of being an outsider as well.

***

A Taikonaut’s* View of Earth
Eric Tinsay Valles

Earthlight rising, with shadow patches,
Bird’s Nest stadium lights multiplied
Dazzling as I cling to handlebars,
My feet and dreams dangling in space.
With eyes shut, I see my little girl
Jumping into bed, calling Papa,
My wife beside her pointing
At me twinkling in the night sky.

Dark, quiet waters wash the earth,
Flushing out silt from sandy shores.
A flag I wave does not flutter in space,
Like my cheek planted on my love’s navel,
Heaving softly with each breath.
Both of us lie awake till dawn
Chasing away doubts unresolved
Before my rocket shoots through the firmament.

The world is aglow with rocks
Hemming in soot-dressed miners,
Forests laden with goods for sweatshops,
Treasures from the deep hauled by divers.
I raise a cup to my young family,
Their concerns invisible in the gem of earth.
My heart beats through a Teflon suit;
Roaring like a firetruck until my landing berth.


*A Chinese astronaut.

From A World in Transit (2011)

***

Eric: All those are tropes of the human condition. We’re all displaced. We’re not meant to be here. And our suffering or other pressures are just symptoms of our being meant for a better place after this life.

Displacement is also part of my experience of living in different places. Before coming here, I moved to Taiwan to help in Opus Dei, a Catholic group that I’m part of. Very few Filipino members wanted to move to Taipei, but I volunteered. I was in Taiwan for seven years as a journalist for an English-language daily. I studied Mandarin for the first time as an adult. That was a watershed moment, learning a new language, starting anew in a foreign country. Being an exile is an essential part of my experience.

So I write about what I’m familiar with: displacement. I’ve also been using that as a metaphor for the human condition and all sorts of situations like that of the taikonaut, in airport lounges, which is true to life because I’ve spent so many hours in airport lounges, especially in the States, where storms can cause flight delays. And that’s part of what I am.

Jonathan: It makes sense– your experience of both being displaced but also in those kinds of liminal spaces between coming and going.

Eric: There’s a lot of that in Singapore as well. Edwin Thumboo, for example, is half Indian and half Teochew, and he sees himself as this sort of outsider/insider. And he writes about migrants as well and people on the fringes. ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ is the quintessential migrant poem of Singapore, and it draws on all the literary and cultural conditions that are present here. And in so doing, he was forging Singapore poetry.

Jonathan: That’s definitely true. There is an element of some kind of displacement in many Singaporeans’ lives. But I was also thinking of the way that people engage with their familial histories, especially those of Chinese or Indian descent whose ancestors were brought to or came to Singapore, or even those from the Malay community who experienced a kind of solastalgic or psychological displacement when Singapore separated from Malaysia. Then in subsequent generations, people who have gone abroad from Singapore and have that experience of then trying to process or clarify that sense of national identity and bringing that back with them. Or even this whole national positioning of playing an interpretive, translational role between English-speaking countries, “Western” countries, and Asian countries.

From a lot of the writing, art, and film that I’ve seen by Filipino artists, that is quite prevalent as well, especially because so many Filipinos and Filipinas go abroad for work. If I’m not wrong, one of The Philippines’ highest exports is nurses. And then of course, here in Singapore, there are a lot who come as domestic workers. So at least in my mind, almost every family in The Philippines has one relative who lives abroad and sends money home. That sense of displacement is also very much interwoven in a lot of writing that I’ve read from Filipino writers. One person that comes to mind, you can correct me if I’m wrong, that I see is a really big exemplar of that is Carlos Bulosan.

Eric: Bulosan and some of those published Filipino writers are recognised internationally because they have some connection with the US. There are many talented other writers back in the Philippines who don’t venture abroad and don’t have agents or publishers. The writers people abroad know are Filipino Americans.

Jonathan: Yes, but I was also thinking about Rolinda Onates Espanola and her work and some of the work coming up from the Pinoy writers here in Singapore like Lawrence Ypil and Rodrigo Dela Peña Jr. For lack of a better term, there is also a kind of classed division, because people come over as educators and marketing professionals, and then there are also people who come over to perform more physical labour.

Eric: There’re actually so many of us who are based in Singapore. Some, like Victor Ocampo, Noelle de Jesus-Chua and Felisa Batacan, write fiction. Besides Rolinda, there are other domestic helper poets like Belen Esposo Repollo. She’s published books here. All of us can form a guild. The Philippine experience is, as you say, diasporic, so we write about that primordial experience. Filipinos come from elsewhere. Most are from Borneo or Indonesia. Then there have been migration waves from China and colonial invasions from Spain and the US. And to say it’s class-based is also quite observant because The Philippines is a very hierarchical society. It’s very difficult to move ahead if you don’t know the right people and you’re in the wrong class. A lot of people in the lower classes move abroad because they’re thinking of a better life for their families.

Get Lucky (2015), an anthology of writing by Singaporeans and Filipinos that Eric helped to edit.

Singapore is so different, because you’re quite egalitarian and it’s very difficult to tell billionaires from ordinary people because the really rich are not ostentatious. But in the Philippines the distinctions, even in skin tone, are sharp. Because of that, there’s little social mobility. That is the stuff of novels.

Jonathan: I was trying to formulate that question of the structural difficulties in the country that have driven so many people abroad, about the push toward a remittance economy as well, in some ways.

Eric: It’s always been like that, and it’s the reason that many Filipinos end up in the States. Every Filipino family has relatives in the States or elsewhere. We’re everywhere: in Iraq, Palestine, even in Ramallah and all those places where you don’t expect foreigners. We’re a people on the move.

***

A Filipino in Belleau Wood [1]
Eric Tinsay Valles

This is a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a requiem
for the marine from hilly Morong [2]
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a score sheet
with all the notes
for the singing marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a Filipino bugler
clutching the score sheet
with all the notes
for the obscure marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is the trench of sand
that the bugler lay in with the wounded,
clutching the score sheet
with all the notes
for the dead volunteer
Who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

These are the traces and bare trees,
the sun and the waves of the sea
that the bugler braved,
clutching the scores
with all the notes
for the crushed marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a white governor with a pen
who signs a letter in the big chamber
after reading about four thousand Filipino sakadas [3]
under fire, like the bugler,
playing notes
on the scores
for the honorable man
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

These are the traces and the trees and the “Silent Night”
that a German intoned in his trench
and to which the marine sang along
before gunfire broke the silence into endless day.
This is a white governor with a pen
signing a letter in the big chamber
feeling guilt about four thousand sakada soldiers
with the bugler nearby
Improvising notes
on the scores
for the singer, the marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is the Filipino who died far from home.
These are the traces and the trees and the “Silent Night”
that a German sang in his trench
and to which the marine sang along
before gunfire broke the silence into endless day.
This is a white governor with a pen
honoring four thousand sakada soldiers
and a scarred bugler
who plays boogie woogie
with veterans from his company
for the near-forgotten marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.


[1] Tomas Mateo Claudio died in Chateau Thierry, France in the deadly Battle of Belleau Wood. It was in Belleau Wood that Allied and German soldiers sang “Silent Night” on Christmas day before resuming fighting the following day.
[2] A town in Rizal province, the Philippines.
[3] Contract workers.

***

Jonathan: As you said, even as a metaphor, being part of a diaspora is symptomatic of feeling ill at ease with a place or not feeling fully home at a place. That points to that yearning for belonging elsewhere. Yet, there’s still a lot of difficulty and sacrifice wrapped up in that at least in terms of our time here on earth.

Eric: But it’s also what human beings yearn for: belonging. That corresponds with the theological virtue of hope. And we will not be where we belong until we are one with Jesus Christ in an overflow of love.

Jonathan: One of the things that you mentioned elsewhere was wanting to bear witness to Jesus Christ in your poetic location. Where do you see yourself within this task?

Eric: So I’m definitely Christian, but I don’t write about Christian themes per se. It’s just part of the architectonics, as it were, in my work. My culture is Christian, but my themes are not necessarily so. They meet in my experience, some of which is articulated on the page. The migrant experience that I write about could be a metaphor for the situation of a Christian after original sin. If the reader is drawn to look up some of the Christian references in my work, that is close enough to the act of preaching in a secular world.

Jonathan: But that’s kind of more of an analogical connection as opposed to an explicit one per se.

Eric: Yes, but that’s an essential part of Christian rhetoric even from the beginning. You can read it in St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (426), in which he suggests that preachers make do with Egyptian gold, as the chosen people did. We don’t really have to turn our back on rhetoric, whether classical or contemporary. But we can talk about the new dispensation in which life is charged with grace using the same tools as secular writers and artists do. There can be art in homiletics as there can be some homiletics in art. As someone who would like to practice art, I think analogy comes closer to my work than quoting scriptures.

Jonathan: I agree– these rhetorical structures and techniques are prominent throughout the whole historical corpus of English literature, oratory, and disquisition.

Eric: English literature has always been Christian in its roots. It’s a sad thing, how it is in the present, how people are turning their backs on all that because of cultural studies. Many Old English poems such as “Caedmon’s Hymn” are in praise of God. Even Beowulf is an eminently Christian work- in which there is a hymn, ‘grace to the Creator’.

Jonathan: So has there been a kind of move from the past where Christianity was very much the backbone of a lot of your work, given what you mentioned about wanting to witness to Christ?

Eric: People do give witness to Christ in various ways. Doing what we do the best we can is a way of preaching. That could be a bearing witness in itself. It just so happened that some of my poems are overtly Christian in theme or imagery. But not all of them are.

Jonathan: And rightfully so, I think.

Eric: But there are people who see themselves as mainly Christian writers. D. S. Martin’s latest book is about angels. I can do that sometimes, but it’s just that my experience is more than just that. And writing my own experience in itself can give glory to God. By doing so, I can draw people to read some of my work that is explicitly Christian. Readers can also find out on their own about the sources of some of the Christian images that are mentioned in my work.

Jonathan: I’m thinking of a cultural theorist named Ted Turnau, who is a Christian. The metaphor he uses for art is that it’s like a portal that people stumble into, where they enter the world of those who follow Christ. The Christian artist’s job is not to preach because that’s the preacher’s job. I think that’s a better way of thinking about the position of an artist who is also a Christian.

Eric: Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit who wrote about the grandeur of God with his sprung rhythm. So it is with whatever we work on, as long as we do it with attention to and love of God.

Jonathan: Bearing that in mind, what would you say is the relationship that you see yourself having with the institutional church?

Eric: I’m very much part of the church because I’m a single member of Opus Dei. I’m committed to giving classes on church doctrine to other people, mostly Catholics. We also have non-Catholics who attend the activities of Opus Dei. Did you ever read The Da Vinci Code?

Jonathan: I did not.

Eric: Good for you. (laughs) We’re the villains in that novel. Anyway, we’re not all like that. We’re not out to conquer the world. We’re just ordinary people trying to get by as poets or teachers. We have a few priests and our message is that we can become saints and encounter His grace through our ordinary work. Very simple thing. But it can be quite a challenge to live out. We have a regime of sorts with prayers, reception of the sacraments and personal spiritual direction to help with that.

The church is a vital part of my life, and that has also shaped my wandering all over. That was how I ended up in Taipei and here, where I’m still helping out in Opus Dei. The church helps me to understand reality as it is and that makes me see Jesus Christ in everything, even the squalor of things, in marginalised people. So he’s very much like the migrant workers, the maids, and the nurses because Jesus Christ himself is a migrant. And when He was a toddler, His parents had to take Him to Egypt to save Him and then back to Galilee. Migrants can identify with that situation. They are Christlike in a way, maybe mainly because of their sufferings at that moment. But they also manifest His glory when they see their condition as a sharing in Christ’s passion and potentially redemptive.

The church is part of my writing too in the sense that it shapes my beliefs and ideas. And so I see my work as sacramental in that sense, making explicit something that is really mysterious: redemption. And I make use of tropes that are available to me from my own experience.

Jonathan: And now God has placed you in a position to foster more conversations on poetry as director of Poetry Festival Singapore.

Eric: I’m very grateful for that calling, which is primarily God’s initiative. I just didn’t say no. I see my work in poetry as a very minor hymn to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is one long act of thanksgiving for whatever ability he’s given me to write about this place, about experiences, about histories. And to be initiating dialogues among poets about writing in the island’s four official languages as well as between them and the bigger society – in the time of Covid, with a worldwide online audience. In some ways, it can be burdensome in that one has to put up with plenty of hassles. A friend calls me crazy for taking on the responsibility of overseeing the festival. But it’s been mostly a gift – a crazy, good gift.

***

On Peace
(Reading
City of God Book 19)
Eric Tinsay Valles

When stars dance in their own orbits,
When body and soul ponder their image in the night sky,
When one makes a home with another
And both laugh, their shoulders shaking;
Not when one commands the cosmos
Or another as one orders a blister to heal
But only feels the thrumming ooze,
In a truce but with swords unsheathed;
Not as the devil passes his life for the truth
Though he be an angel of light;
Not as one who, falling ill in body or soul, sobs
For what lies outside starry fields, beyond recovery

Tears mark a trial toward peace
Like silver rain seagulls glide through homeward,
But not for ghosts who hide their gifts in shadows,
Whose thick skull sockets do not reflect
Love that sets stars spinning on their axes,
Makes the cut heal through deep,
Gilds in crystal summer daylight,
Trills like a perpetual, clear spring
As it trades jests at a floodlit banquet;
A white-capped peak above a dark grove;
An inn for pilgrims where ale flows free
And blankets are pressed warm for restless souls.


Cover image: Eric reading his poems at Lake Victoria in Kenya.

Websites: https://ericvalles.tripod.com/
http://www.poetry.sg/eric-valles-bio

Poems for Englings: An Anthology

Photo: Nadi Lindsay (2019)

Introduction

and that will be heaven
at last      the first unclouded
seeing

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]

Contents

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.

***

Ceasefire
Michael Longley (1998)

I
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.

II
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.

III
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:

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

***

peacemaker

“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:
jonbcy.wordpress.com/2020/12/30/on-forgiveness/

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.

(1877)

***

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.

(1985)

***

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
crimson             
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.

(2019)

***

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.

(2020)

***

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

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.

(2001)

***

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

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.

(1995)

***

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