Poems From Thin Places: Pilgrimage

Presumed Grave of William Shakespeare. Photograph by David Jones. Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK. 2007. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.

Presumed Grave of William Shakespeare. Photograph by David Jones. Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK. 2007. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.

Shakespeare's grave is not a thin place. In fact, my entire trip to Stratford-upon-Avon was one of the most forgettable days of the 89 I have spent in the United Kingdom. But maybe "forgettable" isn't quite the right word for my experience at Stratford, since I'm writing about it. A certain meaning in Stratford's very meaninglessness was memorable.

I could start bemoaning commercialization now. It would hardly be out of character or out of place. Yet I do think one can still be a pilgrim even if one travels on a Megabus and gazes in awe and wonder while sipping a corn syrup latte from a disposable cup. That's how I experienced Canterbury, and somehow it was perfect. The little town on the Avon, however, just doesn't manage to transcend the bull$hit.* Stratford is a comedy of errors, possessed of just the sort of cloying kitsch embodied in that terrible joke.  

Regular readers, you know where I'm going next. "When I got home, I wrote a poem about it." Said poem is not a sonnet, nor is it in blank verse. There are no Petrarchan furbelows or rhyming couplets. There is no rhyme at all. It is a prose poem -- the only one I've ever composed. I suppose I was aiming for some sort of irony, since I doubt Shakespeare would have much use for the form, and since I don't fully understand it myself. Yet I googled "prose poem" just now and found out that in the inaugural issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson defines the genre as follows: "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels." 

Fine line between comedy and tragedy . . . prosaic poetry/poetic prose . . .  and slipping on banana peels? Well gee, that sounds like Stratford, and maybe even her native son.

Anticlimax
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Bleste be þe man þt spares thes stones,
And curst be he þt moves my bones.

They've wired Shakespeare's boyhood home so that the candles flicker at 60 watts. Faux Tudor storefronts push up to the door, hawking teapots shaped like Anne Hathaway's cottage. They even have those pens with a clear panel and water behind, where a little plastic Romeo scoots over to a balcony when tipped. Assuming he existed, Shakespeare himself lies in nearby Holy Trinity Church. The epitaph on his gravestone might be the silliest four lines of his career. I remember that no one can decide if his penultimate play was romance or tragedy or just history, though a spark from its cannon brought the house down in flames. Yet I doubt that the genius of English literature is turning in his shoddy grave. Maybe he even meant it to be this way. He was always good for a laugh.

*Click for some subversive public art in my college town, and/or to see how Christian college kids on dry campuses get their kicks.

Poems From Thin Places: Nativity

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.

Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice. 

Nativity 
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

In Whitby,
where the ribs of the ruined abbey 
card sea mist like wool, 
I think of the shepherd Caedmon 
going early to bed in the barn 
for fear that the harp would pass to him.

I think of him lying in the musty hay 
away from the warm light, 
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead 
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.

Beside him the herd jostles quietly, 
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.

Then sudden crush of whiteness, 
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.

"Sing, Caedmon."
"I cannot!"
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads 
and sing.

Poems From Thin Places: Incarnation

Only a green velvet cord separated me from case after walnut case of exquisite volumes. Marble busts gazed self-contentedly at the fourteenth-century oak harp that symbolizes all Ireland. A barrel-vaulted roof crowned what some say is the most beautiful library in the world. Nearby a different page of the gloriously illuminated Book of Kells is exhibited every day.  

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ.  Book of Kells.  Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ. Book of Kells. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That is what Google Image Search tells me I saw at the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin.  

I do remember it. I do. But you know how the impression you take from a long-sought experience is rarely the impression you expect? There's generally a gift in that. We're patterned to expect a gift in that. Thomas C. Foster tells us that in a quest narrative, the real purpose for the journey is never what the quester initially seeks.* There's a reason why "expect the unexpected" is a cliche;  Western culture tends to breed quest narrative junkies, and after awhile, everything starts to look like a journey.

I'm pretty sure I've already tripped your convention sensors. Now all I have to do now is fill in the blanks.

What I remember most about the library at Trinity College Dublin was not the oak or the marble. It wasn't really evenThe Book of Kells, though I can tell you that the going Medieval rate for blue ink was pretty steep. What I remember most was a hole.

There is a tiny hole in The Book of Kells. In fact, there are many, and there always have been. The book is vellum -- calfskin -- and very good vellum too. It is just that vellum can't help but be perforated in places, because vellum was once alive. I looked closer. I saw hair. Hair and the faint branches of bloodless vessels. Hundreds of calves died for that incarnation of the gospel story. These were violent and sacrificial deaths, in which flesh became word.

Well, of course I had to write a poem then. I later heard that Billy Collins, at the time my favorite poet, had the same idea. I haven't seen his version yet, but I'm sure it is better. That's okay. We all have to create meaning with the substance we have. We all have to play with that convention that the journey itself is the destination, and that the destination is never something we can expect or control. We all bear in our flesh stories that are not our own, and then we make them our own. We are full of holes. Holy.

Book of Kells
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

It's the colors they worry about:
crimson, purple,
costly blue.
Mustn't let you fade.
Just turn, turn
turn you--
a daily mass
for gawking pilgrims.

I love
the unpainted places of your skin:
faint branching of empty veins,
straggling hair
they could not scrape away,
the holes from blade

or pen--
Did it hurt when your flesh became word?

Did they feed you a last supper;
one-hundred eighty-five voices lowing
over fragrant, final grain?
Perhaps you brushed noses over a fence.
Perhaps you only met
afterward.

*Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor:  a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York:  HarperCollins, 2003. 3.

Poems From Thin Places: an Introduction

Iona From the Ferry, September 2012
Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) would memorialize moments of great significance in his journal with the phrase "I mark this day with a white stone." He said it on the golden afternoon in which Alice Liddell inspired his most famous character. One of my own white stone days  a day that has forever changed how I view the world  happened when visiting with an Englishwoman in Durham, Northumbria. Her name was Mrs. Baggott, and she told me about thin places.

"Oh, I see you're going to Iona!"  she said, looking at my itinerary. "That's a thin place, you know."

"A what?"

Maybe you know the term, but I didn't. Mrs. Baggott proceeded to explain that because of the tiny Hebridean island's rich spiritual history, Celtic Christians believe that the veil between heaven and earth is almost incorporeal on Iona. Some describe it as a place where the meetings of earth and sky, sea and land smooth away the tension of  our compartmentalized modern lives. Flesh and spirit, sacred and secular, earth and heaven  these dualities do not feel at odds on Iona. Mrs. Baggott told me to expect this, but of course I was skeptical. She was right, and then some. My three Iona days were some of the most saturated of my life, and all I did was walk around and eat.

"All I did was walk around and eat." It is tempting to claim that is the point — I cut out the noise of postmodern life and was thus able to experience existence at its essence. That is true, yet it seems at once high-blown and trite. It also tempts one toward a pattern to which I am vulnerable:  making everything into an abstraction that helps me sort out my own psyche. Abstraction is, after all, what Eric Weiner writes in his New York Times piece on thin places. What constitutes a thin place, in Weiner's argument, varies somewhat from person to person. It is the internal experience of being a traveler that matters. I like Weiner's point, yet it seems to plunder the places themselves. Thin places, as the Celtic tradition defines them, are not our journeys, our moments of transcendence, our escape from a cliched but real cultural paralysis. They're places. The literal nature of their "place-ness" is probably what smooths our tensions, and these places will go on existing in close connection with the numinous whether or not we visit them. They're not about us, and that's why they're so freeing to us. Then we (or at least Weiner and I) turn around and figure ourselves in reference to them anyway. What gives?  

I'm rather shocked by how literal I want to be right now. I'm less shocked that I'm not doing a good job. I'm not sure Weiner does either. He concludes his article by stating that  "Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked."  Did you see that? Weiner's celebration of semi-subjective travel epiphanies just turned to outright and earthbound essentialism. The language with which people  myself and Weiner included  often describe thin places seems at once unusually objective and hopelessly navel-gazing. Likewise, when one waxes transcendental about an out-of-body experience, one relishes the memory of a departure from self that is nevertheless all about the self. Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of thin places resides in the fact that they allow us to inhabit a paradox. In a thin place, one can have an objective and subjective experience at the same time. But in talking about "us," I'm again defining objectivity in terms of my subjective experience. After all, humanities scholars like me make our living out of narratives of transcendence, even as we affirm that there is no such thing as a truly objective human experience. Where do we go from here?

When I set out to write this introduction to a forthcoming blog series on thin places, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. Now I'm left with questions. That's not a bad position, but it won't do much to tell you where this series is headed. Here's what I know. It was 2002 when I met Mrs. Baggott, learned about thin places, and first went to Iona. I was in my last year at Whitworth University, and when I returned to college I wrote a series of poems called "Notes From Thin Places." They've been moldering in their own mediocrity and the back of a filing cabinet, but I like some of them enough to trot them out for my blog. Like most writing, they're as much about the writer as they are about the scene. They can't themselves be thin places, because they're not places, and because they only amplify the tension between subjectivity and the longing for objective experience. I just hope that somehow these tensions can resonate. I'd love to hear your thoughts.