“The Piled Graveclothes of Love’s Risen Body” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

It’s the doorbell!

A kind friend, wondering if he could do anything for me, grounded as I was with bursitis of the hip.

Kind, but an interruption, and my blog-idea eloped with the kindness.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, jotted this laconic entry in his diary on November 2, 1735: “11:30 Religious talk with Mrs. Mackay, interrupted.”

Was Wesley’s spiritual counseling interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock”? It could have been, if Wesley had been in the Exmoor region of his native England, but he was a missionary in England’s Georgia Colony.

It was the poet Coleridge who was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock,” when he, Coleridge, was trying to get “Kubla Kahn” down on paper.

While Coleridge was sleeping, all of the poem had drug-dreamed itself into being. So as soon as he woke up, he began to pen it down, line after line, until there came a knocking at the door. It was the Porlock nuisance, and he detained Coleridge so long that, when he got back to his desk, all of the poem, “with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images,” had scooted off with the importunate Porlocker.

Blasted interruptions!

Now it’s my RS-dar that’s bleeping. I wonder if it’s bouncing off of a poem in which Thomas mentions “a person on business from Porlock.”

I’ll scan the contents of his collected poems. No luck.

Nothing to do but hobble down the hall to the filing cabinet.

Before giving my R. S. Thomas collection to the Drew University Library, I made photo copies of the poems in his early books. Secondhand copies of his later books are still on my computer-side shelf.

Retrieving the binder, I go back to my chair, and page through it.

Voilà!

Here it is, “A Person from Porlock,” in which we see Thomas in his study, books scattered about on the floor, pen ready to put down on paper the lines he’d written in his head.

A knocking on the front door. Maybe it’ll stop. No such luck. To answer, or not to answer?

He gets up, reluctantly, and goes to the door. A “casual caller.”

Back at his writing table, he finds a poem that has been maimed “By the casual caller, the chance cipher that jogs / The poet’s elbow, spilling the cupped dream.”

Life’s casual callers jog our elbows and spill many a cupped dream.

The caller may be the bursitis of the hip that spilled my cupped dream of a winter week in the Florida sunshine.

Or the phone call that makes us forget what we wanted to add to our shopping list.

Or the casual caller may be “the satan” of the book of Job.

Translations that identify this biblical personage as capital “S” Satan, or as the Devil, are incorrect. He’s a private investigator, or, if you like, an agent provocateur working for God.

“Casual,” of course, is not the adjective of choice when the caller is the biblical “the satan.” For the cupped dream that is spilled may be something close to life’s core: fractured health, the death of someone dearly loved, the massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut.

Then we storm at God, in the words of Thomas, “with the eloquence / of the abused heart.”

In a future blog, I plan to discuss my understanding of Thomas as a Jobian-Christian.

For now, let me suggest that sometimes the spilling of a cupped dream makes way for something better – even for something utterly new.

Several days after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, two of his disciples were walking the road to Emmaus, discussing the spilling of their cupped dream; how they had “hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

But now his body was imprisoned in a tomb of stone.

Why do such terrible things happen, they questioned, to good people?

A stranger joined the down-hearted disciples, and soon he was using the Hebrew prophets to give a biblical slant to the crucifixion of Jesus.

When they reached Emmaus, the disciples invited the stranger to eat supper with them. As “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” they recognized him: It was Jesus!

And immediately he “vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31).

The spilling of the disciples’ cupped dream of Jesus of Nazareth created an emptiness in their lives, into which God poured the Risen Christ.

R. S. Thomas tells us about his struggles with Why questions. Questions such as the ones that plagued Job, causing him to cry out “with the eloquence / of the abused heart.” Questions such as why did a gunman open fire in a packed Colorado theatre?

Thomas tells us what, at last, happened to his tormenting questions:

. . . There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“By the casual caller, the chance cipher that jogs” – “A Person from Porlock,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 103.

“with the eloquence / of the abused heart” – “At It,” Frequencies, 15.

“There have been times” – “The Answer,” Frequencies, 46.

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4 thoughts on ““The Piled Graveclothes of Love’s Risen Body” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

  1. Ah there is nothing new under the sun and yet it is still good to know that I am not alone in my Porlock episodes. I suppose it is not a character flaw after all, but merely my humanity coming to the fore. Speaking of the human condition, I look forward to your posts on R.S. Thomas as a “Jobian-Christian”. My own walk with Job provided a handhold when the wall I faced seemed insurmountable.

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