“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.

How Did I Coax R. S. Thomas Out of Hiding?

RS Thomas Welsh poet May 1993 1993

R.S. Thomas at the Maybank Hotel, Aberdyfi, Cymru, May 1993.

The answer to my title question is: By being who I am.

It’s well known that R. S. Thomas used sour wine to dress his comments about England and the English. And when English-speakers showed up at his door – reporters, perhaps — he spoke Welsh to keep them at bay.

I do not speak Welsh, and my stammering assaults on Llŷn elicited efforts from Thomas, patient ones, to help me pronounce the name of his much-loved peninsula.

So why did Thomas come out of hiding for me?

Thomas may have decided to do so, because I’m an American. Perhaps McEllhenney, my Scots-Irish surname, helped. Whatever made the difference, he responded positively to my second letter.

He agreed to meet me at a B&B on the Llŷn peninsula in August of 1992. During our conversation, I did not flaunt but also made no effort to hide the things I thought we had in common. That, I think, is the portion of truth underlying Richard Holloway’s comment about me.

Holloway, the author of Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, wrote this endorsement for the back cover of my book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry: McEllhenney’s “gift for friendship clearly warmed the flinty heart of the Welshman and coaxed him out of hiding.”

“Gift for friendship”: that’s an aged wine that pleases the nose, but is not to be gulped down.

I’m not a natural schmoozer, so I work at friendship by learning a lot about the other person and then by nudging points of contact into what I say.

Thomas was a priest of the Church in Wales: I’m an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. He served forty years in parish ministry: so did I. His ‘call’ was prosaic, not poetic: mine, too.

No blinding light struck me down on the Lancaster road. My pastor asked me, Sunday after Sunday, “Have you decided to be a minister?” He thought I had “gifts” for ministry, and the more I thought about it, I was inclined to agree. So when a high school essay called for writing about some career, I selected the ministry, and ended the essay by saying “That’s why I’ve chosen the ordained ministry.”

Thomas tells us that his mother broached the idea that he should be a priest of the Church in Wales. “So,” he writes, “when she saw that her son had no strong objection to the idea of being a candidate for Holy Orders she secretly rejoiced and persuaded her husband to agree to the idea. And the son accepted that he would have to start learning Greek . . . .”

Thomas, when he and I were talking in November of 1994, characterized his call to the priesthood by quoting Jesus’s words about the kingdom of heaven being “like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).

Thomas was a hyphenated species of fish: “I was trained to be a priest,” he continued, “I wanted to be a poet.” A poet-priest.

I nodded: I was trained to be a pastor, I wanted to be a pastor-theological thinker-writer.

That point of contact helped me coax Thomas “out of hiding.”

It also helped that I’d been reading Thomas’s poems for twenty years. So I could slip quotes into our conversations.

Which is what I did in the course of an over-dinner conversation. Thomas remarked that “interest in poetry was waning and poetry would disappear.” Responding, I said, “Why so fast, mortal?” He managed a mere hint of a smile of recognition.

Two decades before that exchange, Thomas wrote a poem in which he declared religion dead:

The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; . . .
……….Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.

God gets the last word:

……….        But a voice sounds
In my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? . . .
…………………             You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.

That poem is titled “The Moon in Lleyn” – yes, not Llŷn; Thomas Anglicized the Welsh spelling, and the poem appeared in a book published by Macmillan, a quintessentially English publishing house  in London.

Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“So when she saw” – “No-One,” Autobiographies, 35.

“The last quarter of the moon” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30-31.

His Doubt and Belief Drew Me to R.S. Thomas

I squeezed myself into this world; groped my way, in the words of R. S. Thomas, “up to the light,” believing in God.

Belief, you could say, is encoded in me. My parents and the line of parents stretching out behind them were believers. On my maternal grandmother’s family tree hangs a bishop: I have a hint of his nose, more than a hint of his willingness to cotton to unpopular theological ideas.

Once a year, my paternal grandparents took me to their fundamentalist campmeeting, hoping, I suspect, that it would vaccinate me against doubt. Uncertainties about the fundamentalist approach were aroused, however, by the boys who listened to the sermons, then sneaked off into the woods to masturbate. But it was the Bible-waving, altar-calling preachers themselves who awoke my lasting suspicion of fundamentalism: Were they making all that noise to convince themselves that they harbored no doubts? Why else did they protest too much?

College courses in geology, history, biology, and religion elicited doubts about the Bible, the church, theology, and God. The doubts that invaded my thinking did not, however, send my belief into exile. My head raised questions, followed by more questions, but my heart refused to accept the idea that something can come from nothing. In R. S. Thomas’s words: “From nothing / nothing comes. Behind everything — / something, somebody?”

Don’t tell me, I know: That sounds like the woman who insisted that planet earth stands on the back of an elephant. When asked what the elephant stands on, she replied that it is elephants all the way down.

For me, it’s God all the way up, all the way down, and, quoting the title of one of R. S. Thomas’s books, between here and now.

Thomas, affirming his belief in God and acknowledging the darkness in which he carried out his explorations of I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14), riffed on a poem by John Godfrey Saxe, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” In Thomas’s poem:

‘It is like a tree,’
the blind Indian cried
encountering the beast’s trunk.
‘Like a rope, I would say,’
cried another, discovering
its tail. I, though I am
not blind, feel my way
about God, exploring him
in darkness. Sometimes he is
a wind, carrying me off;
sometimes a fire devouring
me. Rarely, too rarely
he is as the scent
at the heart of a great flower
I lean over and fall
Into. But always he surrounds
me, . . .

Future blogs will deal at greater length with exploring God in darkness – Thomas’s twentieth-century take on Henry Vaughn’s seventeenth-century insight: “There is in God (some say) / A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here / Say it is late and dusky, because they / See not all clear.”

For now, it’s enough to say that Thomas’s doubt and belief drew me to him and his poetry. He speaks to me . . . and for me . . . when he says:

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. . . .

Thomas also speaks to me . . . and for me . . . when he says:

It is alive. It is you,
God. Looking out I can see
no death. The earth moves, the
sea moves, the wind goes
on its exuberant
journeys. Many creatures
reflect you, the flowers
your colour, the tides the precision
of your calculations. There
is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
so small that your workmanship
is not revealed. I listen
and it is you speaking. . . .

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

“. . . groping his way up to the light, . . .” – “Pain’s Climate,” The Echoes Return Slow, 2.

“From nothing / nothing comes.” – “The Promise,” No Truce with the Furies, 59.

“between here and now” – Between Here and Now.

“It was like a tree,” – “The Indians and the Elephant,” No Truce with the Furies, 48.

“Why no! I never thought other than,” – “Via Negative,” H’m, 16.

“It is alive. It is you,” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 51.