Sunday, November 28, 2010

Father Micheas, Fort Bragg priest of peace

I was surprised to be approaching intake at an Emergency Room as we went into Mass this morning. It was a hospital on post at Fort Bragg, and Mass was held in a small room on the third floor. As we entered the chapel, the paraphenalia of the rite was being assembled on what passed for a sanctuary. Given the military setting, I was struck by the similarity to hurriedly making camp after a day's march. It seemed like a bivouac Mass.

The priest, an elderly man with piercing blue eyes, began by calling attention to his purple robes. He said purple was proper to the celebration of Advent, which started today. Holding up what I would have called his sash, he said his stole was from Vietnam. He pointed to the wooden stand upholding the Bible on the altar and said it was from India.

He began a prayer, explaining he was using the Canadian version; the Canadian bishops, he said, did a better job with many prayers than the American bishops did. He showed us the book of Canadian bishop prayers he would read from and admitted the book was borrowed. His original copy, he said, had been lost in shipment from the north of Turkey when he left there.

Sitting in a pew, an American with a wife from Togo, surrounded by her family from Ghana, I was deeply pleased by his casual internationalism, especially on a military post. The U.S. Army, after all, is not commonly associated with the more enlightended, compassionate, humanitarian aspects of internationalism.

The surprises were only beginning. The first reading was from the prophet Isaiah. It included the following: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again."

"Nor shall they train for war again"? Fort Bragg existed specifically to train for war!

The second reading, from Paul's Letter to the Romans, was more of the same: "Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light". The "works of darkness" that agitated Paul were orgies, rather than acts of aggression, but I know Fort Bragg does not hand out "armor of light" as standard issue to its infantrymen.

I knew, because the priest has taken the trouble to tell us, that these readings were ordained by the Church as part of its scheduled cycle of readings. I wondered what, if anything, he would make of this pacifist stuff in his homily, addressing an Army post parish in a time of war.

He went right at it. He said the prophet Micheas also spoke of turning swords into ploughshares. Then he pointed out a statue on the altar. I had noticed it earlier; it looked like a burly man doing something vaguely athletic. The priest pointed out that it was Micheas beating swords into ploughshares. He wished he could pass around the statue, he said, but it was too heavy. I found it touching that he wanted these military parishioners to hold in their hands this aggressive symbol of peace.

He dwelled on the subject further. He produced a picture. He said it was an image of Micheas from the National Shrine. This image was more static, less active, but there he stood, holding a hammer in his hand, the hammer that turned swords into ploughshares.

After Mass, the priest invited us across the hall for juice, cookies, and fellowship. We joined him and a smattering of the parishioners. I waited my chance to approach the man. Up close, his pale blue eyes were all the more piercing. His nose was veiny, and he had a scar on his chin that looked like it had been a nasty wound, once.

I mentioned the scripture about not training for war anymore. "That would put Fort Bragg out of business, wouldn't it?" I said.

He nodded, and said, "That would be a good thing."

I asked for his contact information - I was only visiting - and he produced for me his card. His name: Father Micheas.


Image of the prophet Micheas from the Lady Chapel, Gloucester Cathedral, borrowed from Vidmus.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Letter from Les Murray: on being 'willfully grungy'

I am fortunate to enjoy a long-distance friendship with one of the greatest living poets in our language, Les Murray. Given that Les lives in rural New South Wales, Australia, this is a very-long-distance friendship, both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific, since when your friend lives on precisely the other side of the world it doesn't matter which way you go to get there.

In fact, I have never been, though I've been invited and do mean to go see him one day on Cecil's Lane, a road named for his father. As it is, I send him letters and things we are working on at Poetry Scores, and he sends back letters, poems, or very large postcards filled with his scrawl.

One just received -- dated, nicely, "10-10-10" -- taught me some things. It responds to a package from me that, typically, included a photograph of my wife and child. When Les first visited us in New York, my wife Karley was pregnant with our daughter Leyla; and he is the thoughtful sort who always has remembered that, so I keep him updated on them.
Your photo of Karley & Laylah [his spelling] is indeed a beauty, or two beauties, & I enclose a reply to Laylah. I hope she'll like. I like it.
His reply comes in the form of a photo of a blue bird sitting in Les' wide palm

No legs are visible. Though they could be tucked under its tufts of feathers, I imagine the bird to be legless or in some other way disabled, a natural reclamation project for the poet, an impression encouraged by a note in Les' inscription on the back.

Hi Leyla [getting the spelling right]! I'm happy to see you & your mother looking so well ------- and the blue bird is happy to be looking at all! Love from Les
I know, the tiniest acknowledgement from Justin Bieber would mean much more to Leyla herself, but I am  very proud to have encouraged correspondence between my 7-year-old and a poet whose work will out live us all.

Les also responds to some poems and co-translations of the Turkish poet Orhan Veli I had done with my friend Defne Halman. Les edits the literary section of a conservative Australian magazine named Quadrant and surprised me years ago by printing some work I had sent him; so now, though the friendship is primary to me, there is also a slight strain of literary hopeful in me whenever I send him a package in Australia.
Thanks for your letter too, & the poems. The one that came closest to my grasping Quadrant linkups was, sadly, the co-translated one. What's to stop you developing its impules. The others seem a but wilfully grungy, tho' who am I to judge anything about Injun casinos?
That means I must have sent him this poem:
Kids are making dream
catchers for tourist pennies
The Wounded Knee Kids
Boxing Club needs money
for gloves    for gas to bruise
and travel
They have been pouring
water on their heads all day
Casino roof
the only shade    The old
massacre creek dry
like any other rut
Oh    the elite set
get seventy new houses    says the Wounded
Knee Kids Boxing Club coach    Casino
money never goes to kids
I used to have a phone    Now
I have forty-five kids    Lucky
I still got a TV
The kids
are all
on fire
This is an old poem, just this side of journalism, a bare factual report of a visit to Wounded Knee, the Sioux massacre site. The next brief bit of Les' letter is the only part of this one that is properly personal.
I'm off to Scotland on Monday next, after turning 72 on the previous day. This has been a traveling year, including into the Icelandic dust back in May.
This relates to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption that made worldwide news in 2010. Les moves from this reflection to another poem I had sent, and another unpronounceable name.
"The exterminating influence of the missions" is a fable of the next wave of missions, largely -- my linguist bro-in-law has restored a language to a district N. of here -- it's called Gumbaynggir & had got down to 2 old speakers when he took it up. He has since worked out & produced a grammar, a dictionary & a collection of traditions, stories, etc. & the folk in question hold that he is a Great Good Bloke. They even use their lang. a bit again. Steve himself was born in Hungary but left there at 1 1/2 years -- he then grew up in Zurich, and he's a Christian Brother. Beware what you believe. Cheers -- Les
Wow! That's a lot to unpack at the end of a note scrawled on the back of a postcard that depicts mating sea turtles.
First, let me share my poem he is responding to.





For arrow poison, gall was boiled

down. She soaked his nuts in cum
Sundays, lengthy Elizabethan prose
Sundays, in Kansas City, Kansas.
The hair was at times plastered with clay
for 24 hours, to impart gloss
and keep it from split
ting. The exterminating
influence of the missions
was discouraging, sure,
but courage, for survivors,
was really just a curse.
A is for Absence,
B is for Bayonet in the Back of
C, or Crazy Horse,
D is for Don’t You Dare Speak Your Mother Tongue,
E is for Entrails Emptying Out of Our Soul.

Now that Les Murray mentions it, this is "willfully grungy," what with the nuts soaked in cum and splitting the word "splitting" between two lines. I suppose he and I may disagree about the value of being "wilfully grungy" -- it serves as an apt summary of punk rock, an aesthetic I respect -- but it's good to know where you are coming from, and Les has shown me once again.

If I may quibble with the great poet, however, this poem is not about the next wave of missionaries but rather the first missionary wave in American Indian country, where the languages were willfully annihlated, along with as many of the people as the bad guys could throw a measle blanket on. I'll enjoy discussing this in Bunyah one day with Les Murray and his bro-in-law Steve the linguist Christian Brother.