“The Selected Poems of Thomas Merton”

Although I hate to admit it, I found myself thinking that "The Selected Poems of Thomas Merton" seemed more "foreign" to me than the Japanese haiku poets I was exploring earlier in the week. Without the aid of Google I would have found it nearly impossible to understand many of the references in Merton's poems, not only references to historical figures like Federico Lorca but, more often, references to Catholic Saints, Catholic sacraments, or the history of the Catholic Church itself.

I was also a little taken aback by the "dark" elements in Merton's early poems, though perhaps considering that much of the early poetry was published when Eliot and Pound held sway in the poetic world, that his brother perished in World War II and that his French homeland was overrun by the Germans, Merton's despair is understandable.

Several of the poems are memorable, but I particularly liked this one devoted to a Spanish poet murdered by the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War:

IN MEMORY OF THE SPANISH POET FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA

Where the white bridge rears up its stamping arches
Proud as a colt across the clatter of the shallow river,
The sharp guitars
Have never forgotten your name.

Only the swordspeech of the cruel strings
Can pierce the minds of those who remain,
Sitting in the eyeless ruins of the house;
The shelter of the broken wall.

A woman has begun to sing:
O music the color of olives?
Her eyes are darker than the deep cathedrals;
Her words come dressed as mourners,
In the gate of her shadowy voice,
Each with a meaning like a sheaf of seven blades!

The spires and high Giraldas, still as nails
Nailed in the four cross roads,
Watch where the song becomes the color of carnations,
And flowers like wounds in the white dust of Spain.

(Under what crossless Calvary lie your lost bones, Garcia Lorca?
What white Sierra hid your murder in a rocky valley?)

In the four quarters of the world, the wind is still,
And wonders at the swordplay of the fierce guitar;
The voice has turned to iron in the naked air,
More loud and more despairing than a ruined tower.

(Under what crossless Calvary lie your lost bones, Garcia Lorca?
What white Sierra hid your murder in a rocky valley?)

Although I'd never heard of the Spanish Poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a quick search of the internet revealed that this martyr was killed by Franco's Nationalists and buried in an unmarked grave because intellectuals were considered "dangerous". (God, how I'd like to be considered "dangerous" by Bush's minions, though I'm not particularly desirous of being martyred, even at my advanced age.)

The poem itself seems not only a tribute to Lorca and his poetic powers but an acknowledgement of Spain's "dark" past and sorrowful music, the "swordspeech of the cruel strings" of the Spanish guitar. More interestingly, the martyred poet is compared to Christ's crucifixion, as nature itself seems transformed into the cross in "The spires and high Giraldas, still as nails/ Nailed in the four cross roads" and Lorca's poetry becomes a celebration of that martyrdom, "where the song becomes the color of carnations, and flowers like wounds." In the end, of course, it's the haunting refrain "(Under what crossless Calvary lie your lost bones, Garcia Lorca?/What white Sierra hid your murder in a rocky valley?) that leaves the reader feeling the senseless tragedy of this murder.

Although an aubade is defined as a " song, poem, or piece of instrumental music celebrating or greeting the dawn" and an early poem by Sir William Davenant illustrates the celebratory nature of the poem, Merton's "Aubade-Harlem seems more like a dirge than a celebration:

AUBADE-HARLEM (For Baroness C. de Hueck)

Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify; against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.
Soon, in the sterile jungles of the waterpipes and ladders,
The bleeding sun, a bird of prey, will terrify the poor,
Who will forget the unbelievable moon.

But in the cells and wards of whiter buildings,
Where the glass dawn is brighter than the knives of surgeons,
Paler than alcohol or ether,
Greyer than guns and shinier than money,
The white men's wives, like Pilate's,
Cry in the peril of their frozen dreams:

"Daylight has driven iron spikes,
Into the flesh of Jesus' hands and feet:
Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem."

Along the white walls of the clinics and the hospitals
Pilate vanishes with a cry:
They have cut down two hundred Judases,
Hanged by the neck in the opera houses and museums.

Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.

I'm not sure what my attraction to this poem says about me, except perhaps that I am an unrepentant liberal. Here the innocent children of the poor, or perhaps their hopes of a better future, have been crucified, martyred to those who exploit the poor for their own ends. The children's prayers of a better life, like kites floating upward, have been crucified on the ghetto's "lines and wires." Their very imaginations, like the moon, have become a victim of the "bleeding sun, a bird of prey." Only the wives of the white men, like Pilate's wife, cry for the poor who can no longer dream.

Merton envisions the innocent children's sacrifice as synonymous with Jesus' crucifixion, "Daylight has driven iron spikes/Into the flesh of Jesus' hands and feet:/ Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem." For someone who has dedicated himself to Jesus, such an indentification would seem synonymous with dedicating his life to the poor children. Having returned to teaching after serving two years in Vietnam, I can appreciate such a dedication.

5 thoughts on ““The Selected Poems of Thomas Merton”

  1. I’ve had Merton’s Selected Poems kicking around the house for a while now, the monastic life being an ongoing fascination of mine (as I’ve written about before).

    Of the whole volume, it’s “Elegy for the Monastery Barn” that really stays with. Something about the tangle of both bitter and awed feminizations of fate and fire, and the conflict between graceful acceptance and being pissed off that your barn burned down.

    I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to write a story that responds both to Merton and the omnipresent Faulkner story–the burning barn (like the bush, I suppose) seems to be an image I just can’t escape even though I can’t quite figure out what to do with it.

  2. No fair, steve, that’s in the half of the book I haven’t read yet. Now I’ll never know if I like it or your comment meade me pay special attention to it.

  3. I didn’t discover Lorca myself until I was past 50 and even now have only read a few of his works. One was a tribute about Walt Whitman in somewhat the same way as Thomas Merton’s, except that Lorca seemed to bemoan the behavior of homosexuals from some countries while approving that of yet another list. I guess even the discriminated-against are sometimes so tempted to be discriminating that they discriminate against, too! Nonetheless, Lorca is powerful. I don’t think I’d heard of Merton, either, before you brought him up just now. Poets sure know how to get down in a crevice and hide, don’t they? I guess a lot of them just plain disappear that way.

  4. It’s really okay, Steve; it’s actually nice to know that I’m not the only one reading Hass and Merton. And that I’m not the only one reading this stuff.

    It just seems you’re always one step ahead of me lately.

    Loren

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