Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Many Hats of Rowan Williams: The Beret

On the 21st of February Philip Harvey conducted the first Spiritual Reading Group for 2017 on the writings of Rowan Williams. One of the passages was Rowan Williams’ poem, ‘Yellow Star’, first published in ‘The Other Mountain’ (Carcanet, 2014, pages 44-45). Here is the poem, followed by the reading.

ellow Star

for Mother Maria Skobtsova

If we were true Christians, we would all wear the star.
                                                                                    Mother Maria

Take down the star from the treetop:
after these two millennia, it is jaundiced,
scorched, its points still sharp enough, though,
to draw blood. When it first shone,
it lit the way to killing fields. It has not
lost its skill.

Pin the star with its glass spikes
over today’s selected carriers
of the infections clouding the future’s
blood. The star has made the rivers bitter,
bitter, the scorched neighbours cry out
with burnt tongues.

Pay for the star with forged certificates
of baptism, papers of citizenship securing
the right to emigrate from Christendom’s
collapsing planet; hold up your hand
where the points have caught and drawn
polluting blood.

Step out, star child, into the queues
of neighbours lit by the lethal sign;
take bitter food and drink from the hand
of neighbours who pay the long price for being
there, always, under the light when we need
guilty strangers.

Hold up your hand; the star-drawn blood
binds you into the stranger’s place.
While the light lasts, think how it is
that the dust of burned stars, the immeasurable
dust travels darkly over light years to reassemble,
alive and moist.

Mother Maria Skobtsova is a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church who fought in the French resistance and died in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in March 1945. The star she refers to in the epigraph is the yellow star Jews were enforced to wear during the Nazi persecutions. Her intent is unambiguous: anyone who follows Christ must be prepared to identify with the victims of persecution. They must call out injustice when and as they see it. Furthermore, they must identify with their own indebtedness to Judaism, with the Gospel’s profound Jewish sources.

Maria Skobtsova was herself a poet. In July 1942, when the order requiring Jews to wear the yellow star was issued, she wrote a poem entitled "Israel":

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

Rowan Williams takes this a step further by connecting the yellow star with that most renowned emblem of Christian story, the Star of Bethlehem, the one we place each year on top of our Christmas trees.

Take down the star from the treetop:
after these two millennia, it is jaundiced,
scorched, its points still sharp enough, though,
to draw blood. When it first shone,
it lit the way to killing fields. It has not
lost its skill.

No Yuletide sentiment here, only then Rowan re-imagines the purpose of that star in new ways. He gives us a series of (almost episcopal) imperatives. We must pin the star as a sign of recognition of our collective desecration of the created world. We must live with the cost of belonging to Christ through baptism. We must identify with the strangers who live in our midst, and we must go out and meet those strangers. We must accept our own finiteness in this our one world, ready for whatever it may bring next. We must make ourselves accountable.

I have never met a poet who wears a beret, yet it remains a curious and palpable symbol of the poet in our culture, a kind of adopted halo. When Rowan puts on the beret he does so with deliberate intentions. He is not one playing just for the sake of play, not a believer in art for art’s sake. This is a person who speaks three languages fluently and reads at least nine languages with ease. Russian and French are on the list.

I have written before about his gift. “He engages with the life of words, their meanings, ambiguities, colours, their playfulness, invention, sounds. We find this in those writings of his that deliberately don’t touch both sides of the page, but also in his sermons, meditations, exegeses, his essays, disquisitions, lectures. His poetry is a way of finding expression for things that he could not say as effectively by any of his other writerly means. And, at least for me, his poetry is a distinctive and distinctively different voice, mode, vehicle to his other forms of writing.”

In his recent book ‘The Edge of Words’ Rowan says of words in poems, “… they act none the less as warning signs that this discourse will be something distinct from the usual exchanges of a culture: it will invite us to set aside for this listening period our assumptions about identity, about the solidity or closure of our perceptions.” (EW, 132) Words and phrases are forced into action in this poetry, used to vary and double in meaning, taken from their basic etymology and improved by memory’s definitions. As he says elsewhere, “This is indeed language under pressure deployed as a means of exploration, invoking associations which may be random in one way, yet generate a steady level of unsettling alternative or supplementary meanings in the margin of the simple lexical sense,” (EW, 133) ‘Yellow Star’ is just one straightforward example of how Rowan employs “warning signs”, both in the sense of it being a distinctive poem at work in the world and the star symbol in the poem itself being a warning. The poem inhabits its own space, offers its own way of thinking about existence, sets itself firmly in a very recognisable time and place, and uses a shared symbolic language to overturn and re-think that symbolism. At one level, the poem speaks for itself, says it all in one go. It’s like there’s nothing more to say. At another level, every line opens up chances for multiple meanings and fruitful interpretation.

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