Friday, 22 August 2014

Friday with ‘The Magdalen Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden

‘The Magdalen Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1435-38.

A visitor to the Library today asked who is the person in the large framed print near the main entrance. “It is Mary Magdalene,” I replied. “She is doing what she would do. See! She reads a book of hours in a state of complete beatitude. She is looking upon the beauty of Christ.”

Amused by the incongruity of a first century Galilean Jewish woman from Roman Palestine sitting wearing gorgeous green garments in a Dutch apartment sometime in the late Middle Ages, the visitor and her friend took a closer look. Perhaps the idea of anyone like Mary Magdalene reading a book was enough to make them question their own assumptions. Books of this kind were developed some time after the composition of the Gospels. A woman like Mary Magdalene was not a noblewoman from the Netherlands and would not have been addressed in the Greek or Aramaic equivalent of Princess. Actually, we don’t know if Mary Magdalene was by status a noblewoman, but it is unlikely.

“The painting is in the National Gallery in London,” I advised. “It is called ‘The Magdalen Reading’ and is by Rogier van der Weyden.” This information seemed mere information to the visitors, who were now noting closely the fact that the other figures in the painting have been, if not airbrushed, then certainly sectioned out of the picture. No one seems to know for certain why this is, except that the work in the National Gallery is a fragment of what was a larger altarpiece painted in oils. Catalogues claim it was completed “circa 1435-38”. The visitors seemed satisfied that the woman was in a state of contemplation and could therefore, hypothetically at least, be Mary Magdalene. That this particular painting stands at the entrance to a theological library seemed fairly logical.

The staff of the Carmelite Library live with this painting week in, week out. If you had to choose one painting to live with every day in your workplace, you could do a lot worse than Rogier van der Weyden. We know she is who she is because of the jar of ointment in the foreground, a traditional symbol for Mary Magdalene. It would be good to know if her green clothing has any symbolic significance. Apparently the people excised in part from the picture are, standing, Joseph with rosary and, kneeling, Saint Catherine of Alexandria probably, who enjoyed one of the greatest of all medieval saintly cults. We know this because, while Mary Magdalene is in London, Joseph and Catherine are in Lisbon. The original altarpiece constituted a sacra conversazione, a genre of late medieval painting in which the Virgin and Child are surrounded by a group of saints. It is out of this tradition of painting that we have later what are called conversation pieces, i.e. informal group portraits, normally of people we would not describe as saints. Hence the expression ‘conversation piece’, like the print at the door of the Library that, by chance, may prompt discussion.

All of which leaves us with certain overwhelming questions.

What is the book? It looks like a book of hours from the period. The pages have two columns of close calligraphic script, with red letters at the head of paragraphs. The book has gold clasps. Books of hours contained selections from Scripture and Tradition intended to concentrate the mind and body upon the greatness of God, his blessed Son Christ, and the mighty power of the Spirit. The viewer is expected to identify with Mary Magdalene, as she, or even he, sits in her chamber doing likewise, concentrating on the greatness of God, his blessed Son Christ, and the mighty power of the Spirit.

Why is Mary Magdalene, a person not famed for her reading habits, reading? She reads the story told by all those who knew Christ, the reality ever before her eyes. Just as those who read the books of hours now, in the bright interior light of 1430’s Holland, recover the Word each time they engage with their holy words. She leads by example.

Why is Mary Magdalene, a peer in age, present in a painting of the birth of Christ? Because Christ is Alpha and Omega, just as he is to the Magi and the old folk in the Temple at age 12 and the Forerunner in the River. Just as he is to anyone who would be present at his incarnation.

Why is she wearing green? To symbolise life renewed. She is first witness to the Resurrection, life brought back from death. She wears life renewed, has taken it on and is at peace in this clothing.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Poems by Tony Kelly

Poems by Tony Kelly read at Poetry for the Soul at the Carmelite Centre on Tuesday the 22nd of July, 2014

Address for a Special Occasion

How the bishop gamely tried
to tickle the plump sense of occasion
into a little transcendence! -- 
To take a step beyond
the mundane of the heat, summer frocks,
smart suits, and rows of polished cars;
beyond where family values are secure,
spouses faithful, children obedient,
motherhood a treasure, and even fathers
have a special role – 
to that other region...

In the religious perspective
the vanishing point
makes all meaning shrink:
old bird-words are no longer winged;
no more abiding the open air
they roost, moulting,
pecking seed from the preacher's hand.

Some wild amazing thing has flown away:
once reachable in a bound of hope or praise,
or in the dart of love or pang of guilt.
Piety lives here now
as a drugged bird of paradise,
smuggled in, and revived,
allowed to live decoratively,
at least as a specimen
in the ecology of a cage.

Customs check the contraband:
importing exotic fauna
is against the law.
The safer option is taxidermy...
But jokes get by --
ironic resonance
with what we barely know,
as everything comes tumbling down,
and nothing sure can stand
against the earthquake tilt from nowhere.

For all I know, tears may be
a surer path, a strange confiding gift
flowing with more elements,
and welling up from where forgotten things
are felt – and spell,
in a giving too deep to be one's own,
existence, if only for the moment,
shamelessly ecstatic.


To write again, if not perfect poems,
at least to feel that excess of meaning –
awkward in corridors and too loud in libraries,
cluttering desks, a distraction at prayer –
unsettling the agenda generally.
Its the old thrill, to write freely,
not knowing what you have to say,
but being written in a way:
Lower case inspiration, you might call it.
Whatever the case, despite the theories,
things get given: there’s store enough
in nostril and tongue, in skin and eye and ear,
and in the push and pull of being here,
to say nothing of a larger undertow
of that presence and absence somehow --
even enjoying the limits of vocabulary,
its resonance and dance;
and, the times being as they are,
to wait, pencil poised, or fingering a keyboard,
listening. . .

Coogee Beach

Languorous corporation of hazed consciousness,
basking collective sprawled
in undulant, pendulous embodiment,
contoured in sand, or ambling to water's edge. . .
the limp pennant of bright towel marking each place.
A sacrament of sorts, when blessed by these elements,
baptised in brine, posing turns innocent
and all is forgiven –
though capering kids agitate the truce
by throwing stuff, and tongues of foam hiss
envious of this prone and pacific state:
left with nothing, not even the clothes on our backs –
all survivors from the ordeal of going in,
stiff-kneed against the undertow,
pummelled by a good natured surf –
then dumped, and dragged into higher consciousness
oblivious to city streets and long dry roads;
then to wade out in a daze
to hug the promised land,
noses running salt water, sharing this hour
as no friends or strangers could – 
every body on Coogee Beach.


The century dies
with too many deaths. . .
I survived, I think –
though a refugee
from a succession of grey Utopias,
even if now hesitantly naturalised
in this present place.
Still, you learn something
from the crash-course of history;
mostly irony – after being
ill-prepared, late, and too often wrong.
But now, what makes me hesitate
beyond clear borders of love and hate,
is a gentle Jew.

                     John The Baptist

Would that I could make clear,
and cleanly real now,
the way it is these days,
the whole damn wonderful way
it all is now:
I have no skill in proclaiming
non-dreadful things –
just this need to goad
all the demeaning witless
unfeeling of life into something else...
Maybe flame and darkness
are not more understood;
but at least now we must sweat blood
in a million luxuriant Gethsemanis,
and see the lilies waving splendid
in the threatened field;
while that wretch at the gate
will have a place, if not at our tables,
well, at least in the awakening heart.
Let sins have the proper scale,
to test the stuff of mercy...
if not, then be utterly, utterly lost..
in a huge and  negative praise
of straighter, narrower ways:
Now no need to tip-toe
as before, when they, neither saints not sinners,
feared to alarm lazing demons,
shuddered to make idols tremble,
or summon too quickly the holy ones.
It's different now: this time – 
It’s all so climactically appalling!


Such a short time,
A smokey blue understatement
Yet luminously clouding
Every view—
Condensing sky-blue and dawn pink and grey,
A cool blue profusion, incense like,
An advent wreath
Tranquil after the strident wattle,
And before orotund poitsiana;
Blooms strew the ground;
Still, a tracery of leaves is left--
And a dull sturdy trunk
The streak of parrots


Poor old fellow,
angular, pinched awkward man,
taut and pink-faced,
like a preserved quince;
shrewd and sensitive despite his endless chatter:
even now, the original orphan
left at every doorstep;
Everyone hesitates to take him in,
wincing at his eagerness,
and protecting conversation
from his fantastic interruptions,
his perverse skill in missing every point.
His need is to construct the world
in every instant from the start:
recently he discovered the name of his mother,
long dead, and found some brothers,
and the strange world of blood relations...
Now a gush of communication
after the long legal amnesia,
he reports a big barbecue
to celebrate the discovery
of belonging after all:
the heat is off us now --
unless, of course, you take him
as a parable...

                                    The Photo

In the cool gloom
of the old chapel
between the mountains
I first saw his photo:
Franz, with your Iron Cross,
the hero of this valley,
dead now these many years,
killed out there on the snows of Russia.
The little posey to honour you
and those nineteen others
from this valley
who died as soldiers,
is plastic:
memory kept as best it can...
So, there you are, Franz,
still looking out
with that quick eye,
having seen too much.
And eyes now meet
after all these years,
in the darkening alpine afternoon.
You look so young...
Did you ever think that someone
whose father was your foe,
would, one day,
in your tranquil valley,
look you in the eye,
in a moment of recollection,
though you are gone
these many years,
frozen out there...
Well, an introduction of sorts:
not much worse than the tawdry flowers..
and the brown stain creeping
over your photo.
Who bore you ill,
Franz, poor lad
to wrench you from these slopes
to die a frozen thousand miles away?
A fateful history
too many evils,
and presumably the watching Love
you worshipped
in this musty little place,
-- all were working,
then as now...
to give this instant too:
Friend, Franz, in the growing gloom
I kneel and let the oneness grow,
looking at your photo,
looking through a window.

        An Irish Lament
[After an afternoon of Irish Music in THE DAN O'CONNELL]

I lament in heart and soul
for those whose blood is untroubled
by the passion of the fiddles and the throb of the drum
and the sweet exultation of the pipes,
who cannot move to the fanatic merriment of the reel,
for all who have grown old and cold and numb and cannot feel,
for all know nothing of song and feast and dance,-
the whole merry madness and sad gladness of this inheritance -
I lament, yes, I lament.

And for those who can neither brood nor dream,
nor pray wild prayers,
who know not any leaping and bounding of spirit;
for those who cannot die boldly,
who, so sober, have settled so easily with death,
for them, I lament.

I so lament the clouding of bland mens' souls,
their torrents of tears unshed,
their songs unsung, their great deeds undone;
I bewail the flat, grey bays of fear that lap them now
in their dread of the wild open waters:
and by their cool tidy graves, I lament.

For all the faith grown faithless over prayers unanswered,
for all the humbled hopes and the crumbling of great dreams;
for all the loves that once flamed, then turned to ash,
to be blown, traceless, so quickly away:
in all the mourning of the world I lament:
for the men who go lonely, the women unloved and the children unwanted;
for all the timorous, the stunted, the broken, the haunted;
for the sweet ones who have turned sour,
and the old ones who have grown bitter and bent,
pent up in despairs with no hope for mercy,
and stiffened against any grace,
I lament, I lament.

Now, in this time
between the flowering of the wattle
and the blossoming of the plum,
I lament for all who have snugly settled in the heart's winter
to the forgetfulness of shining summers,
who suffer in lifeless places for no reason,
who coldly know that the wattle's exploding gold,
like the luminous fragrance of the rose,
are all dangerous inventions:
for such, too, I lament.

And for gaunt children with empty plates around bare tables
and for their mothers pretending that something is cooking;
for all the great houses that were once built for love,
but never gave rest to friend or stranger;
for cold priests who too easily speak beautiful words;
and for beautiful people whose eyes look only for mirrors,
I lament, yes, I lament;
-- for homes where no music plays,
for faces where no smile plays,
for the promises made but not meant,
for the letters written, but not sent,
I lament.

I lament from the grief that lives in that deep place
where the heart breaks and the soul prays,
where smooth respectability stays
on steady plains, in dread
of the heights and depth of the spirit's space.

I lament for the peace that is not yet,
for the cup of the world's tears not yet filled,
for the cause of my sorrow and all sorrows,
for the fighting and dying not yet over,
for all loves as yet unlearned,
I lament, yes, I must lament.

          Lost Art

            Even in these lovely lands
            you must rise with open hands
            to let all you held be free,
            to find its own and fly away:
            let all your doves and eagles
            have the freedom of the sky.

            The wise ones will always say
     that suddenly, on a summer day,
            the returning eagle will look with eyes
     alight with the span of heaven --
     where all is healed and forgiven:
     and wink knowingly, an angel in disguise.

            And the doves? Take this one here:
            Look, now she has no fear!-
            In the surrounding darkness no longer lost,
     she was the one I was missing most..
            Perhaps she is the Holy Ghost?

            An other holds a splinter in its beak,
            plucked from once sightless eyes:
            that is what she flew off to seek.
            Now blind eyes see, for the dove is wise.
            She comes to hand.. but I set her free..
            whispering, `Love, go! ... bring back the branch
        of the olive tree.'


How can one of living flesh
not sense that most human joy,
body alive to body's beauty?
Enjoyed, enfleshed, secure delights
Gently eager for the coming nights.
Yet stark in hope, there is a stranger,
this poor monk sleeps alone,
with God alone to say, Goodnight,
and him alone to greet in morning light,
and him alone to hear the groan
should the dark be less than friendly.
He stirs to murmur:
Gently now, my lovely ones,
Waste not your pity here:
I lie stretched cowled between
Vigil and sleep’s half-dream,
divining answers about that end
when you too will need a friend;
and you too must sleep alone
to wake to no familiar form.

          Other Owners

Often around the bend of the river
mostly in early morning and at evening,
wandering amongst the flowering gums along the banks,
surprising improbably bright parrots,
I have a sense that this, all this
is still known, owned by invisible others --
catching me midway between some feeble praise,
and expatriate envy of those who knew by belonging...
as they dwelt in reverence's vast,
tender accumulation
of a whole world beyond me;
As I stare untutored at flower, and tree,
and at places where animals are supposed to be,
I know they saw;
and breathed what I glimpse,
and danced what I clumsily survey.
-- I am where they were made to disappear;
still animating the place, I think,
still in cosmic dreaming...
and I mourning absence
or sensing presence,
beyond the reach of politics,
in this teeming, shifting seeming.


We speak most fully the words we do:
unanswered the question:
whether we are spoken for
or spoken to?
And the rare conversation
not so much breaking the silence
but sounding it,
not to paper over the cracks
in the world's meaning
but to prise at them
in the little metaphysics
of our scope.
There are other ways;
but soon the abyss
discretely yawning through the chatter
invites us to be more at home
with what must be unutterable.
Souls weary and retire
to cryptic crosswords
only occasionally to consult
the dictionaries of desire
hoarding signs of silence sounded
or silence broken:
still, all too late
at great meals
or in the bed of love or death --
the heart desperately inarticulate.

They were twins, this strange pair,
very hard to tell apart:
they lived not far away
in a great old shambling house
at the very end of our longest street.
They had a funny trick of startling neighbours
with a sudden cry of recognition;
or, one of them, waiting in the dark,
would surprise some passer-by
by jumping out to ask, `Which am I?'
Despite their bad reputation
with the older folks,
with all this nonsense and endless jokes,
there is no harm in them really.
Only this evening we talked:
having just returned after some time away,
I asked them about old friends.
Their eyes brightly met:
`They're safe and doing well:
so and so bought a farm and had a drought,
another became famous and was then found out;
this one was strong despite the heart that failed,
but the other prospered after being gaoled...
Then, there was Jack who loved Jill,
but Jill loved Will
which proved quite a problem until..., well,
Look, there is so much to tell
and it is early yet --
(they seemed so delighted that we'd met)
come inside and talk some more:
No, its not too late!".
So, the darker one opened the garden gate,
and the other, so much fairer, laughing led me
along the path to a great ancient door.

             Strange Universe

The evil is too much
of course,
beyond all measure.
But of late --
was it the winter sun this Melbourne afternoon?
Or that old fellow helping
that long-haired, limping girl?
Or the lilied tranquillity
and the bell-birds
of the Yarra billabong
exploding in the laughter of two kookaburras? --
I have begun to take
great pleasure
in this strange universe.

The Pope's Day of Peace, Assisi October 27, 1986
They met for peace that day,
far from my own heart's foreboding,
in the city of the Poverello --
to pray, these holy ones,
in a conspiracy of faiths and ways,
bright spirits, in hope that darkness
need not be our doom:
the TV showed them almost as boys playing,
as they set the white doves free --
distracted to a smiling fluster
from the solemnity of ceremony
in the elusive practicality
of in opening cages,
and letting startled birds
flutter off...
to what fate?
White doves in grey landscape,
whirling up and off
defying the gravity of the occasion,
into certain danger:
a fleeting gesture to decorate
the perilous land of the heart:
No more cages, only wings,
and the hawks of winter waiting..
what of the prayers?
Flying doves, falling leaves,
old men smiling,
attempting greater goodness,
a hour of good behaviour,
even for the religious,
with some guns stopped,
and the missiles waiting for another day;
though no pause, I think,
in the great factories of death;
and the world as my own heart felt.
Still, withal, the imagination
just a little bit disarmed
by possibilities of mercy...