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Thinking Out Loud

The Alchemist

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 27, 2016

The Alchemist


Great poets do not just make you admire their poetry. They make you fall in love.

They evoke passion and desire, but also compassion, longing and awe. Even regret in their hands can be transmuted from salty tears to the blood of a passion-bitten lip. Even reverence is grounded in the mundane: the cut of an eye, the lift of a hawk, the transcendence of a salt marsh at daybreak.

More alchemists than literati, great poets. More sorcerers than scribes. In their hands, pens become wands. At a flick of the wrist, skies weep for lost love, mountains leap like goats, irises rise from the dead drawing from the earth our beloved in their wake.

Great poets steal out to the crossroads at midnight to make a deal with the devil. They play poker with Mephistopheles till the break of day, wagering a soul for the right word. They awaken in a wooded glen midway through life's journey so they can awaken all humanity to heaven and hell. They pay the price, and lose themselves, that we might see through their inky scrawls that which will lay siege to our souls.

Once, at the beginning of an Advent sermon, I read a poem by that master magus himself, the late Seamus Heaney, about a boy imprisoned in a chicken coop - a poem of desperate longing and of a hope that would not die in the face of even more desperate cruelty. Later that day, a friend came by my office. He said that hearing the poem made him want to find a dark place where he could weep undisturbed. His reaction to Heaney's poem was a response of love evoked by the sorcery of a great poet. It seems to me that any compassionate person, if they are paying attention, must find his or her heart breaking. Often. Heaney fashioned a work of art from a nightmare scenario to remind us of this fact.

Michael Mather, a good friend and a United Methodist minister in Indianapolis, slipped a book of poetry across the table to me at the beginning of a meeting last spring. He marked a poem he wanted me to read. I took and read. And the next day I ordered a copy of the book: Paula Meehan, Painting Rain, (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 2009). I recommend the book and the poet. But, be warned before you read this collection of poems; know that this poet means for you to share her broken heart. She will make you fall in love, and you will feel the loss only lovers know.

Meehan is an Irish poet, born in 1955 and raised in Dublin, where she lives today. Her poems conjure moments of excruciating yearning. Ghosts drift from memory to memory, as from room to room in some dark deserted house, haunting the poet, and through the poet, the reader.

One cycle of poems titled simply, "Sea," observes the outer world, "a driftwood stick, a hazel wand," "a heron takes flight," "reams of brent geese," as surely as it observes the inner world of love and grief. The poem closes with these lines:

"She who died by her own hand cannot know the simple love I have for what she left behind. I could not save her. I could not even try. I watch the way the wind blows life into slack sail: the stress of warp against weft lifts the stalling craft, pushes it on out."

There's a lot about death in this collection. Stern stuff. Poems such as "She didn't know she was dying but the poems did" and "Her Void: A Cemetery Poem." But, you have to admit, there's a lot about death in life. Love pays the toll of grieving every day.

One poem, in particular, "Snowdrops," evokes personal grief in such a true voice that when I invited my wife, Debbie, to read it, I warned her to find a very private place where she wouldn't worry about being interrupted and to allow herself extra time to recover after reading it. Such time and space are required by this poem which consists of eight taunt couplets. I'll leave it to you to read this one on your own.

There's a sense of humor, a surprising joy, woven through these poems, reminding us of the connections between joy and longing, love and loss, laughter and suffering. But the tone of elegy predominates, what Miguel de Unamuno once called "a tragic sense of life."

"Single Room with Bath, Edinburgh," which begins with the startling line, "I slept last night in a room where someone died," works its deft magic with a slight of hand (you may be tempted to say, after reading it, “a slight of heart”) that will steal your breath away no matter how many times you read it. The cycle of poems titled "Six Sycamores" includes a verse evoking Gerard Manley Hopkins' line, "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim." The reader of this poem cannot but feel the passion for life and creativity that fires the poet's sorrow. One careens from tears to laughter to tears again as one traverses Meehan's poetic imagination.

The alchemists of old labored in their labs to change base metals into gold. Was it greed alone that compelled them? Curiosity? The lust for power and wealth? I suppose there are poets driven by such motivations, though they do not deserve our time. The best alchemists of verse, like Meehan, can change a moment of selfish obsession into a pearl of great price, or a moment of airplane turbulence into a meditation on human hope and frailty. They are driven by a love stronger than death.

Perhaps there's no more appropriate celebration of the poet as alchemist than the poem, "liminal," from the cycle "Six Sycamores," with which I must bring this blog to a close:

"I've always loved thresholds, the stepping over, the shapechanging that can happen when you jump off the edge into pure breath and then the passage between inner and outer.

"Mist becomes cloud; becomes rain. Water. Ice. Water.
In the daily flux, no telling where one will end or begin.
Death can kick start and birth be the true El Fin.
You jig and you reel through molecular spin, daughter.

"Nothing can harm you or cure you. You've found a clear path through the chaos, a loaning

"from history and whether you are free or bound is still in the balance. There's no gain in owning.

"Old riddles still posit the same - what is the sound of one hand clapping? Is that the door opening or closing?”

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