Coffee Break Rabbit Trail


by Debbie Vance

It’s Tuesday afternoon and about time for a short coffee break. My short coffee break turned into a longer-than-expected-but-highly-educational rambling journey through The Paris Review Daily blogroll.

First I found a bit on Flannery O’Connor–whose Prayer Journal just released today–and another bit on her hand-drawn cartoons. (Who knew?!) I learned that March 25–the official Tolkien reading day–is on said day because it commemorates the downfall of Sauron. I read a beautiful poem called “To His Love” by Ivor Gurney–a poem about not forgetting by a WWI veteran–and an essay on the sacramental element of writing:

One of Mary Oliver’s poems begins “Something has happened / to the bread / and the wine.” A most unusual mystery, the comestibles have not gone the way of the plums in William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say.”

Oliver’s wine and bread, as she explains in the second stanza, “have been blessed.” These two central elements of the Christian faith have been lifted from their ordinariness, isolated in order to show the extraordinariness of even the most ordinary of things. The bread and the wine join water and words to become what believers call sacraments: Eucharist is a sacrament made from staple food and festive drink; baptism is a sacrament made of clean, clear water.

One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.

That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. The attentiveness of the writer is shown in how that writer lifts to the level of extraordinary the most ordinary of people, places, and things.

“Something has happened,” Mary Oliver would say, to the beef and the vegetables and the broth in Woolf’s fairy tale on the Isle of Skye. Like the madeleine and the tea in Proust, like the coffee and rolls in Carver, Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party has become a masterpiece: simple things have been transformed by Woolf’s sustained attention.

Grace may be the gift of the sacraments, but mindfulness is the gift produced by the writer’s rituals. Christians believe that baptism and communion were created and are sustained by God, rituals set apart in order to illuminate every bath and every meal. The parallel for writers like Woolf, Proust, Robinson, Salinger, and Carver is that their rendering of particular and perfect meals illuminates the potential for communion: readers are brought to the belief that one character or one story can show forth the splendor of all characters and all stories.

And then I stumbled onto an essay about the poem “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang,” which is set in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The poem first appeared in 1996 under the pseudonym Araki Yasusada, and was later discovered to be written by a “middle-aged white community college professor named Kent Johnson,” who then later shifted the authorship to a deceased translator, Tosa Motokiyu. (Maybe…There’s still a lot of debate about the matter, and as evidenced by the comments below the article, Kent Johnson still claims only to be the executor of the work.) Whoever the author, whatever his or her name, it’s a beautifully haunting poem and a welcome coffee break find:

Walking in the vegetable patch
late at night, I was startled to find
the severed head of my
mad daughter lying on the ground.
Her eyes were upturned, gazing at me, ecstatic-like…
(From a distance it had appeared
to be a stone, haloed with light,
as if cast there by Big-Bang.)
What on earth are you doing, I said,
you look ridiculous.
Some boys buried me here,
she said sullenly.
Her dark hair, comet-like, trailed behind…
Squatting, I pulled the
turnip up by the root.

I hope you enjoy this rabbit trail of literary genius. I sure did.


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