There is a burning in the garden…
Two of Sophia’s poems were printed in the journal of creative and spiritual exploration, Jesus the Imagination, published by the US Center for Sophiological Studies, Angelico Press (Vol Vl: MMXXll, pp 92-93). Sophiology is premised on the idea of divine wisdom. Usually conceptualised in female terms, divine wisdom has links to the concept in Jewish mysticism of the Shekhinah or dwelling place. In a sense, to search for wisdom is to make in oneself, and of oneself, an interior space for experience of the divine.
The first of the poems is concerned with the problem of human suffering (something in which Sophia had been given an accelerated learning programme). The epigraph is from a short story by Chekhov (Sophia loved Russian literature in all its complex and tragic depths) about a young academic who, suffering from consumption, finds himself visited by a wraith, the figure of a black monk, who offers a sedating vision which comes to fill the young man’s mind. Orphaned as a child, he had been taken in by a kindly family, the paterfamilias of which tends a lovely, and loved, garden. The young man in Chekhov’s story, faced by death, behaves thoughtlessly, cruelly (completely devastating, in the end, the lives of the family who had adopted him). Sophia’s response (as is her presence beyond death) is bracing.
Why is there suffering? Because there must be a burning in the garden…
We are formed by our experience in the world, especially our experience of suffering, and the choices we make in relation to it. Sophia believed, as did Keats, that the world’s function is in the making of souls.
Against the physicality of material existence, of earth-bound “lives as growing things,” is the otherness of a deeper reality. For (in an allusion to Celtic mythology, where bodies of water represent doorways to another world) this is “a doubled place,” a “water garden” through whose portals we must all pass.
It is, Sophia says, fountains that open doors beyond material existence, that speak to us of true things, that sing to us of God.
There is a particular significance to this image. At the hospital treating Sophia, the in-house coffee shop had an outside area set with tables and chairs. It had a water feature, a tiny fountain set in a pond hardly larger than a child’s wading pool. Its small presence (and presentness) was, however, a welcome one. When Sophia was well enough, I would push her in a wheelchair down to the ground floor where the cafe was situated. We would sit outside, drink (a really quite good!) cup of coffee and simply be there under open sky in the warmth of the sun. Sophia was so glad of it.
One is admonished in literature courses not to interpret a writer’s work in terms of their life, but sometimes life has a way of entering in nonetheless. The hospital’s little fountain has achieved a kind of apotheosis in Sophia’s poem (quite literally—depicted, as it is, as a reflection of the divine). How lovely is the image she has made of it, and what a gift it is to think that this is what she saw in it, that little fountain singing to her of God.
Suffering was not an abstract concept for Sophia. It was an all-too-real part of her existence, and in this poem one finds her answer to it. Here is what she would say to Chekhov’s misguided scholar, here too is what she is saying to us.
Yes, there is a burning in the garden. There must be a burning in the garden. We become ourselves in passing through it.
Burning in the Gardens
“In the large orchard…a thick, black, biting smoke spread along the earth, and by
enveloping the trees saved thousands from the frost.”
–Anton Chekhov, “The Black Monk”
There is a burning in the garden
The trees, stripped into limbs,
Become tongues and sing
But not of God
They are the over-exposed shadows
Of their lives as growing things
Then they make industriously for the roots
Teeth now of dead dragons
Fastening the earth into seams
But when they remove the relict
It is more like a button snipped with scissors
A scabby thing fit for boxing up
Still, this is a water garden
A doubled place
With a daylight sky above the pyres
Life burns up into the fountains
Birds’ hearts shake the scabbed earth
The fountains sing of God
Profligate in patterning
Mirroring the unheard psalm in wings of water
In the white that makes the picture
The source of all shadow
Umbered by the sun, as clay on the wheel
“Wry” is a term that can be aptly used in relation to Sophia. Wryly funny (yet deeply perceptive) she was, and, in its wordplay and ultimate resolution, the second of the two poems published in JTI reminds us of it. (One is put in mind of Emily Dickinson’s sharp-witted directive: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”)
What are we? What is the purpose of us (and all our works, including poetry itself)? Sophia tells us the truth of it. We are physical beings, bound by matter, bound by time. . .and yet, and yet we are not.
There is this “unfilled alchemy,” this magical transformation, base metal being transmuted into. . . into what?. Something more is made by us, made of us. There are, Sophia says, “these Ideas in pots.”
Sophia is alluding here to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn (a favourite of hers), but also to Wallace Stevens’ gnomic (and thus frequently misinterpreted) Anecdote of the Jar (itself a response to Keats’ Ode—art is, as Sophia always observed, a continuing dialogue).
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is the famed summation of Keats’ Ode; Time is defeated by it; and we are creatures who can conceive of it. Stevens responds to Keats ironically. His jar in Tennessee is an absurdity, out of place in a universe not of its making—as, of course, are we.
Sophia responds to both of them. The pots acting as repositories for these “victories” of Ideas (as both subject and object of the poems, producer and product, artist and art, thinker and thought), the pots are us.
We are absurd, but what remarkable insight these frailties can contain.
Keats and Stevens just might agree on the veracity of that…
One letter changes us from true to hungry
The radioactive religiosity of the spinning bed
All those Turin shrouds of sweat
All that is hungry is the falseness of fever
All that is true the substance of stone
And yet there are these victories
Angels roll back rocks
And leave bodies shucked out like seeds
These hard things between the teeth
Or the heart
Moving its operations to a fingertip
Leaving the whorls beating
The genetic pattern swirling
A bubble of blister inflated by pain
Yet there are these victories
These marriages and divorces
There is this unfilled alchemy
There are these Ideas in pots