A Skin to Write On


Collected Poems
By Rowan Williams
Carcanet Press, pp. 249, $22.99

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Review by Phoebe Pettingell

Today, people may think of poetry and theology as significantly different enterprises, but this has not always been the case. In Christianity alone, a number of theologians were poets: Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, to name only some of the greatest, not to mention such Anglicans as John Donne, George Herbert, or John Mason Neale.

In more recent times, John Paul II, as Karol Wojtyla, wrote powerful poems, although he claimed to have lost the context that inspired them after becoming pope. Rowan Williams had proved himself an extraordinary poet before and after his elevation to the See of Canterbury. He has also translated poems from German, Russian, and Welsh. These illuminate some of the Celtic poets of his native Wales, unfamiliar to English readers.

This latest volume contains not only all the work from his previous Collected Poems, but also Headwaters (2008), and The Other Mountain (2014), along with 21 new verses. There are also three translations from priest-poet Euros Bowen (1904-88), who, although he did not publish until he was in his early 50s, became a modernizer of Welsh prosody.

Many of the more recent works were commissioned for various occasions, including the dedication of a new stained-glass window in the chapel of St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge; the centennial of Mametz, a 1914 battle involving Welsh regiments; and the 60th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when a colliery spoil tip slid downhill as slurry, killing 116 children between ages 7 and 10 and 28 adults in a school and row of houses.

Regarding a Child was composed to accompany the performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Williams bases his images on the drowned body of an immigrant child washed ashore in 2015. He has often associated the Christ child with the tragedy of children’s deaths, since an essential aspect of the Incarnation is that our sufferings are mirrored in those of the earthly life of Jesus, who even in glory retains his scars from his Passion.

“Preaching is cheap,” he has said, “if it fails to meet human beings at their darkest points.” His early poem, “Twelfth Night,” imagines the Magi, disillusioned that the birth of the newborn king brings not a renewal of paradise but the massacre of innocents, and the ultimate crucifixion. When the child finally answers, it is to tell the wise men,

You still are children, innocence not gone,
what memory of yours is worth the name?
where were you when the world’s foundations
set in children’s blood?

Then the Word made flesh, both ancient and eternal, explains,

Your histories belong to me; here is
not innocence but absolution, for
your scars are true, but I always
will bleed in them

Williams’s poems are often deep, needing careful, I want to say prayerful, reading and meditation to comprehend. But despite their somber themes, they aren’t pessimistic. They engage all five senses, sometimes with synesthesia: “thunder smells like woodsmoke and dusty paper” (“Hermitage, Kentucky, Thomas Merton at 100”), in which color becomes sound, sound odor, sight music. And in these things come epiphany, sometimes resurrection. For an incarnational faith, theology too embraces the Word made flesh, as poetry tries to do. It is not enough to merely explain, and how can God be explained, who is beyond anything our language contains, although art continues to attempt it. Metaphor is the Word made flesh.

My favorite (so far) of the new poems is “Thomas Cranmer,” that enigmatic figure to whom Anglicans owe so much, although he still eludes our understanding with his vacillations and ambiguities. Williams’s poem begins with a description of recycling parchment to reuse — something scholars like Cranmer needed to do when paper was expensive.

But the scraping down becomes his own preparation for his burning — “a skin to write on, naked, old, and fresh.” Is the enigma of Cranmer best resolved in the light of his martyrdom? The resonant words and images here capture the nuanced complexities both of their subject and a poet whose work hovers, as Rowan Williams has said, on “the edge of words,” where language tries to overcome the limits of the inexpressible as it creates something original and fresh.

Phoebe Pettingell is a writer and editor living in northern Wisconsin.

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