Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Centennial Ode

27 October 2014

If Dylan Thomas
Were still alive,
He'd cringe to see
My jittery jive.

I do not aim
To vex his ghost.
He is the poet
I love most.

I love him more
Than bacon and eggs;
Yes, more than Tina
Turner's legs.

I love him like
The cognac neat
That I imbibe
At Grafton Street.

I love his voice
Brazen and sure
More than the Smiths,
More than the Cure.

I crave his rave
Like chocolate cake,
Like chunks of fudge.
Make no mistake:

I love him more
Than pizza pie,
Than Branagh's Hamlet
Or ham on rye.

This randy rhymer,
I love him more
Than ravioli!

My rising moon,
My setting sun,
My bardic ocean,
He's the one.

I think he's nifty,
I think he's fine,
Forever young
At thirty-nine.

Brief was his life,
But mighty his metre!
He must have sneaked past
Old Saint Peter.

(Nuns and nurses
Hail-mary'd him home
To the tear-drying vale
Where angels roam.)

Somewhere in Heaven,
In a bar, pub, or joint,
He's laughing a laugh
And lifting a pint

Or maybe he's thundering
Sonnets and psalms
To herons and pipers,
To Wales in his arms.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Poor Sinner

Dramatis personæ:
Fr Ambrose Martin, a Franciscan, age 44
Fr Bonaventure O’Herlihy, also a Franciscan, age 79

Scene: The community room of St Francis Friary. The television is off. The room is empty of persons except for the two friars.


You up for TV, Bonny? No game tonight,
But the classic film channel’s got Audrey Hepburn.
Or maybe Downton Abbey's more your speed?

I love that Maggie Smith -- but no, not tonight.

You seem a little pensive. Am I wrong?

Oh, you know us senile contemplatives!
I need to spend more time in Adoration.

You always loved the old devotions, Bonny.
Tell me -- have you ever tried Centering Prayer?

Devotion to the Eucharist isn’t old.
It's timeless! Ever ancient, ever new.
Now, what on earth is this thing, Centering Prayer?

O artful codger! Trying to play dumb?
I’ve seen your bookshelves, Father O’Herlihy!
You’ve read Tom Keating and Basil Pennington.
You know damn well what Centering Prayer is.

Language, young man, language! Yes, I know.
I tried it during my Zennish '70s phase.
It's not for me. I like the Eastern prayer:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy
On me, a sinner." Simple, short, and sweet.

Sinnering prayer instead of Centering Prayer?

Ha! "Sinnering." I'll have to remember that.
Tell me something, Ambrose. How do you pray?

I'll tell you how, O Grand Inquisitor:
I look at the world, at people all around me,
The baptized, unbaptized, the saint, the sinner,
Rich, poor; white, black; gay, straight; yes, everyone! --
And I see evidence of divinity.
Emmanuel, God with us, God in us:
A ceaselessly fruitful source of meditation.

The mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ!

Yes, Bonny, you could say that. And please do!

The immanence of God. Now, tell me, Ambrose:
Do you ever meditate on God's transcendence?

I should have known you'd bring transcendence up!
Is my way of thinking too adventurous
For a crusty old traditionalist like yourself?

Reactionary rigor, that's my specialty.

Transcendence, Bonny. Enlighten your young novice!

Well, you're putting a worn-out friar on the spot.
I’m getting forgetful of my theology.

You raised the topic, Bonny. It's your penance.
Expatiate, Methuselah!

Well, let’s see.
What can I say that you don’t already know?
God is Majesty. God is Mystery. Timeless, limitless.
He is Immortal Love. He is Beauty and Truth.
He broods over the world "with, ah, bright wings!"
With such unutterable purity,
With such unspeakable tenderness! He makes
The moon and the sun. The stars He puts in place.
He is the prime progenitor, the First Cause.
He fills our hearts with charity and hope
And ... and He is patient, very patient ...
He's far too patient with wretched sinners like me.

Are you all right, old buddy?

Oh, it's nothing.
I sometimes get -- well, lately I've been thinking
Of all the times I've failed Our Risen Lord,
Those many times I've wounded His Sacred Heart,
The times I have offended His Blessed Mother.

Surely you're being a bit too hard on yourself?

Not hard enough, Brozy. Not hard enough.
Are you familiar with the Dylan Thomas poem,
"Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes"?
Well, when you're seventy-nine, you get reminded
Of a whole lot of tears. A whole lot of tears.
I probably shouldn't say this, Ambrose, but ...

What is it, Bonny? Something is troubling you.

I wish I had your hope, your faith, your love.

Bonny! Good Lord! What are you talking about?
I should be saying the same exact thing to you!

I'm degenerating into bitterness.

Now stop it. No, you're not. Good heavens, Bonny!
You're the heart and soul of St Francis Friary!

God help us all if that's the case. Please, Ambrose,
Do me a favor. Before you hit the hay,
Just say a couple of extra prayers for me.
In fact -- would you mind? -- can we please
Say the Memorare together, now?

Of course!

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother! To thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me.

Bonny, you're scaring me. Tell me, what's up?

I was culpably stern -- no, not stern. Harsh.
I was very harsh with a penitent yesterday.

In the confessional?

Yes. Where else?

Go on.

Well, obviously, I can't tell --

Of course, of course.

I sounded like a monstrous moralist!
Don't smile. It's not a joke.

I'm sorry, Bonny.

I read him the riot act. “Change the error
Of your ways,” all that. But worse than that.
I was impatient. Said the kind of words
That keep people away from the sacrament.

You're human, Bonny. You had an off-day.

Off-day! God help me! My off-day
Might keep a desperate soul away from Christ!
We need to pray for him, poor man, for me,
For all confessors of our holy church,
For all old fools with mean hearts and sharp tongues,
For suffering souls with nowhere else to turn,
For those who look for refuge in the Church
And find a scowl in place of a welcoming heart.
(He probably saw me scowling through the grille!)
In the twilight of our lives we're judged on love.
St John of the Cross said that. Of course, he's right.
And if that’s the case, I’m in a heap of trouble.

What's that you're always telling me, Bonaventure?
"God writes straight on crooked lines." It's true.
You're not the perfect confessor. You're a sinner
As much in need of mercy as your penitents.
We're all poor sinners. That's our glory, Bonny!
We need the love of God so much! We do!
We're utterly dependent on God's grace.
Now, God sees, He must see, your good heart,
Your sincere sorrow, and your true compassion.
You may have made your penitent uncomfortable,
But then again, you might have made him think.
And if his sins appalled you, that should spur you
To pray for this poor fellow all the more,
To join him in his suffering supplications.

Oh, I don't know.

That's right, you don't know.
So please don't go around assuming the worst.

That poor man, he was genuinely sorry.
Christlike! Of course, Our Blessed Lord was sinless,
And my God-thirsting penitent was not,
But there was something beautiful in his sorrow.
“O the beautiful souls of sinners!” Who said that?
No matter. This fellow had a beautiful soul,
And I barked pieties at him. Stupid, stupid!
If I could, I’d kneel to him and beg forgiveness.
Oh, Brozy, I've botched it. How can I say Mass
Or hear confessions when I'm so ...


So loveless!

Come on, Bonny.
It's late. You've got the 7 o'clock tomorrow.

Oh, no! Oh, goodness! Brozy, please, you have to
Hear my confession before I go to bed.

Confession? You’re in luck. That’s what I do.
I can't refuse my old pal Bonaventure.

Your old pal is one cranky son-of-a-gun.

That might be true. God loves you anyway.
The rest of us? We just put up with you.
Let’s go into the chapel.

[They rise, Ambrose easily, Bonaventure with effort]

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
Brozy, do you know Wilde’s De Profundis?

Ah, good old Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie!
They teach him nowadays at the seminary.

As what, literature or moral theology?

But in a recent issue of The Ignatian,
Some Jesuit calls him a Doctor of the Church!


For me, he’s got a far more glorious title:
A poor sinner who fell in love with Christ.

Brozy, you brazen infidel, you’re all right.

[They walk off.]


Monday, October 27, 2014

Happy 100th birthday, Dylan Thomas

He made the English language crash, seethe, bubble, and brawl; and he made me burn to write.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Church steeple and autumn foliage, Arlington, Massachusetts, October 2014. Photograph by Thomas DeFreitas.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


The smiling telegenic Man from Hope
Was on his way to Washington, DC.
And I was twenty-three:
I liked sweet Deborah, but I loved the Pope.

Cistercian yearnings filled my youthful heart.
I wrote to monks in Spencer, where I spent
A week that chilly Lent
In the abbey cloister, hallowed, set apart.

And back at home, I'd watch the Boston Celtics
With Mark, a friend since fifth grade. Beer would flow
Like streams of aitch-two-woe:
We'd scuffle over Art, God, Politics ...

I had no job. My future looked uncertain.
Still lived with Mom. Had no plans on returning
To halls of higher learning--
My noggin, filled with fog and Thomas Merton.

I still hung out with Rob the Communist,
But I was getting too right-wing for him.
He likely thought me dim
Or two cents short. I can't say he's been missed.

Oh, Harvard Square! You were my saving grace!
Reading International. The Book Case.
McIntyre and Moore’s.
Words Worth. Starr's. At one of these fine stores,

I bought a beat-up Bible for three bucks.
I memorized some psalms and gospel verses--
Though I could still fling curses
At noisy neighbors. (City life! It sucks.)

Of course, I crammed my brain with poetry
And Marianne Moore's prim litotic prose.
Contented? I suppose.
But it was not yet 1993.


The first year of my post-collegiate life,
resiliency impaired but not dead yet:
the aftermath of being "asked to leave."

My cushy job in Brookline caused no grief.
Mad for Auden, I gobbled his Complete
that first year of my post-collegiate life.

Boston Book Annex, now gone to its grave.
Judge Thomas. The Gulf War. I'd read and write
to heal the pains no medicine could relieve.

Kenmore Barnes & Noble! poets' trove!
Ashbery. Mudfish. Boulevard. Grand Street.
The first year of my post-collegiate life.

Confession (which I'd shunned since '85)
to an Oblate of the Virgin. Oh, the sweet
return to a Church I was foolish to leave!

Dame Edith Sitwell's Atlantic Book (of
Anglo-American verse). Scotch taken neat.
The first year of my post-collegiate life.

New Seeds of Contemplation. God's fierce love.
Marsh Chapel. Mass, late on a Sunday night.
(Quite late! Close to eleven when I'd leave.)

No more joking with Will or George or Dave.
No more long talks with Leah, heart's delight.
The first year of my post-collegiate life,
the aftermath of being "asked to leave."

Friday, October 24, 2014


December, when it all became too much.
The sundering, too great a blow to bear.
How could I live, irrevocably estranged
From one whose very sight was life itself?

Saint Lucies Day, the long yeares bleak midnight.
Darkened, the sky at noon. Withered, each leaf.
No hope could heal this wound, no soothing word
Assuage the pain or mitigate the hurt.

This was the wreckage of all joy and grace,
This was the death of every tender thing,
Calamity the heart could not sustain.

I watched it happen and I could not speak.
She was my reason for continuing.
I must forget. And I cannot forget.


Audra walks down the dormitory hall
in white socks, blue jeans, t-shirt: and her eyes,
black and beautiful, keep me in their thrall.

It is my twentieth autumn. Dead leaves fall
to the dark earth. And this poor sinner cries
for joy when Audra passes through the hall!

Soon December’s winds will bite and brawl;
but her kind face outshines the glowering skies.
So beautiful. I am her helpless thrall.

Slender she is, and not extremely tall.
Luminous as the day-star. Sadness dies
each time sweet Audra passes through the hall!

She is my life, my light, my queen, my all:
her voice (that perfect and divine surprise,
Black and beautiful) has me in its thrall.

Forgive, O Lord, this feeble-witted scrawl:
my soul is on its knees and dares not rise!
Black and beautiful, Audra walks the hall,
vanquishes me and keeps me in her thrall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Tracy Chapman's music was everywhere.
Life at nineteen! Electric with poetry!
I worked at David's Cookies in Harvard Square

with Becca, Melvin, Mark, Jodi, and Claire.
I read Hart Crane's great paeans to the sea.
Tracy Chapman's music was everywhere.

Women, from east and west, both dark and fair,
were much too lovely for the likes of me
working at David's Cookies in Harvard Square.

William J. Barnum, with his long white hair,
carol'd the cockatoo most mellifluously!
Tracy Chapman's music was everywhere.

Of Spencer and Katharine I became aware
through sleepless nights in front of the TV
after ice-cream and cookies in Harvard Square.

Morrissey began his solo career.
I drove Dad's Cadillac quite cautiously.
Tracy Chapman's music was everywhere.

September came. I breathed the warm dry air
of California. Oh, what joy to be
far from David's Cookies and Harvard Square!

Not yet in college, working for a year,
I earned six bucks an hour, gratefully,
and Tracy Chapman's music was everywhere
from Santa Monica to Harvard Square.