I Know Why The Caged Bird Doesn't Sing

 

 

 

'I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.'

Virginia Woolf

 

 

I know why the caged bird doesn't sing

And why God-given feather falls in spring

The ruthless month bespeaks regeneration

And flight from climes that temper inspiration

To climes where climbs the stallion sun

Envoy of death-blows dealt and done

Vaulting the hurdle of the season

Whilst overruling rhyme and reason

Reckless florescence bursts its stays

And bears blind seed of future days

Rain-sown in heat and glorious folly

Oblivious of winter's volley

For Sibylline November wreathes

The Hope that free midsummer breathes

It mulches cankered autumn sepal

Reveals the worm within the apple.

 

In gilded prison with wings pent

The linnet mourns his element

Preserved from naked thorn and frost

Whilst honeyed halcyon days are lost

Spent life can yield – the seasons show it

But the caged bird can never know it.

 

 

 

and yet...

 

'FROM my spirit’s gray defeat,

From my pulse’s flagging beat,

From my hopes that turned to sand

Sifting through my close-clenched hand,

From my own fault’s slavery,         5

If I can sing, I still am free.

 

For with my singing I can make

A refuge for my spirit’s sake,

A house of shining words, to be

My fragile immortality.'

 

Sara Teasdale

 

 

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Voice Of Conscience

 On Michaelmas Day, a scene from Entertaining Angels (unedited novel in long term abeyance).

 

Briefly:

Sibyl was born to mixed race Dubliners at the beginning of WW1. Whilst her mother was as Irish as Guinness, her father's folks hailed from nearer the equator and her features favoured theirs. At three years old, she was grief-stricken when his ship went down in the Atlantic. Her mother's betrayal in marrying a shell-shocked soldier in 1922, the year of Irish partition, and presenting her with a string of demanding half-brothers, caused more than a few episodes of malice. Grown up and married, she longed for a black baby, someone of her very own who was attuned to her visceral culture, but when Isabelle was born (ironically nicknamed 'Sable') she was as red-haired as any Celtic European. Sibyl was never truly able to bond with her. That the child was the product of a guilty secret only served to magnify resentment. Eventually, she even came to deny that she had a daughter. Sibyl spent the rest of her days as an arbiter of morality with a hotline to 'God' and a firm expectation of due reward in the Hereafter. In the following scene, after a crushing revelation of the adult Isabelle's emancipation, Sibyl has been rushed to A & E with a massive stroke. She has entered a state of consciousness where, as in ordinary life, she construes what is happening according to her own mythology. But truth has a way of piercing veils.

 

  

 

“You’ve been a long time coming!”

“The road was blocked,” said the Angel. “Now is the hour...”

“I’m being kept here in the waiting-room. Why can’t I see God?”

“You dare not look upon the countenance of God. That is my awful privilege.”

At this, Sibyl began to tremble. “But how shall I know where to find him? He could be anywhere by now!”

“He is anywhere...anywhere and everywhere.”

“Then I could go round in circles looking and only run into him by accident…if I’m lucky. It could take forever!”

“That is true,” said the Angel. “It would be impossible, but for one thing...”

“I don’t think I’m hearing this right,” interrupted Sibyl. “He’s supposed to be omniscient, he’ll know I’m looking for him, so why is he hidden? Why doesn’t he show himself?”

“Perhaps you have not recognised him. You wouldn’t be the first pilgrim to mistake him for a tyrant, or even a villain...”

“Of course, I’d recognise him!” said Sibyl with her own peculiar brand of scorn. “I am Saved. “

“No,” corrected the seraph, “you are being Saved.”

“He chose me himself!”

“What if I told you that he would choose everyone...?”

“I don’t believe that for a minute. The earth’s crawling with evildoers.”

“And some of them see his footprints in the dew of dawn, or hear his tread on the stony path behind them, and turn...”

“You mean, he is revealed to the likes of them, but not to me?”

The Angel smiled. “Congratulations! You have just taken your first step towards the twin virtues, humility and humanity...”

By now Sibyl was lost in a wilderness of incomprehension. “How can this possibly be? I have gone through hoops defending The Truth.”

“Did I not tell you,” the Angel reminded her, “that it would be impossible, save for one thing…?”

Sibyl braced herself. Surely nothing further could be asked of her after all she had suffered. Wasn’t it time for her starry diadem? “Tell me, then...”

“...that he loves his creation so dearly, he has taken pains to become incarnate so that you might catch a glimpse of him in the face of Samaritan and stranger, the beggar under the bridge, the child feeding swans at the water’s edge, the neighbour who encumbers himself with your burden... “

“Throop’s no saint!” interjected Sibyl. “I can vouch for that!”

“...your own next of kin...”

“Sable! She’s the bane of my life.”

Her name is Isabelle!"

“A trial to break anyone’s spirit, but not mine. I have stood firm. To discipline her is to try and push granite uphill.”

“The stone is your stone,” said the Angel, “the one you still behold gagging the jaws of Christ’s tomb...”

“You don’t understand,” Sibyl insisted. “Sable has been my cross...”

Her name is Isabelle,” the Angel repeated.

“She was given to me as a punishment for sin.”

The Angel’s eyes blazed. “And do you know God’s mind, that you judge this? No! The cross is your cross, built with laths from your own dead wood. God has looked for figs and lo! there are thorns, the thorns with which you have crowned yourself, a self-styled Empress. Only One is worthy to wear the Briar and he wears it in your stead.”

At this, Sibyl recoiled in terror, her face chalk-pale. What was this ghastly creature? Surely, no archangel despatched by God!

“Take heed,” warned the Angel, “repent of your Assumption, and you will be forgiven, for you know not what you do.”

“You’re not hearing me!” cried Sibyl. “I’ve already made amends for...for doing what I did. Since then, I’ve stuck to the narrow way through thick and thin.”

“You were in harness to your own dead weight that it abraded you sore. The Lord’s yoke is easy and his burden light...”

“You don’t know Isabelle! My daughter has absconded to the tents of the heathen.”

“In your book,” the Angel replied, “not in God’s Book. You do not allow for the glorious victory of the grand design. Your cosmos is a grain of sand whose bounds are your own bounds. You worship at the altar of your own image and petition God to do your bidding.”

“You forget, I have no truck with sinners whether they be my own flesh and blood or not. That’s how doggedly I have pursued righteousness. In my youth, I was blessed. The Spirit visited me.”

“Hark!” cried the Angel, “I hear echoes of thunder and drum, the clashing of swords between Michael and Lucifer.”

“It isn’t as though I haven’t slaved to give my daughter the chances I never had.”

“I knew you’d come to that,” said the Angel. “Yes, Sibyl, you have dispensed much energy in your elected cause. You have been unstinting in the prosecution of your goal. But did your soul ever magnify the Lord? When were you a prism through which God’s love might be revealed?”

“Well, if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is! You can’t mean all that sentimental flowery flummery!”

“There are no words,” said the Angel,” to describe the quintessence of Love, easier to tell what it is NOT. Love is fiery as a diamond pure. It is hard as ice and soft as snowflakes next a candle flame. It asks no questions, tells no untruth, and, always, it endures. God has no heart, no hands, but yours to bring earth back into the bosom of Heaven....”

“I’ve always tried to do what’s right.”

“Hark,” bade the Angel again, “I hear cymbal and gong. The sound is neither symphony nor euphony. It is the leper’s warning.”

“And another thing, I’ve saved every penny I could, gone short of luxuries and the everyday things most people take for granted....”

“To ‘go short’ is to spit in the face of Providence!”

“....and I’ve bequeathed it all to lepers in Africa.”

“Well and good,” replied the Angel. “Alas, you seem to have left God out of your will.”

This statement rendered Sibyl speechless with dismay. There had been an overarching error in heaven! How in God’s name was she going to make the Angel see that? Her everlasting destiny was at stake.

“Sibyl, I perceive no oil in your lamp. Who can admit you to the Wedding Feast?”

“But that’s because I’ve used it all up bearing my trials. Surely it speaks for itself.”

The Angel’s countenance was very grave and his beauty was beyond imagining. “To those who have, much is given, while the pinchfist starves everyone, including himself.”

“Now you’re talking in riddles...!“ accused Sibyl in a way which implied his whole testimony could be rubbished. “I’ve had a hard time of it, always doing for others... You’d think at my age you could put your feet up and be waited on for a change!”

“And what of the freight they have towed for you?”

“I’ve never put on anyone in my life! I’ve had to stand on my own two feet, I can tell you. It was others who leaned on me! There was Ma and...Saul...five brothers, Desmond Halloran at the shop, then Edwin and Isabelle...”

“Isabelle has been your face in the world and has borne the penalties, the recrimination, of your default. She has wrestled on your behalf with the issues you disdained. You have closed your eyes, your heart, your life, to the need on your own doorstep, and under your own eaves, to identify with the downtrodden native who has never been your neighbour and demands nothing of you, the person.”

“Edwin would have done the same. He went without a headstone so that Ethiopians could eat! He was as exasperated with Sable as I was. But then, he was pretty useless, needed to be fed his lines as well as his dinner at eight.”

“Edwin was a faithful husband. He provided you with a refuge, gave you a status, tolerated your carping tongue to the last, notwithstanding handicaps of his own. In his quest to console you, he neglected everything for the work that delivered your material wants. Sibyl, he died for you! He was the scapegoat whose passing furnished you with opportunities to repent.”

The Angel’s words fell like so many dead leaves upon sour clay. Sibyl shrank back into her shell. “Sometimes, I think he secretly cared for her more than I did...”

“A poignant irony,” said the Angel, “when your daughter was a living symbol of your transgression.”

“She’s no sort of daughter...”

“How could she be when, from infancy, she assumed a mother’s role to protect you from yourself. How can she give what you have already taken on account? You see, theft of the personality is a grievous matter that has consequences far into the future... Now she has a child of her own and who will refill the pitcher?“

Sibyl’s astonishment rapidly waned, for now the Angel’s message rang distant bells. “So often, I caught the vital spark of my own mother in her....and I had to stamp it out. Bridie betrayed the memory of Da...and lumbered herself with five children fathered by a scrap merchant.”

“None of it would matter,” said the Angel, “not one jot, if you had a loving heart. Every tear would be wiped, every offence swept away as part of the blundering history of mankind, but your lack of charity binds souls, holds everything in check. It makes a gruesome tableau of ephemeral scenes.”

“It isn’t my fault! She’s got a will of her own!”

“You hold the key, Sibyl. You have all the matriarchal power you could wish for, but it is of a less exalted kind than you conceived with your craving for an African child who would return to its mother’s keeping when its duty to the tribe was discharged.”

Sibyl, brought to the edge of tears, was beginning to sound petulant. “It was hard, very hard. Isabelle didn’t seem to belong to me. She was somebody else.”

“Isn’t everyone?” asked the seraph pointedly. “You have hidden in a corner peopled by figments of your own conceit. That way you never have to encounter who you really are. You are exempt from the strife of cultivating a sacred hospitality towards your fellow men and the risk of losing the version of self you have fostered into the bargain.”

“But I was right to distrust Sable!” insisted Sibyl. “She had ‘faulty’ stamped right through the middle like a stick of rock. Leading a double life, pretending to be who she wasn’t!”

Her name is Isabelle!” boomed the Angel, a swordflash in the very iris of his eye. “Nor was it her pretence. She was merely a caricature you scribbled on the page.”

“Never! I’m her mother; I can see through her.”

“Isabelle doubtless is imperfect, yet while you call her a prodigal, she breaks her precious jar of spikenard over the feet of Christ.”

“With two thirds of the world starving, that’s iniquitous, so it is!”

“Had you shown the milk of kindness, you would have been Queen of Isabelle’s heaven, as the Blessed Virgin is surely God’s.”

At that moment, it seemed to Sibyl that the Gates of Paradise slipped their bolts against her. She was swamped by despair erupting from the foundation of her being, stifling the labyrinthine corridors of the heart with fumes of sulphur and brimstone. “Have I punished my mother in Isabelle?” she wondered, stricken. “Have I played Judas to her Mary Magdalene?”

Ah Grace,” sighed the Angel, looking up to the sky in an attitude of prayer, “if it could only rain down upon you now. You were never good at accepting gifts, were you, Sibyl?”

 

 

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Knot Garden

 

Photo: Bill Cooper for Birmingham Royal Ballet 

 

 

You tied my strings and bade me dance,

You weren't the first, you know,

My cradle rocked to others’ tunes

and primed the scene just so

 

Between the Then and Now they filed

who learned my soul to crave

Knot legacies taxed Mary’s tears

but loosed me from the Grave

 

 

Mary, Untier of Knots - Johann George Schmidtner

 

from Mysteries of Light (forthcoming collection)

 

 

 

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Incandescence

 

 
Poem on the first Feast of Pentecost



They don't know what comes next.
They are trembling,
assembled together for comfort,
confused, bereft, vulnerable,
exposed to hostile forces,
on the edge of unbeing.
They've nothing to bless themselves with
and their manifesto looks dumb
without a party leader.
Where are they to go from here?
 

It was safe in his company,
despite the witchhunt.
The suffering had a purpose.
They trusted what he was about,
dimly grasping that the 'whited sepulchre'
must be blasted to shards.
To Regain Paradise by dint of law
and the redistribution of wealth
was both illusion and travesty
that cost blood anyway.
 

He had come to weigh himself
in the balance,
the fulcrum of those scales
unhinged by Adam for all time,
without some Mighty Advocate
intervene with a case
of special pleading and turn the tables
on the wealth-and-muscle hungry,
those with intellectual pretensions
and stiff-necked arrogance.
 

But why abandon his own,
just when the tide seems
to be turning? The corporate
wounds, defiantly repairing, are now
incorporeal. His mother, the chamber
of his incarnation, the only shrine
and single point of focus, holding it
all together: they could scavenge
with their eyes of dust until eternity,
the vision fumed with nostalgia.
 

But hark! This rushing wind fans
embers into conflagration.
He's here! In cloistered space!
Mary's haloed head peers heavenward
and hands are linked in concord.
Atomic Courage! Immortal Inspiration!
Babel rased to debris! Love reigns!
No power on earth can quench
Shekhinah's fire! Go, tell the world
and dare to live as if...
 


From JERICHO ROSE, Songs from the Wilderness (poetry collection in preparation).

 

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Latest Comments

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This is the whole of my philosophy. Via con huevos.
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And does this in-depth advice also apply to pancakes? Will it preclude adherence to the overhead lig...
Stephen Evans Going to the Dickens
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Thank you! That sounds just my style
Katherine Gregor Going to the Dickens
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I haven't yet been able to read a Dickens novel in ful (shame on me).May I recommend a wonderful New...
Katherine Gregor Four Wishes
14 January 2018
Amen to this.

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