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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 13, Number 1, March 2019
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Richard Straw
Cary, North Carolina, USA


Extracts from Rapiaria

1. Log Rolling Out of Bed

Thursday. 1:31 a.m. Awake for an hour after a nap on the couch. . . snowing heavily again. If the surgery's cancelled, they'll call by 8:00 a.m., but I'm supposed to be at the hospital by 8:00 a.m. for my bloodwork so the surgeon can open my back up again at 10:50 a.m.

A never-setting sun, our cul de sac's bright streetlight in the snow, a disembodied halo. . .

After another short nap, thanks to pain meds, I can hear our cat licking her paws and cleaning her thick fur in the dark on the back of the sofa.

Sleet and wet snow blow against the window screens.

First one, then another, branch or trunk cracks and breaks and falls in the darkness of the backyard woodlot. Weighted with ice and snow, little white Bartlett pear trees that bloom too soon will split down their middles and have to be chopped up and hauled off or mulched where they stood.

And what if we treated our bent and broken selves the same way. . .

6:33 a.m. A large evergreen branch thumps the earth between our driveway and our neighbor's. Then the surgeon himself calls to say the operation's a "go," delayed just an hour.

Lenten prayer
amidst those things taken
for granted

2. Correction

Yesterday evening, with the classical radio left on and the house lights turned off, I lay stretched out on the living room couch like a patient being prepped for surgery, not yet a cadaver on a slab in a morgue. I'm startled awake at midnight during a 19th-century keyboard assault. Afterward, I get up, heat the kettle, and continue listening to fugues and sonatas at the lit dining room table. Sipping steaming black tea, I avoid the onset of another headache and moisten my cottony mouth.

Often in these wee hours, I also read Thomas à Kempis, Dag Hammarskjöld, and Marcus Aurelius. Unsystematic reading, shambolic in fact, a secular monastic's lectio divina ("beginner, perpetual beginner"), neither the daily examen nor bibliomancy, more like a meek waiting for the "still, small voice," involving merely opening a favored translation at random, then, sometimes, discovering similarities among the passages in topic, meaning, style, or treatment, a way of "redeeming the time."

Tonight, stoic advice from the Imitation (Book III, Chapter 11) and Markings (an early entry from 1952) echoes what's in the Meditations (Book 2, Chapter 2). In each dog-eared copy's margins, I dutifully pencil in cross-references to the other's equivalent entries on how and why it's important to "get tough, and play the man," "to die rightly," "as if you were dying right now."

Then Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" begins its ethereal flight again on the airwaves.

Sitting still, listening deeply. . . yes, still among the still standing. . .

A soaring bird, and I strain, too, to follow it, into the wonderfully vast unknown.

past the "keep out" sign
purple azaleas ascend
the weathered steps

3. Relapse

Drizzly March day, overcast but warm. Grass already thick in the front and in the backyard, uncut because of my surgeries. Nothing to do but read and think and recover.

Marcus Aurelius used his Meditations, his notes to himself, as one critic maintains, to systematically self-medicate in order to maintain equilibrium, to defend his soul's freedom, even on the front lines against the barbarians on the northern frontier, by repeatedly writing down reworded stoic sayings, basic principles to live by. The poetic ones on nature are salving, but the rest are sometimes cold, ineffectual, having almost the opposite effect. And his belief that suicide is a "viable" option, his pessimism, his melancholia—all distasteful. His sincerity, honesty, and (almost) humility toward the unknown—less so, of course.

Asia and Europe: distant recesses of the universe.
The ocean: a drop of water.
Mount Athos: a molehill.
The present: a split second in eternity.
Minuscule, transitory, insignificant.
                  –Marcus Aurelius

Throughout this dark day, a deepening emptiness, as if no matter what was thought or read meant anything. Is this what lost faith is. But then, remembering the monks on Mount Athos, even now, who repeat without ceasing the cry of the tax collector in the parable, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"

in recovery
throbs of birdsong
fill the woods

4. The Superannuated Man on a Weekend in Spring

Logged off, out of step, not in the flow, far from the crowd, sick, separate. Not by choice. More by chance, or fate, or habit. No cause to join or support. Talentless except to fill an editorial work niche. Even that to disappear in a year, less? Already far from the front lines. Awaiting orders to twiddle thumbs, twiddle dumb. Soon to be mothballed, the old battles from drafts to final iterations forgotten.

bird chatter
from the frosted lawn
cereal alone

Time enough then to work solitarily, scratch ink to paper, produce a solid paragraph or two of prose and a punchy poem. That's it, a compliant recipe of complaint. A way to vent. A retirement hobby. More than enough time until the reaper arrives, grim or not, to cut his friend further down to size.

Or, pray. Simple prayer. Not even paragraphs, just little poems, "something understood."

easy to spot
among maple buds
songster

5. RSVP

Strong, young, effortless March winds roil and swirl through our sun porch screens. Bright, clean sunlight illuminates leaf-thickening trees, many occupied by a Babel of birds. Where do they come from? That's for ornithologists to say. That they fly here at all is significant for us. Through them, we're still linked to our world's neighborhoods.

You must not swerve from the engagements God offers you. These will occur in the most unlikely places, and with people for whom your first instinct may be aversion.
                                                                                                                –Christian Wiman

Crows call each other out, and songbirds exchange addresses, some seeking mates or reestablishing old acquaintances. Cardinals flit from bush to tree and tree to bush. One percussive woodpecker is taking a shine to our wooden chimney. Black-capped chickadees, bluejays, robins have arrived in pairs or trios, unlike our unmarried deaf cat who sits unmoved behind the screens, observing the passing scene with seeming indifference, undistracted by sashaying pines.

missing them
after they're gone
wind in the pine

6. Losses and Gains

Thunder. Lightning. Heavy rain. First storm of the season. I could hear it approaching in my dream before I woke at 4:00 a.m. It appears to be heading elsewhere now, its tumult and shouting becoming quieter, just as a local train's horn became plaintive and quieter last night at each more distant crossing as I tried to sleep. These are very like the sounds I lay awake listening to in my boyhood hometown, with its nightly chorus and clatter of long, heavy-laden trains and the slowing and accelerating of sedans and semis on wet pavement not 15 feet from our front door.

A nearby thunderclap. The storm's still near, as close as memories, as real as pain. . .

Buttons, a rat terrier, gnaws on a poisoned rat in a rhubarb patch and dies before treatment can be found. . . Fussbudget, a balding canary, hangs cold from a perch as her 40 neighbors chirp on and on. . . Jacques, a blind, incontinent toy poodle, wheezes out its days in a basement cage, well fed but whimpering and lonely. . . lazy Misty, a feral cat, licks too much sweet-tasting antifreeze while her suicidal brother Cody darts into traffic one last time. . . a nameless squirrel sleeps past winter's end curled up in a homemade birdhouse, now its coffin, and is buried by solemn neighborhood children. . . a cheeping fledgling falls from its nest and can't be reunited or fed. . . later, the unsightly, weather-damaged tree that held the nest and was intertwined with a gnarly pine is cut and ground down to chips.

And on this day years ago, at this hour and at this minute, a father exhales his last breath. . .

wasp alone
returns and circles
an emptiness

Our deaf cat sits near me on the screened-in back porch this morning, and we meditate on the flowering pink and purple azaleas that my wife planted. Our little feline can't hear bird songs because we think she was kicked in the head before she landed in a shelter, but she feels the same cool air as us and eyes the same shadows stirring in the leafing trees. A swooping bird's flight across our dark green grass seems to excite her, yes, she with the twitching, flicking tail.


Notes:

The word "rapiaria" in the overall title is Latin for spiritual scrapbooks, which were often kept by members of the Modern Devotion, including Thomas à Kempis, who is thought to have compiled his Imitation of Christ from a series of such notebooks. According to Les Enluminures, a gallery specializing in manuscripts and miniatures from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, "Thomas did not compose his text as a treatise per se but rather as a series of 'rapiaria' or hastily written notebooks of observations on how Christ's life could serve as a model in the contemporary world. Perhaps it is the very informality of the work that contributed to its great impact."

In #2, the words "beginner, perpetual beginner" are the opening two lines of "What Can I Tell My Bones?" in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York, NY: Anchor Books, p. 165). "Redeeming the time" and the "still, small voice" are from Ephesians 5:16 and I Kings 19:12, respectively (King James Version). Other translations are by Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley of The Imitation of Christ (New York, NY: Sheed and Ward, 1962), Bernhard Ehrling of Markings (i.e., A Reader's Guide to Dag Hammarskjöld's Waymarks, 2010, available as a free download), and Gregory Hays of the Meditations (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2002).

In #3, the "Asia and Europe" quotation by Marcus Aurelius is from Gregory Hays' translation of the Meditations, Book 6, Chapter 36 (ibid., p. 77). The "one critic" is Pierre Hadot, who theorized, along with P. A. Brunt and R. B. Rutherford, that Marcus wrote "hypomnēmata," which is Greek for "personal notes taken on a day-to-day basis," that were eventually collected into the 12 books of his Meditations. Other Romans and Greeks also kept personal notes (e.g., Pamphila, Aulus Gellius, Plutarch, Arrian), but Marcus focused his on more spiritual topics and addressed them solely to himself. See pp. 30 to 34 of Hadot's The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). The Bible quotation is from Luke 18:13 (Revised Standard Version).

In #4, the Latinate part of the subtitle was used memorably by Charles Lamb on the occasion of his retirement from the East India House after 33 years of service as a clerk. See "The Superannuated Man" in The Essays of Elia and the Last Essays of Elia (London: Oxford University Press, The World's Classics, 1901, reprinted 1964, pp. 278 to 287). The phrase "something understood" is George Herbert's from his poem, "Prayer (1)" in The Works of George Herbert, edited with a commentary by F. E. Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1941, 1945, p. 51).

In #5, the quotation is from Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 21).

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