09 September 2018

The Annunciation and the Swan

A friend recently lent me a book of poems called 'Mary's Dust', by Melinda Mueller. Each of the poems treats the experience of a different character named Mary. Unsurprisingly, the first poem is about the Virgin Mary, and it's quite lovely:

The air before her congealed
and became the angel, blazing. 
Its robes streamed and whirled
in a wind that filled her ears. 
Through its transparent form
she could see the brown hills 
And stunted trees beyond, magnified
and trembling like flames. 
She could not have told
what was said. That story was 
conceived years later, by men
who had not been there. 
Afterwards the stirred dust
settled around her feet with a faint 
ringing, as if it were the dust
of a thousand bells.

Mueller evokes so much here by allusion. In 1 Kings 19 Elijah in despair flees into the wilderness, where he witnesses a whirlwind, an earthquake, and a fire, but knows that God is not in them. Then after the fire he hears a 'still small voice' and knows that it is God. We never hear what that voice is saying in that moment. Perhaps, like Mary, Elijah 'could not have told / what was said.' Perhaps for him, too, it rang in the dust for him that settled about his feet. Perhaps it was a voice that did not speak in words, and so its words could not be told.

But it was to another poem that the ineffability of the angel's conversation turned my thoughts. As soon as I read those words I thought of the end of Yeats' Leda and the Swan. When the human and the divine meet in this way, or in any way that could be called a union, what can be told? What can be said? Could we ever hope to find the words to describe what we knew in that moment?

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? 
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                   Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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