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frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

Interview with poet Lynn Powell on the poems of Pope John Paul II Powell grew up Southern Baptist in East Tennessee and is drawn to poetry that has to do with spirituality.  In her  own collection of poems, Old & New Testaments, she reclaims the spiritual texts and traditions of her childhood. She has worked extensively as a writer in schools and as an artist in residence, most recently, at Cornell University.   Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, and other journals.

What do you feel is the wellspring of poetry?

lynn powellWhen I see the Pope praying, I see a very pious, almost mystical person Well, I think poetry comes from desire. It's some unrequited desire that can only be fulfilled in language. I think usually that desire is the desire to touch the eternal, to participate in something that lasts. For myself as a poet and as a person, I can't stand it that I'm going to die. I can't stand it that everybody I love is going to die. I can't stand it that this beautiful, ordinary life I have with my family is fleeting. And so I think I write to savor this life, to savor those ordinary moments that, with the people I love, that are full of revelation for me.

When I open the Pope's poems, and I read his book The Place Within, I felt that his impulse to write was similar to mine. That it's that desire to touch the eternal, to participate in something that lasts. And yet the poems express themselves in a radically different way. In his poems, it's not the texture of ordinary life that is being savored, it's the experience of solitude, and thought itself seems to be the most vivid and authentic experience for him.

The first poems in the book were written during the war. And we know from his biography of that time, he had lost his mother quite young. He had lost his brother, and right at the beginning of the war, he'd lost his father who he was incredibly attached to. And at the time of his death he was just inconsolable. So we know the private grief was strong. And then we see that this world around him has been devastated. Friends and colleagues and teachers of his are being shipped off to concentration camps. He himself had escaped imprisonment and death several times. He's laboring in the inhumane conditions of the quarry; its a real holocaust around him.

I opened the book expecting those events to be recorded and somehow documented in these poems written during the war. And yet what I found when I opened them was a completely different kind of poetry. Interior, contemplative, beautiful poems about seeking God by turning inward. His eye turned away from the devastation around him in these poems, and turned inward to contemplate God. At first I was shocked by this. I thought, how could these poem be written during the war? They have absolutely nothing to do with it. And then I began to realize that perhaps that was the point of the poems. That there was nothing to savor, there was nothing that felt eternal, there was nothing that you felt you could hold on to in this life he was living at that time. To find the eternal, you had only the refuge of God.

Can you cite an example?

"At the End of Shores of Silence"--which was the first of two long poems that are dated 1944--the end of the poem says:

"I thank you for giving the soul a place far removed from
the din and clamor, where your friend is a strange
poverty, You, immeasurable, take but a little cell,
you love places uninhabited and empty."

Now, there was an incredible din and clamor around him at that time, and there were hard choices to be made about how to respond to the situation in Poland. There were other people making different choices; there were people who went underground and participated in violent acts against the occupying Germans; there were nuns who were forging passports and ferrying Jews from hiding place to hiding place. There were hard choices for him to make, we can imagine, about how he was going to respond to the war, and he must have struggled desperately with that. He went to an underground seminary, we do know that, and risked his own life by participating in an activity that was considered illicit and illegal by the authorities--a spiritual activity which had been banned. But we hear in that poem, I think, a desire for absolute quiet, a desire for a place uninhabited and empty. And its in that little cell that is swept bare of human intimacy and human interaction that he feels God will come, that that's where he can meet God. That's where he feels most alive.

In another poem dated at that same time he says, "Oh, to feel this moment of nothingness, the moment before creation and never depart from it." Creation doesn't look so good at the moment. Creation looks like it's all gone to hell. And the desire's to be there with God before any of this all broke out, or to return to God, which is removed from this creation, which is just destroying itself.

In general, what strikes you about how his poems?

So much of poetry, I think, is about life in the body and about the life of human intimacy and interaction. And it's always interesting when you find a poet whose work isn't so permeated with sensual experience and the experience of human intimacy. And those poems--like these, I think, of the Pope's--tend to be more abstract. The images are a little harder to get hold of because they're not rooted in physical experience as much. They're much more cerebral. And, as a reader, I think, well, why are these poems so cerebral? Why are they so detached from the body? What is it that's happening in his poems? And it seems to me that the abstraction serves a purpose in these poems. It's not simply a conscious choice: "Oh, well, I'll make these poems abstract." I mean, it's an urgency to somehow detach from the world, the world that can hurt you, the world that can inflict on you terrible losses. And so, you don't want to give yourself over to it. You don't want to savor it. You don't want to make yourself vulnerable. You want to retreat into this cerebral place where you can't be touched because your thought can't be taken away from you. He even talks about that in a poem. He talks about how solitude is good, because no one can take that away from you. It's a refuge, it's the one last retreat. And if, in that solitude, you find God, there's an incredible fulfillment there because if you're in love with God, in this place that is remote and inaccessible by anyone else, you're really safe. Because God's not going to let you down. God's not going to die on you.

Can you give an example?

In the closing of one of the war poems he talks about the deliciousness, the luxuriousness of detachment: "Oh to feel this moment of nothingness, the moment before creation and never depart from it." Well, you feel the luxuriousness there, of being detached from the world. But when you think about the context those lines were written in, you feel even more the poignancy and urgency of that longing to be away from creation. These lines were written a few miles from Auschwitz during the darkest moment of human history. This, by a young man who was orphaned and struggling to survive the war himself.

What else do you find interesting in Karol Wojtyla's poetry?

The absence of contemporary individuals--people that were from his life, from his experience that he knows. There's just a little sprinkling in the book of real, live, contemporary people. There's the presiding "I" of the poet as a consciousness throughout the book who is really the central character of the book. There are some Biblical characters whom he brings to life. There are some church historical figures whom he brings to life. But there aren't hardly any real, live people that he knew that come alive in the poems for us. There are generic types.

He has a whole series about profiles, and he gives the profile of the melancholic, and of the man of will, and of the girl disappointed in love, and of the actor. But these are more like spiritual silhouettes. They're not real front-on portraits of a specific melancholic person or a specific girl disappointed in love who he knows all of the texture of her loss. And I think along with that you feel in these poems a great compassion for humanity, for generations of people and what they have suffered; for humanity's tendencies and trials. But you don't quite get that texture of empathy that comes with telling the story of a real person who's right beside you, right in front of you, and every detail of their story is one that you have absorbed and made your own.

Can you point to a particular poem that illustrates this?

One of the profiles in that sequence that he does is of an actor. And we know that as a young man the Pope was passionate about acting, that he acted in the Theater of the Word, which was an underground theater in Poland. He was very passionate about it, and even considered that his life would be given over to poetry and theater. And so we know how important a moment that was for him.

But the poem about an actor in the profile sequence shows us a man who has a lot of anxiety about these other characters crowding in on him. The one line says: "Did not the others crowding in distort the man that I am?" This sense that if you let other people and their stories and their words and their lives too much into yours that your own self gets distorted. That it's not pure, it's not totally you anymore. And I think it's interesting thinking about that poem, since we know he was an actor, thinking about him as a poet. Other people aren't crowding in these poems very much. They're really about solitude to a large extent, and the self being known, on one on one with God in the act of contemplation.

His poem to his mother, could you talk about this one?

This is the first poem he wrote in the book, the poem he wrote to his mother, addressed to his mother written in 1939, "Over This, Your White Grave":

[Reciting poem:]

Over this, your white grave
The flowers of life in white
So many years without you
How many have passed out of sight?
Over this, your white grave
Covered for years
There is a stirring in the air
Something uplifting, and like death
Beyond comprehension.
Over this, your white grave
Oh, mother, can such loving cease?

For all his filial adoration, a prayer,

Give her eternal peace.

When I read "Over This, Your White Grave," I was drawn into the poem immediately. It's the first poem in his book, and I was drawn in by the intimacy of it, the way he was talking directly to his mother. She'd been dead for ten years. He was a young man. But you feel in the poem all the burden of those years of longing for her. All the years of unrequited love for his mother. And the poem is quiet, but it builds to this question at the beginning of the last stanza which is a really a heart-broken cry: "Over this, your white grave/Oh, mother, can such loving cease?" I mean, love is a burden. It's hurting him so badly he almost wants it to stop, his love for her. This is a heart-broken question that he cries out. It's a moment of intimacy that as a reader I felt moved by, to be witness to it.

What happened in the next line was completely disconcerting to me as a reader. I didn't know what was going to happen, when you ask a question like that, anything can happen next. In that moment of vulnerability, that moment of exposure in a poem, you want to keep reading, you want to know what's going to happen next. And what happens is a complete shutting down, a complete buttoning up of the emotion. There's a movement from first person to third person; from the language of heartbreak to a public kind of benediction. It's hard to even say the words: "For all his filial adoration, a prayer." Now this is a translation, but still, you feel that something has immediately gotten exposed and then shut down. That it's not okay for that vulnerability to be hanging out there. And that question, which is probing and expresses confusion and ambivalence--it's not okay, somehow it has to be chastened.

And so the language in the next line is completely different. It's in a different psychic universe really. It's a movement from first person relationship of the "I", to "you" the mother, to a third person relationship between abstractions, his filial adoration and her eternal peace.

When I first read the poem, I thought, well, this does seem like the poem of a 19-year-old, like the poem of a young man. Often poems by young people are confused in that way, about their feelings. They're unresolved. And the poems show that in these strange disjunctions between emotion and shutting down. And so I thought, okay, as the poem, as the book moves along, as we see his adult poems, we'll see this vulnerability probed in a more delicate way, in a more full way. What was interesting though is when I read the book it ends up that that's a singular moment; that moment of crying out to his mother never returns. In fact, his mother is never addressed again in the poems as his mother. I mean, she does not appear as a character again. And so that moment when he cries out is really the last we hear of her. And you feel in that shutting down that it's a permanent kind of shutting down.

You have to wonder about the biography of the man, what happened to create that sense that it's not okay to be hanging out there with this feeling. And it made me think of that eight year old boy whose mother had died, and he was at school. Now we know that the mother had been sick for a long time. Probably she was already, because of her illness, somewhat removed from him, somewhat ethereal, somewhat inaccessible to him. He was at school when he found out his mother died. And he didn't find out by his father rushing to school, sweeping him up in his arms and sobbing with him in grief. The father evidently felt too devastated to go and tell his son that his mother had died. And he sent the teacher. And so he hears this terrible news from a teacher, someone he's not intimate with. According to his classmates at the time, he didn't cry at her funeral. Though we know it was a devastation for him. So you have a sense even at that earliest moment, this boy had a sense that grief had to be masked with kind of a public face. It had to be contained.

We also know that right after she died that his father took him on a pilgrimage to a famous shrine of Mary's in Poland where they worshipped and prayed. That must have been a profound experience for a young boy who had just lost his mother. To go to a place to worship the greatest of all mothers, who was also in Heaven, who had also been separated from her son. And it makes you wonder if perhaps his own love and longing for his mother began to be fused with worship for Mary. And you feel perhaps in those lines where you have this heartbreaking question addressed to his real, earthly mother, a question of longing and desperate love answered immediately by this language of worship and benediction. It's a very public language that we see in that movement - a movement that perhaps happened for him psychologically in which his own grief for his mother was turned into worship for Mary. In that heartbreaking question you get this swift, pious answer because that's what had to happen for him.

And what about the presence of Mary in his poems?

In the first poem of the book you have this cry for the absent mother. A little bit later in the book, in a sequence of poems dated 1950, you have that absent mother returned in a sequence of poems titled "Mother," but this time the mother is Mary. And several things struck me about the Mary of these poems. The first is that she's a very cerebral Mary. The portrait of her is diaphanous. She's a Mary who's lost in thought. She begins the sequence of poems by, in a nostalgic way, remembering Jesus as an infant and as a child, and then talking about their relationship now, which is one of separation since he has died. But they are, nevertheless, in perfect harmony, in perfect understanding, as if his thoughts penetrate her conscience, and reside in her. So there's this perfect, cerebral connection between them.

The portrait that she gives of her own motherhood and pregnancy is incredibly idealized. She talks about how she carried him with elation, that her pregnancy was one of elation. Now I've carried a couple of kids, and I know a lot of women who've had babies, and elation was not a constant in those pregnancies. It's a little more up and down than that. She talks about "in me is the fullness of motherhood, and in that fullness I never tire." Well, most mothers I know get tired. They get exhausted at times. What's missing in these poems is the real texture of a mother's relationship with her children, the difficulties, the struggles, the joys, and the challenges. And the exhaustion, and the frustrations. She talks about the childhood of Jesus as just one astounding event after another. That there was a luminous light in everything about their life together. You feel that raising Jesus for her was effortless. That he just sort of grew in this radiant way every moment. That he never had a snotty nose, that he never cried, that there was never any conflict between them, never any tension. And to me, it seems an idealized portrait of any relationship between son and mother.

And it seems an idealization of the relationship we have between Jesus and Mary in the New Testament. It idealizes, improves on the relationship that's recorded in the New Testament. In the New Testament we do have Mary in that famous story, giving birth to this miracle of a child, and being full of wonder and adoration. And of course this was a special birth. But still, as an ordinary mother, I understand that experience of wonder at this miracle that you've given birth to. But then, like most mother and son relationships, the one between Mary and Jesus, is fraught with tension and misunderstanding. When he's twelve years old and they go to Passover, and Mary and Joseph leave to go home, and after a while they realize Jesus isn't with them. And they go back to find him. And finally, after three days of searching for him - and you know the kind of anxiety a mother would have whose son has been missing for three days - when she finally finds him, Mary burst out, "Why have you dealt with us this way?" And he responds to her by saying, "Aren't I supposed to be about my father's business? Why are you asking me these questions?" And the next verse says that Mary and Joseph didn't understand his answer. There's tension. There's misunderstanding.

The same thing happens at the marriage of Cana where Mary notices there's not enough wine for the feast and she turns to her son and says, "Can you do something about it? " And he says, "It's not my time." He rebukes her. He basically tells her to stay out of his business. But she knows he'll do it, because she asks him. And so she says to the servant, do what he asks you, and he does it. And there you have the little mother-son dynamic we can all understand. The mother wants something to be done. The son doesn't want to do it that way or at that time, but he ends up doing it, and things get sort of smoothed out.

But then there are the harder passages where Mary comes, it says, with her other sons, with brothers of Jesus, and they send word into him where he's teaching, where he has a crowd gathered around him. We don't know why they want to see him, but we can imagine. We can imagine that she was worried about him. He was doing risky things. He was doing very public things that might have seemed dangerous, that may have worried her, may have embarrassed her. We don't know. But we know that they wanted to, she and his brothers, wanted to pull him from that crowd, and talk to him privately, talk to him as family, and he sends these mean words back--"You're not my mother, you're not my brothers. These are my mothers and my brothers. These people who are with me and understand me." So the implication is they don't understand each other. There's a rift, there's an estrangement.

So if we look at the New Testament, we see a real, live relationship. One of loyalty, I mean, they're together, they're trying. And she's there at the cross. She hasn't forsaken him. But it's not a relationship of absolute understanding, of complete harmony with each other's thoughts and actions. It's more of a real rough and tumble, how-do-we-negotiate-this-life-together kind of relationship in the New Testament. But in the sequence of poems called "Mother" there's none of that. It's absolute harmony. It's an absolute idealization of the relationship between the son and the mother, but also of what it is to be a woman. I mean this woman essentially doesn't have a body. She's diaphanous. She's translucent. You can practically see through her. There's no sense of the physical joys and difficulties of being a woman, in a body, on this earth in those poems.

Would you talk about the voice of John in these poems?

There's another voice in this series of poems entitled "Mother" that kind of interrupts Mary's voice for just a little bit and that's the voice of John. John was the beloved disciple who was at the cross with Mary, and Jesus turned to Mary and said, "Woman, behold your son." And he immediately then turned to John and said, "Behold your mother." He was introducing them to each other in a new role, in new roles. He was about to die and to leave his mother uncared for. And obviously that was something that weighed on him even there in his own agony. And he was making sure that she was going to be cared for.

And it's interesting in the John poems, because then we have these two poems where John is speaking. And in the first one its entitled "John Beseeches Her," and John's feeling awkward. He's feeling kind of clumsy. He knows he can't fill the shoes of Jesus. He's not luminous, he's not radiant that way. He's an ordinary man, and yet Mary's supposed to call him son. And he's supposed to call her mother. It's an incredible gift, and it's an incredibly scary gift though. John's talking to Mary and he's saying, I know I'm not worthy, but let's try these words out. Let's see how it goes. And he has these intriguing lines where he talks about our first love being concealed now in these words, "son" and "mother," suggesting that his love for his own mother will somehow be the engine in his love for his adopted mother Mary. And that her own love for Jesus will be the engine behind her love for her adopted son John.

And I think you hear the suggestion in those lines that the poet is aligning himself with John. That might be why John is a fascinating figure for him, and why he wants to give voice to John's situation. Because he's been in John's situation. He's lost his own mother and been bequeathed Mary. And Mary is reaching out to him as a son, because he's a disciple of Christ's. And so in a way he inherits Mary from Jesus to replace the mother he's lost.

Can you discuss what you see as the significance, the contrast, between "The Quarry" poems and the rest of his poetry?

Generally in the poems of Wojtyla there's an absence of those hot emotions that we might think of as being common to poetry--passions and anger and despair, and those things that really cry out. The poems tend to elevate, celebrate contemplation, silence, solitude, calm. But there's one powerful exception to that general tendency in his poetry. It's a sequence of poems entitled "The Quarry."

We know that he worked in a quarry during the war in a forced-labor situation. It was terrible labor--dangerous, explosives going off, back-breaking work, hand-splitting work, long hours, little food. It was a terribly inhumane place to be working, and we feel in these poems something different then we feel in the rest of the poems. We feel the presence of the real world. We feel bodies that are suffering in this labor they're forced to do. We feel that he's been there. And he knows. He's done it with his own hands, and he's seen how the people around him suffer, the men around him suffer.

The quarry in these poems becomes a microcosm of the culture of death. Its a totalitarian place of death, violence, cruelty. But the work of the men in the quarry is ennobled by their interior life, by their spirituality, by their thought, and so, really, the poem becomes a poem about spiritual heroism in the face of this totalitarian environment. The knocking of the hammers that begins the poem, the knock-knock-knock of the hammers becomes beautiful in the poem because it's like a call to meditation. Because in the poem you learn that any place is an appropriate place to go inward, to do the interior work of meeting God. And he talks about how in the knocking of hammers we see him. And so the act of chipping at that stone becomes a metaphor for the mining of the self, the going in for this, getting to the heart, and finding God.

One thing that's interesting in the poem is how the body is lingered over and savored in the poem. He talks about the torso and the taut muscles and the hands split like a landscape. And you see that he loves the body in these poems, he loves the bodies of these men who are heroic in their labor.

You have muscles drooping with the hammer's weight; you have taut torsos; you have hands that are broken open and scarred with their hard work; you also have the sounds of hammers. It becomes like a call to meditation so that this work which could be dehumanizing,because it's harsh and it doesn't by itself elevate man, you find that man within himself has the opportunity to transform that work into an act of meditation. So you hear the pinging of the hammers and the pounding of them, and that becomes a call to the interior work, a call for that going inward at the same time that your body is doing this outward work. And it's that kind of mediation, even as the body is engaged in this difficult labor, that is redemptive. That is the heroic nature of work for him in this poem.

The last poem in the sequence "The Quarry" is written in memory of a fellow worker. And we feel the culmination of all the passion of the poems in this last one. It's about a man who died in an explosion one day, or in an accident at the quarry when the young Wojtyla was there, not far away.

[Reading poem:]

He wasn't alone.
His muscles grew into the flesh of the crowd, energy their pulse,
As long as they held a hammer, as long as his feet felt the ground.
And a stone smashed his temples and cut through his heart's chamber.
They took his body and walked in a silent line
Toil still lingered about him, a sense of wrong.
They wore gray blouses, boots ankle-deep in mud.
In this, they showed the end.
How violently his time halted: the pointers on the low voltage dials jerked, then dropped to zero again.
White stone now within him, eating into his being, taking over enough of him to turn him into stone.
Who will lift up that stone, unfurl his thoughts again under the cracked temples?
So plaster cracks on the wall.
They laid him down, his back on a sheet of gravel.
His wife came, worn out with worry; his son returned from school
Should his anger now flow into the anger of others?
It was maturing in him through his own truth and love
Should he be used by those who came after,deprived of substance, unique and deeply his own?
The stones on the move again; a wagon bruising the flowers.
Again the electric current cuts deep into the walls.
But the man has taken with him the world's inner structure,where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.

The poem is remarkable in the context of his other poems, especially in its evocation of that place and of the death. You know, the gravel and the boots and the mud and the smashed temples and the heart chamber which has been cut through. We feel as if we're there, and there's the worry-worn wife who comes. You feel the tragedy in a very keen and palpable way. And the poem is full of anger, this passionate anger, and yet he links it with love. And he talks about how anger was maturing into love. And so we think, what is that anger? Who is that anger at? Well, it's not at God, it's not at God for allowing this to happen. It's not at the self for not preventing it. I think the anger is at this culture of death, this totalitarian world of cruelty, of humanity, of treating man as material, reducing him to body. And that what the right answer to that is is an anger that matures into an explosion of love. And that love is for life, that love is for the human person. And the anger incites love. Which is an interesting, interesting notion.

And so the right answer to this culture of death is life, and this passionate assertion of it that grows in this angry denial of the death, but expresses itself as an explosive kind of love and a treasuring of what it is that makes a human more than material, which is thought--which is the thought that connects you to God.

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