Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Moveable Feast

The Wheeling Year, Ted Kooser

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner

I may have mentioned this 365 days ago, but as a kid, the idea of a rabbit large enough to carry candy baskets to all the well-behaved kids in the neighborhood--a large stretch of Asbury Park, blue-collar Irish and Italian, boys enough for two full baseball teams--creeped me out. Unlike Santa with his benign and perhaps bourbon besotted red cheeks--a person I equated with my German grandfather, minus the red suit--the EB looked eerily like my Aunt Helen, pasty, with an egregious overbite. Helen smelled like roses and gave all of her nephews and nieces quarters instead of candy, which was fine by me. We'd have to dress up and go to church, then there was a big Easter egg hunt at the golf course--real eggs in those days, dyed by the Moms the night before. Even in dour New Jersey it seemed never to rain on Easter, and the day stretched on into deep darkness with the evening meal, processions of relatives, an Easter Promenade on the Boardwalk, and the stomach ache that comes from eating too much candy. Chocolate rabbits, hard boiled eggs, lamb stew, new shoes, and the priest showering us with holy water: what a mess of symbols, all adding up to the idea of life renewed: popping trees (oaks and red maples in front of our apartment), irises redolent of lemon licorice, school's penultimate month, Giants games on the radio, stickball in the street, and, even for a ten-year-old, undefinable yearning.  A moveable feast: medieval European math was pretty much invented for the purpose of locating the correct day for the Paschal feast. I liked it late: in those days there would be snow on the ground all through March, and you wanted it warm for Easter, so the later the better.

Sure enough, the Old English word Ēosturmōnaþ (Latin Eostur-monath) is right here in Venerable Bede--the Paschal month named for a pagan goddess of rebirth--though the more orthodox insist that the feast has only to do with the business of the empty tomb and nothing to do with pagans and Jews.

 Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes...

Eos is of course proto-Indo-European for "dawn." Most of the images I can find in my books and on-line picture Ostara as a flying or hovering female cloaked in white and wielding a flowering branch. Trees surround her, and there are some images with serpents, another symbol of fertility. There's a late 19th century image featuring a flying rabbit surrounded by angels--oh I love these conflations of paganism with Christianity! The bunny appears to come into the story later on, in Middle High German, perhaps as a companion of Ostara--but I'm thinking more of hares in terms of fecundity and carnality: in medieval manuscripts, the presence of a rabbit--a coney--nearly always indicates sexual activity, or at least carnal desire--D.W. Robertson analyzes this imagery in his Preface to Chaucer. The egg, it appears, is a symbol of the tomb--Jesus as the yolk, wrapped in white--I can't remember where I read this so I might be making it up. Purity and sex--how the Christians worked to purge their mythology--all borrowed from pagan sources--of any trace of carnality. Birds and bees and rabbits did it, but not them. "Better to marry than to burn" as Paul put it, "but best is to be even as I am," a virgin. But then there's spring: how to explain away the life that pulses through everything, even Christians? Allegorize it. Not life, but eternal life, not birth but rebirth.

Here's an image, province unknown, that covers several of the iconic themes:

For years, when I lived in civilization, I would attend a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion during Holy Week. Is there any better choral music? And could there be a finer book on J.S. Bach than Gardiner's magisterial Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven?  Listen to this (from page 428):

"As always, the music is the place to find Bach himself...Much as his whole endeavor is to give a voice to others--the protagonists, the crowd, the Gospel writer--his own is always present in the story. We hear it in his fervour, in his empathy with  the suffering to the innocent Christ, in his sense of propriety, in his choices and juxtapositions of narrative and commentary, and most of all in the abrupt way he stems the tide of vengeful hysteria, cutting into Matthew's narration and interrupting it with a chorale expressive of profound contrition and outrage."

Bach's faithful heart at work, as Bruno Walter put it. Here's the opening....

and the entire Passion:

Gardiner's book is full of brilliant insights: "What most distinguishes [Bach's] Passions from operas of the time is the way he does away with the convention of a fixed point of reference for the audience, rejecting the idea of a listener who surveys the development of the dramatic narrative more like a consumer--entertained, perhaps moved, ingesting spoon-fed images, but never a part of the action."

Sitting in church this morning, I nipped a moment here and there during the homily (what has happened to the once-great art of sermonizing?) to partake of Ted Kooser's delightful The Wheeling Year. Like other fine journal-keepers, and (I thought), like Marcus Aurelius, with Kooser I only needed a single paragraph and could then chew on it, like a stalk of longstem prairie grass. Here's the one I masticated this morning, from "April":

"Month of my birth. What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away." 

Perfect.  Kooser is all over the map in this book--tidy observations of the natural world, thoughts on aging, lines that will become part of his poetry. He occupies a small corner of an immense middle America, yet his reach exceeds that of almost any any other poet working today.

"Imagine this bluestem as salt grass, and these crows as a species of gull, and you will know what it's like to live on the coast of the sky, waves of light slapping the barns, splashing the windows with a blue that has come all the way from the other side." 

And then back to the Passion, playing as I type these words:

"Gerne will ich mich bequeman/Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen."*

Happy Spring.

*Act I, scene iv, "Gladly will I fear disdaining/drink the cup without complaining."

George Ovitt (4/5/15)

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