The Startling Poetry of Madeleine L’Engle
Before the rumblings began to emerge around New Years’ (stories dripping out slowly from halfway around the world); before awareness of trouble somewhere became the startling realization that trouble was here – we could indulge ourselves in becoming blasé about tradition. Habits are sly: sometimes, we’re lulled into the off-key sense that traditions are a way of controlling a season. We begin to see them as the point instead of as a waypoint. At Christmas, we mumble, “round yon virgin, mother and Child,” so that young hearers don’t whisper loudly, “what’s a virgin?” We don’t know what to do with the truly awful passage about Herod ordering the slaughter of Bethlehem’s toddler boys, so we skip it. Then we stare open-mouthed at the news when natural disasters erupt in December, scissors halted halfway through the Snoopy wrapping paper. For many people around the world, last December – despite weariness or tight budgets or influenza – was one of the last waypoints of normalcy. Even for people who don’t avoid the awkward or painful, this year has been a chaotic overthrow of everyday simplicity. What voice can sound clearly through the chaos? We live in a moment aching for the holy iconoclasm of the poetry of Madeleine L’Engle.
Best known for novels, the late writer Madeleine L’Engle – born in a year much talked-about lately, 1918 – showed a knack for discomforting the comfortable and soothing the overheated, displayed well in The Ordering of Love: The New & Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle. There is nothing controllable about life on this planet, her words seem to shriek; no family recipe to follow carefully that will alleviate the cosmic chaos. And after all, she was born at the tail-end of World War I, during the 1918 flu pandemic, a child during the ’29 crash, a teenager during the Depression, a young woman during World War II, a mother in the tumult of the 50’s and 60’s, a grieving widow as the Information Age picked up steam. Her experiences shout loudly to our current world.
But L’Engle’s poems also bear the time signature of sacred rhythms: many follow liturgical seasons, or lectionary readings, or high water marks of living, like births, weddings, baptisms, deaths. Others cobble amusing little sketches of the absurd habits of selfishness, or glee, or fear, or comfort. She speaks to God as brashly and fearfully as a child who dares to shout at her parent before bursting into tears. Her joy, rage, mirth, and disappointment are pinned into place with her regular, irresistible return to Creation, Collapse, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection. For an author best known for books on time travel, Madeleine L’Engle shakes us awake now as much as she must have while she was alive.
Consider a few fragments from “Lines Scribbled on an Envelope While Riding the 104 Broadway Bus:”
There is too much pain
I cannot understand
I cannot pray
Here I am
and the ugly man with beery breath beside me reminds me that
it is not my prayers that waken your concern, my Lord;
my prayers, my intercessions are not to ask for your love
for all your lost and lonely ones,
your sick and sinning souls,
but mine, my love, my acceptance of your love.
Your love for the woman sticking her umbrella and her expensive
parcels into my ribs and snarling, “Why don’t you watch where
Your love for me, too, too tired to look with love,
too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person on the bus.
Expand my love, Lord, so I can help to bear the pain…
It is startling to encounter words that so quickly, easily puncture the day to day patterns that trouble us – whether riding public transport or hopping on social media: “too tired to look with love, too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person.” Her honesty strips bare what phrases like “compassion fatigue” cover up. It is tempting to think that new technology or novel new realities are to blame – but for words like these, written decades ago.
In “Instruments (2)” the woman who managed to write and raise children at the same time confessed,
Hold me against the dark: I am afraid.
Circle me with your arms. I am made
So tiny and my atoms so unstable
That at any moment I may explode. I am unable
To contain myself in unity. My outlines shiver
With the shock of living…
A sense of precarious fragility often goes hand in hand with dripping, fleshy exuberance in her thoughts. Reflecting during a time of hospitalization, L’Engle writes in “From St. Luke’s Hospital (4),”
She comes on at night,
older than middle-aged, from the islands,
to answer the patients’ bells…
At first she was suspicious, cross,
expecting complaints and impositions,
soon tender and gentle,
concerned about requests for help with pain…
This morning she rushed in, frantic,
please, please could she look for the money
she had lost somehow, tending patients,
forty dollars that was not even hers.
She had kept it, in time-honored tradition,
in her bosom, and it must have fallen out
when she was thinking of someone else’s needs.
She scrabbled in the wastebasket,
in the bedclothes, panted from room to room,
returned to mine with a friend. We said,
“Close the door, take off your clothes, and see
if it isn’t still on you somewhere.”
She did, revealing an overworked body,
wrinkled, scarred; found nothing; had to leave.
In a moment when work, medical care, and working women are much in the news, Madeleine L’Engle presents us with sketches that honor womens’ labor – even one brief, sly wink at a casually maligned person from Scripture: “Martha,” the prosaically distracted sister busy with a meal.
nobody can ever laugh at me again
I was the one who baked the bread
I pressed the grapes for wine.
In a year when suffering, depression, and despair threaten to blow the lid off of theoretical pondering on theodicy and the problem of evil, L’Engle charges in where churchgoers fear to tread, in these selections from “Love Letter” –
I hate you, God.
I write my message on water
and at bedtime I tiptoe upstairs
and let it flow under your door.
When I am angry with you
I know that you are there
even if you do not answer my knock
even when your butler opens the door an inch
and flaps his thousand wings in annoyance
at such untoward interruption
and says that the master is not at home.
I cannot turn the other cheek
It takes all the strength I have
To keep my fist from hitting back
the soldiers shot the baby
the little boys trample the old woman
the gutters are filled with groans…
I’m turning in my ticket
and my letter of introduction.
You’re supposed to do the knocking. Why do you burst my heart?
I take hammer and nails
and tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood:
is it too much to ask you
to bother to be?
Just show your hindquarters
and let me hear you roar.
What starts off like a cannonball blasted toward the stubbornly closed gates of heaven ends up landing with hoarse awareness: the fury driving her makes her own heart a target. I take hammer and nails and tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood. So then. Rage at the suffering in the cosmos inevitably illumines our own complicity. In that case, just let me see even a glimpse of your backside, God; let me hear your power roaring.
The years heavy with her writing were years of upheaval; chaos; swift change; suffering. Her thundering world gave way to these lines from “First Coming” –
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came…
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Whatever the pain, whatever the fear, whatever the work waiting to be done; whatever the mockery, whatever the fury, whatever the suffering – we cannot wait until the world is sane. Christ did not wait until the world was calm and well-mannered before he arrived; we cannot wait until the world is sane, we can’t pause for a more opportune moment to lift our voices, to rejoice.
L’Engle goads at every turn; upheaval is nothing new, no tradition can control it. Chaos, overwhelming loss, injustice, uncertainty – these are nothing new, no habits could contain them or master them. Millions of people around the globe would’ve been startled to realize last December that it would be one of the last calm or predictable months for a long time. Perhaps there was even a sense of boredom. In the absence – the stretching absence – of so much; in the absence of traditions, habits, routines, predictability, reasonable certainty, and guarantees, Madeleine L’Engle insists on the only stable reality: Creation, Collapse, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection. Even while she is screaming at God’s silence, ultimately she lands, too tired to be cautious, in this reality:
He did not wait till the world was ready.
We cannot wait till the world is sane.
Featured image photo credit: Sigrid Astrada