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Blessed are you, No One
Words that take us into Nothing
It’s a short Substack this week; it’s my final week in New York City for a few months, so I’m in the midst of packing and recycling and wondering how all those damned books accumulated by their very own selves.
I was moved to hear how you responded to the Paul Celan quote last week. I am always reluctant to say that art has a purpose, because then it feels like it’s just part of a tract, or a strategic plan. And yet, language has impact, too, and so there is a conversation about responsibility in public language. It is these tensions that give enough pain to shape words, for me anyway.
We are entering Passover season soon, so poems that concern themselves with the address of prayer are on my mind.
So, with that in mind, I’ll stay with Paul Celan this week. He has a gorgeous short poem “Psalm” that addresses itself in the form of prayer. Here’s a single line from the poem, translated by John Felstiner (and found at the Poetry Foundation’s website):
“Blessèd art thou, No One.”
There are many reasons why I like this line, but foremost among them is its intelligence about distance. The space between “thou” and “No One” moves me. To put those things together gives permission for the present absences that are part of life. Maybe Celan is giving God the name of “No One”; or maybe he doesn’t believe in God, but does believe in having a direction for praise. I like both entries to that line. I’m sure you’ll find others.
Space, the deep space physicists tell us, is not empty at all, but filled with gravity, quarks, lions and tigers and bears. Time does strange things in space. Or, I should say, things strange to me. I’m the stranger in space. Time seems right at home there.
Language — like in this short line from Paul Celan’s “Psalm” — that gives air and breath to the great unbridgeable leads me to deeper breathing, to deeper connection with what cannot be known, but which may, perhaps, be fruitful anyway.
Celan’s line in the original German has only four words: “Gelobt seist du, Niemand.” When I thought about how that could be rendered in Irish, I was struck by how we say “aon duine” to refer to “no one,” but how “aon duine” can also translate to “anyone.” Blessed are you, No One. Blessed are you, Anyone.
I’m curious where Celan’s words land for you, what associations it brings you to, what corners of the universe, or theology, or language, or Nothing it takes you into.
I’ll look forward to reading your associations.
Shout out to the brilliance of the recent On Being episodes: I adored the Janine Benyus episode. In answer to some queries, the next season Poetry Unbound will start in the early summer.
In the meantime, I’m delighted to host the second season of The Corrymeela Podcast from April 6, looking at peace, the arts, theology, and politics. Podcast where you podcast!
Poetry in the World
Seattle Arts & Lectures Series | Seattle, WA
Tomorrow (April 3), I’ll be in Seattle talking with the magnificent Chris Abani as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you at the Rainier Arts Center. It’s also available to view live online. Tickets for whichever option is best for you can be found here. Whether in person or through the web, join us at 7:30pm Pacific Time.
National Poetry Month Reading Series at Eckerd College | St. Petersburg, FL
This Thursday, April 6, I’ll be giving a reading at 7pm ET on the James Center Patio at Eckerd College in Florida, followed by a Q&A and a signing of Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World. Would love to see you if you’re in the area. No registration required, with plenty of room.
Good Friday Livestream | Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York, NY
The good people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in NYC are deliciously tolerant of my agnostic theologies, and have asked if I’ll say a few words along side others at their Good Friday service on April 7, from 12pm-3pm ET. You can come in person or join online. Details here.
Poetry Unbound Retreat | Melbourne, Australia
In the middle of May, I’ll be leading a 2-day retreat with the Small Giants Academy in Melbourne, Australia. We’ll be exploring ways of finding poetry in our everyday lives, and how that might shape our lives and the world around us, in turn. With exercises and conversation, and plenty of good company. May 12-13. Details and registration here.
Returning and Becoming Conference | Asheville, NC
I’ll be sharing poetry and thoughts at a retreat at Kanuga (near Asheville, NC) on June 13 (morning and evening) and June 14 (morning). Hosted at an Episcopal Retreat Centre, this conference is open to all. My sessions will examine poetry, language, challenge, and change. Details and registration here.