An introduction to an absent bookBy Simeon Dumdum Jr.
Cebu Daily News
In one of John Cheever’s stories, a man marked time with liturgical feasts. This I also do on occasion, as when August comes, on whose first day the Church commemorates the life of St. Alphonsus, a favorite saint of mine, the author of Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle, the Italian Christmas carol that forms part of many a tenor’s repertoire.
Aside from St. Alphonsus, depending on fortune, henceforth I might be associating with August a collection of poems that I sent to a publisher at the threshold of the month.
Not long before that, I asked a nephew who was visiting us from Ohio to design the book cover, and he fell to the work at once. In a week’s time he came back with several photographs and a curious story. After I had commissioned him, he met a girl inside a resto. Her name stumped him. He was looking for someone to pose for the cover photograph, and her name was Venus. The title of my collection is, “To the Evening Star.”
Someone asked me how I combined my poem writing with my work as a judge. My answer was that–taking the cue from Augustine–I was more like Martha as a judge, and as a poet more like Mary.
Martha prepared the food while Mary just sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words. When Martha complained that her sister was not helping, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Which is it then, food or poetry? The rapture that I get from writing a successful poem outclasses and outlasts the frisson that I feel from consuming a consummate meal. In a broad but true sense, they are food for us too–poetry for me and art for my nephew–food for the spirit, victuals of a higher kind.
“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life,” John quotes Jesus as saying. The people had seen him leave for, and had gone ahead to meet him on, the other side of the lake. Jesus knew that they were there because they had eaten their share of upwards of twelve baskets of bread and fish that upon his blessing multiplied from a boy’s dinner pack of a few fish and loaves.
And when they asked him for this non-perishable bread, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. ”
Every food then is a reminder of the perfect food, Jesus himself, who feeds us with his words and his very flesh and blood in the Eucharist, under the appearance of bread and wine.
If Jesus is the perfect food, then the perfect poem must be eaten, since, as Oscar Wilde allegedly remarked, Jesus Christ is the poem God made. Eaten with the mind and heart as anything of beauty, which somehow partakes of speech, ought to be consumed. A Bach’s cello suite, Van Gogh’s sunflower, a Shakespeare sonnet–every beautiful thing speaks, is a statement, the gist of which Augustine expresses: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a confession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?”
And so for me every poem–every single piece in my humble collection–aspires to the condition of prayer, a prayer of praise, addressed to the Beautiful One, Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new.
More from this Column:
- The persistence of memory
- Round as tomatoes
- The name of the rose
- The Third man
- How to live a long life