John Paisley

‘Lament for Her Absence’, by John Paisley

Since you have gone
my world is shattered like a pool
tormented by stones. In every place
I wear a thread-bare coat
of loneliness and underneath
the mid-day sun I shiver
inwardly. At night the moon
grows cold, the stars malicious.

Since you have gone
I scan in vain the endless
crowd seeking your face
and daily haunt the places
where I shared your company.
Distance is meaningless
for no step brings me nearer you
or further from you. Time’s
mechanism jammed, each hour
hangs like a heavy cog
around my neck.

Since you have gone
I cannot quiet the restless
harbour of my heart. My hands
hang helpless by my side
nor can they wind the clock
of days to your arrival.
All things stand sombre;
frozen in the still grey
light of evening,
And even in these lines
something is missing.

John Paisley

‘Jacob Recalls the Fight at Peniel’ by John Paisley

‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’, by Don Saco

Upon that night the others were away –
Wives, children, all the troubled world
And I was there alone and quiet until he came
Unheralded, mysterious. As one awaking from a dream
I knew, at first, only that I struggled, then slowly
Grew aware of my antagonist, a dark one
Naked to the waist with gleaming skin,
With well-proportioned form. Then when his face
Came near, I saw his bright and piercing eyes,
A brow majestic crowned with flying hair.

All night I wrestled with him on my bed of earth
And stronger were his limbs than any man’s.
And as we twisted, muscles growing taut
And bodies seeping, his breath was hot, his touch
Like fire, a torment. He closed about me like
A night with clouds, and at the bottom of a
Dizzy gulf he wounded me.

………………………………………I fought him
With super-human strength, instinctively,
Nor could I tell if it was fear or hope
That drove me on. He seemed to hold me in
His power, yet overcame me not. Then as the light
Began to glimmer in the east he bore me upwards
As an eagle bears her young and all the earth
Fell reeling far beneath and as we rose
The air was parting. And there he left me, lonely
On a crag, to vanish nameless.

………………………………………But when the risen
Sun had turned the rocks to gold and earth
To green, it shone at last on me. I found
Both joy and pain and could not separate
The two, yet humbly thanked him for a prize
Worth wrestling for on any night;
All nights ’till break of day.

And in the wake of his feet/The desert will bloom

Earlier this week, I was reflecting on Luke 4.1–13. Three things struck me:

  1. The Spirit who confirmed Jesus in such a public manner at his baptism (i.e., his coronation as king) where his complete identity with estranged humanity was so shockingly made public now led him away from the crowds and into the wilderness.
  2. This movement from public to aloneness, and from fulness to famishment, does not represent an abandonment of his calling and identity to be the God who is with and for us, but precisely the reverse; it is God going deeper into the human situation. Here is God entering into the depths of humanity’s estrangement and famishment and recalcitrance and doggedly refusing to be estranged and famished and recalcitrant in it. Here he is, standing on humanity’s side, as it were, and refusing the way of humanity turned away from God – of refusing to live by bread alone, of refusing to compromise the exclusivity of worship and service which is due to God alone, and of refusing to put God to the test.
  3. By recapitulating the same series of temptations that Israel faced in the Sinai desert and yet responding with faith rather than with distrust, this true Israelite and second, or last, Adam is actually bending humanity back into our true relationship with God. In other words, Jesus is in the desert for the same reason that he was standing in the Jordan River – for us!

In a recent post, I drew attention to the Dunedin poet John Paisley. He was certainly someone familiar with the experience of wilderness. Sometime during the 70s, he penned ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ wherein I think he gave voice to his belief that there was not only some deep connection between his own life and that of the One who was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but also something of the truth that the triune decision that Jesus become our vicarious Saviour brings about a situation that the Son needs to not only be deeply embedded in the human plight but also and equally be the one who stands alone before God. Here’s the poem:

‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’

He has gone out from us
Into a place where no roads are,
And at each tired step over
The sand and among the sun-warmed
Rocks, he looks for the road
Which only he shall tread.

He has gone out from us
And left us in the bustling market
Or the crowded streets, building
Our thoughts like bridges
Over an abyss of hours, feverish
And furtive, caught between
Means and ends, slaves
At our towers of air.
There in a wasteland out of
Bricks that we rejected he will build
Walls to outlast all time.
There he will face, alone, dark-hooded
Thoughts by day and night,
And he shall not eat
Till he has won the bread
Of suffering, and he shall not rest till
He has given up the sleep of men.

He has gone out from us
But he will come again,
And always as he moves through
Coast and day, demons will fall
Before the swords of angels,
And in the wake of his feet
The desert will bloom.

‘Christmas’, by John Paisley

As promised in my previous post, here’s a poem by John Paisley. It’s titled ‘Christmas’:

Out of a light preceeding
Light, into a darkness which is ours,
A spark, an ember from His fire
Falling, breathed on by lips invisible,
Fuel for a furnace tended by
Viewless hands and deep
Inside, molten like steel,
Plastic like clay,
This glowing, throbbing lump,
This helplessness, this
Hope, this fancy.

Did the mountains bow their peaks
Aged with snow, or the black
Earth heave for joy?
Did the rivers pause in their
Headlong rush to the sea?
Nothing spoke the immutable
Hills or the sky,
And the world moved on
Relentless, making its money and its
Love, minding its own business.
Even that brilliant star tracking
Across the night was observed
By few, and three unknown
Astrologers in a distant land were
All that thought to follow it.

Out of a light preceeding
Light, into a darkness which is ours,
He came, and still he comes;
Silently, imperceptibly: and
At that moment a world is born
Anew, while knowing nothing
Of its own deliverance.

On discovering John Paisley

The demise of the local book shop is more than a mere kink in the history of civilisation as we know it. It is a sign that the end is nigh, that the four horsemen have donned their stirrups, and that the fiancée of God better get her nickers on and her face spruced up quick smart.

Of course, the sad and dangling sign that reads ‘Closing Down’ also announces an opportunity for the sagacious book buyer to exploit the situation to the absolute hilt, and to put some further pressure on the stumps that hold up that corner of the house where the library is situated.

Such is the situation a mere stones throw away from my study; or at least a stones throw away for someone who possesses omnipotent stone-throwing capabilities. I visited that scene of negation three times last week, and each time feeling somewhat like the grim reaper I have walked out with at least two bags of books – at $2 a book! – evidence, among other things, of one of my many addictions … and of my intelligent tastes.

The first time I stumbled into this sacrament of culture’s demise (as much to get out of the rain as for anything else I’m ashamed to say) I stumbled not to buy, not on this occassion anyway, but simply to smell pages. With the rising waft of wet carpet and the air reeking of the body odour of some forty-something woman who was hogging the self-help section, I was encouraged (is that too weak a word?) to move on to the cookbook section (one of my favourites), and then, just around the corner, as if my nose had discovered the smell of sweet basil for the first time, I was conjoined to the poetry section. ‘Section’ is perhaps too inflated a word to describe what was the smallest collection of poetry books you could imagine in a book shop; there must have been fewer than 30 volumes. But among that lot, two stupefied my cornea – Roy Fuller’s Owls and Artificers: Oxford Lectures on Poetry (not technically a book of poems, but when the pickins is slim and all that) and Collected Poems by a Dunedin-based poet that I had never heard of, a man by the name of John Paisley.

After reading the first few dozen poems by Paisley, I was intrigued and I wanted to know more about their author. To be sure, it’s not that all of his poems are wonderful – they aren’t; but there’s something about Paisley’s spirit that gripped me last week, and since too. I want to know more about this man, and the more I find out, the more fascinated I am, and the more I want to know. Thus far, here’s what I’ve been able to find out about John Paisley: He was born in Wellington in 1938; four years later his family moved to Dunedin. He attended Waitaki Boys’ High School and then the University of Otago, where he completed an MA in English on the poets Charles Brasch and James K. Baxter (to whose memory he penned the poem ‘Community at Jerusalem’). He commenced training as a Presbyterian minister at Knox College (where I work), but had to withdraw due to ill health. His sister, Dawn Ross, in a wee introduction to his Collected Poems, described her brother as ‘an eccentric person’ and as ‘different’. He later travelled to and lived in a variety of places, and held down a number of jobs. He wrote numerous poems and performed at poetry readings. He had one poetry collection (This Night in Winter) published during his lifetime, and two further collections were published following his death (Vigils and Collected Poems).

In a short essay, ‘Commentary on Religious Poems for Reading’, Paisley describes his own work as a poet thus:

I make no claims to be a religious poet myself. If anything, I am perhaps a poet who writes the occasional religious poem. But while most of the time my attention and my writing is taken up with other and more secular concerns, my religious poetry is important and significant to me and my development, both as a person and as a writer. It is not without significance that when many years ago I lost contact with reality for a few weeks altogether, I attended a party at the house of a friend and for sometime recited a long religious poem (spontaneously composed) to a room full of surprised and eventually indifferent guests. The poem is not among my papers, and I have no memory of having ever written it. But the fact that even in the state of insanity, my preoccupation was a religious one, speaks volumes in itself.

And about poetry itself, he writes:

It is easy for us to forget in the 20th century how closely the poetic spirit and vision is bound up with religion. In our tradition – the Judaic Christian one, there is a long line of poets beginning at Moses and the author of the book of Job, with David, Solomon and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets and ending i with Jesus and St. John. The Bible was only the beginning, the list is endless and will only mention one now – St. John of the Cross – the beauty of whose poetry approaches the angelic.

Poetry in general and religious poetry in particular has at its heart the metaphor, which is a figure of speech where one object comes to represent or stand for another, for example, take William Blake (another great religious poet of last century), who said when he looked at the sun, he saw a choir of angels. It also has at its heart the myth which is a story which has a metaphorical meaning. Nowadays, we have so lost contact with the Poetic vision that we find it very difficult to understand the myths of the past and even more difficult to create our own myths in order to interpret our experience of life, and this disability on our part can become dangerous. When our myths become inarticulate, or we try to live without them, they enter into the dark depths of our subconscious and their presence there becomes a constant source of danger, a smouldering furnace springing up from time to time with the destructive force of a supposedly extinct volcano. Only when our imagination has been captured and put to work in a realm in which it has room to breathe and move, are we in any sense of the word saved from this destruction. A philosophy, ideology, or religion which fails to touch the imagination fails in the end even to satisfy the reason.

In addition to poetry, Paisley also wrote plays, stories and some non-fiction, including an article on Naaman which was published in the ‘Evangelical Presbyterian’ in 1968. He sometimes used one of several pseudonymns; some work is signed Edward Penmore, Jon Darlo Gibealli, Albert Twimmon and Wilfred Penmore. It seems that he only ever had one commissioned piece, ‘Lord Jesus look on this we do’, a poem commissioned by the chaplain at Cherry Farm Hospital (a psychiatric hospital where John may have been a patient), and that that poem has since been set to music by Colin Gibson. From his teens onwards he struggled with mental illness, a condition which was ‘both serious and crippling’. He took his own life in 1984.

As I read the collection through to its end, I discovered a maturing poet and gentle human being, one who moves from an anxious obsession with answers to a deep fascination with and a journey into a vortex of questions, and into the incomprehensibility of human dreaming in search of love and of love’s end, of ‘a purpose [which] holds its ground’.

My plan is to post, over the next few weeks, a number of his poems here at PCaL. To that end, and to kick things off, here’s ‘Credo and Petition’:

I am tired of folly’s smiles,
Of false wax faces in the dizzy gallery,
The image and the paper mask.
And hollow is a chromium gilded heaven:
Hollow like unending, idle bliss beyond the grave.
Give me instead the fateful thunder of the clouds,
Barbed lightning, all that can destroy
And yet bring truth.

Who hourly holds aloft the burning sun
And comes so kindly bearing warmth and life?
He finds me struggling on the steps of my becoming
And shares with me the pain-wracked torturing
Of limbs upon the wooden world.
Of Him I ask now out of hope:
A weeping on the dark, mis-shapen stone of days bygone;
A stamping at the doorway of the beaten earth,
That paths may form and doors may open.