"Divining Divinity" is Divine

Meditation and Faith

Joseph Pearce’s first volume of poetry, a small illustrated pocket book called Divining Divinity, published by Kaufmann Publishing, is a delicate work. And the puns are not used to evoke laughter, but to praise God in a subtle and compact way for the intricacies of His creation. The poems in this volume are not only as sensitive and fine as anything by Emily Dickenson, they also have the brilliant structure and playful wordsmanship of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with an endearing quiet sense of the sublime—and all of them offered up in a humble attitude of praise. And yet what astonishes me is not all that, but the risk Pearce took in writing and publishing these. For poems with this much wordplay, disaster is always looming. 

 

“Coincidences are spiritual puns.”—G K Chesterton.


Imagine that you are a stand-up comedian. Your audience is spread out before you, unseen figures beyond the stage lights, obscured by smoke and darkness. You make a joke—but it’s not exactly a joke.  It’s something like this: “I just flew in from Pittsburgh and I haven’t had the flu that bad since my chimney sweep told me my flue was clogged up.” They stare at you. There is a terrible, dreadful silence, a moment of existential angst as you face the abyss waiting for laughter that might never come.

It takes a bold man to make a pun.
 Or to make a play on words.

Joseph Pearce is a bold man. 

But then again we knew that about him. Anyone who’s attended the last few Chesterton conferences recalls Joseph’s lectures with delight. Anyone who’s read any number of his books—biographies on the great Catholic converts of modern English letters, including Chesterton,  Belloc, and Oscar Wilde—anyone who’s read Joseph’s latest work, The Quest for Shakespeare, which proves not only that Shakespeare was Catholic but also that Pearce is a historical and literary scholar of the first rank—anyone who knows a little bit of Joseph’s conversion story, from street thug skinhead to devout self-taught Catholic by way of GKC and distributism—in short, anyone who’s anyone knows Joseph Pearce is a bold man.

What we did not know is that he was a poet. A poet who is not afraid of puns.



Joseph Pearce’s first volume of poetry, a small illustrated pocket book called Divining Divinity, published by Kaufmann Publishing, is a delicate work. And the puns are not used to evoke laughter, but to praise God in a subtle and compact way for the intricacies of His creation. The poems in this volume are not only as sensitive and fine as anything by Emily Dickenson, they also have the brilliant structure and playful wordsmanship of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with an endearing quiet sense of the sublime—and all of them offered up in a humble attitude of praise. And yet what astonishes me is not all that, but the risk Pearce took in writing and publishing these. For poems with this much wordplay, disaster is always looming. 

 

For example, of a rabbit at dawn, Pearce writes:


Distinctive
but instinctive,
and oblivious
of oblivion.
Unconscious friar
in Franciscan fraternity;
the hare’s breath
is the hair’s breadth
from here to eternity.

It takes quite a bit of skill to write verse this complex and playful without sounding vulgar and precious.  For a reader could find himself averse to such a verse. And the poet could become the bad stand-up comic, stood up by an audience who derisively arise, not in ovation, but in condemnation, expressing their exuberance for an exodus.

And yet it’s really not Joseph’s skill that’s on display here. In the poem with the verses on the hare, we observe with the poet a sunrise—and the rising sun becomes the rising Son, Who truly brings us from hare to eternity, as the poet observes—

Corpus Christi!
Rising through the rose,
Sanguis Christi!
Skyward flows.
Heavenly Host
so new, so old,
as Holy Ghost
turns snow to gold.

Look at the compact theology and worship in this prayerful play-on-words.

The sun is recognized as a communion wafer—Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, rising through the rose-colored sky—which is to say, He rose through the rose (Christ indeed arose through the rose, which is also a symbol of Mary). Sanguis Christi is the blood of Christ, flowing skyward as the red dawn spreads across what was recently darkness. 

And what are the Body and Blood of Christ that the poet sees spreading before him at the break of day?  When seen as the rising sun, they are the Host in the Heavens, indeed the Heavenly Host—so new, so old, as Holy Ghost turns snow to gold: here the blood of Our Lord’s sacrifice warms the frozen world and becomes the gold of the Holy Spirit, an alchemy beyond our wildest dreams.

So these poems are not just technical tricks, wordplay about the playful Word of God. There is in each of these poems a deep sense of wonder and gratitude, and a solemn attitude of awe and praise.

My own favorite is “Dante Dilettante”, a poem about British author Sigfried Sassoon and the horrific “Great War” that shaped his character.

And Siegfried freed
From Wagnerian curses
With sacred seed
Despair disperses.

“Despair disperses”—that is a wonderful line. And if, as Chesterton noted, coincidences are spiritual puns, then puns such as these point the way to the spirit coincident with them—the great spirituality that lies behind them, and the coincidence of just the right words in just the right meter referring forward and backward to one another and to that great Wordsmith who made us all by way of His Word.

Let me conclude by quoting entirely Joseph’ s poem “Belloc”:

Not the bombast of relativism,
The bombast of mere opinion,
Sanitized by self-righteousness;
But the bombast of absolutes,
The bombast of certitude,
Sanctified by servitude
To the righteousness beyond the self.


These poems, which, though not bombastic, are definitely bold, are themselves

Sanctified by servitude
To the righteousness beyond the self.

 

KEVIN O'BRIEN, Theater of the Word Incorporated

Copyright 2008, Gilbert Magazine. Used with permission.