The other day I heard a fine choir sing “The heavens’ flock” — a setting by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds of a text by the poet Paulann Petersen. (Have a listen here.) What follows is a series of meditations prompted by my encounter with this music and these words.
Stars, you are the heavens’ flock
tangling your pale wool across the night sky.
Stars, you’re bits of oily fleece catching
on barbs of darkness to swirl in black wind.
You appear, disappear by thousands,
scattered wide to graze but never straying.
While I, a mere shepherd of these words, am lost.
What can I do but build a small blaze
and feed it with branches the trees let fall:
that twiggy clatter strewn along the ground.
And lichen crusting such dead limbs glows silver, glows white.
The earthfood for a fire so unlike and like your own.
Oh, what can I do but build a small blaze.
The poem is, for me, a meditation on human finitude (and, possibly, fallenness). Its logic follows roughly that of Psalm 8 — “When I consider thy heavens, even the work of thy fingers; / the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; / What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” — if not in invoking the Creator, at least in a shared contrast between the vast order of the heavens and the small contingency of humans. The stars in their thousands scatter across the sky, yet are “never straying.” (Doesn’t the imagery of a grazing flock kept from straying suggest a shepherd?)
The stars do not stray, but the poet is “lost,” able only to “build a small blaze” out of what she can scrounge in the woods. The stars scatter their fire heedlessly across the sky; they themselves blaze, and their blaze bespeaks abundance. But the poet can only scrabble together “a small blaze” from what she finds, a fire that is more unlike than like the fire of the stars. The stars “graze” (on what?) in the heavens, but her fire is fed by humble “earthfood.” The stars are shepherded, while the poet finds that she (herself a “shepherd” of sorts) has strayed. Could she not say with Dante, “I found myself within a shadowed forest, /for I had lost the path that does not stray” (Inferno 1.2–3)?
Notice further how the materials the poet uses come to her as gift. The trees bestow on her the branches and the “twiggy clatter” she finds on the ground. She knows she is dependent on these gifts; without them should could build no blaze. What she does is to make use of what is at hand, of what is given her.
And what is given her is not hers. She is “a mere shepherd of these words.” A steward, not an owner. Like the imagined branches, the words she shepherds come to her as gift. They do not belong to her. She did not make them. The words she orders into a small blaze belong to the whole community of English speakers. Vocabulary, grammar, and syntax — all came to her from others. Her parents taught her to speak and she learned to write and she inherited her capacity use language.
All this leads the poet to humility: “What can I do but build a small blaze ….” She knows her words cannot match the brightness of the stars, the beauty of the morning stars’ song (cf. Job 38:7).
Does the poem amount to a confession? In the twofold Augustinian sense of confessing sin and confessing God’s praise? Not quite. The poet addresses only creatures, and I do not pretend to know whether she even thinks of herself and the trees and stars as “created.” And the language of being “lost,” despite its deep resonance in Christian tradition, remains ambiguous. This is not a Christian poem in any straightforward sense. Yet its humble recognition of human contingency (especially as seen in the poet’s recognition that she is “a mere shepherd of these words”) is deeply consonant with an explicitly Christian account of givenness.
I’m thinking specifically of the account given by the Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion in his In the Self’s Place, a phenomenological reading of the Confessions of St. Augustine. Marion notices that Augustine’s first words in the Confessions are a biblical citation: “Great are you, O Lord, eminently worthy of praise” (Ps. 47:2). He comments:
[W]ith the words cited initially it is not a matter of words said by Saint Augustine but of words first said to Saint Augustine by the very one to whom the confession now resays them — words said in the beginning by God, who was first to say his word, or rather who said the first word, as he created the world by it.
Augustine makes his confession using the words God has given him in the Scriptures; he praises through citation. They are Augustine’s words insofar as he takes them up, but they remain gifts. “My word,” says Marion, “consists in the word given to me by God in the scriptures, from then on repeated and declined according to my suffering.”
Not only is Augustine “a mere shepherd of these words,” but the words shepherd him. They speak God’s silent call to him, a call that always precedes him (for by God’s Word he was created) and makes possible his taking up in his confession the words given to him. Augustine’s confession, we might say, is “a small blaze” made of and prompted by what he has been given; it is a fire which glows with the knowledge that his ability to build it — even his very self — comes as gift from God. In confession, he takes up the words God gives by (as Marion puts it) “letting himself be taken (and therefore given) by the Word.”
To allow oneself to be taken by the Word. (And therefore to find oneself in one’s proper place.) That is the Christian desire. I do not know if that is a consummation Petersen (or Ešenvalds) would knowingly wish. Yet to gaze at “the heavens’ flock,” to own one’s finitude, to acknowledge being “lost” — this is surely good practice.
The featured image is Night Sky Stars Trees 02 by Michael J. Bennett. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
I’ve always thought of Augustine’s Confessions as a pastoral work. A shepherd of people, not just a bishop for oversight. Back then, reading silently was extremely rare. (Augustine is astounded when Ambrose’s lips move, but no sound is uttered.) This means that the reader will be repeating in his own voice each word: Word of God, word of prayer, word of repentance. Everything Augustine writes will pass through the lips and so to the soul of the reader. This accounts for repetition, too–for how else do we learn? If the reader *says* ‘My God, my God, my God’ often enough,… Read more »