How should we respond when the seemingly ordinary awakens the world?

Last Sunday I preached on two poems. You can listen to the sermon using the player below. I’ve posted the poems beneath the player.


On My Own
By Philip Levine

Yes, I only got here on my own.
Nothing miraculous. An old woman
opened her door expecting the milk,
and there I was, seven years old, with
a bulging suitcase of wet cardboard
and my hair plastered down and stiff
in the cold. She didn’t say, “Come in,”
she didn’t say anything. Her luck
has always been bad, so she stood
to one side and let me pass, trailing
the unmistakable aroma of badger
which she mistook for my underwear,
and so she looked upward, not
to heaven but to the cracked ceiling
her husband had promised to mend,
and she sighed for the first time
in my life that sigh which would tell
me what was for dinner. I found my room
and spread my things on the sagging bed:
and bright ties and candy striped shirts,
the knife to cut bread, the stuffed weasel
to guard the window, the silver spoon
to turn my tea, the pack of cigarettes
for the life ahead, and at last
the little collection of worn-out books
from which I would choose my only name—
Morgan the Pirate, Jack Dempsey, the Prince
of Wales. I chose Abraham Plain
and went off to school wearing a cap
that said “Ford” in the right script.
The teachers were soft-spoken women
smelling like washed babies and the students
fierce as lost dogs, but they all hushed
in wonder when I named the 400 angels
of death, the planets sighted and unsighted,
the moment at which creation would turn
to burned feathers and blow every which way
in the winds of shock. I sat down
and the room grew quiet and warm. My eyes
asked me to close them. I did, and so
I discovered the beauty of sleep and that
to get ahead I need only say I was there,
and everything would open as the darkness
in my silent head opened onto seascapes
at the other end of the world, waves
breaking into mountains of froth, the sand
running back to become salt savor
of the infinite. Mrs. Tarbox woke me
for lunch—a tiny container of milk
and chocolate cookies in the shape of Michigan.
Of course I went home at 3:30, with
the bells ringing behind me and four stars
in my notebook and drinking companions
on each arm. If you had been there
in your yellow harness and bright hat
directing traffic you would never
have noticed me—my clothes shabby
and my eyes bright—; to you I’d have been
just an ordinary kid. Sure, now you
know, now it’s obvious, what with the light
of the Lord streaming through the nine
windows of my soul and the music of rain
following in my wake and the ordinary air
on fire every blessed day I waken the world.


Christ of Calcutta

There was no restriction of red lights.
Yet the city of Calcutta rushing at hurricane speed
              came to a sudden stop;
somehow avoiding crashes stood still
             taxies and private cars, tempos, tiger-crested

All those who came running with frightened cries
             from both sides of the road —
             porters, hawkers, shopkeepers and shoppers —
they, too, like a painted still life on an artist’s easel
            were now immobile.
Silently watch all:
             in toddling steps
from one side of the road to the other walks
a completely naked child. 

It had rained in Chowringhee a little while ago.
The sun now like a very long lance
             piercing the heart of the clouds
             has come down.
In a magical glow floats the city of Calcutta. 

From the state-bus window
              I look at the sky and I look at you,
child of a beggar-mother,
Christ of Calcutta. 

You’ve stopped all traffic as if with a mesmeric mantra.
At the crowd’s agony, the impatient driver’s gnashing of teeth,
            you don’t deign to lift a single eyebrow;
stalled death all around, and through its midst
             you toddle on. 


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