Sunday, April 25, 2010

song for our lady of cobre

In April of 1940 (70 years ago), Merton took a vacation/pilgrimage to Cuba.  At the time he was teaching English at St. Bonaventure's College in Olean and had applied to join the Franciscans (and was soon to be rejected).  Merton was enchanted with the Cuban people, their friendliness, their dance and song.

He visited several monasteries and churches:

"... as for the churches around Cuba, I must say that I have never seen such churches or such things when I was in a church.  There is a church here called La Soledad which has in it a miraculous image, and when I walked into the place I was picked up by my feet off the floor and seen not a ring of pure and endless light but rather a great ring of nothing which was absolutely real, indescribable and also a little frightening.  It was clearer than if I had seen it which my eyes, but it was simply nothing, and there was no sensible note included in it anywhere, and anyway I was on the edge of it like on the edge of an abyss ... " - from a letter to Lax dated April 1940
 Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in Camabuey

Merton also visited the church of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre), patroness of Cuba.  A woman of mixed race, she also represents, Ochun, the African goddess of love, femininity and the river.   She is the symbol of feminine sensuality.

This is probably the finest of Merton's early poems.  Merton later made some changes to it, but I like it in its original form.  He seems to be influenced by the beat of calypso music.

Song for Our Lady of Cobre

The white girls stir their heads like trees,
The black girls go
Reflected like flamingoes in the street.

The white girls sing as shrill as water,
The black girls speak
As loud as clay.
[The published version reads: The black girls talk/As quiet as day."]

The white girls open their arms like clouds,
The black girls close their eyes like wings;
Angels bow down like bells,
Angels look up like toys,

Because the heavenly stars
Stand in a ring,
And all the pieces of the mosaic, earth,
Get up and fly away like birds.

-Thomas Merton

[drawings by Thomas Merton]

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