Posted on | March 24, 2013 | 2 Comments
I am very happy to announce that a collection of my poems, TURNINGS: POEMS OF TRANSFORMATION, has been brought out by Wipf and Stock Publishers, of Eugene, Oregon. The striking cover does a fine job of bringing together the sense of mystery out of which our human experience comes, the rough pen we have used to try to express this experience, and the twisted shavings that result from our engagement with the stuff of life.
All through my years as an ethicist I was writing poetry, liturgies, and songs springing from the emotional depths of my own experience and my sense of our common experience as human beings on this planet. In linking these two aspects of my life I can see that both my ethics and my poetry have tried to explore the ways we give shape and meaning to our thoughts, feelings, and actions within the mysterious powers of creativity and love that undergird our existence.
As I looked back over my poems I saw a constant theme of turning, not just because I turn bowls in my wood shop from time to time, but because my life, like most of ours, has consisted of turnings of all kinds. As I said on the book’s back cover, “Like works in wood upon a lathe, these poems are word-turnings that reveal the inner grain of our human experience. They are bowls to catch our turnings of memory, conversion, falling in love, and passing through our seasons and the wrenching turns that mark our lives. Above all these turnings are a shout of praise, a murmur of wonder, a turning away from life as usual, a merciful re-turning to the songs, images and stories that move our lives.”
Several of the people who have encouraged my work have generously provided some words, poetic in themselves, for the back cover to entice readers into the book.
Kenneth Sehested, pastor, poet, peacebuilder, and author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public
“Good poets, like Bill Everett, perform a kind of chicanery of the spirit, distracting our attention just long enough to allow revelation to slip past the guards of preoccupied minds. As in: “Earth gasping . . . Sends lilies up in mourning / the rainbow as a pledge / the cockroach as a warning / the raven as a hedge.”
Kathryn Stripling Byer, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina, and author of Descent, Wildwood Flower, Black Shawl, and other books.
“William Everett’s beautifully structured Turnings gathers together limpid poems of memory that shine like pebbles underneath the clearest flow of water, as well as poems of personal faith and theological wisdom. Rising up from the pages like long-forgotten messages, they glow in the light of Everett’s language: lyrical, crystal clear, as if on the brink of turning into nothing less than song itself.”
J. C. Walkup, Penny Morse, and Buffy Queen, editors of Fresh, where some of my poems have appeared:
“Everett is a master of words, fitting the right words together the way a master mason fits stones to shape beautiful structures. Poems he constructs reflect solid integrity. Readers can depend on his writing to convey thoughtful expressions, ethical conclusions, and invigorating structural styles, selected to match the themes of each piece. His poetry reassures us that all good poetry does not belong to the past.”
Michael Beadle, poet and educator, author of The Invented Hour, and the forthcoming Invitation:
“Everett is a daring poet who leads us deeper into the language of experience. His poems are full of wonder and insight, celebrating the beauty in nature while discovering grace in the mundane. At times meditative, at other turns inventively irreverent, Turnings leads us to reexamine the past and ponder the present, whether it’s a biblical story or a personal memory. Turn the pages and find poems of transformation.”
The book appears in time for National Poetry Month, in which we celebrate the act of turning our experience into words that still contain an openness to the mystery that surrounds our life. I will now turn to introducing it to people in my region as well as through the internet.
You can hear me reading some of the poems and discussing them with the poet’s group at City Lights Bookstore, in Sylva, NC, at their podcast site.
It is available now through your local independent bookstore or through Wipf and Stock Publishers.
I will be presenting the book at several events in the coming months:
Saturday, April 13, at 3 pm at Blue Ridge Books, S. Main St., Waynesville, NC.
Saturday, April 20, at 4 pm at City Lights Books, Spring St., Sylva, NC.
Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18, at Blue Ridge Bookfest, Blue Ridge Community College, Hendersonville, NC.
Sunday, July 7, at 3 pm at Malaprop’s Bookstore, Haywood St., Asheville, NC.
Posted on | March 18, 2013 | 4 Comments
We have just returned from six weeks in the Western Cape of South Africa and ten days exploring central Namibia, its neighbor to the north. While it is the people in all their rich diversity and turmoil that has brought me back repeatedly over the past fifteen years, this time it is the mountains, the minerals they guard, and the land they shape that dominate my memory. The southern tip of Africa wears a necklace of mountains, generally known as The Escarpment, that winds from northern Namibia for some three thousand miles past Cape Town and up to the Zambezi River at Mozambique. In Namibia this escarpment lies some seventy miles inland,allowing the accumulation of vast sand dunes over the past millions of years. No trip to Namibia is complete without a visit to the most famous red dunes at Sosussvlei, so I include it here. The dunes are composed of a quartzite sand blown in from the shore and oxidized into deep orange and red.
"Big Momma" at Sosussvlei, Namibia
But sand dunes, with their exotic ecology, wildlife and vivid colors, are not the only feature of this escarpment. Namibia is also home to uranium, copper, diamonds, gold and many other precious metals and gemstones. At the other end of this escarpment, in the high country (the Highveld) around Johannesburg, lie vast deposits of gold and diamonds, not to mention deposits of coal that keep the country from turning to solar and wind power. In this region, there is an area called the Witwatersrand (“the reef of white water”), where gold was discovered in the late nineteenth century. The gold rush, along with the diamond rush around Kimberly to the west, and the mining industry it spawned, shaped not only South Africa’s labor practices but precipitated the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901. Violent struggle in South Africa bears the marks of this crucible of men and minerals to this day. So does its finance. The unit of currency, the rand, is named for this reef of gold.
Efforts toward unification and reconciliation since 1994 have labored within the shadow of this structure of exploitation and conflict. Even the popular soap opera, Isidingo, takes place around a mine (“Horizon Deep”). It is under the cloud of this history that the police massacre of mine workers took place at Marikana on August 16 of last year. Like tectonic forces, police, unions, workers, the falling price of platinum, and the Lonmin Mining Company crashed together, leaving more than fifty workers and at least two policemen dead.
Along with the murders of young 17-year old Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, which we passed through on our visit, and Reva Steenkamp, girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius, the Marikana massacre has precipitated a wave of consternation, lament, and argument about how to get the country back on track toward a more just and peaceful life. It is in that context that this poem arose a few weeks ago. Now that I am back home I can add the spoken version to this poem and my earlier one from South Africa.
has shot us
yet in chains
we washed our spears
in anger, blood, in mother tears.
Their bullets cut us
upon the ground
glistening in sweat
beneath the rand.
It rule us still
so very still
within the land.
Posted on | February 19, 2013 | 1 Comment
Much of South Africa lives in the shadow and the inspiration of mountains — Table Mountain, the Drakensberg, the Winterberge, and many more that lie between the oceans and the great desert plains of the Karoo. They formed the boundary between the settlers and most of the indigenous peoples. They were the door to liberation for outcastes in the coastal towns as well as the portals to a hopeful new life for rebels against English rule.Their chiseled and folded features are a constant background of everyday life, whether it is the constant hustle of Cape Town or the rolling wheat fields of the Overberg to the east. Anyone who has lived in the shadow of Table Mountain knows that it is not merely a tourist site reached by a breathtaking cable car ride but also a kind of mystical place, often hidden in its tablecloth of clouds that form at day’s end. In the presence of this mountain over the past weeks this poem came to me.
Table Mountain from Across the Bay
For my non-South African readers I need to explain a few of the words that are part of South African English. Many of these are Afrikaans. A kloof is a canyon or arroyo, what we in the Appalachians call a cove, only generally a very steep one. A krans is a cliff edge. A spruit is a fresh-water creek. A klip is a rock or stone.
The poem takes us deeper at each step into the language of Zulu, Xhosa, and even the early language of the Khoi-San. “Muti” is any potion in traditional healing. It can kill as well as heal. “Hoerikwaggo” is the early Khoi-San word for Table Mountain. It simply means “Sea Mountain.” “Unkulunkulu” is the Almighty and Mysterious High God. “Nkosi” usually means chief, but it can also mean Lord. While isiXhosa makes a distinction between lord as God (“uthixo”) and lord as chief (“nkosi”), I have used “nkosi” here for poetic reasons. I am indebted to Lukas Mazantsana, a pastor who is also one of the staff here near Hermanus at Volmoed Retreat Center, for this latter information. “Buntu,” now known to many people because of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s popularization of the term “Ubuntu,” is the root word of ”humanity.”
On Table Mountain
down kloofs and cracks
beneath the roots of aliens
and native trees
filling spruits and creeks
that froth into the waters
where dark seals play
in bays below.
On Altar Mountain
sun struck hearts
cleavered in the raging heat
of land lust, gold, and privilege,
that pours down banks
leaps over krans and klip
evaporating into rainbows
On Mystery Mountain
muti melts in
morning moon rise,
works a magic
turning blood and water
dung and blossoms
into human beings
to sing in praise
Unkulunkulu nkosi wa buntu.
Posted on | February 5, 2013 | 3 Comments
While visiting in Cape Town, I recently had the pleasure of taking a summer school course at the University of Cape Town on Homer’s Iliad, from Professor Richard Whitaker, who has recently translated it into a South African context and idiom. (The Iliad of Homer: A Southern African Translation.) Like most of us, I had only read bits and pieces of this classic work over the years, earning me only a general sense of the story and context. How refreshing to get a lucidly presented sense of its history, context, structures, and many layers of meaning! As we walked through this pathway — a labyrinth to us, a familiar garden to him — I came away not only with a new appreciation of the power and depth of this classic from the beginning of our literary traditions, but also with two new perspectives I’d like to share with you.
The first was prompted by a comment made by Professor Whitaker in the second lecture. Homer was writing, as best we can ascertain, sometime around 725 BCE, drawing on oral, probably sung, traditions about events from around 1200 BCE. One can understand this lengthy poem (about 15,000 lines) in terms of the transition from a world of warring clans, tribes, and their chiefs to the world of city-states and civil government that was beginning to arise around his time. In a sense it is the story of the transition from Sparta to Athens.
The world of the Trojan War (if there was a “war” in our sense) is one in which men of strength and courage battle over women and cattle, glory and immortality. Need I point out that the first two are sheer possessions, the second two religious quests? On the other hand, the world of the town, the polis, is one in which self-restraint, moderation, reasoned argument, and fellow-feeling make possible life in settled communities. The world of the warrior, as Homer presents it, focuses on the prowess of individual warriors. The world of the citizen focuses on the cooperation of equals. The first exalts honor and domination, the second honesty and persuasion.
One of the reasons I think Whitaker’s translation works is that South Africa’s history has been one in which the tribal life of chiefs and their search for women and cattle has coexisted and competed with democratic constitutions and governance by negotiation. And I don’t mean simply native African chiefs, for many European settlers functioned in very similar ways. The Republic’s present president, Jacob Zuma, with his four wives and lavish kraal of dwellings, vividly represents this collision of two cultures. Homer’s world of chiefs (Agamemnon and Priam) reminds us immediately of the legendary Zulu warrior Shaka, who welded the Zulu tribes together at the beginning of the 19th century. By using the language usually associated with Shaka’s time, Whitaker jars us into a realization of Homer’s relevance and contemporaneity, at least in terms of South Africa’s history.
But this isn’t just something for South Africans. Let’s think about that supposed modern cradle of democracy, the United States. In the nation’s present battle over guns, I think we see Homer’s epic being lived out cinema style, but with real casualties. On the one hand we have the individualistic credo of the mythical cowboy (our Achilles and Hector) wielding his gun (or spear) to protect his family, control his women, and develop his cattle herd. The more guns, the more security in a world of individuals bent on possession and glory. Over against this mythos and the interest groups and gun manufacturers that support it, stand people who live in densely intertwined communities, where security emerges out of trust, mutual interest, law and state government. In short, this mythical conflict would have been entirely familiar to Homer, who rehearsed its nuances with enormous power. On the one hand Homer reminds us about the depth of passion fueling this conflict, but also the civilizational stakes in its outcome.
The second perspective is related to the first. Homer presents this warfare of Greeks and Trojans as a drama ensnared in the capricious and petty conflicts of the gods of Mount Olympus. From the human side it arises, as Whitaker pointed out, from Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon and does not end until his anger is finally exhausted. From the side of the gods, it arises simply from their “household” animosities, which mirror in petty form those of mortals. Because the gods always prevail, no matter how brave the warriors the outcome of their battle is already fated. The effort of men to control their fate by force of arms ends in nought, for all is in the hands of the gods, who pull the strings of human destiny like giant puppeteers. What looks like human strength and glory is but a pitiful spectacle to entertain the gods.
However, these gods are not divine in the sense we might ascribe to the God of Biblical and Qu’ranic religion. They are simply exceedingly powerful and immortal, unlike human beings, who are finite and must die. Humans, facing and fearing death, can actually enact moral acts, that is, acts that go beyond the instinctual acts of self-preservation. In the face of this fear, any act on behalf of others, whether from empathy, pity, or duty, gains an ethical status. The gods, however, are incapable of acting morally because no act can lead to their own death and the end of their endless pursuit of their own pleasure.
As amoral, though immortal, beings, they are thus no source of moral guidance themselves. We are neither to emulate them or obey them in order to become moral beings. The Greeks therefore had to seek out the source of an ethic apart from conceptions of divinity. In turning to some sense of human “nature” for this source, they began a long tradition of ethics. But it is not the ethics of Jews, Christians, and later Muslims, who found their ethical ground in the word, will, and acts of a transcendent and mysterious God, whose very acts as the Creator were the definition of the Good.
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An encounter with Homer’s world and vision thus gives us entry into the decisive difference that Jews and Christians found in encountering the Hellenic world. I can’t trace this out here, since that would comprise many volumes! But it is worth thinking about the question of how we ground our most important ethical commitments and what difference that makes in our everyday lives. In our present political context, we need to ask what that difference makes for the fundamental transition from a world of tribal chiefs to one of democratic persuasion. But that is a point for much further conversation and debate. And debate, at least, both philosophers and rabbis have pursued for generations.
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