Stephen Fuller *** Poetry, Essays

Darkness Does Great Work, a poem and analysis by S Francis

A few weeks ago, I posted ‘What god has chosen me, tangled her truth…’ loosely inspired by lines from Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Edward Snow, as well as a couplet from John Chipman Farrar’s “Yet More Than This” anthologized by Carl Phillips in Firsts: 100 Years of Yale Younger Poets:

“Have you sought beauty where night mystifies
The loves and laughter of the cool, closed flowers”

This fed a theme of defining my own spiritual being inspired by working the second step of a recovery program distilled from the 12 Steps Porgram by Russell Brand in his book Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions. So I asked the basic question, what god has chosen me, tangled her truth among my dark roots, and now swims in the dirt of my life? At this point, the subconscious took over from the conscious mind and provided me with the following:

What god has chosen me, tangled her truth
Among the dark roots that swim in dirt
Where worms await. I fear nothing… no.
Let boasts not replace truth in your mind,
Reader! Know this face once made up
Hides the fractures that allow the light
Escape. Then darkness can continue its
Work. Yet darkness does great work
For at night, the buds close to gather
Strength for the bright day and its shadows
That persist like envy trying to cut down
What is beautiful before it can ever bloom.

The poem ended with a reflection upon how we struggle with darkness even as we pursue the light, especially if we still hide behind a mask of recovery rather than do the real, hard work it requires. Shadows linger to cut down the beauty that light might nurture before it can even bloom. Perhaps this poem spoke to a fear of setbacks in recovery or relapses. Perhaps it simply acknowledged that no matter who we are, darkness must exist to provide definition to the light and thus we must continually fight to overcome its draw, its power.

An invaluable step for me in the craft of writing poetry is allowing a poem to sit on its own for some period of time to allow its ideas to become a new stew for me to revisit. I jokingly call this my ‘brain stew’ but admit that distance sometimes allows for the detachment necessary to read a self-authored poem as if it were new. So, the flavors of this poem’s stew deepened in the time I took to come back around to it.

In my return I saw a different thread weaving through that now seems obvious, death: “that swim in dirt/where worms await” and so wanted to explore this idea a bit more. Additionally, the connection between beauty and angels, inspired by Rilke, but common throughout my own writing now, caused me to change the subject from God to an angel. This enabled me to draw out the Biblical allusion to Jacob wrestling with an angel. I liked this because Jacob is not a pristine character in the Bible, his backstory is a tricky with an undercurrent of dark choices towards his older brother Esau that enable him to ultimately become Israel and the father of its 12 tribes.

The next bit of crafting involved more subtle changes in the next two stanzas. While at first I wanted this extended thought about darkness as light escapes through the cracks in the mask to carry through to the end of the poem, I chose to end one thought with the eponymous line “Darkness does great work” before moving into what at first was the final stanza about envious conflict between shadow, beauty and the angel.

However, I still felt dissatisfied; the poem was not complete, the theme of death and recovery still needed to reach a better conclusion: why did these lines matter to me. The first line that came to me “I need this” drew all those themes hovering above it into the self as if to announce an explanation of why these images and metaphors matter. Why do I need all of this, the darkness and light, the truth and angels, the roots? I needed them to wrap me like a grave, to show me death, so that I would know why life still mattered, why the work of recovery still mattered.

The final piece:

Darkness Does Great Work

What angel is this who has chosen me,
She, who wrestled her truth into dark roots
Then swam down in dirt where worms await
To devour me… and yet, I fear nothing.

No!

Let boasts not supplant Truth in my heart,
Reader! Know this face, once made up, hides
The fractures that allow light to escape
For darkness to continue its work — after-all —

Darkness does great work.

At night, when cold buds close to gather
Strength for the bright day, shadows
Persist like envy to strike down the angel
Before beauty becomes terror I cannot bear.

I need this.

The angels, the roots, the darkness, the terror.
I need all of this to wrap me like a grave
Awakening inside my heart a pulse that does
Still long to beat even knowing what awaits.

(C) 2020, Stephen Fuller

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