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Sonnets for Christ the King, Joseph Charles Mackenzie
It was Stephen Fry who said of the sonnet: “The ability to write them fluently was, and to some extent still is, considered the true mark of the poet.” How true; to expect every poet to write an epic is too much; and being able to write a haiku is too trivial; and writing free verse is nothing; but in the strange and seemingly limitless flexibility of the sonnet form, poets can demonstrate the most complex—and, conversely, the simplest—thoughts and emotions, as well as outline almost every nuance of human experience. Looking back over the last five hundred years of the English language almost all the truly great poets have produced memorable sonnets whose impact is lasting and profound. And in addition to the sonnet that speaks in its own individual voice, we have whole collections of them, especially Shakespeare’s 154 (although they include sonnets that appear in his plays, there are more), where the work begins to take on epic proportions as a It emerges a type of narrative in which topics and themes are explored in unrelenting precision and beauty. Certainly, I consider the ability to construct a sonnet of beauty as second only to writing epic poetry in the canon of English literature.
So we have Sonnets for Christ the King by Joseph Charles Mackenzie. Currently the work is in audio book form, although I have had the privilege of viewing an advanced electronic copy; comprises 77 sonnets in total. What to make of it? How good are they? Where is Joseph Charles Mackenzie in the pantheon of poets?
First, a digression. The number – 77 – is important. Indeed, every detail is important for true poets. Those of a quick disposition will have noticed that the number 77 is half of that of the number that Shakespeare wrote: 154. And Mackenzie uses the Shakespearean structure instead of Petrarch. Even if it is oblique then, there is already a boastful claim to be heard. But more than that, for the spiritual poet numbers always assume a massive meaning. The sonnet in its two most important incarnations in the English language – the Petrarch and the Shakespearean forms – is always 14 lines (ignoring for the purpose of this analysis aberrant forms such as the Meredithian sonnet – 16 – and the Curtal (Hopkins ) – 7, and similar). 14 is 2 x 7 and 7 is the perfect number. Being the perfect number is not an accident, but why is 7 the perfect number? It is the perfect number because it is the sum of 4, which represents the Earth and everything in it, the four corners, the four cardinal points, and Heaven, the divine Trinity. It is the harmony and addition of the two, which represent completion. (And for those wondering why there are 8 and 9, then 8 is an upside sign for mathematical infinity and represents the Resurrection – the new life beyond the present Heaven and Earth. Jesus is usually described as and be resurrected on the third day of that he rose again, but the third day considered from the beginning of the week in which Easter occurred is also day 8. The number 9 represents the re-harmonization of all things as’ and symbolizes in the Ascension of Christ).
Also, numerologically speaking, 14 and 77 are both, reduced to their single digit, 1 + 4 = 5 and 7 + 7 = 14 = 1 + 4 = 5. The structure of the sonnet and the number in the sequence are represented by the number 5. This, theologically, represents “grace” – hence the day of Pentecost: 5. When the Spirit descends. What Mackenzie does is reveal the descent of the Muse as an act of grace in the structure of the poem. It also refers to an older tradition, too, where the Spirit of God is feminine: as in Wisdom (Proverbs Chapter 8) that was “at the beginning of his way, Before his works of old “. In other words, until we can use human language to describe the inexpressible, Wisdom – the Spirit of God – was not created ‘thing’, but She was with him “from eternity I was established, From the beginning…” and She is the Christian equivalent of the Muse. These numbers are important, therefore, and we see them in different structural ways in the poem; too much to explain in detail now, but for example, the last 14 sonnets (Sonnets 64-77) are all titled “Before [then 1-14] Station’ followed by a brief description of what each station entails. Therefore, in Mackenzie’s work there is not a bunch of random poems, but an architecture – a cosmos if you will – that tries to reflect the larger cosmos of which we are all a part.
The collection, Sonnets for Christ the King, contains, I think, some of the best sonnets, and thus poetry, published since World War II that I have read. His work is really quite, quite brilliant, but also strange and strange! Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that he is able to write poetry that is all discursive, and yet be poetry. We are so used to post-modern poets who write cryptogrammatic verse with dark imagery, condescending diction and self-indulgent, complacent solipsism that we can’t believe it when someone clearly says what they mean and says it like – at least how and this. it is for them. But the beauty of this great poem is, even if we do not agree, do not share his theology, the poet in him reaches us emotionally. There are simply so many wonderful lines and ideas in this collection.
The first thing to get, then, is that this poem is very devotional; Mackenzie is clearly a devout Christian and Catholic, and the foundations of these two highly interrelated positions permeate the entire collection. If it was purely a fundamentalist text – beating a simplistic drum like – that would be off-putting to the casual reader. But this is not: this is true poetry because bound up in it is the emotional resonance from which true poetry disarms the critical intellect. A good example would be in Sonnet 6, one of my 7 favorites out of the 77 we have. Called “El Castillo Interior,” the poem explores the inner and spiritual journey in a series of bold Images, beginning with a castle with “seven chambers…lit.” Each room provides its own challenge: “In one room, snakes, in another war”, until finally we reach a prayer room, and here at the center it concludes with this wonderful cover:
And here in the center, where I lay dead,
To love my own being says: “I married you.”
What – what – is so simple, so paradoxical, so profound; a cri de coeur when all human resources fail, and the soul cries out. And what you cry, of course, fully justifies the archaic “You”, as it invokes the language of the wedding service. This is a poem that repays many, many re-readings.
And on the subject of “a lot”, many poets disappointed with their ends; they start well, have something interesting to say, but somehow can’t reach a satisfying conclusion. They are not the sonnets of Shakespeare, however, and not those of Joseph Mackenzie: his sonnets specialize in superb conclusions of conclusions that could almost be standalones, so aphoristic and powerful they are. Here are three good examples:
Sonnet 11: Song of the Magi
We followed in the fullness of the night,
And found the fragile Origin of light.
Sonnet 35: Adventus 3
And understand that all the time,
The cries I filled the desert were songs
Sonnet 58: Ego Sum – and here I must give the previous quatrain because – frankly – it is too exciting to omit:
I don’t know why some men can’t see,
Or because they kill what they pretend to love;
I only know that this great verb, ‘à to be,’
Only thought can enter but from above,
And pray, with a cloth of sorrow on my head,
That I will not be found among the dead.
This leads to a consideration of Mackenzie’s attitude to Christian history; and it is what I consider the closest approximation we can get to the “truth.” That is to say that the whole narrative is both literal and mythical at the same time. To be literal but not mythical is to limit its application; to be mythic but not literal is to circumscribe his power. We see this clearly not only in the specifically Christ parts of the narrative, but in all the other biblical and theological allusions it makes.
Take Sonnet 62: Boredom.
If Adam had never turned his mind
From life, or kneeling down to mere dust…
This clearly treats the story of the Garden of Eden as both literal and mythical: it recognizes what virtually all early cultures recognize, that in the beginning humanity was involved in an aboriginal calamity that is therefore, at unlike the gods, die. This is why the first civilizations did not believe in progress, but in regression; that the golden age was long gone and now we live in an iron age. Religion – religions – is the only, and necessary, adequate response to that calamity. But Mackenzie sees the story of Eden as only a poet can: instead of the “fruit”, now we have Adam who turns away “his mind” (and notice the strip of bright lines that imitates the turn) from ” Life” – not stuffy old God. . And then the genius word “genuflecting” – Latin, obscure, perfect – in contrast to all the other simple words: Adam effectively genuflected his own thought – distorted in other words – and the choice of diction here reflects precisely that choice terrible he did then. In our choice of words – since they express or represent our choice of thought – we live or die. This level of writing is onomatopoeic or mimetic not only in diction, but in structure and cast of thought, which is why it is so convincing.
And to elaborate just a moment on that fact, the choice of the Shakespearean sonnet form is perfect for the dialectic: thesis, antithesis, with a couple of structural conclusions that often provide the explosive, unexpected and enlightening synthesis. From grand architecture to sonnet form, to every loving line Mackenzie has crafted.
So, on the subject of lines, here are some beauties I have to share:
Sonnet 25: Ode to Autumn
“O rich singer of our Mother’s pain”
Sonnet 28: Regnum Meun Non Est De Hoc Mundo
“And worms stop the mouth of acquired praise”
Sonnet 38: The Adoration of the Shepherds
“The barn was warm even though human hearts were cold”
I could go on, but I think my drift is clear: this is the great poetry of a great poet, even if it is so un-mainstream, anti-secular, purely devotional that you don’t see the chattering media always embracing it. But what are its flaws?
No work of poetry is perfect in its entirety; as Pope said, “even Homer declares.” And to put this in context, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favorite poets, and I consider some of his lines and complete poems to be some of the greatest in the English language; but there are passages in Hopkins where he lets himself be carried away by his metrical theories, by his super-ingenious intelligence, and by the sheer unhappiness of the lexical choice. So, in case I thought to be too uncritic of the collection of Joseph Mackenzie there are a number of small – not for me important – elements that a little jar. One, is the occasional inclination for the archaic diction: mayst, ’tis, which I do not recommend. Also, his use and sprinkling of foreign languages, especially but not only, Latin, tends to make his work seem more highbrow and elitist than it really is. Others may complain of his use of grand abstractions, signified with capital letters, such as Love, Beauty, and Truth. Plato is indeed back, and the modern world will not like him, because like Pontius Pilate he likes the question “What is truth?” better. But these are minor caveats to my way of thinking; poetry is a gold mine of multiple treasures, and anyone who studies what Mackenzie does will learn a massive amount, much apart from experiencing absolutely beautiful poetry.
Finally, let me urge Mackenzie to get this book out as a hardcover! I know he likes the oral tradition, but I can’t be alone in preferring to read a stiff book that feels good. And so that just leaves me to say, go ahead and access your version of this great work. It took at least forty years after Hopkins’ death for his work to be appreciated, so let’s hope that Mackenzie will be recognized long before that fact. Find it at: https://mackenziepoet.com
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