Here is New York
You Get Bigger As You Go

The Greater Things

IMG_2888A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

All this, for the price of two swipes of a Metrocard.

(Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003)

 A poem is a little thing, barely there, the best just a few lines and words on a sea of white page.  Oh sure, I wrote a poem once that had seven stanzas and droned on for some 98 lines or so, as have much brighter lights than me, but most are not writ so large.  They're more like a sparrow on a canvas of blue sky, an acorn waiting to be found, a pebble among pebbles by a stream - barely dicernible, hidden, common.  And yet their diminutive size is deceiving.  They testify to more.

So do people.

A week ago, I lay out there, in the backyard, in a hammock, watching birds swoop down and light on the bird feeder.  Little things.  I thought about how short is the life of a bird and how it passes quite unknown to the world, how its life is obscure and unknown to virtually everyone.   While we may appreciate the grace of birds, the beauty of their form, their ease of flight and freedom, rarely if ever do we think of just one bird. Yet God knows the comings and goings of a single bird; not a single sparrow falls to the ground that He doesn't blink, a tear well in His eye at what should not have been but is in a fallen world.

God made everything, sees everything, upholds everything.  These are dogmas that Christians subscribe to, but when you see a single bird, or a little poem, or the face of a Ugandan orphan, or a perfectly shaped leaf with a bead of raindrop on it lying in its fragility on the sidewalk, small ones in a sea of creations, then you know a little of the power of the dogma.  We know truth in the particular and not abstract.  His eye is on the sparrow --- indeed that sparrow, poem, fatherless child, leaf.

In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul says "we are his workmanship," and I am told that the Greek word for "workmanship," "poiema," is that from which the English word "poem" is derived.  We are crafted and made, and we bear the image of the Maker.  While we can't literally say we are God's poems, whatever that might mean, the word does suggest artistry.  And it means that even a single person is imbued with beauty and meaning, that every person is a sign pointing outside themselves to God.  Even when they are malformed and broken.  Even a city, even Manhattan, can in its compression shout glory.  

For a moment, at least, suspend theological precision and consider the poem of the world, God's world, as so aptly cast by poet Mary Oliver:

If it is all poetry, and not just one's own accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world --- that lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise --- then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and desire beyond the margins of the self.

So when you see a bird, a poem, a child, a leaf, you are seeing more than the particular.  Look to the margins of the one.  You'll get a "glimpse of a greater paradise."  The particular in front of you compresses into itself the greater things beyond itself, elusive now but ever so real.  

All that, for two swipes of the Metrocard, says Colson Whitehead.  Or a walk in the neighborhood.  Or an afternoon in the hammock.  Magical, and free.

 

 

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