The Hour of Lead: The Poetry of Holy Saturday

Poetry across the Great Triduum.

As a Christian and a writer, I have realized that my poems fall under three categories. First, there are the poems of Good Friday—poems that deal with death and the hollowness of it, with suffering and the sheer blackness that can brood over you until you can’t see a way out. You give voice to loss, but you’re not sure what is the solution. After all, this is the night of the soul St. John of the Cross spoke of: when the oppressiveness of the dark seems to weigh down on you, when you cry out as Christ did long ago—“Why have you forsaken me?”

A rich tradition of Good Friday poems stretches back as far as the eye can read. One such poem is Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a book-length elegiac poem written in the mid-1800s after the sudden death of his college friend. In it, the poet wrestles with the shock of grief in a straightforward, brutal way that many of his decorous Victorian contemporaries would never have encountered before. Rather than couch his grief within language, the writing is clear, confused, and searching:

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth…

In the wake of losing a friend, Tennyson can only confess his doubt in loss, the debilitating paralysis that questions logic itself and leaves the soul wondering, asking for answers. Ultimately, the poetry of Good Friday is the work of shock, when the wounds are still fresh and bleeding.

It is easy enough to identify a second category of poetry in the wake of the harshness of Good Friday—the poetry of Easter Sunday. Here is work that celebrates the renewal hoped for, the Greater Thing made manifest and the kingdom of God realized on earth in the presence and resurrection of Christ. This is the kind of poetry that revels in the dance of earth—a poetry of reckless abandon. It is a poetry of thanksgiving and praise. Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” begins and ends with one such effusion of thanksgiving for the good things of earth: “Glory be to God for dappled things… he fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” This is the poetry of the dawning sun, when the Christ-followers find the stone to be rolled back and the tomb, empty.

But why, seemingly, is it so difficult to write poems in this age that revel in the beauty of redemption? Why does the vast amount of creative work fall under the space between the shock of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday? The space between the death and the life, between loss and renewal?

Our third category, the poetry of Holy Saturday, dwells in this place where words fail, between the bookends of suffering and resurrection. When the defiance of loss gives way to numbness, we are left in a space where time seems to slow, indeed seems to stop altogether—“the Hour of Lead” as Emily Dickinson calls it—when we ask, half-searching and half-languishing “‘was it He, that bore,’ / And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?” Like the disciples, we dwell in the wake of glorious things—the incarnational work of Christ renewing the earth, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind—but in the silence of Saturday the glory of Christ’s ministry seems put to death, as if it were all for naught. With Dickinson, we search for a light to guide us onward but are left questioning the redemptive work, wanting along with St. Thomas belief that is built on visual evidence rather than belief built on mystery.

Instead, we are left wandering the halls of intellect, searching through memory for something to remind us of the goodness of God, that what he promised us in the past can and will come to fruition. After the shock of death has cooled to a dull pain, we must begin to make sense of things we know to be true though our heart seems to tell us otherwise. We are left, like the contemporary poet Christian Wiman, searching for a foothold:

Without moving,
hardly breathing,
he could call
out of the long darkness
walls around him,
a house whose each room
he knew, its hoard
of silences…

–from “The Last Hour.”

A search made difficult by the settling in of harsh realities—Wiman himself was diagnosed with leukemia that almost took his life. However, the same shocking prognosis turned into his spiritual cure; his cancer led him on a faith journey that helped him begin writing some of the most honest, spiritual poems of the last five years: “Every Riven Thing,” “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind,” and “Lord is Not a Word,” just to name a few. All poems born from the sublime encounter with impending death and the reality of the One who overcame it.

Perhaps in this liminal space—between death and life—we are only able to express ourselves with the fullness of pain and hope paradoxically intertwined. Our words are limited, our poetic interests short-sighted. The poetry of Holy Saturday is fundamentally the work of silence, of willing but ultimately flawed expression. And maybe this is why we gravitate most to this type of writing. It is the work that reconciles the dark despair of Good Friday with the exuberance of Easter Sunday, reconciling doubt with the hope we have for the fullness of the kingdom of God come down on earth as it is in heaven.

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