Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pink Highlights

The first day I got back from Whidbey Island, the sun was shining after a long winter, and so I took Hadley and Harper out for ice-cream and to the park. The girls jumped out of the car and ran. They didn’t need me to help them with their seatbelt buckles, or to lend a hand as they leapt out of the car. They ran ahead of me over woodchips to the slides, and I sank onto a bench realizing they had this park thing down.

It’s what I wanted – to read a book or look at a magazine in the sunshine while they played. It was nice, but it felt like the last few minutes of a meal when all that’s left are tannins in the wine glasses and bread crumbs on the table. Everyone’s stuffed and just wants to go home.

Another mom, who was significantly younger, sat down next to me. Her blond hair was in a cute top-knot that boasted pink highlights and there was a tattoo that outlined her earlobe. I tried not to stare at it but I really wanted to know what it said and also whether one was allowed a strong drink before submitting one’s ear to be inked.

We said nothing for a few minutes, and I assumed, happily, this is how things would go. She was scrolling through something on her phone, I assumed Facebook, when she sharply pivoted towards me and asked if I knew anything about the little girl that had gone missing in early March. The child was eight. She was last scene with the janitor of the homeless shelter she stayed in. I’d heard about the report as I was coming home from Whidbey at 2 am the previous morning. I told her I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I tried to be as polite as I could but I was afraid to talk about it because hearing things like this loosens a sadness and a fear inside of me that I don’t know what to do with.

“They think she’s dead,” the mom said, and she was leaning even closer to me, and I could see that the pink stud in her tongue matched her sunglasses. She wasn’t crying, but she spoke to me with desperation; like she was expecting something from me. Was it because I was older? Did she think I looked like I might have something wise to say about an eight-year-old girl who lived in a homeless shelter and was abducted by someone who worked there?

“I don’t….how could….I can’t,” she stammered. “How do you even deal with that?”

Less than forty-eight hours earlier, I was sitting in a discussion on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, barely keeping up with what his poems are about. I still don’t think I know enough about his work to annotate it, but it was on that bench with this young mother that I thought of his poem “Carrion Comfort.”

It’s one of Hopkins’ dark poems, and it is addressed to God. The narrator is wrestling with, questioning, and it seems as though he’s even being devoured by his Maker. It’s beyond unsettling to read, just as unsettling as when a stranger with pink highlighted hair sits down next to you and forcefully but desperately demands you to think about a lost, probably murdered little girl.

In the first stanza, the narrator is looking at what he has left of himself, “these last strands of man” (L2), and he’s wondering, pleading really, what it is he can even do. “I can;/Can something, can hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.” (L4-5) Here is the will at work, scouring the mind trying to find some comfort: in hope, in a new day, and most haunting, in contemplating suicide but deciding to continue to exist. This last consideration is most startling because the narrator could probably end his life and end his suffering but instead he’s going to cry out to God, name what it is he’s going through. In his lecture on Hopkins, Greg Wolfe said that the artist is one who doesn’t look away and that is what Hopkins is doing here. It’s what I think the young mom at the park was doing, and what I didn’t think I had the strength to do. But she wouldn’t let me off the hook. She wouldn’t leave me to my introverted self because she couldn’t look at this by herself. Who can?

The second stanza is filled with questions. The narrator wonders why God would give him this cross to bare: “But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me” (L5). He asks why God looks at his “bruised bones “ with “devouring eyes” (L7) The poet is confronting God, and while most consider God’s great works as good and life giving, here, the narrator ruminates over the works of the Lord that are painful, and that cause suffering.

When I was a little girl, I was talking to my mom, crying really, because I was angry at God but I was afraid to admit it. My mom, without a moment’s hesitation, said, “You can be angry at God. He can take it.” Like Hopkins, I think my mom was showing me not so much how to wrestle with God, but that a wrestling will happen, and quite possibly this is when I will feel His presence the most. The last line of “Carrion Comfort,” Hopkins writes, “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” (L17) This line harkens back to Jesus on the cross crying out to his Father, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” And it is here the narrator sees that in the moment he is most alone, God is the most present.

I don’t think Hopkins wrote “Carrion Comfort” in the hopes to show us how to ask the tough questions, or fight with God. I don’t think Jesus as he was dying on the cross called out to God to show us that even he got scared. I think these were terrified, agonized responses to horrifying situations, and I think that is why I write: because motherhood – my life – makes me so happy, so sad, so angry, so excited, I have to attempt to name it, but I have no intention of finding an answer.

The young mom I shared a bench with wasn’t looking for an answer either. Her question was the answer. She needed to release something: pain, fear, despair. I understand that.

“I don’t know,” I told her. Then I added in a shaky voice, “I think I’d lose my mind if that happened to my kids.”

“I’d kill myself,” she told me without skipping a beat.

Four girls ran into the park, laughing, probably intoxicated by the sunshine we hadn’t seen in so long. They ran to the swings; all but one was being used. Hadley was on that one. She had just figured out how to pump her legs so she can swing without being pushed, and she was practicing, but she saw the one girl standing alone while the rest of her friends swung. She hopped off the swing and held it steady for the girl. “Would you like this one?” Hadley asked her.

“That’s nice,” the mom said. “Is she yours?”

“She’s mine,” I said, and watched as Hadley ran to where Harper was, standing on a bridge throwing woodchips off of it and singing, “Let it Go.”

“I have terrible anxiety,” the mom said and I looked at her for the first time, but she was watching her kids. I tried to read what her tattoo said. “Stuff like this,” she said, “makes me so sad I can hardly stand.”

She asked me where my kids go to school, where they’d end up in middle and high school and I told her. “But I think we are moving,” I said, “so I don’t know where they’ll end up.”  We sat for a while and I said, “I’m afraid to move. I’m afraid to start over.” Now I was the one who turned towards her, towards this girl who is probably not close to thirty with accessories that match her hair. I can’t believe I was ready to tell her how terribly lonely I was when we first moved here, how hard it is for me to make friends, how I don’t want to find another library, another grocery store, another running route. She nodded and we stared at our kids.

“Carrion Comfort” isn’t going to provide any answers, and of course I didn’t bring it up to this women at the park. I don’t talk to strangers about Jesus, and I’m certainly not going to talk to them about Gerard Manley Hopkins. But I wondered, as our kids played if that is all I can do: look at what we are afraid of and maybe name it with the people we share a sun warmed bench with; searching for any leftover presence and maybe stretching it as one would spread dough in a pan for a pizza or a pie, so there’s enough for everyone.

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19 Responses to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pink Highlights

  1. Tiffany p says:

    Beautiful. Isn’t is funny how strangers can change a moment in life? And What did the tattoo say?

  2. Sarah says:

    Wonderful Good Friday post, Callie! So moving.

  3. Thank you for this on Good Friday, Callie. I love that line about the will scouring the mind. You say you wouldn’t mention Jesus or JMH to the other mom on the bench–but you didn’t need to. By name, that is. In a way, you were both already doing just that. I’m going to go find “Carrion Comfort.”

    • calliefeyen says:

      Thanks, Lindsey. Sometimes I am ashamed at how much I DON’T want to witness, but it seems that the only sort of witness I know is to ask more questions. Which is what this young girl and I were doing, I think. I’d love to know what your thoughts are on “Carrion Comfort.” I really love the poem.

  4. Deb says:

    Beautiful post, Callie.

  5. Linda Smyth says:

    Oh, Callie, I just came downstairs after a wee nap, and am about to leave for a 7:30 Good Friday service at Frederick Presbyterian Church. I decided to stop at the computer first, though, and I’m glad I did. Your entry was good reading. I think we approach this holy day, in the way that’s meant for each of us. Your shared pain with the woman on the bench at the thought of something happening to your children makes me think of Mary and what she endured those 6 hours that her son hung on the cross. Can we fathom? I think not.

  6. Shani says:

    Lovely shared moment, and with your readers.

  7. Oh, I cried. I cried an ugly, cathartic cry reading this. How sad, how beautiful. I love Hopkins, but this put me in mind of Blake and his “tyger, tyger burning bright.”

    • calliefeyen says:

      Oh yes, Blake. Good point. I have to say, I was pretty afraid of Hopkins before we started slow reading through him and then I could understand him more. I really have to stop at every word and think about it for a long time. It’s like wrestling with words.

  8. Lisa says:

    This is a gorgeous and powerful piece, Callie. Thank you for sharing. I think you are right. Looking at the hard stuff with company makes it at least slightly more bearable – the tiniest bit of solidarity offers a glimpse of hope where there appears to be only darkness. I really love this essay.

  9. I was sooooooo hoping this would end with you telling us what the tattoo said lol. Anyway, awesome post. Beautifully written. And how could you not make friends easily? I wanted to be your friend the moment we said hello :)

    • calliefeyen says:

      Thank you so much, La Dale. That was a fun afternoon, wasn’t it? And yes, I’m still wondering about that tattoo. Maybe I’ll see her again and I’ll ask. :)

  10. Those moments. They’re what stay with us forever. The strangers, reaching out, reminding us that life is intricate and amazing. And shared. Thanks for sharing this.

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