Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jennifer Atkinson: The Genesis of the Canticles

I wrote my first canticle in Assisi, where Saints Francis, Clare, and Giotto preside everywhere—in the Cathedral and churches, the pizza joint on the corner where school kids line up after class-trip tours, the pastry shops selling Francis cakes and almond-cherry cookies called Chiaras, the five million souvenir shops, each one chock-full of crosses, wind-up toys, Assisi t-shirts and baseball caps, faux rustic planks decoupaged with Francis’s all-too-famous poem: “Canticle of Brother Sun. . . .”

It was late February, raw, and mostly rainy. I was staying at the Convent of the Suore di Brigida. No religious goal in mind, I just wanted an inexpensive, quiet place to stay near Giotto’s frescos. My bags were lost somewhere between D.C. and Rome and even once they were found, the airline refused for 4 days to deliver them. So in the hours not devoted to self-pity and waiting for my underwear to dry, I wandered around the village and olive groves or stood in the Cathedral under the frescos.

The cathedral is on two main levels—the ground floor with crypt below, and the large, open, high-windowed gallery upstairs. For two days I hardly even went upstairs. I spent my time on the ground floor of the cathedral feeding euros into the coin-operated lights that illuminate Giotto’s Mary Magdalene cycle. I love—and who doesn’t?—Giotto’s narrative panels, the mixture of realism and symbol, the sureness of line, and the straight-forward acknowledgement of the body in the spirit and the spirit in the body, but I also found myself enthralled by the story he was telling of Magdalene’s life after Easter. I didn’t know the Magdalene legends at all then and so I was reading them in his language of images. I thought about Giotto and his apprentices grinding the pigments, preparing the wall, and working quickly in the dim room. I thought about a narrative told in a series of separate panels, set side by side and end to end, each sealed off from the next and yet linked formally, compositionally.

The first canticle I didn’t call a canticle until later. “Assisi Rain,” now “Canticle of Assisi Rain,” was a ghazalish poem from the start, a moody five-couplet piece that owed its allegiance as much to music as to the Assisi saints or the desk in the convent where I wrote it. By May of that year I was back home in Virginia teaching summer school but with several more 5-line or 5-couplet poems written. Canticle, little song, now seemed an appropriate name for the form. It would be disingenuous to say nothing of St. John of the Cross’s (dark night of the soul) “Canticle” or “The Canticle of Canticles” (aka Song of Songs), both of which inform my canticles’ mixture of spiritual journey and sensuous earthly pleasure, but Giotto’s method was as influential as either. As was the winding-ever-upward architecture of the Umbrian hill town.

This past summer, a year or so after returning from Assisi, I was lucky enough this past summer to spend a month in a Provencal “perched village.” I wrote a little song every day while I was there, in the region where in legend and fresco Magdalene is said to have ended her days. The form opened a bit wider to accommodate more prose and more Magdalene, but 5 has remained the magic number even as the sequence grew to 60-some canticles, a book manuscript (I hope) with “Canticle of Assisi Rain” in second place, right after “Canticle of A.”

Many thanks to Beloit Poetry Journal for publishing this group of the Canticles!