Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sharon Dolin: Of Hours

[Ellen Wiener, "Moon & Lillies (Vespers)," painted 1999]

The lobster, with canary riding on his carapace, is delighted to present a coda to the Sharon Dolin interview (March 13th, "Composing for the Eye"). Sharon very wonderfully sent us more thoughts on ekphrasis, and a generous preview of her as-yet-unpublished work, Of Hours.

From Sharon:

"My Book of Hours

I have been working on another ekphrastic sequence that came to me by chance when the contemporary artist Ellen Wiener showed me her series of paintings that are a Book of Hours. She said she was looking for someone to write about them. So I began, in the summer of 2006, to work on my own Book of Hours and my 24 poem sequence, entitled Of Hours, has been the result. The best way to explain the project is by giving you the introductory note I wrote for the as-yet unpublished collection.


Of Hours is a contemporary book of hours for the twenty-first century and its reader could be someone from the Judaeo-Christian tradition or anyone with a devotional bent. The poems were initially inspired by a collection of paintings by Ellen Wiener entitled An Album of Hours. The paintings provided the framework for the sequence (each painting has its companion poem, though the poems and paintings can stand alone) as well as some images that served as a jumping-off point for my own reflections on a specific hour.

The canonical hours, upon which the paintings are based, were devised by the Catholic Church, and practiced as an official set of prayers by monks as well as lay people, since the sixth century of the Common Era. The hours or divine office are divided into eight daily prayers as well as several nightly divisions, the major ones being: Matins (at dawn); Lauds (praises, also at dawn); Prime (at 6 a.m., the first hour); Terce (9 a.m., the third hour); Sext (at noon, the sixth hour); Nones (at 3 p.m., the ninth hour); Vespers (at sunset); and Compline (at bedtime).

The devotional hours grew out of the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at certain times of the day, though not at a set hour. Observant Jews still recite prescribed morning (shacharit), afternoon (minchah), evening (ma’ariv), and bedtime prayers for weekdays and additional (mussaf) prayer for the sabbath (Shabbat) and holidays. All but the last correspond to the times when sacrificial offerings were brought to the Temple. In his Psalms David wrote: “Evening, morning and afternoon do I pray and cry, and He will hear my voice” (Psalm 55). Since the destruction of the Temple, all observant Jews recite devotional prayers, including specific psalms as well as a recitation of the sacrificial offerings, in lieu of the sacrifice.

In writing my book of hours, I sought to wrest back from Christian practice the book of hours which, during the medieval period was often a sumptuously illuminated manuscript owned by noble men and women as their private book of prayer. While Les très riches heures du Duc du Berry from the early 15th century is probably the most famous example of such an illuminated book of hours, women were often patrons or owners of such books. One of the earliest surviving examples of a book of hours was made in Oxford, England by William de Brailes in the mid-thirteenth century, who designed and illustrated it for a young woman who is depicted within the book.

As well as the paintings, I was inspired above all in personal tone, subject matter, and lyric intensity by the Psalms, the great Hebrew cycle of lyric poems (though not pinned to a specific hour), traditionally attributed to King David. The Hebrew psalms (Tehillim) provide a record of an individual’s experience of the Divine, passing through all the modes of individual prayer: praise, petition, doubt, despair, faith, exaltation, humility, defiance, and thanksgiving. Specific psalms are incorporated into Jewish liturgy, and are recited daily and on the Sabbath at set times as well as during Jewish holidays. Finally, this book of hours is inspired by the great devotional poets writing in English: George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Hart Crane, and any echoes you might hear are intentional homage to them.

It is my wish that Of Hours, in the tradition of the Psalms, can serve as a vehicle for personal devotion: to inspire, to exhort to pray, to provide a space for contemplating your life’s path as it evolves hour-by-hour.

"He put a new song into my mouth,
a praise to our God, so that many may see and fear,
and trust in the Lord."
—Psalm 40

May these “new songs” accompany and fortify you as you live through each day’s manifold hours. Selah!

Here’s the opening poem to Of Hours:

"Psalm of the Flying Shell (4:30 a.m.)"

"At what solstice hour do I arise
(at what daybreak dark do wingtips whir)

knowing I can never see Your face

knowing my life is spiraled in the conch
of consciousness (inside the solar plexus

of space) how can I see in
to the wings’ filigree I’m fused within—

what does the sea-rushing sound announce—
how decipher the architecture of cells alchemy

of stars as angels for Your will?
My heart is a volute inside a body-whorled

spire that obelisks
the air I am thrumming

Your praises as the only way to hear
with the soul’s inner ear.

Tell me what You require of me>"

(published in American Literary Review, Twentieth Anniversary, Issue Spring 2010)

Others may be found at the following links:

“Blue Ladder (9 a.m.)”
The Cortland Review

Electronic Poetry Review

“Psalm of Morning Mist,” “Duet of Tree House and Rain”
InPosse (online)

“With Roses (6:30 a.m.),” “Green Laddered Thanksgiving (11 a.m.),” “Blackberry City and Sun Dial Talk (4pm) Time”

“Window with Wild Garlic in Wellfleet (5 a.m.),” The 22nd Annual
Anna Davidson Rosenberg Awards for Poems on the Jewish Experience

Many of Ellen Wiener’s paintings from An Album of Hours may be found here ."

Canary sings her thanks, lobster thrums from his grotto.

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