Monday, June 19, 2023

W.R. Rodgers

W.R. Rodgers (1909―1969) is a Belfast poet, who served as a Presbyterian minister, before becoming a broadcaster with the BBC in London, at the invitation of Louis MacNeice. His first collection, Awake! and Other Poems was published in 1941, with its first edition being almost completely wiped out during the London Blitz. His early poetry was greatly influenced by W.H. Auden.

At the BBC he broadcast a number of significant programs on Irish writers. In 1966 he moved to California to become Writer-in-Residence at Pitzer College. It was in California that he died in 1969.

A booklet, put together by the BBC concludes with the following: “Rodgers’ ashes were returned to Belfast and after a memorial service in First Ballymacarret Presbyterian Church ― which he had attended as a boy ― he was buried in Loughgall. The Minister-poet’s life had come full circle. Seamus Heaney read a short selection of Rodgers’ poetry at the memorial service ― reflecting his importance for a new generation of northern writers.”

The following poem, demonstrates Rodgers’ war-era modernism. It first appeared in Horizon in 1943, and later (I believe) in his 1952 collection Europa and the Bull.

Christ Walking on the Water

Slowly, O so slowly, longing rose up
In the forenoon of his face, till only
A ringlet of fog lingered round his loins;
And fast he went down beaches all weeping
With weed, and waded out. Twelve tall waves
Sequent and equated, hollowed and followed.
O what a cockeyed sea he walked on,
What poke-ends of foam, what elbowings
And lugubrious looks, what ebullient
And contumacious musics. Always there were
Hills and holes, pills and poles, a wavy wall
And bucking ribbon caterpillaring past
With glossy ease. And often, as he walked,
The slow curtains of swell swung open and showed,
Miles and smiles away, the bottle-boat
Flung on one wavering frond of froth that fell
Knee-deep and heaved thigh-high. In his forward face
No cave of afterthought opened; to his ear
No bottom clamour climbed up; nothing blinked.
For he was the horizon, he the hub,
Both bone and flesh, finger and ring of all
This clangorous sea. Docile, at his toe's touch,
Each tottering dot stood roundaboutly calm
And jammed the following others fast as stone.
The ironical wave smoothed itself out
To meet him, and the mocking hollow
Hooped its back for his feet. A spine of light
Sniggered on the knobbly water, ahead.
But he like a lover, caught up,
Pushed past all wrigglings and remonstrances
And entered the rolling belly of the boat
That shuddered and lay still. And he lay there
Emptied of his errand, oozing still. Slowly
The misted mirror of his eyes grew dear
And cold, the bell of blood tolled lower,
And bright before his sight the ocean bared
And rolled its horrible bold eyeballs endlessly
In round rebuke. Looking over the edge
He shivered. Was this the way he had come?
Was that the one who came? The backward bowl
And all the bubble-pit that he had walked on
Burst like a plate into purposelessness.
All, all was gone, the fervour and the froth
Of confidence, and flat as water was
The sad and glassy round. Somewhere, then,
A tiny flute sounded, O so lonely.
A ring of birds rose up and wound away
Into nothingness. Beyond himself he saw
The settled steeples, and breathing beaches
Running with people. But he,
He was custodian to nothing now,
And boneless as an empty sleeve hung down.
Down from crowned noon to cambered evening
He fell, fell, from white to amber, till night
Slid over him like an eyelid. And he,
His knees drawn up, his head dropped deep,
Curled like a question-mark, asleep.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the author of five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021, Cascade) ― a book of poems written from the point-of-view of angels. His books are available through Wipf & Stock.