Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Prayers from the Ark

Saturday was lovely and sunny, but Sunday and Monday have been very wet and very windy, heavy showers and gale force winds. As a bank holiday it has been a bit of a washout. It reminds me of some lines from a poetry book "Prayers from the Ark", where Noah says:

All this water makes my heart sink.
When will the ground cease to rock under my feet?

That is at the opening of Prayers from the Ark by Carmen de Gasztold, and one of my favourites is this one, especially appropriate for such a deluge as we have had:

Prayer of the Little Ducks

Dear God, give us a flood of water.
Let it rain tomorrow and always.
Give us plenty of slugs
and other luscious things to eat.
Protect all of us who quack,
and bless everyone who knows how to swim.

or, in the original French

Carmen Bernos de Gasztold (1919-1995) was a French poet. She spent her childhood in the province of Bordeaux, France. She had 5 sisters and brothers. After World War II she went to live at the Benedictine Abbeye Saint Louis du Temple at Limon-par-Igny.

Choral Net tells her story:

“The poems were written in the 1940's during the German occupation of France. Having lost her mother and suffered both a physical and mental breakdown, DeGasztold was accepted into the Abbaye of Saint Louis du Temple at Limon-par-Igny, just south of Paris, where she was encouraged to refine her poetry by the nuns who cared for her on their farm. Their encouragement over the course of four years resulted in "Prayers from the Ark", a series of 27 prayers to God from the inhabitants of the Ark.”

Rumer Godden

The English translation was written by poet Rumer Godden (1907–1998) who went to the Benedictine Abbey in France and spent time with the poet to do the translation. It is an extraordinary story as well. She stumbled upon a copy of the "Prayers" in the early 1950's quite by accident as she was helping the nuns at the Cenacle Convent in London clean out a cupboard.

She immediately sought out De Gasztold to request her permission to translate them. After quite a bit of work, first to locate , and then to win her confidence - and that of her nun advisers - Godden set about her task with the assistance of De Gasztold, helped from behind the Abbaye grille by two of the nuns. 

How well she did in her translation, and how the humour in some of these poems comes over can be seen in this one:

I am the cat.
It is not exactly that I have something to ask of You!
I ask nothing of anyone--
if You have by some chance in some celestial barn,
a little white mouse,
or a saucer of milk,
I know someone who would relish them.
Wouldn't you like someday
to put a curse on the whole race of dogs?
If so I should say,

That just captures the essence of a cat, doesn’t it? The cat asks no one, not even God, for any favours, but if favours are to be granted, it is food, and a curse on dogs!

And I suppose we should have the one from the "Prayer of the Mouse" as well as a counterpoint;

I am so little and grey,
dear God,
how can you keep me in mind?
Always spied upon,
always chased.
Nobody ever gives me anything,
and I nibble meagerly at life.
Why do they reproach me with being a mouse?
Who made me but You?
I can only ask to stay hidden.
Give me my hunger’s pittance
safe from the claws of that devil with green eyes.

Aaron Beard wrote of her poems: “Each poem is a simple but sincere image of what the author really thinks the animal feels. The poems have a degree of universality about them that is not only concrete and intense but contributes to literature some new approaches to basic ideas”

Some almost seem to mirror human concerns, about the pace and pressure of life, as in “The Prayer of the Ox”:

Dear God, give me time.
Men are always so driven!
Make them understand that I can never hurry.
Give me time to eat.
Give me time to plod.
Give me time to sleep.
Give me time to think.

As Jessica Brown says:

"By giving voice to the animals, these poems speak for a range of aspects within us: the workaday ox that will labor long, the hidden self that spins with majesty and imagination like the oyster at the bottom of the sea, that part that keeps chirping like the cricket at dusk... "

"Was it painful to re-reflect on these lines because one side of me kept striving and driving on while another side, like the sturdy and slow ox, simply needed more time to just be?.... Carmen Bernos de Gasztold helps create for us. She helps, via deceptively charming verse, give a voice to that part within that often has no voice, the visceral, unheeded, hidden, suspicious aspects of us."

I came across the book “Prayers of the Ark” in a second hand book shop, and it is still available in second hand copies, and I still find them magical in their simplicity, and I also find it amazing that a nun, enclosed away from the world in a religious order, could be given the encouragement and opportunity to write these poems. 

And the book ends with what must surely be a prayer for these trouble times, a song of hope and peace:

The Prayer of the Dove

The Ark waits,
the Ark waits on Your will,
and the sign of Your peace.

I am the dove,
as the sweetness that comes from You.
The Ark waits,
it has endured.
Let me carry it
a sprig of hope and joy,
and put, at the heart of its forsakenness,
this, in which Your love clothes me,
Grace immaculate.


Carmen Bernos de Gasztold's "Prayers From The Ark" an Approach to Writing Poetry by Aaron Bernarr Beard, in Elementary English, Vol. 45, No. 7 (NOVEMBER, 1968), pp. 968-971

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