TRIPTYCH
Anne M. Carpenter

I.  Annunciation

The angel appears in a midnight
rush of brilliant flame.[1]
Like a golden song twined in air,[2]
woven with tongues of fire
flaring out like wings.[3]

Harsh angelic light[4] greets a smooth,[5]
young face. Sharpens edges, reflects
across dark, watchful eyes.[6]
Her silent vigil held like glass
about to break. [7] Strange—[8]
how she shines in the light.

Strange. How she holds the glow,
shines unfamiliar in the night.[9]
Intense and warm,
like the astonishment lovers feel
when they reach for one another
in the dark—and see—[10]
each transfigured in the other.[11]
Only with her, with this one, the dark is light.[12]

Soft, secret conversation—then none.
The angel vanishes, sudden-gone,[13]
leaving her alone, lingering as one beheld
by the silent shadows of the night.[14]

II. Visitation

Out she steps, alone into the starless night.[15]
Across desert and shadow,
solitary beacon along twisted paths.[16]
Sent forth like a windswept greeting
to a lonely bedside.[17]

How is it that you come, young one?
How is that you come?
How have come to me,
that our single encounter reverberates
through my flesh and bone?
A mere smile and it seems
that God himself has greeted me.[18]

Strange.[19] How like an echo she goes
out to meet the night.
How like an echo she holds[20]
a voice that is not her own.[21]

III. Nativity

On another night, in a place far from home—
on another night, she greets another face.[22]

Strange.  How sight meets sight in smoothed glass.[23]
How two figures greet each other in a mirror.
The same, and not, reflected back—
held together in perfect refracted light.[24]

If the light in a mirror could go back and find its source,
or an echo greet its originating voice…[25]
Or more yet, if a reflection in a pool could rise
and meet its cause,
and turn its mirrored stare[26]
back to the water in which it dwelled…[27]
So it was, or will be,[28]
for the Son of God has his mother’s face.[29]


[1] The poem was conceived in a sudden moment as I listened to a very old Christmas song entitled, “Gabriel’s Message.”  The song was a Basque folk carol, originally, and Sabine Baring-Gould worked it into beautiful English in the 19th century.  In any case, the first time I heard the verse “The angel Gabriel came/ his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame,” the image caught me, and I began to step into the Annunciation and work out a poem.  It would take a couple months before I could write a word about it.

By “step into the Annunciation,” I mean something akin to Ignatius of Loyola’s habit of reading Scripture by placing one’s self inside the story.  The process was something like that, something like sitting in each successive scene (drawn, on instinct, from the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary) and narrating the events to myself.  Only I kept re-narrating and deliberately shifting around the themes I discussed, comparing them and working them out as I observed how they “looked.”  It is a bit like composing a piece of music, re-playing the successive notes over and over to see how they sound together, only in this case the “notes” are images.  None of these reflections take place on a page; they are imagined. I do not always know how to explain the full weight of the images I use outside of their own logic, so even this study is incomplete, and I am like a musician who can say only, “It sounded right.”

[2] My understanding of Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas tends to lead me to think of angels as creatures of worship, as always in the middle of a liturgy for God.  The Book of Revelation appears to agree.

[3] The image of Gabriel as a figure composed of fire delighted me. I drew it at first from “Gabriel’s message” and expanded it to imagine him as entirely made of flame (a flame that is simultaneously a song of praise).  I had a number of vague Scriptural ideas to guide me (Exodus and the burning bush comes to mind, as well as Ezekiel’s theophany, and finally the general terror angels seem to induce—the last of which is an idea Eric Vanden Eykel has real skill in describing).

[4] The theme in the first “panel” of the triptych is LIGHT and REFLECTION.

[5] “Smooth,” in fact, like a mirror.

[6] I liked breaking apart “reflects/ across” because I thought it imitated the sentiment, forced the reader’s internal monologue to pause and move like refracted light.  (Note how she already reflects light.)  I also delighted in the idea of Mary already waiting for the angel, not as if she knew he was going to arrive in five minutes; rather, as if her “vigil” was the whole attitude of her young life.

[7] The glass image is drawn from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” where he discusses glass “annihilating itself in the sound.”  There is a charged expectancy in the image, a delicate intersection between fulfillment and interruption.   I liked the thought of introducing that sensibility to the Annunciation: it is both startling and yet fulfills expectation.

[8] The word “strange” is repeated throughout each “panel” of the triptych as a recollected theme, an introduction to an interlocking set of meditations.  It helps to lend continuity to the poem and to signal that continuity to the reader, as well as to incite the reader to recall earlier, similar passages.  The strangeness of Mary, her singular “reflective” quality, is of course the topic of the poem.  Implicitly, we are to take up this sort of strangeness, although the poem leaves that consideration aside until the end.

[9] Mary, in her purity, possesses the ability to reflect and hold light.  Her flesh is already like a mirror.  I have often read something like this idea in the Fathers of the Church, especially when they discuss her perpetual virginity, though we seem to have lost or softened it because it is so strange to our way of thinking.

[10] The phrase “and see” is cordoned off by dashes in an imitation of the astonishment involved in reaching for someone in the dark.  Delight in another person is often felt in a manner similar to surprise.  It is a comparable shock to the system.  The delight of love, and especially of love for God, includes in it the astonishment of self-revelation, concomitant with the revelation of the other person.

[11] I have picked up the poetic habit of seeking out frequent analogies in lovers, as they present a myriad of possible insights; no poet, whether aware of its long history or not, does not do this.  Anyway, here the image is used in two senses: (1) to indicate the way in which Mary reflects light, which is both with intensity—since in her, we can perceive the glory of God’s mercy—but at the same time with softness, since she has been praised as one through whom it is “easier” to bear the overwhelming light of God’s mercy.  G.M. Hopkins draws on this theological tradition in his own poem, “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.”  The best human image we have of gentle ferocity, or soft intensity, is how lovers feel for one another.  (2) There has been a long tradition, popular at times and ignored others, that there is a certain marital quality to the Annunciation.  After all, in this moment, she conceives.  This theme is frequented in the East, and Hans Urs von Balthasar is fond of referencing Mary as both Mother and Bride.

[12] Light and dark, eventually identified as a single unity, is a frequent theme in mystical theology (Gregory of Nyssa, John of the Cross, Pseudo-Dionysius).  It is also a favorite image of almost every poet, including T.S. Eliot’s in “Four Quartets” – “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”  In other words, in a saint, the incomprehensible is not experienced as a damaged ignorance, but rather as a mode of knowing.  It is not as if Mary fully comprehends everything in her Fiat – and yet she does, in such a way that she embraces it without every understanding.  Romano Guardini is fond of this idea.

[13] This line, “sudden-gone,” is sudden break into “sprung rhythm,” G.M. Hopkins’s invention.  I have an odd fascination with altering meters, mixing them. Also, the scene continues in the reference to romantic love, though more buried: it now looks something like a secret conversation between lovers who perhaps are not supposed to know each other.

[14] There is an inversion, now, of the vigil image: now she is the one beheld, since she bears Christ.   She is a solitary figure now as well, and we perhaps begin to feel a vague sense of worry.

[15] So this tiny creature, bearing God, goes alone to her cousin’s.  I am aware that, historically, she may well have traveled with a caravan.  Scripture does not mention this, and I can long remember being thoroughly troubled by Mary’s lonesome journey through danger to greet her cousin.  I found it harrowing and courageous—I would not be so kind to my cousin, even if I wanted to see her miraculous pregnancy.  Also, when writing the poem, I often played with the idea of all light somehow vanishing save for Mary, as if she really did carry the light of the world with her and the rest of the lights (the moon, the stars, even the sun) had somehow gone out.  I dropped this for the most part, as it dragged me off into unnecessary wilderness, but the sentiment lingered in small ways: she walks through a starless night.

[16] Is she not this “solitary beacon” in the Christian life?  Certainly, she is the best saintly guiding light.  A Protestant might say, “Christ is the solitary beacon.”  Lucky for me, I am not Protestant and do not think like one.  I tend not to worry about losing Christ behind Mary, because I find the opposite to be true: we find him in her.  That’s one of the points of the poem.

[17] The theme now of the second triptych: SOUND and ECHO.  She is a “windswept greeting.”  The focus now is on how sound can be reflected, echoed, like light can be reflected.  The emphasis here is Mary’s “greeting” to Elizabeth.  There is a sense that Mary’s greeting is soothing, her presence warming for Elizabeth (and us).  Note, too, that there is a sense in which Mary is compelled or called, “sent forth,” by God.  This was meant as an imitation of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert.

[18] This stanza is an extended imitation of Elizabeth’s words to Mary. “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43)  It breaks out of the narrator’s voice and into Elizabeth’s.  The stanza contends that Mary’s mere presence (a smile) is enough to convey God’s presence in her.  In the poem, the fact that Mary communicates God’s presence (as in Luke, she herself says she “magnifies the Lord,” v. 46) is emphasized: thus, “it seems/ God himself has greeted me.”  Since a unifying theme in this Triptych is sound, Elizabeth reflects the idea in a number of ways. She “reverberates,” which is how matter reacts to sound.  Elizabeth repeats herself, “How is it that…how is it that…?” in such a way that she verbally reverberates, as it were.  (Reverberation is a series of echoes, or the continued presence of the same sound wave.)  Elizabeth, in the poem, acts much like a struck bell in response to Mary’s greeting.  John’s presence is only implied in the stanza.

[19] The poem now returns to the narrator’s voice.  Determining the voice of the poem was difficult.  I have written from Mary’s perspective in the past, but taking up her “I” in this case seemed to befuddle the direction, to make her too self-aware (even prescient), and to remove every mystery from her.  All of these were ways in which the meaning of the poem would have been obscured.  Poems are often written in the first-person, but a first-person narrator following Mary around would have been strange and distracting.  So, I chose an omniscient, faceless narrator as the predominant voice of the poem.  The shift to Elizabeth’s voice was in fact unplanned, though something like her sentiments had been planned from the narrator’s perspective. I was bothered by the fact that the shift is not signaled (there is absolutely no warning), but it fit so well that I kept it.

[20] The line, other than making its point, is also itself an echo.

[21] An important point about mirrors and echoes: they imitate what they express, but they cannot be confused with what they express.  This is a vital Mariological line of reasoning, as well as a central theme in the poem.  As a theme, it becomes more and more explicit until it is discussed in the most open of ways in order to simultaneously approach the most radical possible unity between Mother and Son.

[22] This couplet, if it can be called that, recalls both earlier panels: the Annunciation, which happened in her home; and the Visitation, during which she greeted Elizabeth.  Both are recollected, and continue to be recollected, throughout this final “panel.”  The prior themes are now simultaneously referenced and united: LIGHT, REFLECTION; SOUND, ECHO.  Only now, the face Mary observes is the One she’s been carrying, and so each theme is redoubled and inverted.

[23] “Sight meets sight” – imagine staring into your own gaze in a mirror, and imagine the picture that emerges.  This is the image evoked now when Mary stares into the eyes of her Son.  Recall, as well, that she’s been described as the “mirror” in varying ways thus far.

[24]This couplet again reinforces the likeness and un-likeness of Mother and Son.  The same figure is reflected in a mirror, after all, but it is also reversed.  (Here any negative connotations about the difference between the two figures are not invoked, since instead the distinction is lauded.)  The essential dynamic here is this: Mary’s human nature, as such, is made to reflect (or reveal) God.  Since she is without sin, she does this to the utmost perfection of her nature.  But this “mirroring” of God goes a step further: she bears God within herself.  And what is more—and here it becomes somewhat dizzying—God takes on her unblemished flesh, adopts the perfect mirror.  It would be as if I could step into my image in a mirror and adopt its qualities while retaining my own.  So now Mother and Child gaze into one another’s eyes, and the light is reflected back and forth perfectly – we might even say infinitely.  They are mirrors mirroring back in mirrored distinction.  Moreover, it is not just that gazing upon Christ shows us God – it is still her flesh (created by God) that we see in him as well.  Thus the final stanza.

[25] The ellipses in this stanza trail off in need of completion, since each are in fact meant to fit with the final verse.

[26] Again, I love the idea that the reader is forced to pause and turn to the following line to complete the phrase “turn/ back.”

[27]Double meaning: not only as a pool, but also a reference to the womb.  (Even the baptismal womb of the Church.)  It is also a somewhat common image for the Church/Mary in mystical literature and Christian art; that is, Mary or the Church as a mirror or pool that reflects God (as in Gregory of Nyssa, Georges Bernanos, G.M. Hopkins, Francis Thompson).  Since reading many of these figures, I have been fascinated by the idea of the soul, or Mary, or the Church, as a kind of mirror.  Earlier, I had written a reflection on this that tried to reach an identical sort of insight and image, with Mary and her Child gazing at one another.  My powers at the time could not carve out the insight, and it was left wretched and incomplete on the page.  I could not rescue it, as it was a false start on a deficient idea begun without the ability to perfect it.

[28] This line is the most explicit indication that Mary is, though unique, also an exemplar for a general rule of what is and will be.

[29] And so there it is: the line I knew I would write.  The line I set out to write.  The poem is imperfect, still, but the last line holds the fullness of the final insight.

A number of the stanzas needed revision, which I did, though I cannot recollect the nature of the changes that I made.  Rhyming is difficult for me to use without awkward force, but I did make several changes to lend more lyricism to the work.  I also shifted around ideas.  Not that I remember what I did.  I used to write exactly what I thought as a first-final draft without revision. This worked well since I thought out my writing so thoroughly before sitting down.  But that stage passed me by a long time ago.  Not sure why.  Perhaps a better ear for poetry, or a more complicated set of insights to manage, or a broader tradition from which to draw.  Or all of that.  Or none of it.

There was some consternation on my part when confronted with the different pacing and stanza construction in the third “panel” as compared with the others, since I wanted them to be mirrored.  Anything I thought of to “even out” the text was unnecessary aesthetic fluff, basically fat on a lean poem.  So, after a brief talk with Gregorio, I decided not to force it and just let it be.

I named each “panel” in the triptych on my own in order to guide the reader in each moment, giving him/her a ready-made set of images and themes to work with and imply.  (The last panel, for example, would make no sense at all without its title, but with the title, it flows smoothly.  We never come to texts as empty slates, and good titles take advantage of this.)  Gregorio Montejo gave the whole piece its final title, correctly grasping its function and lending me its final clarity.  I had been completely unable to title the poem on my own.  So it is “Triptych,” and I am, as always, indebted to Gregorio for its completion.

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