In the middle of the world, in the centre
Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;
A stake stemmed in the rubbish
From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull
Gasped up through the garbage:
‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,
Ground down again to the red dust,
The obliterated image. Create me.’
From lips cracked with thirst, the voice
That sounded once over the billows of chaos
When the royal banners advanced,
replied through the smother of dark:
‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-
All things, once more, are good.’
Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
Today’s poem by John Heath-Stubbs is a meditation on Golgotha, the place of the skull. The Romans crucified Jesus on a rubbish heap to maximize their derision, and unknowingly affirmed the depth of sin. Christ came to save us at our worst, and bore our iniquity in full measure. Our new life in Him comes only at the price most dear.
Writing in The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite says:
He identifies with us, not in our carefully presented surfaces, but in our ‘polluted heart’. In these lines Heath-Stubbs may be recalling Yeats’s brilliant lines at the end of ‘The Circus Animal’s Desertion’:
I must lie down where all ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
But this ‘middle of the world’ this ‘centre of the polluted heart of man’ is the scene in this poem not only of crucifixion, but of new creation. The discarded skull, so frequently seen in paintings of the crucifixion, becomes the voice of Adam, of all fallen humanity, appealing to Christ from the ‘red earth’ from which Adam was taken and named, but also ‘gasping up through the garbage’, through the detritus of his own sin, ‘Create Me’! Your image in me has been ‘obliterated’, Adam is saying, but you, crucified with and for me on this rubbish dump, can make me new again.
How has your perspective of sin changed as a follower of Christ?
2 Corinthians 5:21
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
Heath-Stubbs was born in London, and educated at Bembridge School and Queen’s College, Oxford. He co-edited Eight Oxford Poets in 1941, with Sidney Keyes and Michael Meyer, and helped edit Oxford Poetry in 1942–43. Held the Gregory Fellowship of Poetry at Leeds University (1952–55) and he had professorships in Alexandria (1955–58) and Ann Arbor, Michigan (1960-61). He taught at the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea (1962–72), as well as at Merton College, Oxford for twenty years from 1972. He lived for a time in the 1950s at Zennor in Cornwall. Translated, among others, Sappho, Horace, Catullus, Hafiz, Verlaine, and most notably Giacomo Leopardi. He was a representative figure of British poetry in the early 1950s, editing the poetry anthology Images of Tomorrow (1953) and, with David Wright, the Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse, among others. He was elected to the RSL in 1954, awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 1973, and appointed OBE in 1989. Although afflicted by blindness from the 1960s, and completely without sight from 1978, he continued to write almost to the end. Ibycus: A Poem by John Heath-Stubbs, documentary film was made by the Chilean director Carlos Klein in 1997.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.