A Century of Poetry by Rowan Williams

I have been reading a poem a day from Rowan Williams' new book "A Century of Poetry". The poem by Yves Bonnefoy called "Noli me tangere" deserves a mention this second Sunday of Advent, not only for the poet's words and Rowan Williams' thoughtful reflection on the poem, but also for the mention of snowflakes.

Noli me tangere

In the blue sky, the flake hesitates once more, the last flake of a heavy snowfall.

And it's as though she were coming into the garden,

she, who must surely have dreamt how it might be,

This gaze, this simple God, with no remembrance of the grave, no thought but bliss,

no future

but dissolving in the blueness of the world.

'No,' he would say to her, 'don't touch me.'

But even saying no would be a ray of light.

I confess to having a small obsession with snowflakes… and over the years I have tried designing and creating jewelled snowflakes (from the Himalayas in Tibet, from the Alps, from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado…) At the start they were at best clumsy silver snowflakes, after which I tried engraving rock crystal with their geometric patterns.

The next few years followed with a snowflake design of delicate millegrain settings on pierced-out white gold snowflakes with diamonds twinkling in between - these were almost perfect.

And in my garden one summer the delicate parachutes of the Astrantia flowers seemed also like snowflakes …

Finally I feel I perfected them whilst in Palermo, Sicily, in the exquisite church of La Martorana. The beautiful mosaic floors, decorated with delicate dancing circles, in a church combining Arab, Byzantine and Norman influences. The flecks of colour became diamonds in my sketch book and the twinkle of the stones seemed like the sparkle of snowflakes landing softly on a ski jacket. Did Mother Nature also inspire the byzantine craftsmen employed by the Norman King Roger II in the 12th century?

And just in case you may have thought snowflakes and Sicily incongruous, the first time I ever went to Palermo it was January, and it was actually snowing!

Snowflakes do hold a definite magic. To return to the beginning of this story, here is an excerpt from Rowan William’s pondering on the poem of Bonnefoy:

"The heavy fall is over, and a few last flakes are dropping as the sky clears into blue. The last flake is melting as it falls; it cannot be taken hold of. But just for that reason it is exceptional and precious. It carries nothing of past or future; it exists in a present moment so fleeting that there is really no way of capturing it at all. The only words that in any way express what is happening are 'Don't touch!' Don't try to seize this because there is nothing to be held on to and you will destroy not so much the melting physical object but the actual lightning glance of perception, the moment of receiving that fugitive knowledge of - what? Being part of something, being held in something, not being alone, not being a random bundle of mechanisms?

The snowflake's refusal to be grasped is at one and the same time its ability to be a means of grace. It somehow embodies a 'gaze,' it opens up to us the awareness of just being looked at, a wholly 'simple' moment in which I know that the source and totality of existence is focused on me - but without in any way promising some outcome, solving some problem, even healing specific wounds. So the 'No' that the snowflake utters is illumination for us: there is nothing but the recognition of being recognized, the simplicity of being seen and acknowledged, yet without any of our routine wants or fears or hopes being met in any straightforward way. I am recognized; yet my turbulent and confused ego is sidelined."

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