The Words, Distant Now, and Mitred, Glint
after John Ashbery
by Jonathan Yungkans
A silent, exploding kaleidoscope, set in stone and set in anything but stone—
the glassine whirl—white and red and a blue that could only be Winchester,
its West Window shattered—Biblical scenes captured like insects in amber
scattered by vandalizing Roundheads when they chucked the bones of kings,
with their divine right, to wind and clatter, left splayed on the cathedral floor.
Partitioners gathered and secreted the glittering fragments, precious as relics,
later piecing them together into a Rashomon to defy Humpty Dumpty wisdom
while departing, prescient, toward Picasso and Braque—it’s not what you see
but what you know is there which you decide to show. In all its sharp angles,
a cutting truth—each dear image and account, held together in leaded, shatters
within the brain’s cathedral. We reassemble the flying jumble the best we can.
Perhaps that’s its true, intrinsic beauty—the pregnancy of meaning my pastor
claimed the Bible has—a constant rebirthing like so many leaves and flowers
the sun brings through this Gothic arch, framed in long, thin, elegant traceries
that have since become my mind. A face, fragment of a crown, robe or hand—
it’s like when depression struck me so hard, I couldn’t remember the alphabet,
read past a letter’s straight lines and curves—firm and cerebral, like a stroke.
What reassembled in my mind in enforced silence, was like this some time—
a crimson fabric swath, a rectangle of sky, a bright yellow padded armchair—
hues that glimmer before me in tinted glass, patterns unset and reconvened
into the occasional familiar image flashing back to me in afternoon sunlight.
PHOTO: Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England, with the West Window at the center of the building’s facade. Photo by Andy Mayes, used by permission.
NOTE: Winchester Cathedral was founded in 642 on a site immediately to the north of the present building, which was consecrated in 1093. Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Cromwell‘s forces smashed the cathedral’s renowned stained glass West Window. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, artisans assembled the broken glass at random, with little attempt to reconstruct the original images.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem came through two events—a visit to Winchester Cathedral in 1980, when I saw the West Window for myself, and a severe depressive episode in 2006, which left me incapacitated and unable to hear anything other than complete silence. In retrospect, I realized the window’s total import—to cherish beauty where we can, in what might not be reassembled perfectly from its former glory but which still has its own validity and import. The poem’s title, “The Words, Distant Now, and Mitred, Glint,” is a line from John Ashbery’s book-length poem Flow Chart.
PHOTO: Portion of Winchester Cathedral’s West Window. Photo by David Benton, used by permission.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonathan Yungkans is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer with an MFA from California State University, Long Beach. His work has appeared in San Pedro Poetry Review, Synkroniciti, West Texas Literary Review, and other publications. His second poetry chapbook, Beneath a Glazed Shimmer, won the 2019 Clockwise Chapbook Prize and is slated for release by Tebot Bach Publishing in 2020.