"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reading John Wood and Thinking of Harold Camping

Pieter Pourbus, 1551

Yesterday, as the hour — time zone by time zone — of Harold Camping's prediction that the rapture would occur passed, I began to feel great pity for Camping. I imagine that the failure of his delusion must be utterly devastating. His "prophecy" and preaching has done great harm to many (incredibly) credulous people, but I think it cannot have been a malicious act on his part, but a sincere attempt to live up to a delusion that he firmly believed. Here is a fascinating brief view into this man and his family's life from an article on the Los Angeles Times website, with a quote from Camping's daughter, Sue Espinoza:
On Saturday morning, Espinoza, 60, received a phone call from her father, Harold Camping, the 89-year-old Oakland preacher who has spent some $100 million — and countless hours on his radio and TV show — announcing May 21 as Judgment Day. "He just said, 'I'm a little bewildered that it didn't happen, but it's still May 21 [in the United States],'" Espinoza said, standing in the doorway of her Alameda home. "It's going to be May 21 from now until midnight." 
"I'm a little bewildered," we hear the 89-year-old, who has apparently staked all of his life's energies and hopes on this one day, say to his daughter at the failure of his prophecy. It is utterly sad.

Thinking about these things, I was reminded of a long poem by John Wood about the Hoadeites, a mid-nineteenth-century religious community that believed Jesus would return in 1857. Here is one section (from Wood's Selected Poems):

from "The Gates of the Elect Kingdom"*
by John Wood

XVI: Waiting for Jesus

They waited from New Year's to Year's End
as expectation and disappointment rose to fill each day,
rose like the ripe sweet stench of silage
that hovered over the farm all summer.
Most thought it would be New Year's;
then that it would be Easter; and then, and then,
and on and on till finally at last on the Year's Eve
at midnight's wide eye's twinkling, they knew
in that sparkled turning He would descend
star-like upon the fields with light falling about Him
and night turning morning, and years and time all falling away
as clocks and calendars began again at noon in the year One.
And so they prepared the greatest feast they'd ever set:
pieces of comb were broken from the hive
heavy with honey and big as hands;
pigs were roasted and glazed rosy
with the jam of sweet plums from last canning;
and hot cabbage in wide wooden bowls
was shredded and sweetened and studded with caraway;
and jars of peaches, pickled and smelling of clove
and cinnamon stick, were opened and set out;
and the long table looked as it never had looked.
And the sisters went about their work
asking the questions they'd asked all year:
"What will you say to Him?" "What will you do
if He looks at you?" "What if He touches your hand
when you set His plate before Him?" And they worried,
"Will I be able to say, 'More cabbage, Lord? More pork?
Some cider for your cup?" And the men rehearsed their lines, as well:
"We've waited a long time, Lord; thank You for coming."
"Do You plan to shift the seasons, turn winter back,
to begin the planting now?" "Do You need a dray, Lord,
or will Your plow furrow through fields at Your touch?"
And "Forgive us our stupid questions, but this is so now, Lord;
we don't know how it is to work with You, or if we even need to speak."
But by six in the morning discontent and anger had set in,
the pork was cold and covered with a caul of grease,
the women had fallend asleep round the long table,
and von Tungeln, one of the original twelve,
said he'd had his doubts, that Hoade was false,
and he and his were heading westward. And rage broke out
like a fire in the corn and faces were dark as bruises
and others said they'd go with von Tungeln
or would just go. And they did and the end began,
and all Winkler's words couldn't stop it:
"Even prophets can misfigure,
but the Vision's still true.
Christ's still coming.
Why leave; life's good here."
But Winkler had no voice for prophecy
or magic and could hold few for long--
and finally none but his own, and they worked
what acres they could and still believed,
still waited, still sometimes picked up
the bright, sweet scent of vanilla on the air.

*Reproduced by permission of the author from Selected Poems: 1968-1998 (The University of Arkansas Press, 1999)

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