This Orchard Sound and the Stations of the Cross

March 25, 2016

by John Terpstra

Last year, Wolsak & Wynn re-published a series of poems called This Orchard Sound, which the press had first published almost twenty years ago in a book of mine called The Church Not Made With Hands.

The poems tell the story, in slant fashion, of entering a derelict orchard in Burlington, Ontario, to find and cut down a cross to hang in a church. I had the brilliant idea that the natural branching of a tree would be a natural, so to speak, as a cross – far better, and less kitschy, than the rough-hewn timbers nailed together you usually see when one of us lay-carpenter-type people get the urge to make a cross. Historically, and in literature, the cross has often been referred to as a tree, and there is a tradition in which the apple tree from the Garden of Eden supplied the wood for the cross of Jesus.

I presented the idea to the powers that be at the church my wife and I attended, and they went for it. Then I started looking more closely at trees, only to discover, to my surprise and chagrin, that the cross shape does not occur in nature. It is a human construct. To find what I needed, I would have to go to where nature is bent and twisted and clipped and pruned to serve human needs. An orchard, in other words. Which made sense, when I thought about it, because in the Christ story, the reason he suffers is because of human action, not nature’s. And nature suffers for the same reason.

I found the orchard in Burlington, on Harvester Road just east of Guelph Line. The area is now filled in with light industry and low office buildings, but at the time development was more spotty. The orchard lay between buildings and their parking lots on either side, condemned to die, but living yet.

Simultaneous to my cross project was the request by our church Music Director, Bart Nameth, for poems that could be read during a Good Friday service. Fourteen poems, to be precise, to follow the sequence of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. Fourteen poems? Are you crazy? I asked him. He would neither confirm nor deny.

What are the Fourteen Stations of the Cross? Basically, they are a meditative series of stops along the journey that takes Jesus from sweating blood in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion and burial. Catholics practice it during Holy Week (the week before Easter).

Protestants like me do not. I had heard of the Fourteen Stations but didn’t know anything about them. There are different versions, I discovered. Bart wanted my poems to follow the version that Peter Maxwell Davies, the Scottish composer, used for his Vesalii Icones. A significant difference is that it ends not with the Crucifixion but the Resurrection. It includes Easter morning, in other words.

As I recall, the cross-finding project came first, then the request for poems, but they soon merged. I shaped my orchard experience to fit the stops along the way of the Stations.

The reason I am writing this now is because I have never made those Fourteen Stations explicit in text notes, neither in the original publication of This Orchard Sound nor in the more recent Wolsak & Wynn edition. And the reason for that is probably connected to the reason why the series of poems is called This Orchard Sound, rather than Jesus Christ the Apple-tree, my original and in many ways still preferred title. The former is the title of an 18th-century hymn. Our church choir, under the direction of Bart, sang it one Sunday morning. One particular line stuck with me: This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive. Never in my life had I heard a hymn be so frank and disarming in expressing faith and its complications.

Also, the connection between Christ and creation, or nature, is implicit in that title, as it is in the poems. That is really what they are all about. So, here is the journey that the fourteen numbered poems trace:

  1. The agony in the garden
  2. The betrayal of Judas
  3. Christ and Pilate
  4. Christ condemned to death
  5. The flagellation
  6. The mocking of Christ
  7. Christ receives the cross
  8. St Veronica wipes his face
  9. Christ is nailed to the cross
  10. Christ prepared for death
  11. The death of Christ
  12. The descent from the cross
  13. The entombment of Christ
  14. The Resurrection

(Note: numbers 4 and 5, and 9 and 10 are out of sequence in the series, simply because the flow of the poems worked better that way.)

The poems were first read aloud during a Good Friday service at St Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church, Hamilton. Bart accompanied the reading with music he wrote for the poems, while Colin Macdonald did a live painting. Several years later we reprised the reading at St Paul’s Anglican in Hamilton, without Colin, who had passed away.

Is there more to say? I hope knowing all this enriches the reading experience, and wish that I had not been so hesitant or bashful about it the first, and second, time around.

*****

John Terpstra is a poet and woodworker in Hamilton, Ontario. This Orchard Sound appeared in Fall 2014 and was one of 49th Shelf's most anticipated collections that season.

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