Den the Pen – Giant Steps
A Poetic Observation and Literary Critique

Onions and Giant Steps
by Brian Nixon, Dr. of Philosophy

Onions are a lot like poetry; the layers are many, and the taste and smell can bring you to tears, or at least cause you to breath a little more easily.

Poet Den the Pen’s poem GIANT STEPS is one such work.

Den the Pen is a nom’ de plum. For the sake of simplicity, I shall herein informally refer to him as Den.
Den’s web site is: www.denthepen.com.

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Giant Steps

The First Layer: The Plain Meaning

Upon first glance- and a casual read- you get the sense that Den was walking through Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico listening to John Coltrane, pondering the Native American ruins, and breathing the Bible. The Native American symbolism and biblical message are ancient and lovely:

  on the ponyback plains of his youth
Big Sky Running Bear
listened to the storytellers
talk of the ancients
and how they wanted
to walk in the sky

Big Sky Running Bear is part of the story his people have told for generations; he’s a step in the ancient walk. Yet, Big Sky Running Bear desires something more- knowledge and experience, he wants to walk on the stars to God:

  to walk past the eastern butterfly of winters night
to walk on stars-‘til stars were no more
to walk on stars to God

Big Sky Running Bear soon realizes that he is unable to walk on the stars. His soul becomes despondent, and overrun with distractions, and possible despair:

 

in the Now tall grasses of his soul
Big Sky Running bear
Found impossible starwalking

(possible

Then, as if a distant light illuminated his mind, a thought came to Big Sky Running Bear:

 

The Great Father
Walked on His stars
and set foot in a barn

near
Bethlehem

Big Sky Running Bear comes to the realization that he didn’t have to walk on the stars to God. Instead, God walked on the stars down to him, setting foot in another ancient place- Bethlehem. The impossible became possible.

The poem resolves itself with a sense of unstated peace: Big Sky Running Bear’s walk, though ancient, is yet new and near, and ultimately the walk he so desires has been walked for him by the Babe in Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ.

Second Layer: Numerical Configurations

True the poem’s content is one melding various cultures, but upon further analyses, the poem’s depth becomes more striking.

First, notice the sequence of the stanzas. They fall into a six, three-three-one (seven), three, two, and one “silent” stanza- pattern.

Six is the number, historically, of man. It is symbolic of man’s search for meaning and purpose. In the first six lines of GIANTSTEPS, Big Sky Running Bear exists in relation to his people- men. Yet, one garners the impression that Big Sky Running Bear is not content with men (notice key words in the poem, Now, tall grasses, night, impossible); he yearns for God. The city of man is fading, and his search for a “walk on stars to God” becomes his sojourn and passion, a journey towards the city of God.

Secondly, notice the two set of three stanzas- with an added one, equaling seven (found in stanzas 2-4). Three is a derivative of six, and the two verses of three corresponding lines can represent man’s human nature (body, mind, and soul), as well as represent the divine call from God (Father Son, and Holy Spirit) to the man. In these two stanzas you find the imago deo, man made in the image of God, seeking God. Like a tapestry, or a woven rug, the two wills (God and man) comes head to head in a confluence of togetherness.

The dangling stanza: (possible- rounds out the two sets of three-lined stanza, adding up to seven. Seven is the number of perfection and, in the Bible, God. Essentially, the added numerical value of seven is the murmuring of the divine (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) call to the human condition, an intertwined and interwoven dance of wills between Big Sky Running Bear’s quest to discover God, and God’s answer to that quest in history in the form of Jesus entering the world at Bethlehem.

The dangling stanza (possible is set forth to demonstrate that starwalking by man is impossible, but that it is made possible by divine fiat. The singular transition of stanza four is the answer to Big Sky Running Bear’s dilemma of starwalking to God. The incomplete parenthetical notation before “possible” {(}, is a mark of expectancy and possibility, it foreshadows the fore coming answer.

Third, notice the fifth stanza: The Great Father/walked on His stars/and set foot in a barn. The murmur and call in the fourth stanza is clearly answered in here in the fifth. The Great Father (God) walked on His stars (His creation, or “stars” representing divine will) and set foot in a barn. In Greek, the word for “walk” is peripateo. It means to tread with, to be occupied with, and walk with. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God is preoccupied with His mission of love, thereby becoming love incarnate to walk among His people.

The fifth stanza reminds me of the translated poem by Paul Muldoon, in his Pulitzer work, Moy Sand and Gravel. The original poem was written by an early Irish monk, named Caedmon, and is called Caedmon’s Hymn. Muldoon translates it as follows:

 

Now we must praise to the skies the keeper of the
heavenly kingdom,
The might of the measurer, all he has in mind,
The work of the Father of Glory, of all manner
of marvel,

Our eternal Master, the main mover.
It was he who first summoned up, on our behalf,
Heaven as a roof, the holy Maker.

Then this middle-earth, the Watcher over humankind,
Our eternal master, would later assign
The precinct of men, the Lord Almighty.

Essentially, Den is portraying the same theological sentiment as Muldoon and Caedmon: the incarnation; God has entered in the world through the hub of Bethlehem, and has became flesh in “the precinct of men.”

The final stanza, near/Bethlehem, narrows to a singular point; which is “the point” of the poem- that God did the starwalking and became man. Yet, Den’s vision and form of the poem lends itself to the conclusive end. Visually, the poem ends with a foot, a stepping forth into the stillness of its words.

Though there is not a visual seventh stanza, there is a silent stanza, akin to a haiku; causing the reader to sense the peacefulness and profound reality of what was just said. In a sense, there is a silent “amen.” When one senses the “seventh” stanza of silence, the overall effect of the poem comes full circle: seven stanzas within a pilgrimage of man towards God (six) and God towards man (seven).

Layer Three: Theological Considerations

The obvious theological meaning, as discussed above, found in GIANTSTEPS has to do with the incarnation, the biblical notion of God becoming flesh and dwelling among people. However, when looking deeper, the poem is as much about Perichoresis as it is about the incarnation. Perichoresis* is the mutual exchange of love in the unity of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). At its core, Perichoresis is the corporate and communitarian aspects of salvation as well as the individual's response to the salvation that God has provided, God working and loving within the Godhead, and God working and loving with His creation. Perichoresis is the ‘being’ of God, as portrayed in His divine nature of love, and how God communicates this nature of love to humanity.

The great eastern Christian pastor, John of Damascus, in the 8th century, used the Greek term περιχώρησις (perichoresis: circuition, going around, envelopment) to denote this, in his elucidation of the text, "I am in my Father, and my Father is in me. (John 14:10)

Layer Four: The Cultural

Growing up in New Mexico I had the privilege of having many Native American friends, enjoying the culture and history of these beautiful and wonderful people. As many are aware, storytelling is a great part of the culture of many Native American tribes. The passing down, from one generation to the next, of stories, lore, myth, and truth, plays a pivotal role for the continuity of the Native culture within a larger landscape of “Americanism.”

What is fascinating about the poem, GIANTSTEPS, is that Den has blended three-distinct cultures into one cohesive story: Native American, African-American, and Hebrew/Christian. This, in and of itself, demonstrates the universality of the theme of Den’s poem: man’s search for God, God’s finding of man through His Son, Jesus.

The title, GIANTSTEPS is taken from a John Coltrane record, a jazz masterpiece. The album was released in 1960 under the Atlantic label. It was one of Coltrane’s first recording where his “sheet of sound”- dense and a-harmonic music- was profiled.

What makes GIANTSTEPS interesting is that it was the record where he left his past bebop style of music, separating himself to find new frontiers of sound. To use Den’s imagery, Coltrane began to yearn to walk on the stars, searching for new modalities in music, and ultimately, God (he later composed his masterpiece, A Love Supreme- once His quest was complete).

The parallel of Coltrane’s work to Den’s poem is the circuminsession of the journey both Coltrane and Big Sky Running Bear make; two different cultures, one search for God; one reality of God becoming man!

Layer Five, Six, and Seven: Take a GIANTSTEP

Five: GIANTSTEPS is a gentle reminder that all humans, regardless of culture, take steps towards or away from Him who was, is, and is to come.

Six: The quest for God is a story wedged in time, and universal in scope; it transcends cultures, though is dependent upon the culture to find meaning and substance for the people within that culture; its substance is a thread of reality played out in the tapestry of existence, weaving countless human lives within God’s nature.

Seven: I can now breath! The onion is finished. A stanza of silence. And tears fall. Amen.

The Poem

 

Big Sky Running Bear
listened to the storytellers
talk of the ancients
and how they wanted
to walk in the sky

to walk past the eastern butterfly of winters night
to walk on stars-‘til stars were no more
to walk on stars to God

in the Now tall grasses of his soul
Big Sky Running bear
Found impossible starwalking

(possible

The Great Father
Walked on His stars
and set foot in a barn

near
Bethlehem

* John Polkinhorne, in his work, Quantum Physics and Theology, says of Perichoresis, “The three divine persons are held to interpenetrate each other in the mutual exchange of love, a concept that has no analogy in the case of three distinct human beings.