What a shame that Ash Wednesday comes but once a year. For many of us, that’s the only opportunity we have to experience what many people consider the lyrical poet Thomas Conry’s masterwork. Let’s take a closer look.
The first lines are something of a ruse, are they not? Listen:
We rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do. We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew. If all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true, an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
We are lulled by the conventional rhyme scheme, ABABABB, into expecting that the theme will be conventional, as well. The speaker cannily completes the rhyme by using the same word, “ashes,” three times, as if to signal, “Nothing new here, no particular reason to pay attention.” Even the finial sounds of the words, “ashes,” “do,” “ashes,” “anew,” and once again “ashes,” followed by “true” and “you” — do you hear it? the “sh” followed by “oo” . . . it almost sounds like the soft, untroubled breath of a sleeper. “Shh . . .ooo.” Our narrator appears almost to be snoring, does he not? He is deliberately lulling us to sleep.
But a surprise awaits us in the second stanza.
We offer you our failures, we offer you attempts, the gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt. Give our stumblings direction, give our visions wider view, an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
Gone are the soft sibilants of the previous lines, and instead, we are confronted with deliberately jarring plosives (/b/ /p/ /t/ /d/) in “Gifts not fully given, / … dreams not fully dreamt.” Not fully, indeed. The very percussive violence of the sound is a statement: the speaker has awoken, and he is in distress, perhaps stuttering and spluttering like a confused patient who was supposed to be etherised upon a table, but they ran out of ether. “Give our stumblings direction,” he haltingly pleads – but then subsides again into the inarticulate vagueness, perhaps experiencing a swollen tongue: “give our visions wider view,” he mouths with a wagging jaw, in an achingly poignant parody of the semi-conscious man struggling to make sense of a world where significance seems always to be verging on the horizon.
Notice that in this second stanza, the rhyme scheme has sutbly shifted from the pedestrian ABABABB to the chaotic and freewheeling ABCBDEE. This indicates that the speaker is confused.
The third stanza seems to find the speaker in a contemplative mood, lapsing again into what appears, at first, to be conventional, even clichéd imagery: rising from ashes, sunshine turning to rain, and so on:
Then rise again from ashes, let healing come to pain, though spring has turned to winter, and sunshine turned to rain. The rain we’ll use for growing, and create the world anew from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
But what are we to make of those troublesom conjunctions “then” and “though”? They can’t merely be metric placeholders, can they, with no intrinsic significance? Don’t believe it. Every syllable in this concise little jewel of a work is freighted with meaning. Some of the meaning is so subtle, it would wither under the strong light of scrutiny, much like a seedling which is brought to light in the springtime which, in an unprecedented meteorological event possible only in poetry, turns to winter, and then is sunny, and then rainy, and then becomes ashes, or possibly used to be ashes. Delicate seedlings just can’t take that kind of abuse; and so it is with conjunctions in the hands of the poet Conry. Exquisite.
And now the tour de force: the final stanza. Here we discover at last the full blown expression of the hints and murmuring suggestions sprinkled like so many ashes throughout the rest of the poem. The speaker proclaims in triumph:
Thanks be to the Father, who made us like himself. Thanks be to his Son, who saved us by his death. Thanks be to the Spirit who creates the world anew from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
Do you see? Do you see? It was the ashes all along. Ashes!