Get Down Ye Angels
Get down ye angels from the heights.
Try a few of earth’s numinous delights:
the orgiastic rustling of the grass.
The wind’s brazen feather tickling your arse.
Exchange your robe even for a day
with the raiment of one made of clay.
Lay down your harp and dig these pipes I play.
I’ll put my lips to the weeping reeds
till temptation thrills the heart of every hill
and the very stones begin the dance of leaves
as if stones had gained a fluttering will.
Welcome ye cherubs to the carnal hubbub.
Take a break from heaven’s eternal monotone.
Inhabit the splendid risk of flesh and bone.
Get Down Ye Angels was first published in John Agard’s 1997 collection, From the Devil’s Pulpit. Ben Wilkinson described the book as “a meditation on the devil as a necessary evil and creatively anarchic power”. The benign state of potency and anarchy to which the angels are invited is the animal body, “the splendid risk of flesh and bone”.
There are enough kill-joy forms of religious faith still around to justify reading the poem as a rebuttal. Angels are rarely available. Genderless, heavy-winged and hierarchical as they’re usually portrayed by Christianity, angels are not deeply interested in earthly matters. They’re aristocrats with haloes. And now they’re being commanded to “Get down” – down, and possibly dirty. The archaic form of address “ye angels” might not entirely convince them of the speaker’s devotional seriousness.
The fourth line reminded me of an old phonetic taunt typically made by a pupil to a particularly stuffy schoolmaster. “Do you tickle your arse with a feather, Sir?” The response is an indignant, even outraged, “I beg your pardon?” And the pupil, keeping a perfectly straight face, replies “Particularly nasty weather, Sir.” In the poem, the wind’s feather is “brazen” – an adjective that means “excessively bold” but, originating from “brass”, might suggest a more painful kind of ouch.
In the first tercet, the speaker identifies himself: he’s none other than the goat-legged, pipe-playing nature god, Great Pan. As this essay tells us, the Catholic poet and writer GK Chesterton considered the death of Pan to have marked the advent of theology. Agard’s poem restores Pan to life, and generously makes room for some reformed theology.
Pan’s music, like that of Orpheus, brings even the inanimate world to dancing life. And the cherubim receive a special invitation to this “carnal hubbub”. I had a rethink about cherubs as a result. Why are they personified as winged baby boys (putti) in western art? As we’re told here, “there are no angel-babies in the whole of Scripture.” The earliest putti, however, were associated with Pan. It’s appropriate that “cherubs” and the Earth’s “hubbub” should hobnob in a bubbly near-rhyme.
Instead of seeing the poem as a chance for me to take issue with the religions of bodily denial and penalty, I decided to focus on the positive – the religions that celebrate and contact their God through the physicality of music and dance. So this week I’ve listened to a gospel Sunday service from the Green Pastures Tabernacle, performances by the brilliant Hassidic violinist Daniel Ahaviel, and a beautiful Sufi Dervişane. It has been quite some research experience.
In an interview quoted here, Ahaviel says, “People ask me where I get the energy from, but I say, what energy? This isn’t me – it just happens from some deep place.” Of course, that deep place wouldn’t be of such depth and availability if it hadn’t been nourished for years by Ahaviel’s training as a concert violinist. There may be an extra ingredient – but I wouldn’t know if it had anything to do with angels.
Although religion’s most basic tenet is that mankind is elevated by worship, and will ultimately rise to share God’s kingdom, the reverse process in which the Holy powers descend has often been a centrally important phase of the narrative. Agard’s poem goes farther, and persuades us to ask, what if the Thrones and Powers were incarnated, not for human redemption, but for their own? Or, what if they’re incarnate already? What if angels are us?
Gently anarchic in structure and rhyme, combining humorous wordplay with innocently erotic whispers and rustlings, Get Down Ye Angels knows that the “numinous” is bodily. In mood and imagery it’s a kind of springtime poem. It reminds us the world isn’t all bad, and could be very, very good, with less cold piety, more celebration, and a truly pancosmic philosophy.
John Agard was born in Guyana in 1949, and has lived in Britain since the late 1970s. He’s a prolific writer for children and has translated a child-friendly version of Dante’s Inferno, The Young Inferno, with illustrations by the wonderful Satoshi Kitamura.
His latest book for adults is Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems with Live DVD (Bloodaxe Books, 2009).