Flowers of the Mind

Flowers of the Mind 15

Through the poem, “New Jerusalem”, by Elena Shvarts I discover the story of the Istra about 70 kilometres North-West of Moscow. This town was named after the Istra River, which runs through the town, but only from 1930. Before then it was named in Latinized Russia, Voskresenskoye, or in English, Resurrection. The Soviets sought to purge traditional religious culture from the newly engineered Soviet soul.

It was not only the name that threated the Soviet regime, and is never called out but always evoked in Shvarts’ poem. Voskresenskoye was the site of the New Jesrusalem monastery, begun by Patriarch Nikon (1605-81). Both the Church and the Patriarch were potent symbols to the socialist rulers under Stalin of the feared resurrection of the religious soul of Russia.

The New Jerusalem Monastery was founded as Nikon’s residence in 1656 but not finished and consecrated until after his death in 1685. The buildings were modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Nikon developed the monastery as a home for the many national and ethnic traditions of Orthodox Faith. It developed as a great library, with over 10 000 volumes gathered from other monasteries. Its significance ensured its early closure by the Bolsheviks in 1918, and its legacy as a repository of many ethnic traditions led it to become a museum of regional studies in the Soviet era. The treasures of its manuscripts led to the German Army ransacking the library in 1941, and the Luftwaffe bombing its Great Bell Tower. Its museum was re-opened in 1959, but a religious community was not re-established there until the 1990s. Only since 2010 has large-scale restoration led to the full resurrection of this monastery. When Shvarts wrote her poem, it may still have been a secular whitewash.

Patriarch Nikon was patriarch of Russia (1652-66), and his Church Reforms drove the split in the Church between the true orthodox and the Old Believers. He had prior to his ascension as Patriarch been a strict ascetic monk by the White Sea, the hegumen of the Novospasski Monastery in Moscow, the Metropolitan of Novgorod, a confidante of Tsar Aleksei, and an advocate of Russia’s succession as the Third Rome. He strengthened the power of the Church, its prestige and independent authority, and even acted as Regent to the Tsar. But his liturgical reforms and his religious threat to the State, his counter-reformation in the Byzantine tradition, led to his opponents deposing him as Patriarch. He was banished to be a monk at the Ferapontov Monastery in Beloozero, and only released from that order in 1681 to allow for his return to live out his days at the New Jerusalem Monastery that he had founded. But he died while travelling there.

Shvarts makes of these stories a strangely personalised and spiritual myth. She invokes a kind of deinstitutionalised Jerusalem that can be reached through soulful striving among the mundane, the “Black Stream” canals and rivers of St Petersburg, and not only in the grand monuments of the separate and the orthodox.

Yet everywhere God remembers humankind
And in the morning
This is where I will bury Melchizedek
Let the Black Stream be the River Jordan.
I shall discover Galilean Cana
Here at the beer stall, in very truth.
Let centuries and people pass -
I realised - never has anyone
Stepped outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Elena Shvarts, "New Jerusalem" from Paradise: Selected Poems, trans. Michael Molnar (1993)


A definition of empire? – “a convenient state between annexation and mere alliance” (Gary Runciman, Lord Halsbury, Oxford History of Empires, volume 1)


I have begun to read Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob. There is so much I am learning here about the intersecting traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Judaism and the Kabbalah, and that greatest gift of all, imagination. There will be more flowers gathered here in coming weeks from this great novel from 2014, only this year translated into English, by the winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. But let me for now just quote the magnificent, Baroque, playful, sub-title for this novel, that evokes for me Laurence Sterne and the literary traditions of the 18th century, the very time in which the novel is set.

A fantastic journey, across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions, not counting the minor sects. Told by the Dead, supplemented by the Author, drawing from a range of Books, and aided by Imagination, the which being the greatest natural Gift of any person. That the Wise might have it for a Record, that my compatriots Reflect, laypersons gain some Understanding, and Melancholy Souls Obtain Some Slight Enjoyment.

Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob – a Novel


This will be my last entry for 2021 in Flowers of the Mind, the live journal adaptation of my blogging art form.

I will resume posts to the live journal from mid-January, after a blessed beach holiday.

In the meantime, please consider purchasing my collected poems, Gathering Flowers of the Mind: Collected Poems, 1996-2020 in both a print and e-book edition. You can purchase through online retailers. You can buy the print edition from Amazon here and the e-book edition from Amazon here. Booktopia have print here and e-book here.

In Gathering Flowers of the Mind, I have collected five fascicles of my poetry, collected over thirty years – Dreams before the PillsAfter the PillsThe Burning ArchiveDr Cogito’s Rebellion and Meditations. It expresses my variations on the multiple traditions – variously Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert and Japanese tanka – that I have reflected on in this blog, and includes revised editions of many of the poems I have published on this blog over the years.

I will also be posting Summer editions of the Burning Archive podcast over coming weeks, and please heck out my podcast if you are interested in what I do here.

Best wishes, dear readers and fellow creators, for a year of renewal in 2022.

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