What goes around comes around. Winter, spring, summer, fall. Birth and growth, decline, decay.  Another season, another year. Another turn of the wheel.

So who better to break bread with in inaugurating 2012 than old Tom Eliot and East Coker, his looping, lyrical ode to circularity. ‘In the beginning is my end’ writes Eliot as an opener, finally coming round to ‘In my end is my beginning’. In between is a time-travelling, quasi-philosophical odyssey that takes in birth and death and time and eternity, as well as how to live in the midst of it all once you recognize that we are simply part of the great cycle of being.

The other poem we read was new-minted, appearing in last week’s New Yorker. Lot’s Wife by Gary Whitehead is a beautifully honed poem – slight only in length – that imagines people from the villages surrounding the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah coming to look and to scavenge and to take what they can find among the ‘charred bones, the rubble of what was once temple and house, stable and brothels’. They kick at stones and tug opportunistically at handles once attached to buckets or shovels now lying in the cooling embers.

These people would have found her, of course. . . Enigmatic, statuesque, and frozen to the spot. Lot’s wife, now an imposing momument, ‘a tribute to human frailty’: a solidified expression of our own true nature. And each of the onlookers, says Whitehead, would have wanted a piece of her.

I love this grabby sentiment for its unashamed modernity — for the work it performs in linking the ancient, pagan desert-dwellers to modern star chasers, consumers of celebrity, haplessly in thrall to idols and icons. We are all idolaters, then as now, Whitehead seems to be saying; awestruck, mute, consumed by vague and misdirected longings.

But to return to the scavengers. As Whitehead sees it they would have snapped out of their enchantment and ‘with chisel and knife, spike and buckle’ begun to chip at her ‘violently’, stuffing their pockets with her ‘common salt’ – salt they needed to season their meat and bake their ‘daily bread.’

Everyone loved this poem for bringing to life a character we don’t normally think about, for letting a Biblical bit player hold centre stage for a time. For those of you who don’t know the story, Lot and his family are the only residents of the wicked cities to be spared from destruction. They are permitted to walk away, scott free, on condition that they never look back to witness God’s display of cosmic rage.  Lot’s wife can’t help herself, however. She turns back to take one last look at the city she grew up in and is instantly transformed into a pillar of salt.

This is Mount Sodom, overlooking the dead salt sea in the middle of the Negev desert. It is composed entirely of Halite, or rock salt, and centre-stage is the pillar known as Lot’s wife.

Lot’s wife may be a minor player in this divine drama, but, as Amanda pointed out, she is the person in whose shoes we always place ourselves. We want to know: would we have had the strength to not turn back?

Otis observed that Whitehead portrays Lot’s wife as a Christ-like figure; not a sinner but a saint, someone who literally gets consumed, becoming a kind of sacrament.

But what struck the group most profoundly, primed perhaps by our reading of Eliot, was Whitehead’s own understanding of circularity. Life continues, he suggests, as if with a shrug of the shoulders. Generations come and go, making the same mistakes as those who’ve gone before them. But they can also be relied upon to new ways forward. They will nourish themselves from the spoils of war and destruction. Find green shoots in the midst of decay. Discover new ways of obtaining their daily bread.

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