The Dance-Leader of the Writing Life

by Nicole Rollender July 30, 2013

I was that person B.C. (before children, that is), who you’d see standing in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s medieval wing, staring rapturously (yes, really) into the face of an 11th century wooden Christ—contemplating his elongated, pale face, widened dark eyes, his crown of thorns stippled with ancient polychrome paint. I've always had a love of medieval religious poetry, which offers a beautiful perspective into a relationship with God.

One medieval poet I really love is Hildegard von Bingen—who was born in 1098 in Germany to noble parents. When she was 8, she was put under the guardianship of Jutta of Spanheim, the abbess of a community of nuns attached to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. Hildegard would turn out to be one of the most renowned women of her time, as a visionary, naturalist, poet and playwright, and composer; she was also nearly canonized as a Roman Catholic saint a century after she died.

As a writer, I love this account of how Hildegard became a poet/creatrix: After she succeeded Jutta as abbess, tongues of flames descended from heaven onto her. After that, she began the period of her life (she was known as the “Sybil of the Rhine”) when she produced books on natural history and medicine, a morality play, a book of visions and, of course, poetry. What draws me to Hildegard’s poems over other medieval poetry is her work’s accessibility to the modern mind, use of imagery, and her depiction of the interior, spiritual life. For example, this excerpt from “O Presul Vere Civitatis,” which starts, “O dance-leader of the true city . . .” in praise of a cloistered soul:

You, wanderer of the seed of Man,
longed to be an exile
for the love of Christ.

O summit of the cloistered mind
you tirelessly showed a beautiful face
in the mirror of the dove.

You lived hidden in a secluded place,
intoxicated with the aroma of flowers,
reaching forth to God
through the lattices of the saints.

O gable on the cloisters of Heaven,
because you have bartered the world
for an unclouded life
you will always have this prize in the Lord . . .

I love this idea of the “dance-leader of the true city,” meaning of heaven, but also, as I see it–of the interior writing life, my true city. We dream alone, write alone. We create alone, longing to be an exile for the love of God, and of writing. Though we might be still, our creative minds are dancing within us. It’s like Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “The Raven:” “. . . all my soul within me burning . . .”—that’s how it feels to write, my soul burning inside my still body, my cloistered soul intoxicated by the smell of flowers, reaching forth to God . . .

Hildegard, nun and receiver of visions, wrote a singular passion about the human experience of a personal relationship with God, and how it’s both corporeal and spiritual. Many of her poems pay homage to the Virgin Mary, like “Ave, Generosa,” in which this body/soul relationship is explored:

. . . Thus your womb held joy,
when the harmony of all Heaven chimed out from you,
because, Virgin, you carried the son of God
whence your chastity blazed in God.

Your flesh has known delight,
like the grassland touched by dew
and immersed in its freshness:
so it was with you, O mother of all joy. . . .

It’s the Virgin’s union with the divine that created such joy in her life, but because she was human, also sorrows, as when she lost Jesus in the Temple or held his dead body in her arms. Natalie Goldberg, in Wild Mind, writes, “In his [Robert, a Zen priest] lecture, he said that Zen poems are marked by a feeling of space and also a tinge of sadness. I agreed. Sadness comes from the knowledge of impermanence. Everything will eventually pass away. Why be sad? Because we love and no matter how dispassionate we become, we are not ice bricks. We are human beings with feelings.” Because we are human, our bodies will pass away, our time here will pass away—but we can love, and perhaps what that love touches and creates will not pass away.

Following this theme, in A Walk Between Heaven and Earth, Burghild Nina Holzer writes, “Talking to paper is talking to the divine. It is talking to an ear that will understand even the most difficult things. Paper is infinitely patient. It will receive small fragment after fragment of a large network you are working on, without you yourself knowing it.” Because we’re human, we’re finite and fragile; we need a relationship with the divine to become and remain whole. The act of writing, finding our way through chaos, is like speaking to God and it’s creating something that will never pass away. From 1,000 years ago, Hildegard still speaks to us with words that resonate, that sting, that burn—that burn with the love of a soul on fire for God, who sacrificed his life for us, as in “O Ecclesia:”

. . . And all the Elements
heard the great cry,
and before the throne of God
they said:

O! the red blood
of the innocent lamb
has streamed out
in the moment of union.

As a writer, I strive for union with God—and union with the poets who’ve gone before me. I dip into that same deep, shared well of creativity that flows from the beginning of time, until now and for forever. When I write, I write alone, but I also write alongside many other souls cloistered within still bodies: we write our nows into forever.

Nicole Rollender
Nicole Rollender


Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, will be published by ELJ Publications later this year. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at

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