Poetry Book Review: Idiot Psalms by Scott Cairns

In Idiot Psalms, just published by Paraclete Press, Scott Cairn’s new book of poetry takes off with “High Plane,” an almost sonnet, almost blank verse poem whose musicality makes melodious revisions in the tentative descriptions of flight, life, and the divide between knowing and remaining open to the unknown. The poem and its placement before the beginning of the IV sections give us a preface and a hint of the poetic questionings yet to come.

In the first poem of the first section, for example, “Parable” asks “To what might this slow puzzle be compared?” as we try out metaphors that might clarify the mystery of “The Vast and Inexplicable” even though none “quite seems to satisfy.”

Gliding on to “Threnody,” I halted mid-flight to look up the title word, which means a lament that, in this instance, refers to a recurrent dream of a deceased parent, returning where “none of us/ dares speak, neither of his death nor/ of his sudden, startling return.” The inexplicable continues in “Irreducible is what I’m after,” where “words are more precise or less precise, but they/ are not exact…” so that “even as/ I speak I see my good intentions leaping clean/ beyond my reach….”

In “Idiot Psalm 1,” we encounter Isaak, just “shy/ of immolation,” who, having been let off the sacrificial hook, sees God as “Beloved if obliquely so.” Later, in “Idiot Psalm 4,” this son of Abraham admits, “If I had anything approaching,/ a new song, surely I would sing” – an admission most of us might well make from almost any unfavorable condition or position into which we’ve been tightly wedged for far too long. And yet, tension-relievers come as we “keep things metaphorical/ and in so doing hope to keep/ anxiety at bay….” or as we witness the wit drawn when “the sea will of occasion/ skip the boats like flat stones back to shore.”

Consistently, honest observation and insight speak through these poems such as “Two Trees,” where we might get beyond that initial quest for knowledge of good and evil and “move finally/ to the second tree, long/ abandoned, all but lost/ to tribal memory.” Although this tree of life “stands to quicken any who/ would care to eat of it,” the poem “Heavenly City” reminds us “The world remains a puzzle/ no matter how many weeks one stands/ apart from it, no matter how one tries/ to see its troubled surfaces, or hopes/ to dip beneath them for a glimpse of what it is/ that makes this all appear to tremble so.”

And yet, the difficulty of the search does not deter Scott Cairns from seeking to define the mystery, for example, in “Idiot Psalm 10” where glimpses of God occur metaphorically as the “Hidden Hand upholding” and the “Great Zookeeper, attending” and the “Most Secret Agent of our numberless/ occasions….”

As we near the end of the book, the poem “Draw Near” concludes with this admission: “I have no sense of what this means to you, so little/ sense of what to make of it myself, save one lit glimpse/ of how we live and move, a more expansive sense in Whom.” That “Whom” clarifies with the “Annunciation” where “we all become/ the kindled kindred of a king whose birth/ thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.”

In that light of Christ, referred to as the “Holy One,” the final poem in this highly recommended book asks that we might come to “the cup, before the coal/ is set upon our trembling tongues, before/ we blithely turn and walk again into our many other failures” and somehow “apprehend something of the fear/ with which we should attend this sacrifice,/ for which we shall not ever be found worthy,/ for which – I gather – we shall never be prepared.”

©2014 Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer

Idiot Psalms: New Poems, paperback

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