Scott Cairns collected his poems in a new book entitled Slow Pilgrim, which recollects his pilgrimage as a Christian in many of the poems.
Using the concept he refers to as “sacramental poetics,” Cairns brings together theology and poetry as did poets of the past, who saw this connectedness in the “Logos.” Indeed, as the Introduction to the book reminds us, “The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos, familiar to us from the opening of the Gospel of St. John. But Cairns believes that in modern Western thought logos has too often reduced ‘word’ to disembodied abstraction. He prefers the Hebrew word davar, which means both word and thing – and even, as he notes, a power.”
And “yet one of the key milestones along his pilgrimage has been his embrace of the Orthodox tradition of ‘apophatic’ theology, which is an expression of humility before the inadequacy of language.” This apophatic theology helps us to know God by stating Who or What God is not, rather than Who or What God is. For example, when we say God is immortal, we’re saying God does not die. Or if we call God a Spirit, we’re saying God isn’t confined to a physical form as we are. Or if we say God is truth, we’re saying God does not lie.
Often Christian poets and writers rely on metaphor or analogy to equate God with this or that. Or perhaps we present a particular point-of-view or communicate an experience. Conversely, Cairns’ pilgrimage is more inclined to take us from communication into communion, slowing us down, so we can listen between the lines and hear the silence that arises into worship or poetry.
This is not, however, a devotional book, nor collection of inspirational writings. As the Introduction tells us, these “poems address us in our quotidian experience of life: they are best experienced in an armchair, not in church.”
For example, “Taking Off Our Clothes” strips us down to our real selves where:
“We’d talk about real things, casually
and easily taking off our clothes. We would be
naked and would hold onto each other a long time,
saying things that would make us
grin. We’d laugh off and on, all the time
unconcerned with things like breath, or salty
skin, or the way our gums show when we really
smile big. After a while, I’d get you a glass of water.”
This use of the visible, the tangible rather than the abstract, calls us to recognizable truths, such as how getting real with ourselves and each other makes us feel naked. In these times of vulnerability, we might do nothing more God-like than bringing each other a cup of cool water in Christ’s name.
Since the poem just quoted in part comes at the beginning of the book, readers will know upfront not to expect anything sentimental or puritanical. Having squirmed through too many of the latter types of poems or flat statements of belief or long-winded diatribes, a subtle invitation to find God among real people in real life can, itself, be as refreshing as that glass of water.
This time I knew to expect such an approach as the publisher, Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a review copy, had done the same last year for Cairns’ book, Idiot Psalms. However, to claim familiarity with the work of this respected poet would be misleading as I suspect I’ll never fully catch what’s compressed into each poem.
Sometimes this slowness to comprehend occurs because of differences in male and female perspectives but also because of the poet’s artistry in drawing negative spaces that may or may not be filled with God’s invisible presence. That said, Cairns can use metaphor well when he wants to as shown in the poem “4. Mortal Dream” where “It is not a very clean city, even the air has fingerprints.”
For the most part, though, I found the poems accessible and occasionally amusing. For example, “5. My Imitation” begins:
“I sold my possessions, even the colorful pencils.
I gave all my money to the dull. I gave my poverty
to the president. I became a child again, naked
and relatively innocent. I let the president have my guilt.”
But what seems to be humorous turns into a common union with Christ as the poem continues:
“I found a virgin and asked her to be my mother.
She held me very sweetly.”
“I rose again, bloodless and feeling pretty good.
I forgave everything.”
Unlike the sweet greeting card verses that assure us all is well even when it isn’t, I’m more attuned to the hope we have in Christ when reading such lines as: “And still I have suffered/ an acute lack of despair.” Yes! How true!
Besides our lack of despair, aren’t we all archaeologists? As shown in “Archaeology: A Subsequent Lecture,” we see:
“…the pleasure lies
in fingering loose ends toward likely shape,
actually making something of these bits
of persons, places, things one finds once one
commences late interrogation
of undervalued, overlooked terrain –
what we in the business like to call the dig.”
In addition to digging through our collective or individual past, these poems give us a new take on familiar Bible stories such as told in the poem “The Entrance of Sin.” In its departure from the Genesis 3 story, the second paragraph of this prose poem offers a prior scenario:
“For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.”
I love that a man wrote those lines! And I welcomed the insight into relationships today. I also enjoyed the dry humor, as in “Possible Answers To Prayer,” where:
“Your petitions – though they continue to bear
just the one signature – have been duly recorded.”
Then these exquisite lines in “I. Nativity” give us a glimpse of that biblical scene as told from the perspective of a man gazing on a woman beloved:
“As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend
the tiny God is wrapped
in something more than swaddle. The God
is tightly bound within
His blessed mother’s gaze….”
The poem continues:
the famous star is all
but out of sight by now; yet, even so,
it aims a single ray
directing our slow pilgrims to the core
where all the journeys meet,
appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,
where crouched among these other
lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers
receive that creatured air, and pray.”
Slow Pilgrim, quality paperback