The title of a poem, poetry book, or chapbook can capture a reader’s attention, add connotations to what follows, and help readers gain an entrance into the poem.
Christian poets, poetry students, and all lovers of poetry won’t want to miss this highly recommended anthology by Paraclete Press.
Edited by Edward Hirsch, this year’s edition of The Best American Poetry, 2016, astronomically abounds with rising stars and a constellation of brilliant poets.
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
The strange, evocative poetry of Paul Celan seems impossible to translate from German into English while retaining its unique twists and inventive word-combinations, yet poet-author Pierre Joris did just that! You get a glimpse in the title and will see more in a moment, but first let’s consider some relevant background on Celan.
When I received my review copy of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, the Introduction reminded me that only Rilke had an impact comparable to Celan’s. Both were major poets of the 20th century, who wrote in German, and both penned poetry that was prolifically reviewed, studied, written about, and annotated, then and now.
Born Paul Antschel in what became the Ukraine, Celan grew up in a Jewish family, speaking German but learning many other languages as well. As a young adult, he worked in forced labor camps until they were closed and he could continue his studies. By then, both of his parents had been killed.
Other hardships and devastations followed, including the death of a child, which created, no doubt, unimaginable influences on the poet and his work. Some deemed the resulting poems as surreal, but Celan saw his poems as rising from the real with clarity as “law.”
Again, in the Introduction, Pierre Joris says, “Radically dispossessed of any other reality, Celan had to set out to create his own language – a language as absolutely exiled as he was himself.” The author goes on to explain that “Celan’s ‘language,’ as I have tried to show, is really a number of dismantled and re-created languages.”
What does any of this have to do with us now – as poets or as poetry readers? A lot! Not only was Celan ahead of times in compressing and reducing the elements of a poem as poets often do today, his work presents the essence, the essentials, the core of life, the crux of being stripped of superfluities and the superficial.
That was a mouthful! But Celan’s poems, amazingly rendered by Joris, give us beauty and a breathturn into brevity. For example:
YOU MAY confidently
serve me snow:
as often as shoulder to shoulder
with the mulberry tree I strode through summer,
its youngest leaf
I have no idea what that means! Nevertheless, impressions and images arise, recreating a mood and interesting experience.
For another example of this and of the composite words I mentioned earlier:
above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
Incidentally, both of those examples present the complete poems, which consistently remain sans title. Interesting, too, both of the poems begin or end with levity, belying the “shriek” and “grayblack wastes.” So, even if we’re pretty sure what’s going on here, we’re never really sure of either the mood or the experience.
The same can be said for poems offering a visual encounter:
endless shoelace – at
the ghosts gnaw –
binds two bloody toes together
for the road’s oath.
The city can be seen. The shoelace can be pictured. The ghosts can jump to life as they gnaw, but are they gnawing the toes bloody or were they already oozing when the shoelace bound them together? And how does this influence a road to make an oath?
Again, I have no earthly or ghostly idea what this means, but I have impressions of how ongoing hardships – bloodying hardships – can bind together people who normally might not be going in the same direction, but now have a similar goal or purpose they vow to accomplish before the road ends.
We’d better hurry, though, as it’s already evening, and the dark will soon be upon us. We might need a flashlight, but I hope you’ll read these poems until the darkness lightens and impressions arise to appreciate, ponder, and recall.
Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, hardback
Meeting Wendell Berry several years ago, I found his warm handshake and pleasant voice as down-to-earth as his poems and lifestyle, deeply rooted in his Kentucky farm. Since then, I’ve continued to be an admirer of his poetry and essays, often found in Christian journals or religious publications from most church denominations. I’ve enjoyed, too, reviews of his many books, for instance, as Glynn Young discussed recently in his article, “Wendell Berry and the Land.”
When my review copy of the New Collected Poems arrived a few weeks ago from Counterpoint Press, I began reading right away, thinking I’d quickly post a review, but I was wrong. These poems do not want a quick read but the slow savor one saves for the scrumptious, mouthwatering main meal of the day.
As the contents show, the collection consists of a banquet of books beginning with The Broken Ground in 1964 and continuing through the 2010 book, Leavings. Reading the poems along this timeline can be especially instructive if you’re a poet in search of a mentor, which the poetry itself can be.
Wendell Berry, however, won’t be likely to read the poems with you. As the opening poem, “The Country of Déjà vu,” explains: “My old poems – I like them all/ well enough when they were new,” but now “I have no need to go back to” them. This doesn’t seem to express dissatisfaction but rather declares no particular need for living in or revisiting the past.
Although written as a tribute to a fellow poet and Kentuckian, “A Man Walking and Singing” shows “His singing becomes conglomerate/ of all he sees,/ leaving the street behind him/ runged as a ladder/ or the staff of a song.” And then in “The Design of the House,” we see “the flower/ forgets its growing,” which the very timeline in a collection of memorable poems might be less inclined to let a poet do.
That same poem looks not to the past but the future where “the house is a shambles/ unless the vision of its perfection/ upholds it like stone.” And later in this “Design,” we see the blueprint followed as “Love has conceived a house,/ and out of its labor/ brought forth its likeness.”
As part of that pattern of love, “The Handing Down” reminds us “It is the effort of design/ to triumph over the imperfections/ of the parts.” These wise words go on to warn, “The mind falsifies its objects/ by inattention,” and it seems to me that this is an important advisory to poets, artists, and people in general: Pay attention! Otherwise, we’re apt to sketch a skewed version of what’s there.
Really looking, really seeing, and clearly observing the real might not always be pleasant though, as this same poem of legacy and love continues: “He has lived a long time./ He has seen the changes of times/ and grown used to the world/ again.”
We all experience change. That fact and the warm tones pull us toward the poem, “The Thought of Something Else,” where “the mind turns, seeks a new/ nativity – another place,/ simpler, less weighted/ by what has already been.” And, with the poet, we want to seek “– a place where thought/ can take its shape/ as quietly in the mind/ as water in a pitcher.”
For Wendell Berry that place has been his family farm, where life and death employ seasons of growing. In “Song In A Year Of Catastrophe,” for instance, a prophetic voice says “Die/ into what the earth requires of you.” And the “I” of the poem responds: “I let go all holds then, and sank/ like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,/ and at last came fully into the ease/ and the joy of that place,/ all my lost ones returning.”
New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry, paperback
New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry, Kindle Edition, e-book