As Brad Davis tells us in his preface to Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms, “The intention was not to create a new translation/ adaptation of the Psalms, engage in midrash, or even generate ‘religious’ verse, but to make poems in a conversational idiom that bear witness to an attention to three horizons: the text, my surroundings (natural, cultural, relational, situational), and whatever may have been happening inside my skin at the time of composition.” Most likely, something similar happened to King David, Asaph, and other psalmists whose words were preserved in the Bible rather than an Emerald City book published by Wipf and Stock.
Written over centuries, biblical Psalms express praise, thanksgiving, laments, pleas, and petitions with no thought of book length or the divisions later devised to reflect the five books of Torah. Poet Brad Davis followed that editorial precedent in dividing his 150 poems into five parts or “books” with each poem responding to a verse chosen sequentially from Psalm 1 to 150.
For example, the first poem “Ashre” considers Psalm 1:1-2, “Blessed is he who meditates day and night,” then begins by telling about a collision with a deer whose “giant black eyes blinked slowly, confused,” perhaps describing the dilemma of the poet, who finds it “Difficult this morning to concentrate/ on the psalmic text – Happy is the man” when admittedly feeling “like chaff that the wind blows away.”
In the poem “She Said,” the reference to the “deeds of man” in Psalm 17:4 considers how “the Spirit I know works in us as we/ work on things like love – putting out the trash without having to be reminded – which / I am very far from getting right.” And, in the “Neighbor as Theologian” the poet responds to Psalm 29:3, “The God of glory thunders,” which his neighbor seems to hear with clarity, causing the poet to wonder why “would I begrudge her/ an assurance of contact? More likely,/ I long for what she has, embarrassed, pained/ by my lack of openness to mystery – / which, she has told me, is wholly present/ in, with, and under the hedge between us.”
Generally written in free verse or ten-syllable lines with occasional use of internal rhymes, the poems present an acrostic response to Psalm 34 since its referent was also written in lines that began with each letter of the alphabet. As the poet proceeds in “Reading the Psalter,” Psalm 54 considers how “Vengeance is mine,/ says the Lord….” which ends with the conclusion that “We must – I must do my own dirty work/ or forever hold my difficult peace.”
With laments, praise, cries, insight, a rare use of crudity, and occasional humor, one poem sends a critique in “E-Mails to Asaph,” admitting “If your God’s good with mixed metaphors,/ who am I to argue.” When the poet seeks to escape in “The Good Life,” the realization comes that “The same/ irreverence travels with me, clings to my every/ move like Spanish moss in the live oaks….” Nevertheless, the poem “Pentecost” reveals that “more than tongues/ or hummingbirds or art, we await,/ beyond wasp and swift or even want,/ a word to set ablaze the air, ignite our hearts.”
Continuing to seek “Words That Matter,” the poet sings “an infinite Word who calls forth// in our souls an infinite longing./ Though death may require a dislocation// of the self from all that is not the self,/ this is the Word that will return us to// our right minds, a right regard for all things./ This is the Word that will wake us from death.”
Before that waking though, “A New Song” brings the realization, “For now, I am thankful for how all things// seem to resolve into song – and the high call/ to bend our wills to set a wronged world right.” But how? How does the poet do that? How do we?
Quoting Psalm 150:6, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” the last line of the last poem ends this read-it-again collection with the challenge: “Do you breathe? Praise God” – an everlastingly good idea.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler — poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, the book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books, and the e-book, Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry
Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms, paperback