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Book Review

Three Poetry Collections

Idiot Psalms by Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press, 2014)
Seam by Tarfia Faizullah (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013)
F by Franz Wright (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

 

IN THE LONG HISTORY of the poetry of religious devotion, one often encounters a guileless representation of the self in its attempts to relate to the divine. The speaker of an Old Testament psalm, for instance, will address God directly without tonal or narrative irony, presumably in a voice that accurately represents the writer’s own thoughts and feelings; the speaker of a mystical poem by Rumi or Rabi’a al Basri will address the beloved divine with the same directness and simplicity of expression the poet would use in private prayer. But with the rise of modernism, existentialism, and postmodernism, as religious faith was called increasingly and more broadly into question, so was the concept of the self. Intellectuals of the twentieth century grew more dubious about such inherited notions as the consistency and uniformity of the self, as well as the ability to legitimately represent the self in art.

We see in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a priest and poet living, as it were, between romanticism and modernism—one of the most significant manifestations of western culture’s evolving concept of the self. In what are known as his “Terrible Sonnets,” for instance, the self that relates to God and the self that speaks in a poem are indeed intended to be one and the same, and yet the florid and elaborate language indicates an attempt to express the complexities of the individual spiritual experience in novel ways. Hopkins, more than any other poet since the seventeenth century, experimented with sounds and rhythms in a way that infused new expressive possibilities into language as an artistic medium, and thus pioneered new ways of examining the self in its relation not only to language, but also—through language—to God.

Later, in the full flush of modernism, Theodore Roethke wrote, “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” (“In a Dark Time”). In response to such concerns, artists of the twentieth century explored new modes of expression in order to do some justice to the ambiguity of the self. From surrealism, with its wild juxtapositions and dislocations, to stream-of-consciousness writing; from the linguistic experiments and games of the French writers’ group Oulipo, to cubism’s radical reimagining of perception and perspective; from minimalism’s almost-silence, to the postmodern tendency toward ironic expression, these and a host of other approaches to making art arose, in part, in an attempt to explore novel notions of the self. But most of the artists thus engaged were decidedly secular, paying little or no attention to the relation of the self, in all of its complexity, to God, in all of God’s complexity. (There are, of course, notable exceptions: Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, Denise Levertov, John Berryman, Mark Rothko, and Arvo Pärt, to name a few.) Nevertheless, the ideas and concerns raised primarily by secular movements have been deeply relevant to spiritual art and literature, and engagement with them has been one of the most important developments of twentieth- and twenty-first-century spiritual literature. The books under review here demonstrate this ongoing engagement, presenting the reader with challenging representations of the self in relation to the divine.

§

Scott Cairns is the author of a large body of exceptionally incisive poetry and prose on spiritual matters. As a participant in the Greek Orthodox tradition, he often delves into the nuances of the biblical and theological uses of the Greek language. In his latest collection of poems, Idiot Psalms, Cairns also offers some poems based on his numerous pilgrimages to Mount Athos in Greece to spend time in prayer and meditation among the monks who reside there. This autobiographical element is balanced with a series of “Idiot Psalms,” each identified in a headnote as “a psalm of Isaak.” The persona Cairns has created is presumably named after the Old Testament patriarch, and likely also the seventh-century Saint Isaak of Syria, a major figure in the Greek Orthodox tradition. However, the strange and often humorous use of archaic language mixed with the spiritual concerns of a modern believer’s daily life give the reader a clue that the persona of Isaak is a fictionalized version of the poet himself. Through Isaak, Cairns gives voice to spiritual dilemmas that undoubtedly characterize his own life, and yet the voice is certainly not Cairns’s everyday one:

Why, O Blithely Unapparent, do you remain
_____serenely imperceptible, even to our thinning
_____crew who stand here blinking at the sky?
I have no stomach for the newspapers, no heart
_____for the brilliant, lit flat-screen catalog
_____of woes, though every item flickers,
_____one admits, wondrously produced
_____and duly sponsored.

_____

(from “Idiot Psalm 6”)

The characterization of this persona as an “idiot”—or at least the producer of “idiot psalms”—is clarified by some of the epigraphs included in various sections of the book: for instance, Cairns quotes Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, who says that “one must first begin by not understanding many things!” In another section, he cites Saint Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: “Let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” And so the kind of idiocy in which Cairns is interested is that of a holy fool, one with the kind of childlike faith that Jesus celebrates in the Gospels:

Make me to awaken daily with a willingness
_____to roll out readily, accompanied
_____by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,
_____the idiot’s undying expectation,
_____despite the evidence.

(from “Idiot Psalm 2”)

At times Isaak seems a stand-in for the poet himself; at others, he seems an everyman figure; at others yet, he seems more closely related to his biblical namesake, as in “Idiot Psalm 1,” where he describes himself as being “shy / of immolation,” a hint at Isaak’s childhood experience as the object of a divinely initiated, and divinely aborted, sacrifice by his father, Abraham:

Once more, O Lord, from Your Enormity incline
_____your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy
_____of immolation, if You will.

The biblical Isaak’s primal experience of the divine as one of terror and violence can be seen as a metaphor for the ways in which our earliest spiritual experiences shape the way we relate to God throughout our lives. In the above psalm, Isaak is “fool” enough to overcome fear in order to request God’s presence once again. In Isaak, Cairns combines aspects of historical religious figures, invented character, and the poet’s own identity in order to illuminate the experience of prayer. Isaak’s multifaceted, shapeshifting nature is a fascinating illustration of the complexity of the self in its spiritual labor.

Outside the Isaak poems, we often see the poet expressly searching for a means of rendering his experience, and always finding both metaphor and language insufficient:

To What Might This Be Compared?

As one peering, fixed,
_____into the icon’s
__________limpid eye observes
a subtle quickening,
_____just there, beyond
__________the opaque plane—

As one tugging up
_____his socks and lacing
__________sturdy boots to take
another season’s
_____turn around the Holy
__________Mountain’s desert span—

As one, crushed again
_____by failed, flailing prayer
__________finds of a moment
and in the stillness
_____of the cave a breath
__________both cool and welcoming—

so I observed yet
_____one more chance reprieve,
__________shook my head, and rose.

Here, the reader never even discovers what exactly the subject of all the attempted metaphors—that “chance reprieve” (merely a locution for the subject)—is. In this way, the act of making metaphor itself—that attempt to make meaning from experience—becomes the real subject of the poem. Likewise, in “Heavenly City (Ouranoúpoli),” Cairns writes, alluding to his time on Mount Athos,

[…] 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.

 

Despite the apparent insufficiency of our perception of the world, and the insufficiency of metaphor and language, here we have Cairns’s poems—an implicit argument that the failed attempt itself is expressive of our nature and our experience. Would there be anything truly human, truly indicative of the self, Cairns seems to be asking us, in a metaphor that was fully satisfactory, in a description that did full justice to its subject? Art, like “failed, flailing prayer,” is valuable despite—no, because of its insufficiency:

[…] Sure, I’m making this up as I go, hoping—even
_____as I go—to be finally getting somewhere. And maybe I am.

Maybe I’m taking you along. Let’s say it’s so, and say
_____however late the hour we now commence.

     (“Speculation along the Way”)
Come, reader—join Cairns on the fool’s errand of his Idiot Psalms.

§

Tarfia Faizullah is a talented young poet whose first collection, Seam, received the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. This collection arose from Faizullah’s interviews, supported by a Fulbright fellowship, with women who were victims of rape and abuse during the 1971 War of Independence between Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh. Faizullah’s work shuttles back and forth over time and place, weaving together Texas and Bangladesh, her mother’s past and the poet’s own life:

In west Texas, oil froths
luxurious from hard ground
while across Bangladesh

bayoneted women stain
pond water blossom. Your
mother, age eight, follows

your grandmother down worn
stone steps to the old pond….

      (“1971”)

Faizullah opens her collection with a number of poems that examine her own position as someone a generation removed from Bangladesh, and yet part of the living history of her family, as she takes upon herself the project of traveling from her home in America to investigate the histories of women in Bangladesh. This is the first element that complicates the self in Seam—Faizullah’s attempt to integrate her identity geographically and genealogically. The middle portion of the book is composed of a series of poems in which the speaker interviews birangonas—“war heroines” from the Bangladeshi War of Independence, so called retrospectively in an attempt to honor them because of the abuse they suffered—with notes and asides interspersed. Living in Bangladesh, hearing these women’s stories, and considering her own position as someone observing the suffering from the outside leads the speaker to moments of psychological and spiritual crisis—the second element that complicates the self in these poems.

In “Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh,” Faizullah writes:

Each day, I begin

      to disappear into yards

of silk or cotton—

      the one that is me but not

begins to emerge,

      coaxed out by each hand

pressed against me,

      its desire to remember—

cousin, aunt, beggar,

      vendor….

Here, the self is disconcerted by a seemingly novel aspect of the self that “begins to emerge,” as if it were a separate being. The speaker recognizes it as “one that is me but not.” This crisis of identity intensifies, the more she delves into the stories of the birangonas, one of whom is the speaker of these lines:

[…] Don’t you know

they made us watch her head fall
from the rusted blade of the old

jute machine? That they made us
made us made us made us made us?

      (“Interview with a Birangona”)

Through repetition, the meaning of “made us” at the end of this poem morphs from “forced us to” into “shaped us” or “formed us.” The tragic truth Faizullah encounters is that God is not the only maker, but we are made, over and over, by others’ actions and by our experiences. It is fitting that the speaker herself is undergoing an intense period of being remade as she faces this reality in the stories related by the birangonas.

In “The Interviewer Acknowledges Shame,” the speaker returns to her hotel room after interviewing, lies down on the bed, and masturbates. The shame referred to in the title is not, as one might anticipate, the shame of experiencing physical pleasure while on a mission to understand the suffering of others, but rather:

[…] It’s when she sits down naked
_____at the desk to rewind and fast-forward through
all the pixelated footage of the women’s
_____kerosene lives. It’s when
she begins to write about it in third person,
_____as though it was that simple
to unnail myself from my own body.

When the speaker fully inhabits her own body, with its pain and its pleasure, she feels no shame. It is only when she undertakes the project of writing about her interviews with the birangonas, and in so doing attempts to achieve a degree of remove from her own visceral reactions in a journalistic impulse toward objectivity, that she feels ashamed. As becomes clear in the final lines of this poem, such objectivity is not possible for the speaker. For Faizullah, maintaining the façade would be dishonest; thus she abruptly switches from third person to first in the final line, jarring the reader not only with the violence of the image—“unnail myself from my own body”—but also with the sudden intimacy of the speaker’s unveiling of herself.

The vicissitudes of the speaker’s evolving sense of self bear on her relation to the divine. Early in the collection, she senses a divide not only geographically and generationally, but also between her desire to offer spiritual comfort and her sense that such an attempt might be empty:

Two weeks ago I crossed two oceans wide as
the funeral processions to your grave:

bearded men continued to thumb plastic
prayer beads beside your sheet-swaddled

body. Grandmother, in Virginia, I cradled
the phone to my cheek and stood over the dark
skillet, waiting to turn over another slice
of bacon to slip into my mouth, knowing

well that sin, too, like so many others,
would dissolve once I willed it to. Allah-er borosha,

I mumbled to your daughter: It’s Allah’s will:
words I knew couldn’t fill even that half-filled

suitcase spilled out across hardwood floor….

      (“Elegy with Her Red-tipped Fingers”)

Later, at an Independence Day celebration in Dhaka, the speaker addresses and questions God, interspersing lines from Paul Celan’s work as a way of giving voice to her dilemmas:

In a courtyard, in these stacks of chairs
_____before the empty stage—near are
we Lord, near and graspable. Lord,
_____accept these humble offerings:

stacks of biscuits wrapped in cellophane,
_____stacks of bone in glass: thighbone,
spine. Stacks of white saucers, porcelain
_____circles into which stacks of lip-worn

cups slide neat. Jawbone, Lord. Galleries
_____of laminated clippings declaring war.
Hands unstack chairs into rows. The dead:
_____they still go begging. What for, Lord?

Blunt bayonets, once sharp as wind?
_____Moon-pale stacks of clavicle? A hand—

      (“Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum”)

Faizullah does not receive answers to her questions, nor does she experience an epiphany that reveals her essential identity to herself in a conclusive way. She knows better than to reach for such facile, dishonest ways of writing about inner turmoil. Just as she has the honesty to admit to herself the façade of the third-person objective voice in her own poems, Faizullah has the integrity to leave the dilemmas of her self, her family homeland’s history, and her relationship with God unresolved, presented to the reader in all their messy humanness.

 

§

It might justly be said that the self is the central subject of the entire tradition of lyric poetry. And yet, some poets remain closer to the thinking and feeling center of the human than others, rather than looking consistently outward as observer, and more often regard the self itself than exterior phenomena. Few remain closer to that center than Franz Wright. His detractors would certainly single out this involution. And yes, it is true that Wright has long epitomized the Woe Is Me school of poetry. There is ubiquitous evidence of this in his body of work, but as his latest book also contains plentiful examples there is no need to consult the archives. Consider, for instance, even the title of the new book: F, his initial, which he addresses in the long prose poem at the center of this collection, “Entries of the Cell”:

And look what I’ve come across in the middle of these disintegrating pages.

It’s a capital F that takes up a whole page.

My name, or grade in life?

In color a dull dead rust-red, someone’s blood, and I can’t imagine whose.

Consider also the epigraph to the book:

The Hacs have arranged to rear every year a few child martyrs…raggedy, wretched, hopeless kids…whom they subject to atrocious mistreatment and evident injustices, inventing reasons and deceptive complications based on lies, for everything, in an atmosphere of terror and mystery. In this way they have brought up great artists, poets.

                                        —Henri Michaux

Wright’s greatest flaw as a writer is his hyper-romantic notion of the poet as—to use Michaux’s term—martyr. The reader often gets the sense that Wright sees himself as a poète maudit, wandering the blasted heath alone, suffering depths of torment unfathomed by any but fellow poets. This view of what it means to be a poet is flawed—as if there were emotional, psychological, or circumstantial criteria that made one writer a “poet” and another simply a writer of verse. To title his latest book with his own initial, and to imply via the epigraph from Michaux that poets are burdened with a particularly onerous allocation of suffering is not worthy of Wright’s better moments, in which his consideration moves outward from personal anguish to empathy for others, particularly children:

Right at the moment I am sitting at a very small desk beside a small child who
_____can’t write, doesn’t draw or play much, and has never said a single word
_____to anyone as far as I know.
A flawlessly beautiful child with perfect white sharp tiny teeth, long straight
_____blonde hair, and profoundly intelligent dark blue sad eyes. A perfectly
_____lovely little girl who has no name, and is one hundred thousand years old.

      (from “Entries of the Cell”)

We also see here a touch of surrealist influence, in which youth and age are perceived simultaneously in the child, and in which time itself loses its usual hold on our daily experience.

Another admirable quality of Wright’s work evident in the above is his defiance of accepted writerly wisdom: the idea that one should avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible is so widely advocated that it has become a platitude students hear in any Writing 101 class or textbook. But Wright’s deliberate superabundance of adjectives and adverbs in the above stanza contributes to not only the precision of his observation of the child (“perfect white sharp tiny teeth”), but also the mood of rapture, which enables the reader to leap into the surreal with the speaker at the end, where the child is described as “one hundred thousand years old.”

While we must admit that Wright’s work consistently takes the poet’s or the speaker’s own suffering as its subject, we often see as well a moving desire to reach others who might be suffering in ways Wright is familiar with. There is compassion and magnanimity at the heart of many of his poems:

When you have to take it to feel, more
or less, the way you once felt
when you weren’t taking it,

I’ll meet you at high moon.

I’ll greet you
there, the other
last speaker of a language.

At the trial of sleep,

theoretically, I will be seeing you.
In the aisles of the pharmacy
open all night, I’ll be waiting. Outside
the locked glass door to the insane
asylum dollhouse childhoods
like yours, I’ll keep vigil

      (“One”)

Wright also has a fascinating spiritual understanding of the importance of suffering for the development of the soul. In an interview with Ernest Hilbert, Wright said, in reference to the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert:

I think what Herbert is getting at (Hopkins is marvelous at this, too) is that our suffering is the terrible and only teacher—Kierkegaard said famously suffering is the characteristic of God’s love—and I think everyone senses that failure and brokenness and loneliness cause us to perceive us as God might, as naked and ignorant and blind. Our suffering may be the real form love takes, but we also know that at the end of it waits infinite peace and radiance, that has been my experience anyway. (“The Secret Glory: An Interview with Franz Wright,” Contemporary Poetry Review)

Likewise, in F he writes, “Anguish, grieving: you will get over them. That’s the problem.” And so Wright’s greatest flaw—an obsession with and romanticization of the suffering of the self—is perhaps also the source of his most profound insights.

Although Wright’s poems deal with subject matter from his own life—drug dependency, mental disorders, institutionalization, religious epiphany and conversion—it would be a mistake to read the poems as simple or pure autobiography. Wright’s concern is always aesthetic; that is, he wants to offer the reader an aesthetic experience that is faithful not so much to the literal events of his life as to his lived experience—the feeling of his life. To think of his work as “confessional” would be to miss the point of it entirely. (Indeed, the term “confessional” in relation to poetry has in recent years—and rightly so—come under much scrutiny.) And so when we read:

But I’ve said all that
I had to say.
In writing.
I signed my name.
It’s death’s move.

      (“Crumpled-up Note Blowing Away”)

—which seems to allude to Wright’s doubt about whether he would continue to write, publicly stated during his recent bout with lung cancer—we note first of all that the poem appears on page 25 of this book, and that plenty of writing follows. But the reader can certainly identify with the speaker’s sense of futility and resignation, and clearly for Wright that is the point.

The self presented in Wright’s poems is characterized by a complex mixture of morbid and self-derogatory humor, anger, sarcasm, childlike simplicity, and ecstatic bursts of lyricism, as in “Dedication”:

[…] I cannot
seem to write
from this gray institution. See
we are so busy trying to cure me;
and I’m condemned—sorry, I have been given the job
of vacuuming the desert forever, well, no less than eight hours a day.
And it’s really just about a thousand miles of cafeteria;
a large one in any event. With its miniature plastic knives,
its tuna salad and saran-wrapped genitalia will somebody please
get me out of here, sorry. I am happy to say that
every method, massive pharmaceuticals, art therapy
and edifying films as well as others I would prefer
not to mention—I mean, every single technique
known to the mouth—sorry!—to our most kindly
compassionate science is being employed
to restore me to normal well-being
and cheerful stability. I go on vacuuming,
toward a small diamond light burning
off in the distance.

This self, this character who is the speaker of Wright’s poems, is able to consider subjects of great complexity and metaphysical import in a way that immediately disarms and engages the reader. “I am more concerned,” he says in “Screamed Lullaby,” “to tell you the truth, with the eternity that preceded my birth than its famous counterpart in whose presence I will soon be basking, or so I have been told.” The fine-tuned phrases in this sentence—“famous counterpart,” “basking,” and “or so I have been told”—contribute a mildly humorous sarcasm and a note of doubt that don’t detract from the seriousness of his meditation, but invite the reader to relax in its presence.

Although this slightly ironic tone is the dominant mode for Wright, there are moments where it seems that every pretense falls away, and the speaker bares his emotion and his mind before God. These moments are all the more powerful for their contrast to the intentionally flimsy shield of irony that most often characterizes Wright’s poems:

For all intents and purposes abandoned, Your love unrequited, You have
_____not turned away from my mind, its former numb and sleepless
_____coma. And I know my failure to perceive You can in no way
_____diminish the fact that You are here!

(from “Entries of the Cell”)

Wright’s work embodies our own inability, except in rare moments, to relate without pretense and without intellectual impediment to the divine. One need not share Wright’s particular faith or manner of addressing the divine to see one’s own spiritual condition illustrated in both his speaker’s flaws and his momentary triumphs. And so we can be glad that, as all indications suggest, Wright will continue his poetic vocation.

§

The poem in which Theodore Roethke poses to himself the question “Which I is I?” concludes with these lines: “The mind enters itself, and God the mind, / And one is One, free in the tearing wind.” And this is precisely what these three poets do: They delve into the depths of the self (“The mind enters itself”), surfacing not with answers but with powerful expressions of the irresolvable dilemma of selfhood. And it is through this expression of the mystery of the self and its relation to the divine that the reader feels most intimately connected with the searching mind behind the poems, recognizing the quest and the questions as her own. And so “one is One”: through art, we are unified one with another—and with the Other.


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