Sunday, July 06, 2008

Secular Psalms and Sermons

(reflections on two issue of POETRY magazine, Nov. 2007 and summer 2008)

Suppose you knew that today would be the last day of the world: Would you clean the dishes in the sink? Would you enjoy one more walk around the park with your dogs? Would you phone everyone you know to tell them how much you loved them? Would you do anything differently? An imaginative and humane poem "Silent Prophet" by Carl Dennis in the July/August 2008 "Summer Vacation" issue of POETRY helps the reader to think through that situation. What strikes me after reading it is how this thought experiment is a kind of agnostic sermon that touches on the essential religious question, "Why bother?" Likewise, an ealier issue of POETRY (November 2007) contains some verses that strike me as being secular psalms, seeing details of the world as part of a gloriously and painfully unified whole.

The Silent Prophet decides not to tell the mailman what he knows, reasoning,

If yesterday it made sense for letter carriers
To carry letters from door to door,
The job still ought to be worth doing.
Why tell what I know and risk a walkout?
After considering other public servants in quick succession, the poem slows down to consider people closer by. There's the "cautious investor" who takes a big risk "To back a grocery in a battered district," and the grateful small businessman's celebrating the loan and making their big plans with his friends, family, and the lender. What an appealing and rich story, put together in one stanza. It leads the "silent prophet" to muse that "dreams impart to the day contour and substance," and that a day can "expand to include the days" to come -- even if those never do come. Dennis finds another image for the idea, when he turns to another remarkable short story in that same "battered district," that of a single mother, a teacher nearly burned out, learning viola "from scratch" (ha ha):

Should I sit on a stone and lament
That the day is her last if it still contains,
Scrolled up within it, the years she'll need
To master the art of voicing feelings
Not now expressed. . . ?
This secular sermon denies that "the future / Depends on the flow of time to give it substance...."
Of course, this is what many poems (all poems?) imply, that each day, each moment, any particular little scene, carries "scrolled up within it" its past and future, and is in itself significant.

The November 2007 issue prints several poems that deal also with what's wonderful and lasting in the mundane and ephemeral:

  • Tiny "Leaf Litter on Rock Face" by Heather McHugh plays with words cleverly while digging into a simple image: dead leaves (once-living) scattered on rocky surface (never-living), when, "The wind wells up / to spill a trail / of onces off the nevers." Her meditation brings her to a sense of something shared among the onces, the nevers, and the living being perceiving them. This is one of many secular poems that hint at religious language and ideas. This one is about "spirit."
  • "Adam's Prayer" by Amanda Jernigan develops in Adam's voice from the Biblical curse, "In the sweat of the face shalt thou eat bread." It turns into a contemplation of work, art, and the seed contained in the fruit of the tree -- another image of the future scrolled into the present.
  • "Just Now" by Peter Campion opens up from a tiny and wonderfully made ladybug that lands on the speaker's watchband while he's feeling anxiety for himself reading news about terrorist violence on the other side of the globe. The juxtaposition helps him to put death and pain in cosmic perspective, and it develops into a prayer for life, even for this "insectile soul" so recently formed from elements to which it will soon return.

  • "Cat, Failing" comes close to being something you'd put in a condolence card for someone mourning the loss of an old sickly pet, but it reaches beyond "awww" to "ah!" when it touches on something essentially human in the experience of approaching death.

  • The idea of a secular psalm first hit me when I read "Easy as Falling Down Stairs" by Dean Young. Like McHugh's, it starts with a short meditation on how even inanimate objects are in motion, and it becomes a long list of things that are "like the human heart," each item suggesting the next by sound or pun. The reader's imagination is forced to zigzag from one end of the world to another, and, by interrupting his poem with the instructions " (see above) (now get back here)" he even sets the reader's eyes to zigzagging across the page. Like a psalm, it encompasses the vastness of creation before it seems to focus into a kind of love poem.

  • Young's "Undertow" is even more fun. It begins in the third person point of view with a thesis, "People looking at the sea, / makes them feel less terrible about themselves" because the sea behaves "abominably." Then we get thumnails of different people responding to the sea: a vice president, an analyst, an adolescent boy, and even a dog: "Nothing can stay long, cogitates the dog, / So maybe a life of fetch is not a wasted life." But then the poem gets into the point of view of the sea itself, thinking how it has been "kissing all those strangers / forgiving them no matter what." It's a secular image for God, suffused in its depths with "a million fishes seemingly made of light." There's an "undertow" in the poem, too: lots of word choices suggesting violence and illness, references to pollution in the depths, and, finally, how those lovely fishes are eating each other. It calls to mind, not the Christian God, but something more like the Hindu pantheon, with creator and destroyer being equally God.

I wish to remember these poems for the pleasures they celebrate, and the pleasures they give. I'm afraid that nothing much struck me in the issues of POETRY between November and now, but maybe I was too immersed in school work to appreciate what was there.

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